Ask Ariely: On Personal Prices, Research Restrictions, and Mourning Methods

October 3, 2020 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 recently listed some household items for sale online—things like a coffee-maker and a vacuum cleaner. Some of them belonged to me and others belonged to my mother-in-law, who asked for my help because she’s not tech-savvy. I was surprised to see that most of the items I posted for my mother-in-law sold in a few hours, while most of mine didn’t attract buyers, even though they were similar in quality. What happened?


People have a tendency to assign a higher monetary value to things when they own them. Behavioral economics calls this the “endowment effect.” It’s possible that when you were pricing the items for sale online, you unconsciously inflated the value of the things you owned, while you were more objective about the value of your mother-in-law’s things and priced them in line with what people were willing to pay. To avoid the endowment effect, try asking someone to have a look at your items and suggest prices, the way that you did for your mother-in-law.


Dear Dan,

I am a doctoral student in biochemistry, and I need access to my university’s lab and equipment to complete my research. Due to Covid restrictions, lab time has been sharply limited, with each researcher assigned a time slot so they won’t overlap with others. At first I worried that this would jeopardize my research, but to my surprise, I’ve ended up getting a lot more work done in less time than I used to before the pandemic. How can this be?


When we lack a resource, whether it’s money, food or time, our brains focus on optimizing what we have, pushing other tasks to the side. This tunnel vision, also referred to as a “focus dividend,” can make us much more productive when it comes to our main task. But it can also have negative consequences for all the other responsibilities we push aside. So while you’re getting a lot done in the lab, make an extra effort to pay attention to parts of the work you might be neglecting, such as keeping good records and following safety protocols.


Dear Dan,

A person very dear to my heart recently passed away, and I’m struggling to comprehend this immense loss. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with grief?


The death of someone we love is one of life’s most painful and difficult experiences. That’s why all human communities have developed mourning rituals, which give us a concrete way to express our grief. Rituals differ between cultures, but they often involve the mourner altering their appearance in some way, by wearing a special item of clothing, only wearing certain colors or styling their hair differently. Such rituals are less common in America today than they used to be, but if you don’t have a traditional mourning custom you can invent your own as a way to honor the deceased. In addition, you may find comfort in keeping something alive that was dear to the person you lost, by donating to a charity or cause in their name.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.