Why are vegetarians so annoying?

May 8, 2014 BY danariely

vegetarian2 (1)When I meet someone new, I’m pretty open in the first “getting to know you” conversations. I’ll freely offer up information about my career, hobbies, reality TV preferences, and even my sexuality. But there is one topic I avoid discussing for as long as I can get away with — I’m vegan.

It might happen when I turn down a bite of birthday cake for the third time or have trouble mustering interest in going to a restaurant whose sole vegan option is a deflated pile of aging lettuce, but eventually, it comes out. If I’m lucky, reactions are something like, “You’re missing out on so much!” or, “Good for you, but I could never give up bacon.” Other times, though, their face darkens and the inquisition begins: Why are you doing that? Aren’t you worried about getting enough protein? If I paid you twenty dollars, would you eat this burger? It’s not like you’re making a difference, you know that, right? It’s as if the words “vegan” and “vegetarian” are triggers that open up a store of pent-up opinions about food politics and morality.

This reaction of general negativity is not just in my head, either—a paper by Julia A. Minson and Benoît Monin sheds some light on why people might have curiously strong reactions to vegetarians. Their paper, “Do-Gooder Derogation: Disparaging Morally Motivated Minorities to Defuse Anticipated Reproach,” investigates how and why people who eat meat act negatively towards those that don’t. They conducted several experiments asking meat-eaters about their feelings about vegetarians and their morality.

The authors asked meat-eaters to generate a few words they associated with vegetarians. Unsurprisingly, 47% of participants came up with at least one negative word (like “malnourished” or “self-righteous”). When asked, participants also felt that most vegetarians would view themselves to be more moral than the average meat-eater.

The most interesting part of Minson and Monin’s findings, though, was that the more morally superior participants judged vegetarians to be, the more negative words they attributed towards them. For this reason we might be more accepting of the vegetarian that sighs, “I’d love to eat meat, but right now doctor’s orders say no,” than the one in a PETA shirt.

The researchers attributed this effect to what is called “Do-Gooder Derogation,” or our tendency to put down others if we feel they are morally-motivated. When someone’s behavior is overtly moral, we often feel annoyed and resentful, rather than impressed or inspired. Minson and Monin see this as a result of “a knee-jerk defensive reaction to the threat of being morally judged and found wanting.” In other words, when we see someone riding on their moral high horse, we assume that they’re accusing us of being immoral by comparison. No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person, so we naturally respond defensively with resentment and derogation.

While I can’t speak for all vegetarians and vegans, let me assure you that there’s no moral judgment on my part. I think we’ve all got the right to eat (or not eat) whatever we so choose. So let’s make a deal: I’ll eat my veggie burger, you eat your steak, and we’ll both struggle valiantly not to heckle the yuppie charging his Tesla.

~Comic and post by M.R. Trower~


Minson, Julia A., and Benoît Monin. “Do-gooder derogation disparaging morally motivated minorities to defuse anticipated reproach.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3.2 (2012): 200-207.

An Academic and Personal Analysis of Sunday's 'Star Wars Day'

May 2, 2014 BY danariely
Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 11.37.25 AM
Dan Ariely as a Jedi for Jared Wolfe’s Graduation

This Sunday is “May the Fourth Be With You” Day or more commonly known as “Star Wars Day.” Our graduate student Troy Campbell combines his research and personal experience to analyze why this day and Star Wars itself means so much to many. 

In an epic South Park finale episode, Kyle Broflovski argued the importance of Star Wars, saying:

“It’s all real. Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? They’ve changed my life – changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary but, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around here long after we’re dead. So, in a way, those things are more real than any of us.” (quote shortened)

Maybe this seems a little hyperbolic, but on May the Fourth, the official Star Wars Day, the idea doesn’t seem so far off. This day drives home the point every year — Star Wars matters a lot to a lot of people.

On “May the Fourth Be With You” Day, droves of Americans will dress up and celebrate, and I will be one of them. On no other day of the year will I don any cultural garb, but on this Sunday I’ll show up to Durham’s large Star Wars Day festival with a replica lightsaber at my side.

