This is going to be my last Ask Ariely column. I wrote my first column in June 2012, so for a bit more than 10 years, I have been fielding questions about a wide range of personal and social issues. It was always exciting for me to get a new question and reflect on what social science could say about it—not only in terms of supplying an answer, but even more, in terms of the perspective it could offer in thinking about the underlying concerns.
I answered many of the questions in these pages, but I answered even more privately, whether because the questions were very personal or idiosyncratic, or simply because I had limited space. Regardless of the response format, I was aware of the trust readers placed in me and felt tremendous responsibility to give it my best.
One of the most memorable questions I answered privately was from a woman who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. She was about to embark on a long course of treatment, the first of which was non-invasive, and she asked me what I thought was the best way to share the news with her kids. Should she tell them all at once what she was facing, or should she give them more digestible bits of information over time—say, telling them that she was going in for a treatment for a discrete problem with her brain, but not yet identifying it as cancer—thereby acclimating them slowly to the bigger picture?
She adapted this question from my research on removing bandages from burn patients. I had concluded that, contrary to the intuitions of many nurses, it was better to remove bandages slowly, causing less acute pain over a longer period, rather than quickly, causing more intense pain that ended faster. Her analogy to her own predicament was intriguing, but sharing bad news with loved ones is very different from taking off bandages. I did not have a scientific basis to give her an answer, but since she reached out to me, I felt that I owed her all the help I could provide.
I called a few palliative physician friends but found that this question was surprisingly little studied in their field. Then I spoke with the questioner, and she added one more dimension to an already complex problem: Withholding information from her kids, she felt, could ultimately undermine their trust in her. Thinking about her question from the perspective of trust completely changed the story, and now I had some advice to give her, because social scientists know a lot about how easy it is to break trust and how difficult to rebuild it. With this in mind, we arrived at the conclusion that she should be up front with her children and tell them everything. She updated me a few months later: She was managing well, and she was satisfied with her sharing strategy.
The questions I answered publicly have been less complex and even funny, at least to me. Among them were: Why do we fail to stick to our budgets? Is it better to study a language a little bit every day or in longer sessions on the weekends? How can we act against our biases and increase diversity in hiring? What’s the best way to cover up an employment gap on a résumé? Why should or shouldn’t we support the arts? Who should we invite for a laser-tag party? What is the best way to work up the motivation to work out? Should we keep playing the lottery? What is the point of writing thank-you notes for gifts? How might we get kids to eat fruits and vegetables?
In answering these and many other questions, I tried to show how basic principles from social science can shed light on everyday personal questions, and at the same time, to share my excitement for studying the odd behaviors we hold in common.
Ten years on, it seems to me that we have come a long way in understanding the usefulness of social science as we seek to improve many aspects of our personal lives, from health to sleep and road safety, from picking up after our dogs to improving our romantic and work relationships, and in many, many other respects.
At the same time, our society now confronts some big, important, collective problems. We haven’t yet made up our minds as to how we will treat our planet, confront fake news, cope with a post-Covid workforce or mitigate the effects of inequality, hatred and political fragmentation. Here, too, social science can help us understand and move forward, and figuring out how is my plan for the next chapter of my life.
With this I want to give a big thank you to my editors throughout these 10 years. And mostly I want to thank you, my readers. I hope you enjoyed the column at least 10% as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Looking forward to the next chapter.
See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.