Why are vegetarians so annoying? A teetotaling non-vegetarian responds.

May 15, 2014 BY danariely
The pink elephant in the room. Pun by Nina Strohminger and illustration by M. R. Trower

Like my labmate, Matt, 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, even my sexuality (for the record, my answer to all four questions is “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”). But there is one topic I avoid discussing for as long as I can get away with—I don’t drink.

After the big reveal, the inquest begins. No, I don’t drink at all. I do not enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a snifter of port at Christmas. I’ve never been drunk. I don’t know if I like the taste of alcohol. I’m not a recovering alcoholic, and alcoholism doesn’t run in the family. I don’t use any drug for recreation. It doesn’t have anything to do with health, and it’s certainly not a moral objection. Whatever you do, please don’t call me “straight edge” (a crypto-religious and painfully uncool musical subculture whose puritanical sanctimony represents no minor threat to my patience).

My inquisitors want a satisfying answer to the question ‘why’, but alas, none exists. Mine is less a deliberate choice than it is a preference (if it helps, think of me as gay, but for not drinking). In terms of overall utility, it’s not at all clear this preference leaves me better off. It makes me an awkward installment on dates, at parties, at pretty much every social gathering. It also raises the threshold of tolerability for such events considerably. It was a particularly absurd and socially suicidal eccentricity in college. I’ll admit, though, to having developed a sort of taste for the look of consternation on collegiate faces when boys discovered that their red plastic cups were useless against me.

But it’s not just would-be suitors who have expressed deep concern and alarm over my recalcitrant sobriety. Lurking beneath the curiosity of strangers is an unmistakable defensiveness. I am careful not to flaunt my club soda, but the very act of abstaining is seen as an indictment. This is because most of the reasons to be a teetotaler—like most of the reasons to be a vegan or vegetarian—are rooted in some form of moral concern. Drunkenness is not exactly associated with responsible decision-making. Meat consumption contributes towards such minor piffling matters as animal suffering, environmental destruction, and global injustice. Even health-based reasons carry with them a sort of moral weight, for the body is a temple, and self-control a virtue. The devil is in the sizzle of every delicious steak and the buzz of every flavorless PBR.

What makes the moral minority irritating is not that they hold exotic moral beliefs. Quite the opposite: most everyone feels the force of the arguments against eating meat or drinking alcohol. If our conscience were not pricked even a little, we would not feel implicitly judged. This explains why only certain idiosyncrasies provoke the inquisition. No one gives me a hard time about not drinking coffee, because (Mormonism aside) there is no commonly understood moral position against indulging a caffeine habit.

Everybody enjoys a good irony, and in my case that takes the form of having subjected many vegetarians to my own tedious ruminations over the years (while I could easily do without bacon, it is difficult to imagine a lifetime without cheese). But take heart! This windbaggery is actually a form of soul-searching. Whether flesh-eater or liquor-imbiber, it comes from the same vulnerable place: the desire to be—or at least be seen as—a good person.
~by Nina Strohminger~

Making More from Mother's Day

May 12, 2014 BY danariely

Every year for one day in May, we shower our mothers in praise. We might promise to show mothers more appreciation in the future, but a few days later, everything gets back to normal. And so the Post-Mother’s Day Cycle begins again, and the promise to show affection for our mothers’ greatness becomes just a distant memory.

This cycle of giving mom only one day of a praise a year is problematic. Psychologists find that people almost always function better and are happier when they experience praise and positivity not all at once, but consistently over time.

We must all strive to not be like the old joke about the husband who says, “I told my wife I loved her on our wedding day, why do I need to tell her again?” To some degree, we all are unfortunately too close to this idea that love and appreciation are best expressed at special occasions, rather than regularly throughout our lives.

So why don’t we praise our mothers year round? Especially when so many of our own mothers are giving us love and praise everyday? The reason may be our culture.

Largely, our culture doesn’t support praising mothers on other days. While Mother’s Day itself provides a cultural reminder to show love for one’s mother, it may make it feel less safe to express that appreciation year-round — it may seem sort of awkward and, for many men, “unmanly,” to praise one’s mom on any of the other 364 days of the year.

There’s also a potential dark side to Mother’s Day, and it’s what psychologists call licensing. Psychologists find that when people do something good, they sometimes feel “licensed” to do something bad (or at least not good) in a similar circumstance to balance it out. For instance, since we’ve recently shown our love and bought our mother flowers for Mother’s day, we may feel licensed to be a little more callous or less considerate next week.

Unfortunately there’s nothing built into our culture that require or reminds us to consistently show love for our mothers. Mothers raise their kids by showering them in an effective amount of verbal affirmation, yet we, as adult children, rarely return the favor.

A massive amount of psychological research shows how important it is to show affection and appreciation toward others either verbally or through other means, such as spending quality time or providing social support. Many of us aren’t giving back what our mothers have given to us. Some of us may do it for one day of the year, but that’s obviously not enough.

