Ask Ariely: On Troubled Taxpayers, Parenting Placebos, and Stress Strategies

April 10, 2021 BY Dan Ariely

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 just started a job as an administrative assistant at a small tax accounting firm. I know people don’t love paying their taxes, but on the front line I’m witnessing a whole new level of animosity. Is there any way to make people less aggravated about it?


The American tax system doesn’t spark a lot of good will. Taxes are incredibly complicated, and we never really know if our money is paying for schools, roads, social services, the military or something else, which leads people to question what they are getting in return. Seeing the total annual amount all at once makes it seem very large, and it is unsettling to hand over big sums of money without fully understanding where it’s going.

What can we do to make things better? One approach is to give citizens some agency in how their tax dollars are allocated—for instance, to allow each citizen to allocate 5% of their taxes to whatever government function they think will use their money in the best way. Would such a system work? My research center surveyed taxpayers and found that giving them a choice about allocating some of their taxes increased their interest in tax compliance and reduced their interest in trying tax loopholes.


Dear Dan,

Years ago, my wife and I would take our daughter on long road trips, during which she often complained she felt nauseous. We suspected that her nausea was an invention, so we started to give her “medicine” that was actually just some candies in an old prescription bottle, and the symptoms stopped. Our daughter is now an adult with children of her own, and we’ve thought about sharing this story with her, but we’re worried she might not take well to having been tricked. What do you suggest?


You might think you beat your daughter at her own game by giving her fake medicine for her reported symptoms. But it’s possible that your daughter was actually feeling nauseous, and the fake medication helped her due to a placebo effect: The pretend medication created an expectation about feeling better that resulted in an actual improvement. There is evidence suggesting that a placebo can work even when one is aware of it.

As for telling your daughter now, there’s likely enough separation between her childhood self and her current self that sharing the story won’t damage her trust in you. In fact, she might appreciate the helpful parenting tip!


Dear Dan,

For the past year, I have been working from home. To help with work-related stress, I have started doing meditation and gratitude journaling. What are other strategies that I can use?


Working from home has some clear advantages, such as no commuting, but it also comes with unique distractions, such as interruptions from a family member. Working from home also has increased our reliance on digital communication tools, which in turn can contribute to a perception of work overload from having to feel available at any time. We all need to disconnect and distract ourselves sometimes. Research has shown that taking definitive breaks from the digital environment, or surrounding yourself with pleasing objects like plants, can be very helpful to reduce the stress.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.