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.

Ask Ariely: On Stress Strategies, Diet Decisions, and Relationship Rituals

June 13, 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,

It feels like I’ve been cooped up with my wife and children for a year, and I’ve started to lose my temper about things that never bothered me before, like when the kids make noise. I can’t run away from home, but I don’t want to feel angry all the time either. What can I do to lower my stress level?


Your desire to run away makes sense. One of the best things we can do when strong emotions bubble up is distance ourselves physically from the source of those feelings—in this case, your family. If you live in a place where you can safely go outside, next time you get angry go for a walk or a run and don’t come back for 30 minutes. That should be enough time for your emotions to subside.

You mention getting along with your family as the main source of stress, but like most people these days, you’re probably also worrying about bigger issues like your safety and your financial future. These kinds of worries make us feel helpless, and the best way to combat that feeling is to find ways to take control of our lives. This could mean waking up at the same time every day, starting an exercise plan so you can see your progress over time, or learning a new skill like cooking. Covid-19 will be with us for a while, and we need to figure out how to live with it without non-stop stress.


Dear Dan,

Working from home for the last few months has been bad for my eating habits, since it’s so easy to snack throughout the day. I’ve gained weight, and I want to go on a diet, but I’m still working at home, so the temptations aren’t going away. What diet would work best in this situation?


Planning a healthy diet is even harder now than usual, since going to the supermarket is more difficult and some ingredients are harder to get. To make things easier, try intermittent fasting, where you can eat anything you want for eight hours a day but fast for the other 16. Research shows that diets are easiest to keep when they have clear and simple rules like this one.


Dear Dan,

Recently my girlfriend broke up with me, and I can’t stop thinking about her. We were together for many years, and I was deeply in love. Now I can’t control my feelings: Every day I go from anger to mourning to fantasizing about getting back together. What can I do to start moving on with my life?


When someone we love dies, we have ceremonies like funerals and wakes to help us mourn. These rituals mark the conclusion of our relationship with the person we’ve lost, allowing us to focus on our pain, express it and put it behind us. If we kept fantasizing that the loved one was coming back, we’d never be able to move forward.

There aren’t any established rituals for mourning the loss of a loved one in a break-up, but there should be, so try creating one for yourself—some formal way of acknowledging that the relationship is over and won’t be coming back. This won’t take away your pain, but it should help you start recovering from it sooner.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Join Me Live to Talk about COVID-19

April 23, 2020 BY Dan Ariely

Hello, join me tomorrow, April 24th at 12pm EST for a live chat about the intersections of behavioral science and the coronavirus pandemic. There will be a live Q&A portion at the end!

Here is the event link. See you there!

Ask Ariely: On Team Tragedy, Airport Anxiety, and Grumpy Gift-wrapping

January 4, 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.


Hi Dan,

I have a hard time watching my favorite football team on TV because I get so upset when they are behind, and when they lose I’m really miserable. Is there a way for me to enjoy the game without taking the result so seriously?


One option is to remove the element of surprise by recording the game and having someone tell you the final score before you watch. That way, you will feel less emotionally invested in the outcome and you’ll be able to enjoy the game more for its own sake.

Another approach is to pick a treat that you enjoy—let’s say chocolate—and have some only if your team loses. This would make the loss bittersweet, since you would offset the unhappiness of losing with the pleasure of the chocolate.

Still, as with all kinds of love, loving a team will inevitably bring occasional heartbreak. The best way to deal with it is by learning to appreciate that emotional complexity, with all the good and bad feelings involved.


Dear Dan,

My partner thinks it’s better to arrive at the airport hours early to avoid feeling anxious about missing our flight. But I would rather put that time to good use and minimize the hours spent waiting aimlessly at the gate. What’s a good rule of thumb for travel planning?


The key here is your partner’s anxiety. If you were simply trying to calculate the most efficient way to use your own time, you would look at how much time you would waste waiting at the airport (discounted by the useful things you can do there, like catching up on email or reading a book) and compare it with how much time you would lose if you missed your flight. Then you could come up with an optimal solution for yourself.

