The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Tasty Treats, Pandemic Protocols, and Sustained Stressors

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.

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Dear Dan,

I manage a small company, and I want to give my employees a gift that will bring them joy during these difficult times. Any suggestions?

—Maya 

I would suggest gifts that provide a fun experience while fostering a feeling of connection, which we all need nowadays. One option would be to give people a gift card for a takeout meal from their favorite restaurant. That would give your employees a treat and allow them to support a local business they care about.

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Dear Dan,

I live in New Zealand, where we are currently almost Covid-19-free. The border is closed except for New Zealand citizens coming back home, and they have to spend two weeks in isolation in a designated quarantine hotel. Recently, there have been several big news stories about returnees who broke quarantine to go to a supermarket or a liquor store, potentially exposing dozens of people to the virus. What makes people think it’s OK to flout the rules like this?

—David 

Getting people to follow safety protocols during the pandemic is a good example of the economic problem known as the tragedy of the commons. If everyone follows the rules, the whole community benefits. But if one person starts to bend the rules for their own advantage, others will follow suit, until the system falls apart and everyone is worse off. The common danger we’re all in should be an opportunity to increase cooperation and social cohesion, not just in New Zealand but everywhere.

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Hi, Dan.

As a teacher, I’ve been closely following the debate over whether to reopen schools. My school district closed in March when there were just a handful of cases in the state. Now we have thousands of cases, but the schools are planning to reopen in the fall. Why have people’s perceptions of Covid-19 risk changed so much in the last few months?

—Ashe 

Deciding whether to reopen schools involves balancing many factors—not just the quality of remote versus in-person instruction but student’s need for school lunches and the economic burden of child care on working parents. Our perception of risk, however, has been affected over the last five months by what psychologists call habituation. When Covid-19 began to spread, the unknown nature of the virus and the rapid increase in hospitalizations and deaths created widespread fear, making people very unwilling to take risks.

That level of alarm is hard to sustain. In general, people adapt to new realities surprisingly quickly. The danger of Covid-19 hasn’t gone away—in fact, in many places it’s worse than ever—but we soon stop paying as much attention to frightening statistics and headlines. We may start lowering our guard in small ways—forgetting to wear a mask or leaving our “bubble” to visit a parent or friend. When it comes to schools, the benefits of reopening now feel bigger to many people than the dangers, simply because we’ve gotten used to living in a risky environment.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Conversation Cards, Student Searches, and Home Habits

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.

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Dear Dan,

My workplace hosts weekly virtual happy hours over Zoom. It’s a nice idea in principle, but the meetings have been dull and awkward—we usually just end up talking about the latest coronavirus news. Is there a way to encourage better, deeper conversations?

—Josh 

The problem isn’t that your co-workers are unusually boring; rather, it’s the social norms for your meetings. Research has found that people usually gravitate toward small talk even when they crave connection because sharing important things about ourselves can be socially risky. Talking about unimportant things carries zero risk, but it also doesn’t offer much personal or social benefit.

I was part of a team of researchers working on how to foster deeper connections, and we designed an experiment involving 300 people at a networking event for financial advisers. Some of the participants were asked to socialize as they usually do, while others were given conversation cards with probing questions to ask, like “If you had to change one big decision you’ve made, what would it be?” or “What don’t you tell people on a first date?”

The results showed that those who asked deeper questions had more meaningful discussions. You could try something similar in your Zoom happy hours by giving everyone a question to ask their colleagues. To get started, take a look at psychologist Arthur Aron’s list of 36 “closeness-generating” questions, such as “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “What would constitute a perfect day for you?”

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Dear Dan,

I’m a professor at a state university where the majority of the student body is white, even though our state is much more diverse. Does behavioral science offer any tools for increasing minority enrollment?

—Dylan 

Many institutions are trying to fight racial bias with specialized training for employees. But training in any subject seldom solves the real problem, since there’s a big gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it. Instead, try looking at the problem from the point of view of prospective applicants, to help you understand what’s discouraging minority students from applying and enrolling.

This involves what my lab calls “behavioral mapping.” Imagine that you are a high-school senior and create a detailed map of every decision and task that’s involved in the application process: choosing to apply, taking tests, filling in forms, paying fees, visiting campus and so on. This process will help you identify obstacles that keep students out even before they get to the admissions committee. To achieve racial equity, removing structural barriers is just as important as fighting explicit bias.

