Ask Ariely: On Comparing Competition, Lamenting Losses, and Rewarding Relatives

April 28, 2018 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,

After performance reviews at work, many of my colleagues started boasting about how much they had excelled. Since I didn’t do as well, I couldn’t help feeling discouraged. I just didn’t feel motivated any more to improve. Is that a common response? Or do most people want to do better when they discover others are thriving?


Your feeling is perfectly normal. We instinctively compare ourselves to other people who are thinner, richer, more successful and so on. Once, during an online course, I had students anonymously grade the work of their peers, so that good and not-so-good students saw firsthand how others were measuring up. The not-so-good students who saw the better performance of their peers were 16% more likely to quit the course than if they had graded students at their own level.

I would suggest that you work to control your exposure to personal comparisons, so that you don’t feel inferior and stay motivated. You may need to surround yourself with a new mix of people. That could mean spending more time with friends outside work. As for the office, find some colleagues who perform at your level or worse. Switching water-cooler talk away from workplace competition might help, too.


Hi, Dan.

I recently misplaced my wallet, which held about $80. For many days I couldn’t stop thinking about the loss. But as a stock-market investor, I often lose much more than that in a day. Why am I thinking so irrationally?

—Best regards, Ramesh

A few irrational things are probably going on. First, an $80 stock-market loss feels far less significant because it’s a small percentage of your total portfolio. When you lose $80 and your wallet, it feels overwhelming because, even though it’s temporary, you have no money.

Cash affects us more deeply than more abstract forms of money. In a study by Drazen Prelec and Duncan Simester that was published in 2001 in the journal Marketing Letters, the researchers asked M.B.A. students to join an auction for basketball tickets. The researchers told some students they could pay with credit cards, others that they had to use cash. The students told to use credit cards were willing to pay about twice as much as the cash users.

Cash feels much more tangible, while credit cards and stocks muffle the feeling of the loss.


Dear Dan,

Thanks to affordable DNA testing, I have recently discovered new relatives and will be meeting my half-sisters for the first time in a few weeks. But I’m having trouble thinking of a gift to give them to mark this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. A bottle of wine just isn’t going to do it. What recommendations can you make? Thank you!


Why don’t you give them an album of family photos from your own childhood? In addition to being a very personal gift, it will help to start the conversation as you learn about each others’ lives.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.