Updates

Ask Ariely: On Sanitation Solutions, Neighbor Needs, and Popular Politics

August 20, 2016 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 was recently at a barbecue restaurant where the toilets were private but the sinks were out in the open, in a common space. Would moving sinks to public areas get more people to wash their hands? Would you recommend this setup for all public bathrooms?

—Brian 

Absolutely, and here’s why.

Sometimes, to show the extent of our irrationality, I will ask a large group, “In the past month, how many of you have eaten more than you think you should?” Almost everyone raises their hands. “In the past month, how many of you have exercised less than you think you should?” Again, everyone raises their hands. “In the past month, how many of you have texted while driving?” Almost everyone raises their hands.

Then I ask, “In the past month, how many of you have left the bathroom without washing your hands?” The result: almost perfect silence, no hands raised and, after a few embarrassed seconds, a bit of nervous laughter.

Obviously, they are lying—but why won’t people who have just confessed to something as reckless and stupid as texting while driving admit that they sometimes don’t wash their hands? I suspect that it is because we care pretty intensely about not being disgusting to others. As such, putting the sinks somewhere public and visible should encourage more hygienic behavior—ideally, with our friends and relatives watching over us to be extra-sure we do the right thing.

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Dear Dan,

I hear the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” a lot. But is there good evidence that we really care about what our neighbors have or that we change our behavior accordingly?

—Michelle

Yes and yes: There is good evidence of our tendency to try to keep up with those around us. In one recent paper, the economists Sumit Agarwal, Vyacheslav Mikhed and Barry Scholnick looked at the neighbors of lottery winners and discovered that they tended to buy more cars and other clearly visible assets. These “signaling purchases,” the study suggests, were influenced by the presence of suddenly rich neighbors, but the researchers found no increase in the savings or other invisible assets of the less lucky neighbors. Depressingly, those living near lottery winners were more likely to suffer financial distress and even bankruptcy.

These results show that our decisions aren’t just influenced by what we desire but also by our social drive to keep up with those around us. So it makes sense for us to spend a bit more time thinking about who we want to befriend and live next to. If we are going to try to keep up with the Joneses, we should pick the right Joneses.

 

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Dear Dan,

The polling averages now show Hillary Clinton with a significant lead over Donald Trump. Will these favorable polls help or hurt her?

—Josh

The forces here point in both directions. On the one hand, you can imagine that people who support the front-runner could say something like, “My candidate is going to win anyway, so I can stay home”—which obviously hurts their candidate. On the other hand, a candidate’s popularity could well reinforce itself and create a herding effect, which would help whoever is up in the polls.

Which of these two forces is more powerful? The evidence points to the herding effect: For better or worse, we just seem to like to follow.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Family Photos, Moving Money, and Authoritative Acronyms

August 6, 2016 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 consider myself a steadfast atheist, but I have an irrational dilemma: Every time I want to throw away things that I no longer need, I find myself unable to chuck out anything that belonged to my parents. I can’t even part with their old pictures, which I have digitized and stored permanently on my hard drive. Am I being ridiculously superstitious?

—Eve

Religious belief and superstition aren’t really the same thing. Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania has done excellent research showing that we are all superstitious, to some extent. In one of his experiments, participants were asked to throw darts at a target and were rewarded the closer they got to its center. Sometimes the center was the image of a beloved figure like President John Kennedy; sometimes it was someone widely despised, like Saddam Hussein.

People hit the bull’s-eye more for Saddam and missed more for JFK. They knew, of course, that pictures aren’t the same as people, but they still attached some of the person’s symbolic meaning to the images, which made it harder to harm them.

This type of emotional link means that when you think about throwing out your parents’ belongings, you feel as if you are discarding a part of them. My advice? Send the items that you don’t want but can’t destroy to your siblings or other relatives and let them deal with them.

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Dear Dan,

I’m renting an apartment with two friends. One of them is moving in on August 24. I plan to move in on August 29, and the third friend is planning to join us in early September. Our landlord will charge extra rent for those days in August. Who should pay?

—Randy 

The right way to split the cost depends on the timing and sequencing. If the lease was always set to start on August 24, then you should all split the cost because you all undertook the responsibility of starting the contract together. But if the contract could have started on any day, and your first friend pushed you into starting it on August 24, that friend should be on the hook for funding the extension. Fairness mandates considering the process here, not just the final outcome.

That said, remember that you’re all going to be roommates, perhaps for a long time, and starting your joint life together by protracted haggling may open the door to years of annoying accounting discussions (“You had an extra swig of the milk, so you owe me 75 cents”) rather than years of deep friendship. With this in mind, I suggest dividing the rent equally—but also asking the people moving in early to do more to set up the apartment, call the cable company, get basic supplies and figure out where the furniture goes. That way, they will contribute more to the overall endeavor but in a way that is compatible with long-term friendship.