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Dear Dan,

What is something that has surprised you as you’ve adjusted to life in the pandemic?

—Nia 

The biggest change in my routine has to do with staying home all the time. I used to travel a few times a week, and I haven’t been on a plane since early March. The isolation is challenging, but having a consistent home environment has helped me reinforce good habits, like eating better and going to bed earlier. I already knew the research about how a stable environment is good for establishing routines, but now that I’m experiencing it myself I’m surprised to see what a big difference it makes.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Lockdown Losses, Creative Commutes, and Life Lessons

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.

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Dear Dan,

I used to buy coffee every day on my way to the office, but for the last three months I’ve been making it at home. Now I’m commuting again, but I find I don’t miss the coffee shop, and I’ve stopped going. Do you think the habits people formed during the lockdown are going to last?

—Nancy 

The interruption of everyday life has been an experiment showing that habits aren’t just desires; they’re behaviors cued by reminders in our environment. When we change the way we interact with our environment, a lot of seemingly ingrained habits fade away. Some of them are things we’re better off without, like thoughtless consumption and spending, but a lot of people are also having trouble maintaining good habits, like eating well, sleeping regularly and staying in touch with friends. Re-establishing those habits is going to take a conscious decision, but I believe that once we return to our familiar environments and activities, most people will return to their old routines—including buying coffee on the way to work.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve been working from home since the pandemic began, and by now I feel like I’m in work mode all the time. Since my living room is my office, there’s always a temptation to answer one more email or work on one more project, even at night and on the weekend. How can I restore some kind of work/life balance?

—Jordan 

In ordinary times, it’s easier to separate work and life because they happen in different places. Now that home and office are the same for many people, one way to create a psychological distance between them is through an artificial commute—an idea that Nina Bartmann, a senior researcher in my lab at Duke, has written about for the website of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. By taking a 20-minute walk at the start and end of your workday, you signal your brain when you are shifting into work mode and when you are leaving it behind. Other techniques include changing into work clothes when you’re at your desk, moving your work station to a dedicated room and shutting down your computer at a designated time each day.

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Dear Dan,

It’s always been my plan to get an advanced degree, and this spring I was accepted into graduate school. But with the pandemic causing so much uncertainty, I’m starting to wonder if I should make such a long-term commitment. Does it make sense to re-evaluate my plans or should I stick to them?

—Paul 

Research on how people make decisions shows that we usually don’t stop to think about our actions; we make choices automatically rather than deliberately. From this perspective, the current uncertainty might be a gift. People have a chance to reflect on their life plan and ask if it’s still what they really want, whether that means starting a family, buying a home or choosing a career. To help you decide about graduate school, try writing down a detailed blueprint for what you want your life to look like when the pandemic is over. That will help you clarify what steps you can take now to reach your goal.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

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

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.

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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?

—Harvey 

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.

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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?

—Julie 

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.

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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?

—Ari 

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

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!

Help with a Quick Survey

Hi, this is Dan Ariely, I am trying to understand how people think about the coronavirus. From time to time, I will add surveys here. If you have five minutes, please answer the survey below as truthfully as you can. We don’t know the real answers to some of these questions about the virus, so please just give me your best estimate.

https://duke.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4Mf8i0bG73aUjyt

Ask Ariely: On Healthy Handshakes, Bus Behaviors, and Diet Defenses

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.

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Dear Dan,

I know that because of the coronavirus we are supposed to stop shaking hands. But when I meet someone I find myself doing it anyway, mainly because it would be awkward to suggest a different form of greeting. Any suggestions?

—Miguel 

When you’ve just met someone, there’s no time for a discussion about the coronavirus before you shake hands, and you don’t want to imply that you suspect the other person might be infected. What we need now is a substitute—something we can all do without thinking too much about it or causing offense.
During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Nigerian government discouraged handshaking to reduce the spread of the disease. Instead, they introduced the “Ebola handshake,” where people bend their arms and bump elbows. This approach recognized that it’s not enough to tell people what not to do; you also have to give them an alternative.

Now that technique is catching on in the U.S. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence was photographed greeting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee by bumping elbows. A video from Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, shows another approach: Two men say hello by tapping their feet together, a move dubbed “the Wuhan Shake.” If we adopt one of these new techniques in the U.S., however, let’s not call it the “coronavirus handshake,” because we might want to have it in store for future viruses as well.

