Updates

Ask Ariely: On College Conflicts, Horrible Haircuts, and Timely Tasks

March 27, 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.

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Dear Dan,

My brother and my fiancé are rooting for rival teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, and they’re such passionate fans that it’s become hard for them to get along. What can I do to reduce the conflict?

—Amanda 

To understand people with opposing views, researchers have found that it’s helpful to ask ourselves how our own views would be different if we had grown up in a different environment. In one study, researchers asked gun-control advocates to think about how they might feel about guns if they had grown up in a hunting family; advocates of gun ownership were asked to imagine they had grown up in a community that suffered from gun violence such as the Columbine school shooting. This simple thought experiment reduced the hostility participants showed toward the other side.

With that in mind, try asking your brother and fiancé to imagine how growing up in a different family or attending a different college, might make them cheer for a different team. That should help them understand one another better.

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Dear Dan,

In an effort to save money, I asked my housemate to cut my hair. It didn’t turn out well and now I don’t even want to go outside. Besides waiting for my hair to grow back, what can I do to feel less embarrassed?

—Alexa 

You might think your haircut is bad enough to stop traffic, but the reality is that we pay a lot more attention to ourselves than other people pay to us. This is referred to as the spotlight effect: We tend to think there’s a spotlight shining on us that attracts attention and makes our flaws obvious. Thomas Golivich and colleagues demonstrated the spotlight effect in a 2000 study where they asked college students to go to a party wearing embarrassing Barry Manilow T-shirts. The students wearing the shirts were convinced that everyone was laughing at them, but afterward, when the partygoers were surveyed, it turned out that almost no one noticed the shirts at all. So don’t worry about your haircut getting stares, and after a few days you’ll forget about it yourself.

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Dear Dan,

To get motivated for some large projects that I have at work, I tried breaking them down into more manageable subtasks with their own deadlines. Unfortunately, I ended up missing almost all of my self-imposed due dates. Should I give up on deadlines as a way to motivate myself?

—Nicolas 

Self-imposed deadlines are harder to stick to than deadlines set by others, for two reasons. First, we tend to underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete the task at hand, so we usually set a deadline that’s too optimistic. Second, we tend to prioritize deadlines set by others over self-imposed ones to avoid letting other people down. For your next project, then, try to think more realistically about how long each subtask will take and allow extra time for unforeseen challenges along the way. And tell a colleague about your self-imposed deadlines to create more of a sense of accountability.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

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.

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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?

—Shirleene 

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.

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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?

—Adrien 

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.

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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?

—Damien 

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 Mirror Moments, Social Shares, and Product Projections

February 20, 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.

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Dear Dan,

I have a job interview coming up. For the past week I’ve been very stressed about it, and to help myself cope I’ve been giving myself little pep talks in front of the mirror. What else can I do to deal with the stress?

—Julia 

Telling ourselves “I’ve got this” or “I’m so ready for this” is a very common strategy for preparing for a challenge, and it makes intuitive sense. But self-talk can actually be more effective if you use the third-person: “Julia’s got this” instead of “I’ve got this.” Using the third person creates an emotional separation between ourselves and the stressful event, making it feel more like enthusiastic support from a friend. Research shows that this approach can help people manage stress more effectively. So from me to you: “Julia, you got this.”

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Dear Dan,

There is hardly any informal social interaction at my company now that we’re all working from home. Is there a way to introduce virtual coffee chats for employees to hang out together, without making it seem like just another work obligation?

—Fiona 

By now we all know that when it comes to socializing, online meetings are no substitute for face-to-face interactions. And if employees start looking at these new chats as a chore instead of a spontaneous water-cooler conversation, the odds of them turning into a positive social interaction are even lower. So instead of adding a new item to people’s agendas, why don’t you try dedicating the first 5 minutes of your regular weekly meeting to a social activity. Since people might freeze if they have to come up with something “social” on their own, give participants specific instructions: recommend a book or TV show, share a recipe or favorite quarantine pastime. Not only will this lubricate the social wheels, it will also allow team members to learn more about each other.

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Dear Dan,

I’m planning to buy a home projector so my family can watch movies outside when it gets warmer. I found a great deal on the model I want, but it doesn’t allow for returns. Is the loss of flexibility worth the discount?

