Ask Ariely: On Risky Questionnaires, Great Expectations, and Victims of Piracy

May 23, 2015 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.

This week, in celebration of my new book Irrationally Yours (which is based on this column), I’d like to share some feedback that I received from a reader. Please enjoy the video.


Dear Dan,

I am ready to start investing for my retirement, but I’m struggling with those risk questionnaires. I’m not sure that I really know any of the answers. The results show that I’m somewhat conservative, but I don’t trust their conclusions. Any advice? 


Deciding how much risk to stomach in your investment plans is a huge decision that will have a major impact on your savings and ability to retire. AND I don’t think you should base that big decision on your response to some risk-assessment questionnaire. The questions in most of these risk-attitude-assessment tools are about feelings, but you should focus on how much money you’ll need to retire and the quality of life you would have under different investment scenarios. Let’s just assume that you hate the feeling of losing. So what? Should we doom you to a life of poverty just because you feel bad when you lose money? My advice: Figure out how your life might look like with various investment approaches, figure out which tradeoffs you are (and aren’t) willing to make and plan your investments accordingly. Meanwhile, you can deal with your fear of risk directly. Learn yoga, meditate, take some medication, avoid looking at your portfolio more than twice a year—do whatever you need to deal with your emotions, but make sure that doesn’t interfere with the way you decide to invest.


Dear Dan,

The other day, I ordered a new drink, a “London Fog tea latte,” at a local café. It arrived on the counter in a porcelain teacup with a saucer, and four lavender seeds were arranged in a fleur-de-lis at the center of the froth. The barista gave me a bestowing nod. It was the best tea latte I’d ever tasted; I found myself saying “Mmm” before the cup even reached my lips. Do our expectations actually affect how things taste to us? 


For sure. In an experiment we conducted about ten years ago at MIT, we gave the students two small beer samples and asked them to pick the one they wanted a full glass of. One sample was just plain beer, but the other sample was a regular beer plus some balsamic vinegar. We didn’t tell some students about the special ingredient, and they liked the beer with the dark additive. But when we told our tasters about the vinegar, their expectations kicked in; they expected to hate it and sure enough, they did. Such results show that expectations do indeed change what we like. More important, they show us that expectations are a fascinating interplay between our brain and our mind. We are always trying to predict the future and prepare for it. As our body changes to accommodate to the anticipated experience, it also makes those anticipations more likely to materialize. This is why expectations can change our actual experience—and why we should embrace them as much as we can. (My next answer, by the way, is going to be particularly insightful. Wait 30 seconds, and read on.)


Dear Dan,

My nephew has been downloading music and movies illegally from the Internet. How can I get him to respect intellectual-property rights without sounding self-righteous? 


My own view on illegal downloads was deeply modified the day that my book on dishonesty was published—when I learned that it had been illegally downloaded more than 20,000 times from one website. (The irony did not escape me.) My advice? Get your nephew to create something and then, without him knowing, put it online and download it many, many times. I suspect that will make it much harder for him to keep up his blithe attitude toward piracy.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.