Ask Ariely: On Taking out the Trash and Focusing on the Forgotten

January 18, 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,

Some neighbors in our building are trying to get other neighbors to kindly put their garbage in the trash bins and not just leave it on the floor, but to no avail. Polite requests and threats have proven equally unsuccessful. What should we do?


The problem in your building is not just about cleanliness. The problem is more complicated, and has to do with changing a social norm. What you have is a sub-culture where trash bags are left on the floor instead of thrown in the bins. Since this is the established norm, it won’t be easily changed.

Social norms are a powerful motivator, and we are influenced by them all the time. If you go to the trash room and see bags lying around, you are affected to some extent by your own values, and to some extent by the behavior of those around you. You say to yourself, “leaving the garbage bags on the floor is the standard practice and I can do the same and still feel alright with myself”. But if there is no trash around, you would probably tell yourself, “That’s inappropriate, and I shouldn’t mess the place up”. The important thing to remember about social norms is that when it comes to minor violations we criticize the violators, but when the violations become repeated, the norm itself changes and sweeps everyone with it.

And the solution? Given that the New Year just started, and with it comes a symbolic opportunity for change, I would summon a tenants’ meeting to discuss plans for the New Year. In the meeting you need to create a new social understanding of the right behavior by having everyone sign a pledge to take care of the house, including placing your garbage in the right place. As long as you can create such a new social norm, the garbage will seem to clean itself.


Dear Dan,

I often get the feeling that I am forgetting something and spend too much time trying to remember what it was—sometimes failing entirely, sometimes realizing that it wasn’t very important in the first place. How can I force myself to let minor things go more easily while still making sure I remember the important ones?


With the increase in life expectancy, most of us have good chances to suffer some sort of memory loss. This means that dealing with reduced memory is part of the modern human condition. You’re just ahead of your time.

As for what you can do about it: The simple answer is to get a smartphone with a note-taking app and use it as your central memory repository. All your potential tasks will be there waiting for you, and all you’ll have to do is to go over the list. Such recognition is much less demanding than remembering.

The more difficult but deeper answer is that you should just stop worrying so much. You probably already realize that most things aren’t that important to begin with. If you could only get into this “Hakuna matata” mindset, you would be less stressed and much happier. Plus, remember that if something is really important, it is also important to someone else, and that someone will probably remind you about it at least three more times—so why take this pleasure away from them?


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.