—Colin 

When we make decisions, the idea of keeping our options open is so appealing that we’re often willing to pay more just to have some flexibility to change our minds. But once a purchase is made, the flexibility that drew us to the product might actually undermine our enjoyment of it.

In your case, if you have the option of returning the projector, every time you use it you’ll be tempted to think about whether you’re getting your money’s worth from it, or if you should send it back for a refund. This continuous rumination can destroy part of your joy in the purchase. With this in mind, I suspect that getting the nonreturnable projector would serve your needs best. And when you use it, try to think about the great decision you made.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Standing Strategies, Future Feedback, and Sensible Savings

February 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.

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Dear Dan,

I know it’s not good for my health to sit at my desk all day without breaks, so I tried putting reminders in my calendar to stand up and move around. But I usually end up just ignoring them. Is there a better way to make myself get out of my chair during the day?

—Michael 

Reminders are useful when you have actual memory problems, but they’re not so helpful when it comes to changing behavior. I wish this wasn’t so: Just imagine how easy it would be to quit smoking or stick to a diet if all you had to do was remind yourself of your earlier resolutions!

In reality, creating small obstacles that force you to take action is a better way to change your routine than good intentions and reminders. So try changing your work environment in ways that force you to leave your desk. For example, you could set up a separate area for video calls—a spot with good lighting and no chair, so you have to stand up. If there are files you have to consult regularly, store them in another room.

You could also make a habit of using the bathroom that is furthest away from your desk. Ideally you can pick one on another floor of your home or office, so you have to climb stairs to get there several times during the day.

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Dear Dan,

I was promoted recently, and soon I will have a meeting with my manager to discuss my first few weeks in the new role. What’s the best way to get useful feedback and make the most of the conversation?

—Tessa 

It might seem like the natural approach is to ask your manager to evaluate your performance so far. But research shows that in general, looking at the past isn’t the best way to figure out what we should be doing differently in the future. Instead of asking for feedback, which is backward-looking and usually vague, try asking your manager for advice. That will encourage them to look ahead and give you concrete suggestions and actionable ideas.

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Dear Dan,

Many people I know have lost their jobs during the pandemic, which made me realize I needed to set up an emergency savings fund. But my job is secure so far, so it hasn’t felt very urgent to put money in the account. What can I do to make sure I contribute to my emergency savings every month?

—Petra 

Research shows that we are much more likely to save money for a specific personal goal than simply because it’s the right thing to do. Rather than thinking of your savings as a general rainy-day fund, then, try calculating how much money you would need for particular expenses if you lost your income. How much would you need to pay your mortgage or rent for three months, or to buy food for your family?

Once you start thinking of saving as a way to protect your loved ones and meet particular needs, you’ll be more likely to make regular contributions. You can also ease the burden of decision-making by setting up an automatic monthly transfer from your checking account to a designated savings account and promising not to touch it unless an emergency strikes.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Gauche Gifts, Pleasurable Promenades, and Ideal Incentives

January 24, 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.

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Dear Dan,

I bought my brother a top-of-the line espresso machine for his birthday. My wife remarked that it was a very generous and thoughtful gift, so I took that as a hint and got her the same espresso machine for her birthday. But she ended up not being very happy with my gift. Why do you think she wasn’t as excited as I expected?

—Nikos 

Gifts are ways to give people things they want, but with romantic partners, what they really want is to feel special. According to a recent study by Lalin Anik of the University of Virginia and Ryan Hauser of Yale, that’s why people often prefer to receive a unique gift from their significant other rather than a lavish one. By giving your wife the same coffee machine you gave to your brother, you’re not communicating that she is special to you; in fact, she may feel that you simply wanted to spend a minimum of time and effort finding a gift. Even if you were to give her a coffee machine, it would have been better to give her a different model and tell her how much time you invested finding the exact right machine for her.

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Dear Dan,

It’s only January, and I’m already bored by my New Year’s resolution to go on a walk each day. What can I do to make this daily exercise more enjoyable?

—Saneel

Rather than dreading the time you set aside for your daily walk, why don’t you try to combine it with something you find more pleasurable? For example, you could allow yourself to listen to your favorite audiobook or podcast only while you’re walking. The key is to keep this pleasure only for your walks and promise yourself not to listen to it any other time. This way you will start to associate taking a walk with something positive, making you look forward to it as a reward rather than seeing it as an unpleasant obligation.

