Ask Ariely: On Squirrels, the Value of Education, and Quarterly Appraisals

February 1, 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,

I find myself acting irrationally when it comes to squirrels. The rascals climb down a branch and onto my bird feeder, where they hang and eat like limber little pigs. Then I rush outside yelling and take great pleasure in frightening them away. But victory never lasts long. They come right back, and the whole insane cycle starts over. My sister tells me I need to watch “Snow White” again, to be reminded that squirrels are also a part of nature and not inherently worse than the birds I prefer. Perhaps, but this theory doesn’t satisfy me. Can you help to explain what’s going on with my reasoning, and how I might make peace with the furry marauders in my yard?

—Nearly Elmer Fudd

It sounds to me that the root of your problem is that you view the squirrels’ behavior as an immoral theft from the right owners of this food, the birds. If so, why don’t you start calling the contraption a “squirrel and bird feeder”? With this new framing, your problems should go away, and you might even be able to market this new product.


Dear Dan,

Do you think that colleges should continue teaching subjects like philosophy, sociology and literature? After all, they’re a waste of time and money.


With something like computer science or statistics, we find it easy to assess what skills we will acquire and how we will use them in a practical way. But with sociology, literature or even psychology, it is not always exactly clear how our studies are going to change us. Are we going to learn how to think analytically or see things differently? And how valuable are these skills anyway?

Maybe it is worthwhile to think about education as a lottery ticket. After all, like a lottery, when it comes to academic education we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get, and we’re not 100% certain that our degree will always justify our investment. But what if for every year of studying you got one really good idea? Or if your education somehow improved your mental capacity by 10%? Think of your education as a lottery ticket that you get to use year after year for the rest of your life. Of course, it is hard to predict what exact benefits you’ll reap from good ideas or an improved mental ability, but if you think about education as a long-term bet, I suspect that you will easily see it as a bet with very high expected payoffs.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that as someone who teaches for a living, I have a vested interest in students continuing to attend universities. And maybe, in this case, it is hard for me to see the world from a different perspective.


Dear Dan,

I was talking with a friend about your research on dishonesty, notably the way that people feel free to steal sodas and cookies from the “break room” but not cash. My friend said that office items such as staplers, tape dispensers and so on used to be constantly taken from his desk. He then glued a quarter onto each piece, and no one has taken anything with a coin on it for five years. Does this follow your findings?


I love the application of this finding. Now, if we could only glue quarters to stock certificates and other financial products, maybe the world would be a better place.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.