Ask Ariely: On Sealed Bids, Netflix, and Laughing at Your Own Jokes

May 11, 2013 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,

My parents are about to put their house on the market in Scotland, where there’s a system of setting an asking price and having interested parties make sealed bids. Any advice on how to get the highest sale price?


In auctions there are usually two forces: what people think the starting price of a house should be and how intense the competition gets between the bidders over time. Establishing a starting price for the bidding, it turns out, has an opposite effect on these forces.

If you set a high starting price, there’s a good chance that people will start thinking about the house from that point and offer a higher bid. On the other hand, if you set a low starting price, more people will get into the auction, the competition will be fiercer—and the outcome is likely to be a higher final price. (By the way, have you noticed that in auctions—on eBay, for example—the person who pays for the item at the end of the auction is called “the winner”? This suggests that competition is indeed a very strong driver.)

So if you have a sealed-bid auction in which people can submit a bid only once, go with a high starting price. But if there are multiple rounds of bidding, think of the starting price as a lure for getting many bidders involved at the get-go.

Last week I met with a friend in San Francisco (let’s call him JC) who is house-hunting. He said that the houses he has bid for sold for about 30% to 40% more than the asking prices. The competition has been intense, the process very frustrating, which brings me to a final point: A bidding frenzy might be good for a seller, but since we are all going to be buyers and sellers at some point, it’s not clear that the overall market for housing is better off with this procedure.


Dear Dan,

I am a longtime Netflix customer. Recently, Netflix removed about 1,800 movies from its service, while adding a few very good ones. I know I probably never would have watched those 1,800 movies, but I am upset and am seriously considering leaving Netflix. Why do I feel this way?


As a movie man myself, I appreciate your perspective. The basic principle at work here is loss aversion: the idea that losing something has a stronger emotional impact than gaining something of the same value. Even though the deleted movies were probably not that great and the current library of Netflix may be, objectively, much better, having movies taken away from you feels like a painful loss.

One way to think about this is to contrast new and old Netflix users. A new one would just look at the overall quality of the movie collection, which may be better than it used to be. For the old user, however, the current collection is just one part of the experience, while the loss of all those movies is another. As a result, the longtime member may be much less happy.

My suggestion is for you to try thinking about Netflix as a service that provides you not with particular movies but with an optimal, curated variety of films. Compare it to a museum: We don’t think of ourselves as owning any of the art, so we aren’t upset when it changes what’s on view from its collection. If you can reframe your perspective this way, my guess is that you will enjoy Netflix more.


Dear Dan,

A friend once chided me for laughing at my own joke. Is it wrong to laugh at your own jokes? After all, would I tell a joke that I didn’t think was funny?


Jokes often hinge on a surprise ending, so laughing at a joke though you know the end seems to be a great endorsement for it (please send me the joke!). The only negative connotation I can imagine is that maybe your friend assumed the laughter was not genuine and you were trying to manipulate her into a higher level of enjoyment. In that case, you might want to look for a different friend.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.