Ask Ariely: On Remixing Referrals and Editing Expectations

April 9, 2022 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,

I work for a local newspaper. We’re trying to increase our subscriber base through a customer referral program. Subscribers are awarded a $30 cash bonus for each successful referral they make. Unfortunately, the campaign hasn’t been very successful. Do you have any suggestions?


It takes some effort to recommend a newspaper to someone. But to follow through and subscribe to a new newspaper takes effort, too. Could it be that the new customer—and not the existing subscriber—is the person who needs the incentive?

To investigate this question, a group of researchers teamed up with a videogame subscription company. The company randomly sent each of its customers one of three email requests to refer new customers: The first didn’t include an incentive, the second awarded the current customer a free month for each successful referral, and the third awarded the free month to the new customer.

Not surprisingly, the no-incentive condition was the least effective. Customers in the other two groups made the same number of referrals—but out of all those referrals, the most successful were those that offered the incentive to the new customer rather than the existing customer. The new customer is the one who needs to go to the effort to get signed up, and an incentive can help make jumping through those hoops more attractive.

The referring party, meanwhile, may anticipate rewards other than financial ones—for example, a positive effect on their reputations from suggesting valuable products or services to others. In your newspaper’s case, the right mix might just be a warm glow for the people who are referring their friends and a financial gift to the new customers.


Dear Dan,

My fiancé is meeting my parents for the first time. Unfortunately, my parents aren’t really the warmest and most welcoming people. I’m hesitant to say too much to my fiancé because that might make him more nervous about an already stressful situation. What’s the best approach to this introduction?


Your hesitation is understandable, but research shows that being surprised by a stressful situation is worse than anticipating one. In a recent study, participants were asked to sit for a job interview that entailed giving a public speech to a group of disinterested scientists. Some participants were warned about the nature of the interview, and others weren’t. The researchers found that the forewarned participants had lower subjective feelings of stress and lower physiological stress as measured by cortisol levels and brain activity.

Many of our experiences are shaped by the gap between expectations and reality. Surprise, excitement and disappointment are all products of this relationship. Presumably you can’t control your parents, so you should try to help manage your fiancé’s expectations for them instead.

Start working on this a week before the meeting. Over multiple days, let your fiancé know what to expect before meeting your parents and continue to do this during your engagement and through your marriage. Alternatively, you could elope—and transfer the surprise and stress from your fiancé to your parents.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.