Ask Ariely: On Stretching Time, Coining Decisions, and Gifts of Effort (not money)

January 5, 2013 BY danariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Dear Dan,

My best buddies and I have a tradition of going on a one-week ski trip once a year. We’ve been doing it for most of the past decade. The idea is that it’s just us guys on the mountain, enjoying the good company and snow. We cherish these moments and can’t wait for the week to arrive every year.

The problem is that once we land at our ski destination, time seems to go by at light speed. The week ends amazingly quickly and when we look back at our time together it seems even shorter. I know that “time flies when you are having fun,” but is there a way to perceive the week as longer?


Given the way you phrased the question, the answer is simple: Take your wives with you. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

But more to the point: I suspect that one of the reasons that your vacations seem so short, both in the experience and in your memory after the fact, is because the days of skiing are so similar to each other that they blend together in your memory into one very long day rather than a weeklong vacation.

On your next trip, try to make the days more differentiated from one another. Try snowboarding one day, take a lesson on another day, or just change your ski equipment from time to time. You could take a day off from skiing and go sledding or meet the locals. The point is that even if some days wind up with activities that you enjoy less at the moment (like bowling, for example), the ability to differentiate that day from the other days will help you categorize the vacation as a series of distinct experiences instead of one big glob of skiing. This way, you will get more joy from the memory of these experiences.


Dear Dan,

A few weeks ago in your column you suggested spinning a penny as a way to make decisions between two similar options. You argued that having to face the moment of truth makes us realize what we really want as the outcome.

This approach might be useful when deep down inside it is clear which way you want the penny to fall, but what about decisions where what you desire is not good for you? For example, when the decision is between chocolate cake and fruit. In this case, you know very well how you want the coin to fall, and flipping the coin doesn’t seem to be very useful.

Any advice on how to deal with such conflicts between the head and the heart?


You’re right. The coin trick is indeed only useful for cases where the two options are of the same type (two cameras, two movies, etc). In your example, one option is more tempting in the short term (chocolate cake) while the other is better in the long term (fruit). In such cases we should not trust our gut feelings to drive us to the best decisions.

Looking around, it is easy to see that we often succumb to temptation and take the option that has short-term benefits and long-term downsides (in your example, this is the chocolate cake). The basic problem is that when we make such decisions we are often “under the influence” of the chocolate cake. Its closeness blinds us to the comparative long-term benefits of a piece of fruit (or, simply not eating the cake). So what can we do? Every time you face such decisions, pretend that it is not about what to do now but what you would like to do a week from now. For example, think of the choice between chocolate cake and fruit for dessert as a decision that you are making for exactly one week from today. When the choice is framed this way, you might be more able to override the influence of your current emotional state and pick the option with long-term benefits.


Dear Dan,

I just bought a pair of basketball tickets and I plan to treat my friend to an afternoon of slack-jawed wonder as Kevin Durant dismantles our hometown Raptors. Here’s the thing: My friend is very generous and semiwealthy. If I tell him the tickets are on me, he’ll insist on paying…but if I tell him the tickets were free (the only way he’ll let me off the hook about the price), I’ll lose that weird cachet that comes from giving an expensive gift. What to do?


Here is what I would do: Take your income per month (for simplicity, say $10,000) and divide it by the cost of the two tickets (again for simplicity, say $200). Now multiply this number by the number of hours you work per month (let’s say 160), and you get the numbers of hours that you need to work to pay for the tickets (3.2 hours in this case). Now, tell your friend “it took me more than 3 hours of hard labor to get these tickets.” (After all, you might not want to tell your friend exactly how much you make.) With this kind of framing, not only will your friend not be able to pay for the tickets, but he will also appreciate your investment in him and your friendship to a higher degree.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.