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Dear Dan,

I’m responsible for setting up a mentorship program, and I need student volunteers. Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time getting enough people to sign up. Should I offer to pay students for volunteering?

—Alexa

Traditional economics teaches that financial incentives are the best way to reward and motivate people, but in some cases they can backfire. For instance, research has shown that when it comes to rewarding people for a public-spirited action like volunteering, a small gift is likely to be a very good motivator, while a small amount of money is worse than offering nothing at all. That’s because we are used to thinking of money as payment for work, so we start to evaluate whether the amount being offered is fair compensation for the effort involved in volunteering. Gift-giving, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of social exchange; it’s something we do to build relationships and be part of a community.
If you were paying students a large amount of money, on the other hand, that could be a very good motivator. But since volunteer efforts and nonprofits usually can’t afford to pay much, projects like your are better off keeping people in the realm of social exchange by offering volunteers small gifts, like a T-shirt or a pen.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Making Memories, Besting Burnout, and Crafting Compliments

January 9, 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.

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Dear Dan,

Whenever my mother visits us, she’s preoccupied with taking photos of her grandchildren so that she can remember every moment. Having her camera in our faces all the time is annoying, but I don’t want to deprive her of good memories when the visit ends. Should I try to convince her to stop taking pictures?

—Barbara 

Now that most of us carry a phone with a camera all the time, it’s hard to resist the temptation to document every significant moment in photographs. But it turns out that taking pictures all the time isn’t just annoying; it can make it more difficult to remember the very experiences the photos are intended to capture.

In one experiment, pairs of visitors took a tour of a historic landmark. One person in each pair was instructed to take photos and the other was told not to. A few weeks later they were given a surprise memory test about the landmark, and it turned out that the visitors who took photos remembered much less than those who didn’t. While the photographers were preoccupied with trying to get the best shot, the nonphotographers were able to think about the experience and absorb it into the structure of their memories.

With this in mind, try asking your mother to experiment with leaving her camera at home next time she visits. She might find that this allows her to spend more time really interacting with the grandchildren, leaving her with memories that are more vivid and meaningful than any photos.

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Dear Dan,

After a long holiday vacation, I thought I would return to work re-energized. But after just a few days back I’m already feeling burned out again. What can I do?

—Nathaniel 

You might think that the more time you spend away from the office, the more refreshed you’ll feel when you return. But research shows that the length of a vacation plays only a small part in how you feel when you go back to work. What matters most are the conditions you’re coming back to. If you feel unappreciated or powerless, or that your work environment is unfair, frustration and unhappiness can come back very quickly. If you want to fight burnout, don’t take more time away from work. Think instead about ways to address these underlying issues.

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Dear Dan,

My fiancé is an excellent cook, and every meal he makes for us is delicious. I’m always giving him compliments, but I worry that over time they will be less meaningful because he’ll get used to them. How can I continue to praise his cooking in a way that shows I mean it?

—Sydney 

I wouldn’t worry too much about your fiancé getting used to your compliments. Research shows that receiving compliments is very motivating and that people who give them usually underestimate their impact on the recipient. One study that looked specifically at frequent compliments found they didn’t lose their effectiveness as long as they weren’t identical each time. So keep the compliments coming, but make sure to switch them up from time to time.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Favorite Flicks, Cosmetic Complications, and Expert Exchanges

January 5, 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.

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Dear Dan,

My friends and I are huge fans of action movies, and before the pandemic we used to gather once a month at someone’s house to watch a film. We’ve tried to keep the tradition going by picking a movie for everyone to watch on their own schedule and then getting together on a video chat to talk about it. I enjoy the discussions, but why don’t I seem to like watching the movies as much anymore?

—Jack

Research has shown that when people do something together, shared emotions are amplified, making the activity feel more intense and engaging. That’s especially true if there’s an exciting or emotional component to the activity, as with an action movie. To bring back some of the experience you’re missing, try organizing a watch-party where everyone streams the movie at the same time. Knowing you’re part of a group experience, even in virtual form, can bring back some of the excitement until you can start meeting in person again.

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Dear Dan,

Earlier this year my brother decided to have cosmetic surgery. He understood that there was some risk involved, although it was low. Unfortunately, there were complications during the surgery and he ended up even more dissatisfied with his appearance than before. Now he’s considering a second surgery to correct the first one, but he’s worried that he’s making the same mistake twice. Do you think he should go ahead?