So many Americans have massive cultural festivals like Holi and Cinco de Mayo, or even Coachella. But I just have May the Fourth. It’s my day to dress up and be immersed in myths and narratives. The Greeks had the Gods of Olympus, my Texas friends have the army of the Alamo, and my Coachella friends have the mythical band Neutral Milk Hotel. But me, I have the Skywalker family. I am, of course, exaggerating — but only a little.

For many Americans, even if they are part of other cultural groups, Star Wars is still a big part of their cultural landscape, their lingo, and even their fantasies. In a recent Duke University research project on consumer culture, we found that most adults who love Star Wars have as adults also fantasized about being a Jedi. Star Wars is more than a fictional world we observe, it’s a world we are part of. People dress up as ghosts for Halloween, but on May the Fourth, they don’t just dress us as Jedi Knights, they pretend to be Jedi Knights — even if only privately in their minds.

Yet May the Fourth is not just about individual fantasy, it’s about connection. Star Wars remains the most popular way sci-fi and fantasy nerds of all kinds connect. Though Marvel, the works of Joss Wheadon, Tolkein, Doctor Who, and Star Trek contest in nerd culture, Star Wars reigns supreme. Star Wars is a cultural icon for many reasons, but a main reason is its simplicity and the fact that it’s easier to “master.”

Though Star Wars is full of prequels, video games, cartoons, and a recently nullified Expanded Universe, at the heart of Star Wars, there are just three movies that almost everyone has seen. And if you know those three movies well, then you can consider yourself a Star Wars master. Some nerds will disagree with that and say if you don’t know everything about Star Wars Legends Mara Jade or robotic Darth Maul then you aren’t a true Jedi Master. But for most of us, the original trilogy is all we need to feel like a master. And feeling like a master of Star Wars feels good.

When people feel a sense of “mastery” over objects, concepts, and stories, they tend to like, love, and identify with those stories and things. As the psychologist Lita Furby theorized, “That over which I exercise… control becomes a part of my sense of self.” Over the past decade, projects lead by researchers at Harvard University, the University of British Columbia, and here in our center at Duke University have begun to find empirical support for the emerging psychological concept of mastery and the positive effects it can have on ownership, identity and happiness.

Star Wars has become something we don’t just physically own on Blu-Ray; it’s something we own in concept. It’s part of our extended self. It’s a cultural touch point for us where we grow and exercise our mastery of its fiction and mythos. It’s how we connect with others in the present, it’s part of the memories we have of our past selves, and it’s part of the fantasies we have for our mythical future selves.

As human beings we long to become part of something bigger than ourselves. For many people Star Wars can in many ways serve as this bigger thing. When celebrating and consuming the massive culture phenomenon and community that is Star Wars it is hard not to feel as though you are truly caught up in the magical force. So this Sunday, no matter if you celebrate with full cosplay, a movie marathon, or just a tweet, I hope that this magical force may be with you.


If you like Troy’s thoughts on Star Wars you may also like his academic perspective on nerd culture in articles such as The Magic Stars Wars Episode VII Needs to Recapture, How to Love Movies Kids Do, and his psychological analysis of the Fantasy Vessel Theory in movies.

5 Steps to Improving Your Understanding of Behavioral Economics

April 25, 2014 BY danariely

Imageby Troy Campbell

Today, many individuals, governments and businesses are eager to use behavioral economics to improve lives, happiness, and profits. So, how can one get a good beginning handle on behavioral economics? Reading up and taking a class can never substitute for years of education in the topic, but taking these five steps can help improve your general thinking, help you better communicate with behavioral experts, and help you develop an experimental mindset.


So what is behavioral economics? (A quick run down)

Behavioral economics, or behavioral sciences, applied psychology, business psychology, decision making, or whatever title you prefer, is the study of human irrationality, decision making, self-control, and emotions.

This past year has served as a symbolic victory for the field. Daniel Kahneman, widely considered the founder of the field, released the book Thinking, Fast and Slow and won the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in America, to go along with his International Nobel Prize. The United States government also opened a “Behavioral Insights” team with the goal of integrating behavioral research into government policy.