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Dear Dan,

My son is a high-school senior who frequently misses the bus. Every morning I try to wake him up several times, but I often can’t get him out the door on time. When he misses the bus and I have to drive him to school, I end up reprimanding him, which makes him angry. How can we solve this problem?

—Alice 

People learn behaviors by making associations, either consciously or subconsciously, between an action and a response. Even though you’re trying to help your son, your response when he oversleeps reinforces his bad behavior. Every time you wake him up and drive him to school, he is learning that he has a viable backup if he ignores his alarm clock. My recommendation is to stop helping him get to school on time: Don’t wake him up and don’t offer to drive him. After a few painful failures, he should learn that he needs to go to bed earlier and respond more diligently to his alarm clock.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a committed vegan, but whenever I tell people they tend to have a negative reaction. Is there something about veganism that turns people off?

—David 

A recent study by Vlad Chituc, a doctoral student in psychology at Yale, found that people tend to dislike vegans because they give the impression of thinking that they are morally superior. Vegans can defuse this reaction, however, if they say they are avoiding animal products for health reasons rather than ethical ones. So next time the subject comes up with a new acquaintance, try emphasizing this aspect of your diet, at least to begin with.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Paper Punishments, Pious Patterns, and Painful Plans

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.

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Dear Dan,

I shop at two different grocery stores. One charges a nickel for paper bags, while the other gives me a nickel when I bring my own bag. Which approach is more likely to reduce paper-bag use?

—Paul 

The general question you’re raising is whether punishment or reward is better at motivating us to change our behavior. Punishments are very powerful for motivating people to do something that they only have to do once—for example, installing a smoke alarm in their house or immunizing their children.

But when it comes to repeated behaviors, positive rewards are more effective. In a study conducted in a New York hospital in 2011, researchers found that when physicians were given positive feedback for washing their hands regularly, compliance with the hospital’s handwashing policy rose from 10% to 90%. I suspect that the same principle would hold here: Offering shoppers a credit for bringing their own bag should yield better results.

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Dear Dan,

Religion is supposed to make people behave better, but do more religious societies actually have less unethical behavior and crime?

—Chad 

I wish it was that simple. Research suggests that religion can play an important role in fostering ethical behavior, but its effects aren’t consistent across the board. A recent paper in the journal Psychological Science examined crime data from 1945 to 2010 for over 170 countries and found that as religious affiliation went down, homicide rates tended to go up—but only in areas with relatively low aggregate intelligence scores. How causation works among these variables isn’t clear, but I suspect that areas with higher intelligence scores are more likely to have institutions such as schools and community organizations that help to foster ethical behavior. So while religion isn’t the only factor, some kind of strong social institutions are crucially important for curbing our worst impulses.

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Hi, Dan.

We all know that we’re going to die one day, but most people don’t prepare wills or make guardianship plans for their children. Is there a way to motivate people to take estate planning seriously?

—Shani 

Making a will forces us think about an event that we don’t want to imagine, to make complex decisions we prefer not to deal with, and to plan for something that feels very far away. All these factors encourage us to procrastinate. But while we experience painful feelings when we think about estate planning, the pain for our survivors is much larger if we don’t make a will.

My research lab at Duke works with a startup called GivingDocs that tries to overcome these obstacles. Before making a will, it asks people to think about the legacy they want to leave behind and the causes they care about, then helps them to plan bequests to the charities that matter to them. This general approach—combining a painful act with distant results, like creating a will, with something that’s immediately meaningful, like donating to charity—is a good way to get people to overcome their tendency to procrastinate.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Overwhelming Options, Better Budgets, and Expensive Emotions

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.

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Hi, Dan.

I offered to purchase a computer as a gift for a close relative, and I asked him to pick out the one he wanted. But he simply can’t make a choice. He keeps comparing different models and researching all the available features, even though I’m sure he will never use most of them. How can I help him to make a decision?

—Stanley 

Choice paralysis, or what’s sometimes called “paralysis by analysis,” is a common problem. Some famous experiments in behavioral science have shown that making decisions is harder when you have too many options and too much information. To force your relative to limit his search, tell him that the two of you will sit down together and go shopping online for two hours; then you’ll buy the best computer you’ve found in that time. Using firm deadlines is a good way to combat our indecisive nature.

