As the end of the year is approaching, I decided to post here an alternative last “Ask Ariely” column. One that is more suitable for the end of the year and hopefully provides a way to think about new beginnings…
To a wonderful 2023 to all of us.
May it be an average year: Better than 2022 but not as good as 2024
When I reflect on my life, I think that there are many things that I do out of inertia and without much thinking. I am wondering how you make such decisions? For example, how long have you been writing your ask Ariely column and how long do you plan to continue?
Thanks for asking. I wrote my first Ask Ariely column in June 2012, so it has been a bit more than 10 years.
Why is this a good question to ask and think about toward the end of the year? Because, this is a good time to think bout changes. In general, when we look at the decisions we make each day, most of them are not an outcome of active deliberation. Instead, they are often a repetition of decisions we have made before. We don’t usually wake up in the morning and ask ourselves whether we should stay at the same job or look for another place to work. We don’t often ask ourselves whether we should stay in the same relationship or not. We don’t often ask ourselves if we should keep the same diet, hobbies, and exercise regimen etc. But it is important to ask ourselves these questions from time to time.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine asked me if I thought he and his wife should stay married, or go their separate ways. Their relationship was rocky for years. They fought all the time the best way forward was unclear. I told him that I wasn’t sure what the right answer was for him, for his wife (let’s call her Alexis), and for their relationship (this was not exactly true, and I did have an idea for what would be best for him, I just wanted him to get to his conclusion). What I did was to ask him to consider his question from a different perspective. I asked him to imagine that they were not married, that they did not know each other, and that they had just met the day before but that by some sophisticated technology, all his knowledge about her had been downloaded to his brain along with an understanding about how their relationship would evolve over time. Basically, I asked him to imagine that everything was the same, except that they didn’t have any history of an existing relationship.
With this image in his mind, I asked him to make a decision. To pick if he would propose to her or say goodbye and never see her again? What option did my friend chose?
My friend said that in this imaginary situation he would have said goodbye. A few weeks later they separated and they are now happier and in relationships with other people. Why did I ask him to imagine this odd situation? I wanted to try and achieve a change of the framing of his decision from one that considers “stay” vs. “change” to one that is considers Option A (life with Alexis) vs. Option B (life without Alexis) on more equal footing. The problem is that the natural framing of “stay” vs. “change” gives an unfair advantage to the “stay” decision because it is simpler, it requires less change, less work, and does not make us feel that we are making a decision. It also doesn’t make us think very much about what we would risk if we made the wrong decision. Of course, staying might feel like we are not making a decision, but by staying we are making a decision. By reframing the decision as Option A vs. Option B, some of the advantages of the stay options are reduced and it becomes clearer what we really want to do. By the way, this kind of framing is rather dangerous, so be careful before you do it at home in your own life and relationships.
When I started my column in 2012, my thought was that there was a gap between what we knew about social science and the ways in which it was incorporated into our daily lives. My column was my modest attempt to shed some light on how principles from social science could be incorporated into many aspects of daily life, from picking up poop after our dogs to finding meaning at work.
Now, 10 years later my view is very different. I still think that social science has a large role to play in improving our personal lives, but I think that other important topics have emerged and many of these are more pressing. When I look at the world now, with the climate crisis, fake news, post-COVID workforce challenges, and political fragmentation, my view is that our priorities should be different and so is the role of social science.
Over the last two decades, or so, we have done a lot to get people to think about principles from social science in terms of our personal lives, and we now need to turn our attention to these larger challenges ahead of us.
So back to your question: When I made the decision to write this column 10 years ago it was absolutely a wonderful decision, and I enjoyed and learned a lot from the process. But, looking at the column as a new decision, not in terms of “stay” vs. “leave” but in terms of Option A (work more on questions related to the role of social science in our personal lives) or Option B (work more on questions related to the role of social science in our public lives), I choose to focus on Option B — the complex public challenges ahead of us.
With this I want to give a big thank you, my readers. I hope you enjoyed the column at least 10% of how much I enjoyed writing it.
Looking forward to the next year and the next chapter.