Behavioral science is becoming a staple in business and public policy. Energy companies use social comparison with neighbors to reduce energy consumption and businesses help people “save more tomorrow” by having them commit to automatic enrollment in the future. Rather than just assuming that people will save energy and manage their retirement with perfect rationality, behavioral economics accepts and defends the idea that people will not always be motivated by rationality or cash alone. Instead, it examines what actually motivates people.

Alright, so most likely you don’t have time to hire your own private behavioral insights team. So, what can you do? Here’s how to improve your understanding a little bit.

#1 Accept that humans are irrational.

ImageIn his book Critical Decisions, behavioral scientist Peter Ubel concludes that humans are neither completely rational nor completely irrational, but argues that people attempt to understand others logically far too often.

For instance, how many times have you tried to logically argue with a friend or co-worker? Did it go well? Probably not. Why? Because logic does not exclusively dictate human behavior. Emotions, self-control, and a person’s life history greatly influence behavior.

One big takeaway from behavioral science is that we must continually consider factors other than rationality that can influence people’s behavior. So step one: remember people are irrational and that logic alone will rarely win the day.

#2 Think about your own psychological quirks.

ImageOne of the best ways for us to recognize irrational behavior in others is to first recognize it in ourselves.

You may have noticed that you tend to be less rational when you’re tired. You may have noticed that you sometimes act with prejudice. For instance, just think of the last time you saw someone wearing a jersey from an opposing sports team. Did you automatically assume negative things of them? Understanding how you, (presumably) a good and sane person, can commit errors in judgment will allow you to see, understand, and empathize with others’ all too human behavior.

Starting to understand patterns of irrationality or imperfect decision-making can help you understand people’s “predictable irrationalities” – the ways in which people act predictably like humans rather than rational perfect machines.

#3 Watch science on TED.com.

ImageTED.com has a collection of behavioral economics talks, which are great for understanding the mindset of a behavioral scientist. The talks cover topics such as how to think about happiness, memory, honesty, or decision-making. Start with talks by Rory Sutherland, Daniel Kahneman, or the Center for Advanced Hindsight captain, Dan Ariely, and you will start to get into the mindset. From there, click the related videos. After a couple hours of those videos, you will be ready for some reading.


#4 Starting reading. And here’s what to start with.

ImageBooks – To begin, start with a hit from the behavioral sciences such as Thinking, Fast and Slow or Predictably Irrational. Books with fantastic prose from authors like Malcolm Gladwell are good to check out, but it is best to start with a book that intensely focuses on the research. This will help you build a solid foundation.

Online – Next follow a blog or twitter account from at least one of these behavioral experts: @Nudgeblog, @DanTGilbert, or @RorySutherland (there’s lots more but these are three random ones to give you a good start). By following the experts, you may also have access to occasional live twitter conversations between them — another entertaining way to learn. And, of course, follow the lab @advncdhindsight‎ and @DanAriely.

Local – Locate professors at your local university who conduct behavioral economics, social psychology, or decision-making research. Follow their blogs, check out their university talks, and even get some face time with them at local events. Academics are generally pretty open, so go spend time with them!

#5: How to read. – This one is important!

ImageDo not binge and forget. Instead, spread out your reading. Due to the availability bias in human reasoning, things that you learn and even know deep in your memory may not be “on top of the mind.” Just because you learned something once doesn’t mean you’ll be in the state of mind to always use that knowledge.

Reading a little but often keeps behavioral economics on the top of your mind. So, when you encounter a situation where someone is acting odd, the behavioral economist inside of you will always be primed and ready to interpret the situation.


A final reminder

However, we remind you that even a person with Ph.D in behavioral economics can’t always predict what exactly will happen. Science is about consist using hindsight to improve foresight. Not matter how much advanced hindsight you’ve paid attention to life, there can never be enough. That’s why it is also important to always put your hypotheses to a test. If your in a business try an experiment or use online survey polls (e.g. Mechanical Turk) to get some initial data or feedback. Thinking like a scientist means being comfortable with the fact you don’t know everything.

Those who realize how much they don’t know will end up knowing the most.



The Returns of Giving

April 14, 2014 BY danariely
Illustration by M.R. Trower

When I moved to Durham for graduate school, I wanted to immediately start volunteering. As a student, I’m aware that time is a relentless constraint. Getting enough sleep, doing work, socializing, and having time to decompress are all priorities. So it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and resistant to the idea of giving up more precious spare time to help others, even if the cause is important.