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Dear Dan,

We have lots of meetings at my office, and when I speak up, I often worry that as a rather junior female employee, I don’t sound as if I have enough authority. Any advice about how to seem more commanding?

—Katherine 

One of the best ways to increase your perceived authority is to start using acronyms. My favorites are WAG (Wild-Ass Guess) and SWAG (Scientific Wild-Ass Guess). My SWAG is that deploying a few well-placed acronyms the next time you make a point will give your gravitas quotient (or GQ) a boost.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Genuine Greetings, Moral Reminders, and Interest Aversion

June 25, 2016 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,

We often greet each other by saying, “How are you?” But most of us probably don’t really want a long answer. Why do we do this?

—Warren 

Here’s an old joke: Two friends meet after a long time apart. The first asks, “So in one word, how are you?” The second responds, “Good!” The first friend continues, “And in two words?” The second replies, “Not good!”
I suspect that we ask “How are you?” because we want to be seen to care even when we really don’t. We’re all so used to this superficial exchange that we don’t consider it a genuine inquiry into our well-being. But let’s try to change this. For the next week, when people respond to your rote “How are you?” with their rote “Good,” don’t take that as an answer. Follow up with, “No, really, how are you?” Perhaps this will inject some real caring into our relationships.
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Dear Dan,

To reduce cheating at the high school where I teach, we ask students to sign an ethics code before each exam and on every paper they submit. I’d estimate that they sign the code at least once a week. Your own research, I gather, shows that getting students to sign a similar ethics code just once helps to reduce cheating. What about signing it more often? Does overuse make it ineffective?

—Elliott 

We used an honor code in an experiment at MIT in 2007. We asked a few hundred undergraduates to do some simple math problems but didn’t give them enough time to finish. We then asked them to score their own tests and tell us how well they had done, with payment of $1 for each question they reported getting right. The students were asked to shred their papers afterward—but our shredder didn’t really work, so we could see how they had done. Many cheated. We had a second group of students follow the same procedure but only after they first signed the honor code. Signing the honor code before the test eliminated cheating altogether.
The effectiveness of such a code doesn’t stem from signing it, though. It comes from being reminded about moral issues. If your students eventually stop thinking about the ethics code as they sign it, it will lose its power. If they keep reading and reflecting on the code, its effectiveness might increase.
I ask my own students to write their own version of an ethics code—not because I’m especially interested in their interpretations but because it helps to ensure thought.

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Dear Dan,

I find it easy to avoid reckless spending. I don’t own a credit card because I hate the concept of interest, and I’m paying my daughters’ college tuition (they know that they have to pay me back) because if they took out loans, I’d have to co-sign and might be on the hook for the tuition and interest. Am I just more rational than other people?

—Wei 

A rational person wouldn’t hate interest but would use it when it made sense. And a rational person would make a decision about tuition based on how it might affect the relationship with their children—not to avoid the extra cost if they don’t pay up.
I worry that in trying to be so rational, you are sacrificing much of the joy of life. Perhaps you need a better definition of rationality.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Roommate Relationships, Painful Priorities, and Admitting Aging

June 11, 2016 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 live with several roommates, and our landlord ­recently refunded some of our rent to make up for construction-related hassles in the building. What should we do with the ­money? We could divide it among ourselves, use it for house supplies or get a bigger TV to watch movies together. How should we think about this?

—Kristen 

I vote for doing something fun with the windfall—ideally something that would let all the roommates have a new experience together. Your relationships with each other are, I suspect, the biggest contributing factor to your happiness (or misery) at home: When they are good, life smiles on you, and when they are bad, you probably tend to stay out as much as possible.

Doing some activity together—say, sailing, skydiving or learning a new skill—would bring all of you closer and encourage you to be nicer to each other. You would ordinarily have a hard time asking everyone to chip in for an expensive group activity; after all, you are roommates, not standard friends.

But a refund from your landlord should feel more like free money—cash that no one planned on having and that everyone can probably manage without. That should make it easier to persuade your roommates to partake in some group-bonding activity.

Looking for the ideal skill to learn together? I would suggest a cooking class. You’ll not only have fun learning something new, but you’ll also enjoy better food—and perhaps the joy of cooking for each other for a long time.

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Dear Dan,

It has increasingly struck me that humans feel pain much more intensely than pleasure. Is this true, and is there a reason why pain affects us more?