So this year, break the Post Mother’s Day Cycle. Do this by putting a note on your fridge or putting a weekly reminder on your phone that reads: “Tell mom she’s awesome today.” Or, right now, preorder flowers for you mom to receive in six months with a note that says, “Happy half-way to Mother’s Day.”

Mother’s Day is a wonderful institution. There’s no doubt. But it can be an even more effective institution if we see that Mother’s Day as a reminder to spend everyday in appreciation.

~Troy Campbell~

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.

DIY: The Magic of Making / Anti-Precision exhibition on view at Liberty Arts

May 5, 2014 BY danariely


May 13 – May 31, the “DIY: The Magic of Making / Anti-Precision” exhibition, formerly on display at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, will be on view at Liberty Arts.  This exhibition showcases artwork created as collaborations between student artists and science professors at Duke and UNC.

Research shows that when we expend effort in creating something, we place a higher value on the fruits of our labors than similar products that we had no hand in making. Also known as the IKEA effect, this phenomenon explains why we have such an affinity for our own creations but fail to fully appreciate the works of others.

“DIY: The Magic of Making / Anti-Precision” takes an introspective look at the science of producing art, with a twist. Rather than one artist creating one piece of art, two minds worked together to forge a partnership between unlikely pairs: student and professor.

In the UNC branch of this collaborative project, art students in elin o’hara slavick’s “Visualizing Science” class matched themselves with science professors to create a work of art together that was inspired by the professors’ research.

Stop by the Third Friday Opening Reception on May 16th from 6-9 pm at Liberty Arts, 923 Franklin Street, Durham NC 27701 to meet the artists, the professors, the Center for Advanced Hindsight researchers, and other art-science enthusiasts!

The exhibition will be open to the public on May 13 – 31 subject to staff availability.  Please contact the exhibit curator Catherine J Howard at artisticallyirrational@gmail.com in advance to confirm the exhibition’s open hours.

Learn more about the Artistically Irrational exhibition series at http://artisticallyirrational.ssri.duke.edu/.

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.

The Seinfeld Rules of Lies

April 30, 2014 BY danariely

Seinfeld is one of the most popular American TV shows, created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. In one episode, George Costanza, the best friend of the main character, offered some advice about lying—some lies are not technically lies when taking into account the specific situation. Here is George’s list of 14 justified lies:

1. It’s not a lie if you believe it.
2. It’s not a lie if it doesn’t help you.
3. It’s not a lie if it hurts you.
4. It’s not a lie if it helps someone else.
5. It’s not a lie if it doesn’t hurt someone else.
6. It’s not a lie if everyone expects you to lie.
7. It’s not a lie if the other person knows the truth.
8. It’s not a lie if nobody can prove it.
9. It’s not a lie if you don’t get caught.
10. It’s not a lie if you don’t need to tell another lie to cover it up.
11. It’s not a lie if you were crossing your fingers.
12. It’s not a lie if you proceed to make it true.
13. It’s not a lie if nobody heard you say it.
14. It’s not a lie if nobody cares.

We were interested in whether people agreed with Costanza’s point of view. Do they justify these 14 behaviors? Do they believe lies are not technically lies if you don’t believe them, they don’t help you, and so on? To test these ideas, we made a short survey and released it through our “Sample Size Matters” App. Users indicated to what extent they agreed with each of George’s statements about lies on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being strongly disagree and 7 strongly agree.

911 participants completed our survey, and, surprisingly, all of the statements were rated below a 4 (the mid-point of the scale), which means that people on average disagree with Costanza’s point of view. Additionally, the statements with the highest scores were “It is not a lie if you believe it” (mean=3.81) and “It is not a lie if you proceed it to make it true” (mean = 2.98).

Do these results suggest that people disagree with Costanza’s list of justified lies? Not necessarily. Our views about dishonesty may very well change depending on whether we’re the ones being dishonest—perhaps we believe these rules only when trying to justify our dishonesty.

Mazar, Amir and Ariely (2008) put forward a theory of dishonesty—individuals behave dishonestly enough to profit but honestly enough to maintain a sense of their own integrity. This is what they called the ‘self-concept maintenance theory’ and possibly explains Costanza’s rationalization.

At the end of our survey we asked participants to indicate what other situations they wouldn’t consider lying, and they came up with a lot of creative suggestions such as “It is not a lie if you miss the important details”, “It is not a lie if it is a joke or an irony”, “It is not a lie if it makes someone happy” and “It is not a lie if your salary or job depends on it.” Everyone could come up with at least one or two lies that are justified! Can you?

~Ximena Garcia Rada~

Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The dishonesty of honest people: A theory of self-concept maintenance. Journal of marketing research, 45(6), 633-644.


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~

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!