However, I knew that if I waited I would use my busy schedule as an excuse not to get involved. By pre-committing, I would be obligated to continue even as the semester became busier . I wanted to volunteer as a way to connect to my community and keep perspective that sometimes gets lost in the minutiae of research.

But what I didn’t realize was that I was inadvertently helping my future self feel less stressed when things got busy. Research finds that ironically, giving time to others actually can make us feel as though we have more of it ourselves.

This benefit of spending time on others seems counterintuitive. From a completely objective perspective, spending time on others reduces the minutes you have in a day—those don’t change. And indeed, we are actually less likely to take the time to help others if we’re short on time. However, if we do volunteer, our subjective perception of how much time we have can increase and affect our productivity and well-being.

Mogilner, Chance, and Norton (2012) found that giving time (volunteering or helping a friend) was more effective in increasing perceptions of future time than were wasting time, spending time on oneself, or unexpected free time. Moreover, they found that those who gave their time were more likely to commit more time and follow through on additional surveys. The mediator of this effect was self-efficacy. People feel more capable after taking the time to help others. Spending time on others may implicitly signal extra time, but also increased self-efficacy may make us feel that we can accomplish more with our time, effectively expanding it.

Sometimes, how much time we feel we have is actually more important than how much time we actually have. Because within a range, our feelings about time affect our happiness, stress levels, and productivity more than the actual number of hours.

Does this mean we shouldn’t indulge in TV, Facebook, or relaxing with friends? Of course not—the benefits of giving time aren’t infinite. Given the objective constraints, giving too much time will increase stress and won’t make use feel like we have more time.

Nevertheless, this discrepancy between how we expect volunteering to affect our sense of time, and how it actually does, is important for better budgeting our time. I have noticed that when I get home after volunteering, I immediately respond to all the emails that have been piling up, focus better on my work projects, and feel more accomplished by the end of the night. Despite having less time, I tend to use it more effectively.

Indeed, this mismatch between prediction and results applies to budgeting money as well: although people predict that they will be happier spending money on themselves, they actually feel better and wealthier spending on others.

When we are feeling the constraints of money, time or something else, we may actually help ourselves by giving to others. Moreover, for those who care less about the fuzzy concept of well-being, there are hints in the research suggesting that not only does giving to others affect our outlook, but it also might actually make us more efficient and productive.

~Dianna Amasino~

Last Night's Dishonesty Debate

April 4, 2014 BY danariely

Last night, legendary philosopher Peter Singer, distinguished psychologist Paul Bloom, and our very own expert behavioral economist Dan Ariely had a cross-Coursera “debate” on the ins and outs of dishonesty, morality, and ethics. Watch the fun and insightful discussion below, and skim the highlights on our twitter account or under the hashtag #dishonestydebate!

The Starbucks Effect

March 18, 2014 BY danariely


The Effect
When we order a fancy drink at Starbucks (or some fancier coffee house) with funny language, we believe we are sophisticated connoisseurs. But when others do the exact same thing, we just see them as annoying poseurs.

The Problem
But we don’t just believe we are hot stuff when we order at Starbucks, we also believe that other people will think we are hot stuff. This “self-serving” bias can be dangerous.

Across domains, people believe their dates will be won over by their charm, entrepreneurs believe investors will be won over by their ideas, and “connoisseurs” believe everyone will be won over by their “sophistication.”

It’s one thing to believe you are great, but it’s another thing to project your grand self-perceptions on the others’ perceptions of you. This is when biases can start to multiply and problems can go so awry. While this may not lead to tragic results in a Starbucks line, it can in love, politics, business, and academia.

~By M.R. Trower and Troy Campbell~

~Illustration by M.R. Trower~

Studies across cultures: A useful guide.

March 4, 2014 BY danariely
Our resident artist, M.R. Trower sketches during our lab meetings.
Our resident artist, M.R. Trower, sketches during our lab meetings.