—Brian 

Yes, we do experience pain much more intensely, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In general, nature wants to teach us to seek things that are good for us or the species (food, warmth, sex), so these give us pleasure. Nature also wants us to stay away from dangerous things (predators, toxins, fire), so these give us pain.

One might imagine that the things nature wants us to seek would give us pleasure, while the things that we should avoid would leave us feeling neutral. But the benefits and harms of life aren’t symmetrical. A good outcome (a delicious piece of fruit, for example) can give us some modest benefit, but a bad outcome (say, poison) can kill us—which is a very significant downside.

If the evolutionary priority for us is to seek good outcomes but especially to avoid bad ones, then our tendency to focus on pain (and potential pain) is a pretty effective way to shape our behavior. Even during painful times, I’ve found that a somewhat comforting thought.

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Dear Dan,

A friend of mine from work is turning 45. What should I get him?

—Janet 

If he doesn’t have reading glasses, get him a pair. People generally delay getting reading glasses, because it is hard to recognize the slow deterioration of our vision and because it means admitting that we are aging. If you give your friend a pair, you will spare him the procrastination, and he will immediately realize that he has been living in a blurry world. He might not immediately feel deep appreciation, but it would still be a very helpful present.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Life Changes, Valuable Visits, and Killer Odds

April 16, 2016 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,

Should I get a tattoo or a dog?

—Jeff

Since you are asking me, I’m guessing that you don’t have much experience with either. So my advice would be to experiment first.  In general, when we ask questions about the future, we are trying to simulate how our future will look with the changes that we have in mind and how happy they will make us. The problem is that it is very hard to replicate things in our mind (including your potential life with a dog or a tattoo), which is where experimentation can help. Put on one of these ink tattoos for a few weeks, then take care of a friend’s dog for a few weeks and see which experience gave you more pleasure.  My guess is that by the end of the experiment, you will wonder if you should be making some other life change altogether.

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Dear Dan,

Many museums have taken to offering free-admission days, but accumulating evidence shows that this tactic doesn’t do much to encourage short- and long-term attendance from folks who aren’t already familiar with museums. The museums’ idea was that free days would attract new audiences who would become more regular museumgoers. Not only hasn’t this approach worked, but now some patrons who would have made a return visit anyway simply choose to do so on the free days. Why isn’t this working?

—Carter 

In general, free as a strategy rarely turns people into long-term users. The basic logic of a free trial is that by (temporarily) removing the price, all barriers to try the product or service are eliminated, and once people try it, they will realize how empty their lives had been up to that point—and promptly become loyal users.  

This approach can work in a few very specific cases—mostly where the service or product is unquestionably amazing but people don’t realize just how amazing it is. A free-trial approach also works well for addictive products such as heroin, where a dealer just needs to get people to try it once. Museums don’t fit in these categories.  

My suggestion? Instead of offering free days (which also means shifting existing patrons from paying days to nonpaying days and undermining the perceived value of the museum), think about new types of value-added experiences that would make your museum more appealing to broader audiences.

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Dear Dan,

I recently read a story about lottery winners who get robbed and sometimes killed. That left me wondering whether people find it more morally justifiable to rob and kill people who won the lottery compared to people who receive a similar amount of money as a year-end bonus at their jobs. Any insights?

—Damjan 

I don’t think that this type of difference in morality is what drives the robbery and murder of lottery winners—but I do think that, as in many of our other behaviors, that salience and convenience play crucial roles.

First, on salience, we simply hear and know a lot about lottery winners. They are in the news, and their stories command a larger part of our attention. Second, in terms of convenience, lottery players often come from low-income neighborhoods, where the crime rate is likely to be higher and the perpetrators can more easily execute their plans.

More generally, I find state-sponsored lotteries immoral because they largely take money away from the poor citizens who buy so many of the tickets. Maybe this is another reason to take a closer look at the social effect of lotteries—and cancel them.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Yesterday’s News

April 2, 2016 BY Dan Ariely

Dear readers, while the World Bank tackles many problems from many directions, basic failings of human relationships is not in fact currently among them.

Have a great April 2nd!

New World Bank Initiative to Tackle Human Relationships

April 1, 2016 BY Dan Ariely

WASHINGTON, DC, USA, March 30, 2016

After decades of attempting to tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems, such as poverty, conflict, and economic mismanagement, the World Bank announced today that it will now tackle the principal cause of human misery.

Under the leadership of the Bank’s president Jim Yong Kim and the Bank’s new Global INsights Initiative (GINI), the World Bank’s analytics have become more penetrating and its operational agenda far more daring.

“We are excited by the opportunity to address the root cause of the world’s greatest conflicts,” said Kim, the bank’s president. “People, and how they just can’t get along.”

