Ask Ariely: On Staying in School, Balancing School with Family, and Two Things about Consultants

September 13, 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 am a senior in high school, and I really dislike doing homework. We get a lot of it, and it adds nothing to my education. Writing countless essays for English and doing numerous labs for biology isn’t making me smarter, let alone better in those subjects. Here’s my quandary: I know that doing homework is valuable because it assesses how hard I work in school, which is what universities fundamentally look for in applicants—but I feel that if I really want to educate myself, I should dedicate all my free time to gulping down many books on a wide range of subjects. Should I dedicate myself primarily to school and homework, or should I read as much as possible and absorb information primarily through books?


I believe deeply in trying to find things at which we can excel. We can all read poetry, and many of us can probably write bad poetry. But to be really good, to be a poet, you need to devote a lot of time, read widely, work hard, study things from different angles and (ideally) learn from the best. This is what school should give you. Not every teacher and topic is going to be enthralling—but it is still worth it for the teachers and topics that are. My advice: Stay in school, and try to pick a subject or two that excite you enough that one day, you could become the world’s expert on them.


Dear Dan,

What advice would you—as a university professor who has been teaching for a long time—give to students who are starting the new academic year?


Simple: Keep on investing in your relationships with your family—your parents, of course, but particularly your grandparents.

Here’s why: Most professors discover that family members, particularly grandmothers, tend to pass away just before exams. Deciding to look into this question with academic rigor, Mike Adams, a professor of biology at Eastern Connecticut State University, collected years of data and concluded that grandmothers are 10 times more likely to die before a midterm and 19 times more likely to die before a final exam. Grandmothers of students who aren’t doing so well in class are at even higher risk, and the worst news is for students who are failing: Their grandmothers are 50 times as likely to die as the grandmothers of students who are passing.

The most straightforward explanation for these results? These students share their struggles with their grandmothers, and the poor old ladies prove unable to cope with the difficult news and expire. Based on this sound reasoning, from a public policy perspective, students—particularly indifferent ones—clearly shouldn’t mention the timing of their exams or their academic performance to any relatives. (A less likely interpretation of these results would be that the students are lying, but this is really hard to imagine.)

Kidding aside, social relationships truly are important for our health and happiness, in good times and bad—and fostering them is a wise goal for anyone at any stage of life.


Dear Dan,

Why do consultants always break problems and solutions into three?


When consultants give answers, they often try to strike a delicate balance between making the answer simple (on the one hand) and complete (on the other). I suspect that offering three things to consider strikes this sweet spot.


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.