But once you start considering your partner’s feelings of anxiety, you are in the irrational domain of emotions, which are harder to calculate. Try to figure out how severe your significant other’s anxiety is and how long it lasts. If he is highly anxious for, say, 48 hours before the flight, it would be worthwhile to agree to arrive at the airport a few hours early to eliminate his unhappiness. In general, we need to focus not just on how to use our own time efficiently but on what we can do to make our loved ones happy, rational or not.


Dear Dan,

I spent half a day wrapping Christmas gifts for my family this year. Is it really worth my time?


Even though it’s time-consuming, wrapping gifts is worthwhile since it makes the recipients enjoy them more, according to a 1992 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The effect holds even when the wrap is transparent and the recipient can see what’s inside. That’s because wrapping slows down the process of opening the gift, which helps us pay closer attention to the experience. Unwrapping gifts is like the ritual of drinking wine: Swirling it in the glass, looking at it and smelling it all slow things down so that we can focus on the pleasure ahead.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

when you let a social scientist design for better weight management

December 18, 2017 BY danariely

What happens when you let a social scientist design for better weight management


Happy holidays!  It’s the season for gratitude, celebration, time with family… and weight gain.  That’s right, most of our weight gain happens during this time of year, and the problem is that many of us don’t lose it after the season.  This continuous weight gain over time contributes to the fact that over a third of the US population is obese.  Obesity-related conditions, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes to certain types of cancer, are some of the leading causes of preventable death.


If we think about weight management through the lens of social science, what solution would we come up with?


There are many angles we could take, but my team and I started with the scale.  Specifically, we recently created a scale with no display.   Sound odd?  Perhaps.  Let’s suspend judgement for a few minutes and walk through what we know about scales:


1) Stepping on a scale daily is good, especially when done in the morning.


Stepping on a scale daily is correlated with weight loss.  In particular, when we step on the scale in the morning, it has the power to serve as reminder of our commitment to health.  Think about it – if you’ve just stepped on your scale, will you then have oatmeal or a donut for breakfast?  When you get to work, will you take the stairs or the elevator? … and so forth.


2) It’s normal for our weight to fluctuate a lot.  But psychologically the gains affect us more than the losses.


Loss aversion is a well-known principle in behavioral economics – it means that losses loom larger than gains.  In weight, this would be reversed, of course: a three-pound gain will make us miserable, but a three-pound loss does not make us equivalently happy.  Imagine that your weight fluctuates up and down but on average you’re staying within the same range.  Because of loss aversion, your overall experience with the scale is negative.  You might even avoid stepping on it entirely, losing the benefit of using it as a reminder of health.


3) We expect our weight to react quickly to good or bad behaviors, but it doesn’t.  This causes confusion and demotivation.


Imagine you do everything you’re supposed to today.  You eat salad for lunch, you skip dessert, and you go for a run.  When you step on the scale, your weight has gone up.  How does this make you feel?  Or, on another day, you sit at home binge-watching the latest show on Netflix while eating junk food all day.  When you step on the scale, your weight has gone down.


This is confusing and demotivating.  We think that our body’s feedback mechanism will be quick to react to our behaviors (good or bad), but sadly the it does not work that way.  This means that many of us end up thinking, “well what the heck, what I’m doing isn’t working anyway, so why bother?”


For these 3 reasons, our team created a display-free scale called Shapa.  We’ve kept the positive elements of a scale while removing the negative ones.


With Shapa, we celebrate when you step on your scale.  We give you feedback on your weight, but not in pounds.  Instead, we use a 5-point scale called Shapa Color.  If your weight with is in your normal range (within one standard deviation), congratulations, your Shapa Color is green!  If it fluctuates beyond one standard deviation in either direction, your Shapa color changes accordingly.  The idea is to take out the noise of normal fluctuations and provide a better feedback mechanism in which we can better understand the outcomes of our behaviors.


On top of this, we also took all that is known in social science about the small tricks that create healthy behavior change, and bundled them into personalized recommendations called Missions.  We might suggest that you reorganize your fridge, making unhealthy items harder to reach.  If you commute to work, we might suggest that you get off one stop earlier and walk.


Our early results are promising and we’re still capturing data.  In our first trial, we randomly assigned people who wanted to lose weight to either use Shapa or a standard scale.  We found that after just 12 weeks, people who used Shapa did better.   The Shapa users lost between -0.88% and -0.40% of their weight.  For standard scale users, the range was much broader and included weight gain: between -0.78% and +1.22% (95% confidence intervals).