Fractured relationships have been increasing monotonically for several decades. The frequency of marital fights, rising divorce rates, and the substantial increase in short term relationships – facilitated by apps such as Tinder – make this initiative a necessary next step for the Bank and the world, claims Varun Gauri, who is the lead for the new task force.

“Within five years,” said Gauri, “The team will provide a definitive answer to why couples fight so much.”

This five-year initiative will include educating the public in various topics pertaining to effective relationships, piloting different family structure arrangements, and conducting randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of new marriage contracts. Among the many topics that the task force is expected to study are: Teen dating decisions (i.e. who to date, who not to date, how to roll your eyes at your parents advice), timing marriages, correct strategies for marital fights (i.e. how to argue effectively, things to fight about, how to make sure the couch is comfortable after those fights), money management in the home, techniques for effective and productive makeup sex, and how to properly raise children.

There will be a social accountability component in which individuals dissatisfied with their marriages will be able to call the World Bank. There will also be a worldwide dating app on the World Bank website.

“It is not as if men are really from Mars and women from Venus,” said Kim. “But let’s just say that when men try to meet women halfway, on Earth, they usually get lost and don’t stop to ask for directions.”

The initiative is being supported by a $38.2 million grant from the Hallmark Corporation a $7 million grant from the Gates foundation, and a $20.7 million grant from the Swedish government.

“Everyone who’s ever been in a relationship agrees that this is a very good use of resources,” added Gauri. “They say money can’t buy you love, but it can help us figure out why it’s so hard to make relationship work.”

The World Bank plans to complete this initiative by the year 2021.

Ask Ariely: On Interesting Incentives and Buying Bitcoins

March 19, 2016 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,

Ratings systems for different services often aren’t driven by incentives. One example: Instead of just rating Uber and Lyft drivers after they drop us off, what if their ratings were based on the size of the tips they got? In such a system, drivers who consistently received larger tips would get higher ratings; those who were penalized would be seen less favorably. Wouldn’t this be better than the current rating system?

—Ruoxi 

Would you really give a bad tip to an annoying driver who had just dropped you off at home and knows where you live? (I am partially joking here, but I do wonder whether tips for taxis are higher when people are coming back home.)

Like other pay-for-performance approaches, your proposal for a tip-based ratings system would raise a lot of problems. First, discretionary payments such as tips reflect satisfaction, but they also reflect wealth and price sensitivity. Basically, some people care less about money and are likely to give higher tips than more price-sensitive people. Since the wealth and the price sensitivity of the passenger aren’t a precise reflection of the quality of the driver, your suggestion would just replace one flawed system with another. A second, even more serious problem: Drivers would get an incentive to drive more in areas where people are less bothered by high prices, thereby providing worse service to other people who might need transportation more. Finally, what would stop drivers from giving cash back to passengers who gave them larger tips—returning some of the extra money but gaining reputation points in the process?

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Dear Dan,

Some time ago, I bought some bitcoins. In just a few months, their value increased by 1,000%. They’ve just kept rising and are now about 4,000% higher than when I originally purchased them. My original investment is now worth more than $100,000—a substantial amount of money for me. Should I sell or hold onto them and hope for further increases?

—Geoff 

It is hard for me to say whether this is a good investment or not, but here’s a more rational perspective for examining the question: Simply ask yourself if you would buy these bitcoins now, at their current price. If your answer is yes, you should hold onto your investment and maybe even buy more. But if your answer is no, it means that you don’t really think that the expected increase in value is worth the risk, and you should sell.

The more general point here is that our investment decisions should be about what we think the future will hold (hard as that is to predict), and we need to work hard to overcome the influences of our past actions. No matter what you purchased a given investment for, and regardless of what it is worth now, you should make your decisions only about where you think this investment is headed.

One last piece of advice: If you do decide to sell your bitcoins, don’t look up their value afterward. Yes, if the value drops, you’d be a bit happier that you sold, but if the value rose, your misery would be much higher—so resist the urge to check.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Fair Friends, Channel Choosing, and a Heartbreak Diet

March 5, 2016 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 organizing a long weekend of skiing with 10 friends who have very different financial situations. I’d like everyone to be able to pay what that they’re comfortable with, and I also want to avoid creating an awkward social dynamic. I considered charging everyone a low base amount and then asking the wealthier friends to pay extra, but that doesn’t seem quite right. What’s the best way to divide up the cost?