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Dear Dan,

I use a budgeting app to set monthly spending goals for each category of expense, but every month I find that I’ve gone over my limit in multiple categories. Are budgeting apps just a waste of time?

—Anthony 

The struggle that you are experiencing is not between you and your app but between your emotional self, which wants to get things now, and your cognitive self, which wants you to plan for a better future. My guess is that you’d be in an even worse situation without the app.

Budgeting isn’t effective if you set a spending goal and then don’t think about it again until the end of the month. Instead, try using the app to analyze your spending every other day. That way, when you find yourself spending too much, you’ll be able to adjust your behavior to stay on track for your monthly goal, rather than discovering you’ve overspent only when it’s too late to do anything about it.

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Dear Dan,

Our daughter attends a very expensive private university, where I recently attended an event. There were lots of freebies for us to take, including fancy snacks and notebooks with the university logo. I was excited to get these items, but of course they aren’t really free since we pay so much in tuition.

I thought about this last week when my tennis team was playing a match at a different club, and we were asked to pay a $10 fee to use the facilities. This felt annoying and unfair, even though I spend a lot more than that on my tennis hobby overall. Why did I get so excited about those “free” items and so angry about this small expense, when neither of them really matters in the big picture?

—Juliet 

The problem is that we tend to think about each of our expenses separately, rather than seeing them in their overall context. This is the source of many of our irrational financial decisions and emotions—whether it’s paying high fees to money managers who don’t justify the cost, or paying Amazon an annual fee for “free” shipping or getting annoyed when the supermarket starts charging a nickel for a plastic bag. It’s not easy to think clearly about each small expense in terms of our total financial situation, but if you can, you will be able to make better decisions about money.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Simple Savings, Better Bonuses, and Revised Resolutions

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.

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Dear Dan,

My partner and I are students, and we have very different approaches to dealing with money. My policy is to spend less than I earn and invest my savings for the long term. But my partner feels that since we will both be earning more money after we graduate, we should spend freely now and enjoy the moment. Is there any way to avoid fighting about this issue?

—Mathieu 

The bad news is that our preferences about spending and saving can be difficult to change. That’s why most divorced couples name finances as one of the major reasons for their split. The best way to avoid that fate is to recognize that you and your partner can’t change each other. Instead, you should minimize areas of conflict.

Try setting up a joint bank account in which you can both deposit your paychecks. Use that account to pay shared expenses such as rent and utilities. In addition, you should each have individual accounts for discretionary spending, into which you can transfer a fixed amount from your joint account every month. That money can be used for spending or saving as you see fit. You may still disagree, but this way you’ll only be arguing about the smaller amounts in your individual accounts, which limits the size of the problem. And remember, the goal of money is to buy happiness. If you keep fighting about it, what’s the point?

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Dear Dan,

I work for a tech company as a software engineer. Our bonuses are tied to quarterly evaluations, which means that managers are much more likely to reward short-term gains than ideas that take a year to generate results. Since the introduction of this bonus structure, I’ve been concentrating much more on short-term projects with visible results. Am I really doing the right thing for the company, or am I just gaming the system to get paid more?

—Justin 

There’s no question about it: Your strategy is designed to make more money for you personally, but it will hurt the company in the long term. When the company created this bonus structure, they probably thought it made sense, because short-term results are easier to measure. But it is counterproductive if employees become less motivated to take on riskier, more ambitious projects with potentially higher payoffs. It’s hard to ignore a bad incentive structure, so if I were you I would try to convince management to change it and measure the things that matter, even if they are complex or hard to quantify.

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Hi, Dan.

Do you think New Year’s resolutions have any value, given that most people don’t keep them?

—Molly 

I do, but they’re just a start. To get a resolution to stick, we need to make the desired behavior automatic. For instance, if you want to exercise more, build a very simple habit: Every Tuesday at 5 p.m., go to a group exercise class after work. Ideally it will be something you find enjoyable and rewarding, so that the habit is more likely to stick. The more you repeat a behavior in the same context at the same time, the more automatic it will become and the less you’ll have to rely on willpower. For a good introduction to the research on this topic, I recommend Wendy Wood’s recent book, “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.