Ask Ariely: On Smoke Detectors and Speaking Academese

January 4, 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,

My neighborhood recently suffered a horrible tragedy: A house fire, started by a faulty appliance, broke out in the middle of the night and killed two young children. I don’t know the parents, but their family has many parallels with mine: the parents’ jobs, the kids’ ages, the friends we have in common and, most importantly, the fact that we also don’t have smoke alarms in our house. I haven’t bought one for the usual list of reasons: I’m so busy, no one said I have to get one, I don’t know what kind to get, I never see them in shops anyway and so on. So how can I get myself—and everyone I’ve ever met—to buy a smoke detector?


It would be nice to think that everyone will realize the important steps they need to take for basic safety and just take them. But it’s also extremely unlikely. For example, we already know that texting and driving is terribly dangerous and that overeating is bad for us, but we still let our eyes drift to our phones when we’re in traffic and we still order that burger with fries.

I also suspect that something as seemingly simple as installing a smoke detector is more difficult and confusing than we might think: There are many options, they need batteries, they may need to be installed in a tricky spot, we are not sure which brand will fit the bracket we have at home, and so on. And while none of these concerns are particularly substantial, they do increase our procrastination and indecision—leaving us in homes without functioning smoke alarms.

This is why I think that cases such as this call for some type of government regulation— something that will not assume that we’ll act in our best long-term interest and instead will make us do the right thing.

In the meantime, I suspect that many people reading this right now are realizing that they need to get smoke alarms of their own or change the batteries—and I also suspect that this feeling will last about 20 minutes and then be replaced by other urgent thoughts. So if you (yes, you) are one of these people, stop now (yes, now), go online, order that smoke detector, get those batteries and tell your household that you promise to install it by the end of the week.


Dear Dan,

I recently attended a lecture by a well-known academic, and I was amazed and baffled by his inability to communicate even the most basic concepts in his field of expertise. How can experts be so bad at explaining ideas to others? Is this a requirement of academia?


Here’s a game I sometimes play with my students: I ask them to think about a song, not to tell anyone what it is and tap its beat on a table. Next I ask them to predict how many other students in the room will correctly guess the song’s name. They usually think that about half will get it. Then I ask the rest of the students for their predictions—and no one ever gets it right.

The point is that when we know something and know it well, it is hard for us to appreciate what other people understand. This problem is sometimes called “the curse of knowledge.” We all suffer from this affliction, but it’s particularly severe for my fellow academics. We study things until they seem entirely natural to us and then assume that everyone else easily understands them too. So maybe the type of clumsiness you heard is indeed something of a professional requirement.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.