Ultimately, in today’s technologically advanced world, we should be thinking about how to use technology to our benefit.  Just because it’s possible to build a scale that can report very precise granular information (e.g. your weight is 145.27 pounds and yesterday it was 144.87) does not mean that this kind of system is aligned with human psychology.  Our focus should be on behavior change, not decimal-point-level accuracy.


We’re very optimistic about how Shapa can help people make behavior changes to improve their health.  If you think it could help you, here is where you can learn more and order one:




Irrationally yours,

Dan Ariely

Mental Design at PopTech 2017

November 29, 2017 BY danariely

How can we use findings from social science to improve health, financial decision-making and overall quality of life? I gave a talk on the power of designing for the mental world at PopTech 2017.

Watch the video below and learn more about PopTech on their site.

Getting people to agree: A TED experiment

November 22, 2017 BY danariely

In April Mariano Sigman and I (mostly Mariano) carried out an experiment at TED on how to get people to make better decisions and to agree!  Here is the video and the writeup describing this and other experiments on the topic of how to get people to agree on difficult questions.  An important challenge these days…..

The video:

And the ideas piece:


Applications now open: Common Cents Lab Partnerships

October 25, 2017 BY danariely
We are looking for our next cohort of credit unions, tech companies, banks, non-profits, and government organizations to partner with, to find and test interventions that help Americans improve their financial well-being. Our open call is online now, taking applications until November 15th.
Each year, we collaborate with chosen financial services providers to custom design, test, and launch new features and products that aim to increase financial well-being for 1.8 million low- to moderate-income (LMI) households in America. Partners have the opportunity to work directly with expert behavioral scientists to design solutions to many of our toughest financial decision-making challenges. Click here for more information, or click below to apply.
Some social proof:
Common Cents Lab has not only taught us about behavioral economics and how we can help our members have better savings and use the credit union more, but also about a methodical process to test and design our products to better match member needs.
– Vicky Garcia, SVP Strategy and Risk Management, Latino Community Credit Union
“The Common Cents partnership was instrumental in helping us develop features that drive substantial savings for our customers,”
– Ethan Bloch, Founder and CEO of Digit.
“Common Cents had added rigor to the way we build new features that improve our users’ lives,”
– Jimmy Chen, Founder and CEO of Propel.
Some of our press:

We hope to see your application. Please visit: apply.commoncentslab.org

First review of DOLLARS AND SENSE

September 3, 2017 BY danariely

This is a review from Kirkus and they are not easy to please…


How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter
Author: Dan Ariely
Author: Jeff Kreisler
Illustrator: Matt Trower

Review Issue Date: September 15, 2017
Online Publish Date: September 4, 2017

A lively look at how even the wisest among us are too often fools eager to part with our money.Most of us think about money at least some portion of each day—how to get more of it, how to spend less of it. However, cautions Ariely (Psychology and Behavioral Economics/Duke Univ.; Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, 2016, etc.), working with comedian and writer Kreisler (Get Rich Cheating, 2009), “when we bring money into the equation, we make the decisions much more difficult and we open ourselves to mistakes.” The better course, they urge, is to consider money not for its own sake—indeed, not to acknowledge its existence at all—but instead to consider the concept of opportunity cost: what do we give up when we make one choice over another? Is the forgone acquisition really the correct one? What if, instead of buying a big-screen TV or new clothes, we thought of what we might do with the hours we don’t have to work in order to procure them or of the other things we might buy in their place? Such counsel comes after consideration of other economic notions, such as the endowment effect, whereby we give more significance to things simply because we own them, and our generally risk-averse economic behavior, whereby the pleasure taken in gaining something is vastly overshadowed by the pain caused by losing it. Ariely and Kreisler, writing breezily but meaningfully, allow that money has its uses as a symbolic system of fungible, storable, accessible value. However, the real consideration should always be that “spending money now on one thing is a trade-off for spending it on something else,” a calculation that is not often reckoned simply because it’s more difficult than fishing out a credit card or some other means of delaying the recognition that spending money now has future, downstream effects. A user-friendly and often entertaining treatise on how to be a more discerning, vastly more aware handler of money.