Cross-cultural research is becoming increasingly popular, but many researchers are failing to understand the unique challenges it poses. Cross cultural psychology explores how culture influences behavior and attitudes, and cultural psychologists aim to study subjects from two or more cultures using equivalent methods of measurements (Triandis & Brislin, 1984).  

This research can often be difficult to conduct, and as someone in the midst of working through these problems in our lab, I’ve noticed some of these difficulties. I’m sharing what I’ve learned here as a quick guide to both help other researchers design better studies and help readers know enough background to better evaluate this research.

Five Challenges of Cross Cultural Research
1. Design:

The research question and design should be very clear before embarking on cross-cultural research. And when I say clear, I mean crystal clear. What are the specific hypotheses? What analysis will you run? Do you have variables that will allow you to run those tests? Do you have proper controls?

Always start with a pilot study with at least one of the target cultures (or a population in your home country), because it’s surprising how many things sometimes just don’t work. For instance, when conducting survey research, it’s important to test your constructs, such as sub-scales. If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars and months working on a project, make sure your scales work with your population, and don’t just assume it’ll work based on past research.

2. Translations:

How can you express the exact same idea in several languages? Or in the same language but to different cultural populations, such as British vs. American, or urban vs. rural? Again, pilot testing is key. Don’t just show it to a few research assistants who speak the language, get it out to the people that you’ll be studying.

How should you actually translate? We recommend the forward-backward method, where the translated document is translated back to the original language for comparison.

3. Consistency:

As a cross-cultural researcher, you must standardize processes, settings, and other factors of your research so that the only difference between your samples is their culture. Prepare documents like protocols and scripts for experimenters, and go over them again and again. Different cultures have different customs and social behaviors, and those social behaviors, even if they’re as small as how to administer a survey in a coffee shop, cannot vary across studies without jeopardizing the data. This is problematic when you have just one culture, one survey, and one research assistant. When you have ten cultures, one survey in different languages, and many research assistants across the globe, things can get very messy, fast. Remember though, if things are messy, then it’s important to be honest about it in the write up. In the modern age of ‘imperfect’ data, reviewers are looking for and respectful of honesty.

4. Cultural Customs:

Try to have a local person or team who is willing to be involved in the implementation of the project; they will contribute greatly with local advice and organization.

There will be many local factors that you won’t be aware of if you’re not familiar with the culture. For example, you may not know where to collect data, how to deal with local businesses while asking permission, or even how to approach subjects in a nice and professional way. Things like these may vary across countries, and locals are the only ones who can fill you in. It’s also important to understand all these differences before collecting data. For instance, a methodology might work well in one cultural but, because of social norms, not in another. Again, pilot test and know as much as you can ahead of time.

5. Paying Participants:

Does your study involve paying participants? If so, make sure to adjust that payment considering the cost of living of each country. Remember $1 in the USA is not the same as $1 in other countries, so you must make payments equivalent! We recommend indexes like the Purchasing Power Parity Index (World Bank) or the Big Mac Index (The Economist). Also consider whether your samples are used to being paid to do experiments and if your payment varies from this normal payment model.

In the end, the most important thing to remember with cross-cultural psychology is to plan ahead. When evaluating cross-cultural research in journals or news articles, the critical reader should consider what factors the researchers might have overlooked.

One final consideration is to remember that all research is only part of the puzzle. There is no definitive cross-cultural psychological paper, and there never will be. So it’s important to keep each finding in perspective.

~Ximena Garcia-Rada~

Further readings about cross-cultural psychology:

– Keith, K. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Contemporary Themes and Perspectives.

– Shiraev, E. B. & Levy, D. A. (2010). Cross-cultural psychology: critical thinking and contemporary applications (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn Bacon.

– Triandis, H. C., & Brislin, R. W. (1984). Cross-cultural psychology. American Psychologist, 39(9), 1006-1016. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.39.9.1006

– Hofstede, G., Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations

Announcing the 2014 Summer Internship In Behavioral Economics!

February 25, 2014 BY danariely

We’re happy to announce that we’re officially accepting applications for our 2014 Summer Internship in Behavioral Economics (details below)! Please circulate our PDF (with working links) to any interested students, far and wide!


