Ask Ariely: On Quick Cleaning, Misery’s Company, and Traveling Torture

February 15, 2014 BY danariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Dear Dan,

Why do I clean my cell phone many times a day but don’t care that much about the cleanliness of my car or my house?


I suspect that this is about your ability to reach your end goal. You probably don’t really think you can ever reach your goal of getting your house 100% clean—maybe 80%, tops. The task is just too large, and others in your household can mess the place up faster than you can clean it. But when it comes to your phone, perfect cleanliness is within reach, and this achievable goal spurs you on.


Dear Dan,

I recently met up with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for a very long time. I had been eagerly looking forward to our lunch, but I left very disappointed. All she did for more than two hours was complain—mostly about her husband, with some breaks to complain about her kids. It was just negative and depressing. Why do people complain so much? Could she really think this was a good way to spend time with an old friend?


People complain for many reasons, and we should to try to figure out your friend’s. For one thing, misery often does make us closer to one another. Imagine that you meet a friend—and either tell them how annoying traffic was along the way, or give them the same level of detail about how wonderful your drive was and how easy it was to find parking. Under which case would your friend like you more?

Also, when we complain, we often are looking for reassurance—hoping others will tell us that everything is OK and that what we’re experiencing is just part of life.

So your friend might have been looking to reconnect through shared misery. In this case, you should have indulged her efforts to strengthen your bond. But your friend might also have really wanted you to tell her something like, “You think your husband is a schmuck? Let me tell you about my prize”—thereby assuring her that her life is actually more normal than she might think.

Either way, complaining can actually be pretty useful. The next time a friend starts complaining, go with it.


Dear Dan,

I travel a lot for work, and I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed with the U.S. way of flying: the waste of time, the disrespect shown to passengers and the lame excuses for delays that the airlines make. Why are we putting ourselves in this horrible situation?


I’m not sure, but here’s what helps me. First, every time I’m stuck on a runway, I try to think about the marvel of flight and remind myself how amazing the technology is. Second, I try to see the experience of travel misery as evidence of our common humanity. Security guards and airline staffers are just as rude and inconsiderate all around the world, suggesting that once you put people in the same situation (in this case, the same tiring, trying and thankless service job), we all turn out to be more or less the same. And as more people travel and see our deep similarity, we will all come this much closer to world peace. Anyway, that’s what I tell myself—and it helps.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.