Ask Ariely: On Reframing Reactions, Limiting Litter, and Doubling Down

May 29, 2021 BY Dan Ariely

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,

Before giving any talk or presentation, I get incredibly stressed out. My heart starts pounding, I sweat, and I breathe much faster. Unfortunately giving talks and presentations on a regular basis is a big part of my job. What can I do?


Changing how we think about stress can, by itself, make us less stressed and healthier. How? Instead of interpreting those physical changes—sweat, pounding heart, heavy breathing—as signs that you’re not coping well with the pressure, try to see them as signs that your body is energized for the task. Interpret your pounding heart as preparing you for action and your breathing as ensuring that more oxygen is getting to your brain.

This strategy is known as cognitive reappraisal. Studies have shown that viewing stress in this way makes people less anxious and more confident. As a bonus, it brings about a healthier cardiovascular profile. How we think about stress affects both our behavior and our health.


Dear Dan,

Our neighborhood park has seen a surge in litter and trash. As chair of our neighborhood association, I was thinking of putting up signs, informing people about this issue and reminding them to please use the trash cans. Can you think of any other strategy that might help us combat the issue of excessive litter and trash?


Informing park visitors about how many people litter may actually result in people littering even more. That is because highlighting any behavior, including negative behavior, can normalize it and achieve the opposite of your intention. This is exactly what research at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona found: Theft of petrified wood was higher when signs mentioned past visitor’s theft, instead of just expressing disapproval.

With this in mind, instead of pointing to the scale of the undesirable behavior, choose a strongly worded message of disapproval, such as: “Litter in our park is disgusting.” You can make the sign more vivid, and trigger a more emotional response, by choosing a picture to go with the message—for instance, depicting a visitor littering, with a red “X” over his or her action.


Dear Dan,

The managing partners at my firm spent a lot of time and money to recruit a well-credentialed senior associate. Since this senior associate joined the firm, his performance has been underwhelming. Everyone expected he would be fired. Instead, we just found out he was promoted to partner. Why would the firm keep and promote a bad hire?


A human tendency called “escalation of commitment” could be at work here. If the partners fire the associate, that’s an admission of a mistake and calls their judgment into question. Promoting the underperforming associate instead affirms the initial decision, even though it isn’t good for the firm in the long run.

Doubling down on a bad decision in order to justify it is not unique to your firm. Consider a troubled couple who get married instead of breaking up just because they have been together for years. Or an NBA coach who gives more court time to players based on their draft number, rather than their performance. In short, this bias is rather common, and we would gain a lot by dealing with it more directly.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.