Herding in the Coffee Aisle

February 24, 2014 BY danariely


A few times a month, I buy a bag of coffee at the supermarket on my street. I enjoy the ritual of standing before the twenty or thirty whole-bean options in the coffee aisle, imagining how the different roasts and origins might taste. This past Sunday, though, I was surprised to see how my coffee choice influenced the actions of a stranger.

I noticed another shopper in the coffee aisle, engrossed in selecting the perfect coffee for the week. Even after I had paused, nabbed a promising-looking bag, and walked off, she was still weighing her options. I don’t blame her – coffee is very important.

As I got ready to leave the store, I almost laughed when I saw her at the register. After all her cost-benefit analysis back in the aisle, she’d selected the exact same coffee that I had! The odds of us choosing the same coffee at random, considering the aisle of options, was pretty low. Instead, it seemed like my coffee choice might have signaled to her that this specific roast was more delicious and well-liked than the others. I could have influenced her choice without even speaking a word.

Although I thought this was funny at the time, I can’t say that I would’ve done differently if I had been in her place. We call this effect “herding,” and it occurs when we act based on how those around us behave. When searching for a place to eat downtown, you might see a long line out the door of a restaurant and think, “That place must be good if everyone else is standing in line, I better check it out.”

Sometimes restaurants really are just more popular because they’re higher quality, but it’s easy to see how it can become a problem. I’m not the world’s greatest coffee expert, so if I ended up leading herds of people at my local grocery store, the other customers might not be better off.

Of course getting worse coffee isn’t the biggest mistake you can make while shopping. Herding can lead to bigger problems in other cases, though (think the stock market),  and it’s worth looking out for. I don’t have as academic a background as some of the researchers in the lab, but working here has taught me more about these biases, and it’s been fun to notice these mistakes in day-to-day life.

~M.R. Trower~

It's time to play cupid!

February 10, 2014 BY danariely

In an episode of “The Office,” Michael Scott takes on the role of matchmaker at a Valentine’s Day party. In an attempt to fix geeky Eric up with awkward Meredith, he helpfully points out their similarities: “So, Eric, you mentioned before that you are in Tool & Die Repair. Meredith recently had a total hysterectomy, so that’s sort of a repair. [uncomfortable silence] Alright, I’ll let you guys talk.”

Like Michael, most of us have made matches between people, from grabbing two strangers by the arm at a party and introducing them to each other to mediating preexisting romantic interests. Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and I wondered about the nature of this common behavior: why do people like to be matchmakers? Is it a desire to be popular, to fulfill social goals or to have an instrumental role in social networks? In our newest paper* that is being published in Social Psychological and Personality Science this month, we show that it is simpler than that: people get a happiness boost from matching others!

We explored the impact of matchmaking behavior on happiness in different non-romantic scenarios. After being asked to make matches, our participants reported that they were happier post-matchmaking. We measured their happiness with a 7-point scale (1: very unhappy to 7: very happy) and examined their persistence in matchmaking (“would you like to make another match?”)

We first looked at whether people get a happiness boost when they make any type of match (à la Michael Scott). We found that matchmakers are happier when they make matches between two people they actually think will get along rather than on a random dimension such as looking alike. Furthermore, people enjoy matching those who are least likely to know each other; introducing a banker colleague to an artsy cousin makes people happier than introducing two philatelist co-workers from their workplace.

Another important dimension in matchmaking, of course, is the actual success of these matches. Do people still feel happy even when their matchmaking ends with a dating horror story rather than a happy marriage? When asked to think about previous matchmaking experiences, participants who recalled making a successful match (e.g., “my mom got along very well with my emo friend”) reported a happiness boost while failed matches (e.g., “my neighbor made my aunt uneasy”) was actually costly for well-being.

Though Michael Scott is rather hopeless at bringing lonely hearts together, given our findings we would recommend that he continue with his efforts but change his strategy; stay away from random introductions, match people who have a low likelihood of meeting but would enjoy each other’s company and aim for the matches to work out. Fewer awkward silences and happier matchmakers guaranteed.

~Lalin Anik~

*Anik, Lalin and Michael I. Norton, “Matchmaking promotes happiness,” Social Psychological and Personality Science. Prepublished February, 10, 2014.