—Lee 

Learning from past decisions is important, but it’s tricky to be sure we’re learning the right thing. In your brother’s case, the fact that his decision to have surgery led to unfavorable results doesn’t necessarily mean the decision was wrong. It’s easy to be swayed by “outcome bias”—using our knowledge of how a decision turned out to judge whether it was right in the first place. Based on the available information at the time, having the surgery could have been the right decision even if it turned out badly.

Likewise, your brother has to decide about a second surgery based on the information that’s available now, not knowing what the future will bring. My advice is for him to talk to his surgeon and learn everything he can about the probability of new complications. He should only go forward with the surgery if he’s willing to live with that risk, knowing that it can be reduced but not eliminated.

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Dear Dan,

My family did a Secret Santa gift exchange this year, and I was assigned my sister’s new boyfriend, whom I hardly know. I ended up getting him a book, but I have no idea whether he liked it. What’s the best way to buy a gift for someone you don’t know well?

—Allison 

Rather than trying to figure out what the recipient likes and risk getting it wrong, why not give them an experience they’ve never had before, like trying a new kind of cuisine? That way, even if they end up not loving the gift, at least they will have something new and unexpected to look forward to.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Seasonal Steps, Vibrant Videos, and Peak-End Presentations

December 12, 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.

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Dear Dan,

Every year around this time I take down boxes of holiday lights from the attic, thinking I will put up a big display in front of my house. But it always seems to take longer than I expected, and I don’t manage to get it done in time for Christmas. What can I do to make a better plan?

—Chris 

Our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task is referred to as the planning fallacy, and it’s very common. Research has shown, however, that people are much better at estimating the amount of time required for smaller tasks compared with bigger ones. So a good way to combat the planning fallacy is to break up a complex project into many sub-tasks. This year, try thinking in advance about all the steps involved in putting up a light display: getting the boxes down from the attic, designing the display, stringing lights, setting up the power connection. By estimating how long each step will take, you’ll get a better sense of how early you need to start.

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Dear Dan,

My local gym offers live classes online, and I really enjoy them. Last week I had to miss a class with my favorite instructor and meant to download a recording of it later in the day, but somehow it just didn’t feel as urgent, and I never got around to it. Why do you think the class not being live made such a difference?

—Jenna 

It might seem odd, but in a sense it’s easier to schedule a live event at a fixed time than a recorded one you can view whenever you choose. With a live event, we know we have to put it on our calendar and schedule other things around it. But since a recording can be viewed at any time, we usually don’t bother to schedule it in advance, thinking we’ll get around to watching it whenever we have time. As a result, it falls to the bottom of our to-do list, behind more time-sensitive obligations. Next time you have to miss an exercise class, I suggest you schedule a time for viewing it and put it on your calendar as if it were live. That will help you protect the time rather than letting the extra flexibility cheat you out of it.

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Dear Dan,

Recently I gave a talk as part of an online conference. There were lots of technical problems at the beginning, which made me get flustered and trip over my words. But eventually I regained my composure and the talk ended well. Afterward, I heard that the attendees responded very positively to my presentation, which surprised me given the rocky start. I’m wondering if maybe the people just felt bad for me?

—Talya 

If the audience gave equal weight to every minute of your talk you might have ended up with a lukewarm response. But when people reflect on experiences they tend to follow the “peak-end rule,” meaning they are most influenced by the high point and the end of the experience. This worked to your advantage, since people remembered the end of your talk better than the beginning. Next time you give a talk, remember that even if you get off to a bad start, you shouldn’t get too stressed because you still have time to fix things.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Pandemic Plans, Big Birthdays, and Appraisal Agreements

November 14, 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.

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Dear Dan,

The holidays are right around the corner, but I’ve been hesitating to make plans to visit family or host a party. The changing Covid-19 situation means that any plan I make is likely to change or fall through, and I could end up really disappointed. Am I right that it’s better to wait and see what happens closer to Thanksgiving?

—Maggie 

It’s perfectly understandable that you’re wary about making plans. Many of the things we looked forward to in 2020 were disrupted by the pandemic, leaving us with a long list of disappointments. Nevertheless, making plans is important: It gives us something to look forward to, which is useful and important in itself. Instead of doing nothing, then, why don’t you make plans with built-in contingencies.

