Ask Ariely: On Social Substitutes, Apt Apologies, and Troubling Tests

March 6, 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’m worried that I’ve gotten into the habit of watching too much TV during this time of social isolation. I know it’s not good for me to spend hours in front of the screen, so why do I feel so drawn to these shows?


Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Seeking ways to feel connected to others is natural, and now that physical distancing guidelines make in-person connections increasingly difficult, many people are finding a replacement in watching television or engaging with online communities. Research has found that this isn’t a bad strategy. Nontraditional social connections, even to fictional characters on TV, has been found to increase well-being during quarantine. Just don’t forget that TV is a substitute until you can go back to seeing people in real life.


Dear Dan,

I run an Etsy business. A few weeks ago I made some mistakes and sent several long-term customers the wrong items. What should I do to keep their business and earn back their trust?


Running a small business is challenging, and mistakes will happen from time to time. Fortunately, a well-executed apology and stellar follow-up service can help. In a 2019 study on the “economics of apologies,” researchers looked at a large set of vendors and over a million of their customers and came away with four main insights about effective apologies. First, make sure to recognize the impact of your mistake on your customer: “I know it was disappointing not to not have the right gift in time for the holiday.” Second, explain what you are doing to make sure it won’t happen again. Third, the apology must come at some cost to you. Customers who had a bad experience were more likely to continue their patronage when they were sent a coupon for future purchases. Finally, make sure to improve. An apology can actually be worse than no apology at all if the mistake is repeated.

By the way, the same principles are relevant when making a personal apology to friends or family.


Dear Dan,

My son is taking an Advanced Placement physics class in high school. He attends classes, spends hours studying and says he knows the material very well, yet his test scores are not very good. How is that possible?


One possible explanation for the discrepancy could be “the illusion of explanatory depth,” which says that people often mistake familiarity with understanding. This principle was elegantly demonstrated in studies where participants were asked to rate their understanding of everyday objects like toilets and bicycles. Most people expressed a high degree of certainty that they understood how these things worked, but when asked to draw and explain them, they couldn’t. (If you think it sounds easy, try to draw a bicycle without leaving out any parts.)

With this distinction in mind, you can see if your son’s confidence is justified by asking him to explain the course material to you. This might help him identify which parts he only thought he understood.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.