—Zach 

There are three considerations here. The first is to make sure that the amount people pay covers the cost of the trip. The second is to get everyone to feel that the payment is fair. And the third is to make sure that the payment procedure doesn’t harm your relationships and hamper the fun.
My guess is that if you approached a few of the wealthier people and asked them to pay extra, this wouldn’t seem fair and would change the social dynamic. If the wealthier individuals paid more, they would probably want to get the better rooms in the rented house, they might not feel the same need to help with meals and cleanup, etc.
I would try to overcome these challenges by setting up a rule that said: If your annual salary is X or less, please contribute Y; if it is up to 1.5X, please contribute 1.5Y.
This isn’t the same fairness rule as equal pay, but it is still a fair rule. I would add some social framing to this, reminding your friends that you all value the shared experience and the joint company, and it is important that everybody participates and isn’t stressed about the trip. I would also make the payments private, so that no one knows how much other people are paying.
The challenge with this approach is that you probably don’t know your friends’ exact incomes, and some of them might not pay what they should under your scheme. I suggest that you take this into account by adding an extra 10% to the price. And if your friends surprise you by being honest, have a nice party on the last day of the trip.
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Dear Dan,

Why do I still listen to the radio and watch live TV when I have access to all the same content from different streaming services, which lets me skip what I don’t like and more easily change my experience?

—Colin 

One possibility is that you are listening to the radio and watching live TV because you don’t want to have the ability to switch. When you just experience something that cannot be changed, you are more likely to get into the flow and fully enjoy it. By contrast, when you are continuously monitoring the experience and asking yourself how happy you are, it can be exhausting, ultimately taking away from the sense of immersion. Sometimes the freedom to choose among options isn’t a recipe for happiness.

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Dear Dan,

I recently experienced some turbulent emotional times, and I realized that I was eating a lot of chocolate and gaining weight. I am now wondering if chocolate really has mood-improving powers, as many people seem to think, or if I just gained weight for no good reason.

—Mia 

Some research has found that chocolate can in fact boost your mood—perhaps due to compounds found in cocoa. Interestingly, women seem to be more likely than men to eat chocolate to try to boost their moods. That could mean that experiencing some heartbreak is a good diet for men but not for women.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

The Costs of Staying in Hospital Too Long

February 20, 2016 BY danariely

Dear Dan,
I’m a physician, and it seems to me that people often stay in the hospital for too long. (One piece of evidence: Many more patients get discharged from the hospital on weekends.) Prolonged hospitalizations cost a lot of money and mean that beds aren’t available for people who need them. How can we change this?
—George

Think of three parties involved in decisions about staying an extra day in the hospital: the doctor, the patient and the family. All three would benefit from having patients discharged before the weekend: The doctors have fewer patients to deal with, the patients get to return to their loved ones, and the families can stay home rather than making one more hospital visit. Maybe we should try to make every day in the hospital feel like Friday.

Here’s a more concrete idea: Why not take one channel on the hospital’s internal TV system and dedicate it to people’s bills? The channel could present patients with real-time information about their bill, showing it rising with every meal, treatment and round of medication. It could also show the charges expected over the next 24 hours. My guess is that this change would spur people to leave the hospital much sooner.

Dear Dan,
How can we encourage people to eat less meat? Lots of people consider it cruel to kill animals and identify emotionally with vegetarians but still choose to eat pork, chicken and steak.
—Vered

Sadly, our choices—moral and otherwise—often aren’t the result of what we know but what we feel, and feelings have their quirks. In my field, there is something called the Identifiable Victim Effect, which shows that people can care deeply about a single, specific tragedy (such as the death of one Syrian refugee) yet care little about vast atrocities involving thousands or even millions of people (such as the Syrian crisis).

A similar principle applies to the ways we think about treating (and eating) animals. During a 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K., the authorities had more than 2 million farm animals slaughtered near infected areas. It was tragic for the animals, the farmers and the British economy, but the decision didn’t produce much public complaint—until one day, when newspapers published front-page photos of a cute little calf in Devon that survived the killing. That picture spurred a public outcry against the wholesale slaughter and, according to the Associated Press, may have helped produce “a change of heart by the British government” that ultimately helped end the killing. The abstract concept of slaughtering legions of cows, pig and sheep did nothing, but the adorable face of one calf made people sad and drove them to take action: the Identifiable Victim Effect at work.

So your best bet may be to wait for the ideal opportunity for a pro-vegetarianism campaign, ideally involving one particularly cute animal.

Meanwhile, you could encourage people to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” which describes in vivid detail the conditions in which the creatures we consume are forced to live and die. Reading it made it hard for me to even look at a burger without thinking about what happened to the cow that it came from.

Dear Dan,
What’s the best love note one could write?
—Peter

The ideal message would show confidence, deep desire, a capacity for romance and optimism about your shared future. With all these in mind, I’d suggest, “Would you give me the opportunity to sweep you off your feet?”