Ask Ariely: On Stealing Seats, Telecommuting, and Saving for Retirement

March 30, 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,

I am writing to you from a train in Germany, sitting on the floor. The train is crowded, and all the seats are taken. However, there is a special class of “comfort customers” who can make those already seated give up their seats. This status is given to those (like me) who travel a lot on the train. It would be nice to get a seat and, according to the rules, I deserve one. But I can’t see myself asking one of the “non-comfort customers” to give up his seat. Why is this so difficult for me?


Your question has to do with what we call the “identifiable victim effect.” The basic idea is that when we see one person in need, our hearts go out to them—we care and we help. But when the problem is very large or far away, or we don’t see the person who is suffering, we don’t care to the same degree—and we don’t help.

In your case, I suspect that if the train conductor were the one picking a random passenger to clear a seat for you—and especially if the conductor did it before you boarded the train—you would have been able to enjoy the seat. Taking this a step further, if you knew who that person was (for example, if the conductor pointed him or her out), you would have felt worse. Picking the person yourself is most likely the most difficult, because you would have no choice but to see the effect of your actions on the other person, as well as his or her reaction.

What’s the lesson here? It’s that direct contact with other people makes us care and act accordingly. And when the distance is great, or the actions are taken without our knowledge, we care much less. Now the question is how to get politicians, bankers, CEOs and everyone else to feel more directly the consequences of our actions on the well-being of others.


Dear Dan,

I work for a government agency that is in the early stages of making telecommuting an option for its workforce. The idea is generating a lot of distrust among managers, and Yahoo, of course, just cracked down in this area. I know that managers are supposed to trust their workers, but it seems obvious that employees will work less from home. What is your take on working from home?


There are lots of possible reasons for the recent decision at Yahoo—some benevolent and some malevolent. Let me focus here on just two of them: work and attention. In terms of expected hours, those who work in an office are exposed to two different standards: the 40-hours-a-week official standard and the standard that is set by the people around them. We all know, for instance, that the social standard in the high-tech industry is much higher than the official 40 hours a week. In such cases, people who work in the office will conform to the social standard and work many more hours. For those who work from home, the 40-hour workweek is going to be a highly salient reference, and accordingly they are likely to adopt this as a reasonable commitment to work.

In terms of attention to the work, my own experience tells me that when people are together in the same room, they pay attention and focus on the task at hand with much of their cognitive capacity. But when people are at a remote site, participating via phone or video conferencing, they are not fully engaged and in many cases they even try (unsuccessfully) to multitask during important meetings.

My mother, by the way, always knows when I try to multitask while talking to her, so maybe Yahoo should hire her to monitor their online conferences and to reprimand those who aren’t focusing sufficiently.


Dear Dan,

What is the best way to make sure Americans have sufficient funds for retirement?


There are basically two ways to help people have enough money for retirement: getting them to save more and getting them to die younger. The easier one by far is getting people to die younger. How might you achieve this? By allowing the citizens to smoke, subsidizing sugary and fatty foods, and making it hard for them to get access to preventative health care. But, when you think about this, it seems like we’re already doing most of what we can on this front.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.