Ask Ariely: On Wasted Time, Framing Failure, and Matrimonial Gambling

September 28, 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,

Often when I meet with a group of my closest friends, the discussion goes something like this: “Where do you want to go?” “Not sure.” “Where do you want to go?” “Not sure.” Etc. These discussions are frustrating and waste time. Any advice on how to move them forward and get to a decision faster?


When someone asks “What do you want to do tonight?” what they often are saying implicitly is: “What is the most exciting thing we can do tonight, given all the options and all the people involved?”

The problem is that figuring out the best solution is very difficult. First, we need to bring to mind all the alternatives, next our preferences and the preferences of the people in the group. Then we have to find the one activity that will maximize this set of constraints and preferences.

The basic problem here is that, in your search for the optimal activity, you are not taking the cost of time into account, so you waste your precious time asking “What do you want to do?”—which is probably the worst way to spend your time.

To overcome this problem, I would set up a rule that limits the amount of time that you are allowed to spend searching for a solution, and I would set up a default in case you fail to come up with a better option. For example, take a common good activity (going to drink at X, playing basketball at Y) and announce to your friends that, unless someone else comes up with a better alternative, in 10 minutes you are all heading out to X (or Y).

I would also set up a timer on your phone to make it clear that you mean business and to make sure that the time limit is kept. Once the buzzer sounds, just start heading out to X (or Y), asking who wants to come with you and telling everyone else that you will meet them there. After doing this a few times, your friends will get used to it and perhaps bring an end to this wasteful habit.


Dear Dan,

I’d like to understand something I see in my own life and in billion-dollar companies: the switch from aiming to succeed to aiming not to fail. You see this in companies such as Microsoft, but even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration went from the ambitious 1960s-’80s era to its current conservative program. What can we do to overcome this problem?


Assuming this is indeed a generalized pattern (and it would be interesting to collect data on the question), it might be a simple outcome of the endowment effect: basically, once we own something, we get used to it and are very reluctant to see it go away. When you are just starting out, you have nothing, so you look at potential gains and losses to some degree on an equal footing. But once you experience some success, you start thinking more carefully about what you have, and you don’t want to give it up, so you become much more conservative. In the process, you give up the things that made you successful from the get-go. Nor are companies alone in this: I suspect that the tendency to switch to a do-nothing defensive posture is just as common in the behavior of our public officials and governments.


Dear Dan,

Someone once said to me that marriage is like betting someone half of everything you own that you’d love him or her forever. Do you agree?


From the perspective of an outside observer, there are some things in life that can be described as a bet or a gamble—while for the people directly involved, looking at it that way will be a very bad idea. Marriage is one of these cases. It might be fun and interesting to think about other peoples’ marriages in such terms, but don’t be tempted to think about your own relationship this way. And certainly don’t mention these odds to your significant other.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.