For example, you could invite a small group of guests for an outdoor potluck on Thanksgiving, and say that if the weather is too cold or people are unwell, you’ll arrange a way to donate the food to the needy. We might end up not having the holiday we hoped for this year, but in general people can bounce back from a change in plans much more easily than we can deal with uncertainty about the future.

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Dear Dan,

I’m about to turn 60, and I’ve noticed that lately I’ve been doing things that are out of character for me. Last month I even signed up for a 5K race, even though I’ve never been a runner. Do you think this could be some kind of avoidance mechanism, so I won’t have to think about my big birthday?

—Bryan 

We get older every day, yet some birthdays carry more weight than others. Researchers have found that at the start of a new decade of life, people tend to search for new sources of meaning. Often this means taking on new challenges or doing other things that break their normal pattern of life, such as having an extramarital affair. So all things considered, running a 5K race sounds like one of the most positive ways you can respond to turning 60.

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Dear Dan,

When my parents died, they left their house to me and my siblings. I would really like to live in the house, so I offered to pay my brother and sister for their share. We got appraisals of the house’s value from multiple real-estate agents, but they each gave different estimates and my siblings and I can’t reach an agreement on how much it’s really worth. Do you have any thoughts on how to resolve the situation?

—David 

The problem here is that real-estate agents are often mistaken when they price a houses, so you and your siblings aren’t sure which estimate to trust. So let the market determine the house’s value instead. Put it on the market for a set time-frame, such as three months, and see what’s the highest offer you get. Then you can decide if you want to sell the house or pay your siblings at that value. With this method, no one will feel like they have been cheated out of their fair share.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Halloween Handouts, Language Lapses, and Better Bids

October 31, 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.

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Dear Dan,

For Halloween this year, we are going to leave a plastic jack-o-lantern full of wrapped treats on the doorstep along with a sign that says “Only one piece of candy per trick-or-treater, please.” Is there anything we can do to make sure children follow this rule?

—Julie 

You might be surprised to learn that this isn’t a new question. Back in the 1970s, a study tested if trick-or-treaters would take more candy from an unattended bowl than they were supposed to. Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes. But the researchers found that if they placed a mirror next to the bowl, children were less likely to take too much. Evidently, seeing ourselves increases our sense of self-awareness, which in turn leads to greater pressure to behave honestly. With that in mind, try adding a mirror to your Halloween display this year.

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Dear Dan,

My wife is from the Netherlands, and we’ve talked about moving there someday. I’d like to start learning Dutch to prepare for this possibility, and I’ve bought some textbooks and recordings to help me practice. How should I approach the task? Is it better to study a small amount every day or to have longer sessions on the weekends?

—Terrance 

Learning a new language is much harder for adults than for young children. It takes time and dedication, but we can easily get discouraged when we feel we’re not making progress. My recommendation is to set yourself the goal of practicing every day, but allow yourself to skip one day each week. Research shows that building some “slack” into our goals helps them to seem more attainable. Just as important, it helps us not to feel like complete failures when we inevitably slip, making it easier to get back on schedule.

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Dear Dan,

I recently attended my first art auction, but to my surprise it was nothing like in the movies—no raised paddles or emotional bidding wars. Instead, participants submitted private bids, and each lot went to the highest, with no chance for people to raise their bids. Why would an auction house use this method?

—Lisa 

What you witnessed was a “sealed-bid auction,” where each person submits a bid in advance and no one knows what other people are bidding. This is less exciting than an “English auction,” where participants bid against each other and the last person willing to raise their bid gets the item and pays for it. These are just two of the many possible auction formats, and new ones keep being invented. This year’s Nobel Prize in economics went to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson for their work on auctions.
Which auction format to use depends on the seller’s assumptions about how much buyers are willing to pay. If the seller expects the potential bidders to differ greatly in how much they will pay for an item, it’s advantageous to use a sealed-bid auction, since it keeps high bidders from discovering that they could have won the item for less. When potential bidders don’t know how much an item is potentially worth, an English auction will usually bring the highest price, because it allows bidders to establish the item’s value by learning from one another’s bids. As you discovered, the goal of the auction house isn’t to create the most exciting auction but to maximize sale prices.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.