Updates

Cooking Tales

November 11, 2019 BY Dan Ariely

Dear friends,

As part of the research for my next book (yes, it is time to get back to my cooking book), I am collecting stories about cooking or food that illustrate a social science principle. If you have one, I would be grateful if you could share it with me here. This will help me very much and in return, if I will use your story I will send you a book when it is ready and done.

Please submit the story using this link.

Many thanks,

Dan

Ask Ariely: On Deconstructing Dieting, Advising Advantages, and Judging Jokes

October 26, 2019 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 diet goal is to stop eating so many sweets and start eating more vegetables. Would it be easier for me to focus on avoiding what I don’t want to eat or on eating more of what I should?

—Charlotte 

Whether you focus on the positive goal or the negative one, the key thing to keep in mind is what social scientists call the principle of “friction”: People tend to follow the course of action that requires the least effort.

What this means is that you should arrange your environment to make it easier to achieve your goals. Place vegetables in a visible spot in your refrigerator and make sure that you serve them first at mealtimes, so you will have to expend minimal effort to eat them. Do the opposite with sweets—place them out of sight or on the highest shelf in the pantry, making them harder to reach.

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Dear Dan,

At my company, management is encouraging employees to seek advice and feedback from one another to improve our performance. But in my experience, it’s really hard to get people to give you useful, honest feedback, because they are afraid of giving offense. Is there any way to make this process work, or is it going to be a waste of time?

—Patricia 

You’re right that people are unlikely to give accurate and honest feedback to their co-workers; there is a lot of social pressure against offering criticism, and people who receive it are likely to take offense.

But while it’s often hard to change our behavior in response to feedback, it turns out that giving advice can be more useful than receiving it. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science shows that people who gave advice were more motivated when it came to challenges like controlling their tempers, saving money and finding jobs. In a follow-up study, high-school students who gave advice earned higher grades than those who received it.

This research suggests that giving advice can be a powerful confidence-booster—so your company’s initiative might be useful overall, even if people don’t act on the advice they receive.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve noticed that jokes that are meant to be funny sometimes come across as painful or offensive. Is there a way to know whether a joke is going to hurt people’s feelings?

—Pete 

According to the behavioral scientist Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Boulder, jokes are funny when they involve “benign violations”: They transgress a social norm but not so much that they become objectionable. The trick is to hit the sweet spot between amusing and offensive.

For example, The Onion recently ran the headline “Harvard Officials Say $8.9 Million Donation From Jeffrey Epstein Was From Brief Recovery Period When He Wasn’t A Pedophile.” When I asked my friends how funny they found this headline, the ones from Harvard found it much less funny.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Dramatic Defaults, Traveler Tips, and Restaurant Risks

February 18, 2017 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 that people are more likely to make smart decisions—about, say, contributing early and often to a retirement savings fund—if they’re nudged into it by default settings. How powerful is this effect? Do defaults push people a bit or change their choices dramatically?

—Tom 

You’ve put your finger on one of the key findings of behavioral economics. Shlomo Benartzi and Richard Thaler, among others, produced probably the field’s greatest success by encouraging employers to create retirement benefits packages whose default options are set for savings. Such packages used to require employees to enroll if they wanted to start saving. By switching the default, so that employees were automatically enrolled and had to act if they wanted to stop putting aside money, saving rates increased dramatically.

But what effect does changing the default setting have compared with other incentives to save? Take a recent study by Michael Callen, Joshua Blumenstock and Tarek Ghani. They worked with Roshan, a mobile communications provider in Afghanistan, to create a savings plan for its 1,000-person workforce. Half the participants were given a default of “opt in” (and had to call to leave the plan), and the other half was defaulted to “opt out” (and had to call to start saving).

The researchers wondered how much changing the company’s matching level and the employees’ default settings would increase savings. They found that automatic enrollment had about the same effect on participation as providing the pricey incentive of a 50% matching contribution from the firm. Default settings, they concluded, are powerful indeed—perhaps not enough to make businesses stop matching contributions for their workers, but more than enough to make them sweat the default details.

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Dear Dan,

On vacation in Mexico, I saw a hardworking server waiting on guests at a resort—who didn’t leave a tip. I can’t imagine they would have behaved this way in our native Canada. Did the fact that they had purchased an “all-inclusive” vacation have anything to do with it?

—Kevin 

Several forces were probably at work. First, some all-inclusive vacations aren’t clear about tips, which may incline us to think gratuities are covered. Second, remember the saying: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” When we travel, we become slightly different versions of ourselves—and can act more freely without tainting our own reputations, at least in our own eyes. Finally, immorality often stems from our ability to convince ourselves that we’re doing something OK—even if we know that we’d want people to behave better if we were on the receiving end.

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Dear Dan,

I’m often flummoxed by long restaurant menus, so I’ll pick a familiar dish—and feel that I haven’t gotten the most out of my dining experience. Any dining advice?

—Tom 

Trying new things makes life more interesting, but the fear of making mistakes can drive us to play it safe. Restaurants are great places for a risk. The most you can lose is one meal, and you can always ask for something else if you hate your adventurous dish (just tip well). So I often ask the waiter for the most unusual dish on the menu.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Finding Fondness, Counting Calories, and Regifting Rules

December 28, 2016 BY danariely

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,

Yesterday, I lost my phone in the woods and spent hours looking for it. Many hours later, with the help of my mother and the “Find My iPhone” app, we found it in the snow. It was a lot of effort—the hardest scavenger hunt we’ve ever been on—but I’ve never had so much fun or appreciated my phone as much as I did that day. I know that, in general, making a major effort leads people to love something more when they create it (as you have argued with the “IKEA effect”). Does this principle apply to finding a lost item too?

—Niv 

Yes. Our appreciation for an item isn’t just about creating it; it is also about the connection we make with it. Every time you invest effort in some object (as in your hunt in the woods), you strengthen your link with the item, and you like it more.

But before you start losing items on purpose, let me point out two limits to your exciting discovery. First, the joy and increased attachment that you experienced was probably yours alone. I can’t imagine that your mother felt the same affection for your phone after rooting around in the snow. Second, the surge of fun and fondness about this particular item isn’t something you’d want to experience multiple times a year—so hang on to your phone.

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Dear Dan,

 I’ve been reading that chain restaurants with many branches are now required to post calorie information. Do you think this will push people to eat better or not?

—Paul 

Probably not. The experiments that we’ve done on the impact of this sort of calorie information on eating behavior have shown scant effects on what people order. There seems to be a gap that prevents us from translating knowledge into action, and just giving people the data clearly doesn’t do the trick. People often tell me that knowing a menu item’s calorie count influences their ordering, but the research data on this suggests that such effects are very small at best.

There may also be a downside to posting the calories: We know that the presence of “healthy” side dishes can make people feel entitled to order “unhealthy” entrees. Darren Dahl and his colleagues have shown, for example, that the simple presence of a healthy item on a menu increases the likelihood that customers will order the least healthy options. The basic principle is called “licensing”: When we do something that we think is good (like ordering a small salad), we feel that it balances out a subsequent “bad” action (like eating a double cheeseburger).

Given these findings, I predict that we will see more calorie listings on menus, with more items such as side salads as healthy options. People will order these salads—often with gloppy and highly caloric dressing—and continue eating other high-calorie items. Don’t expect it to help our waistlines.

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Dear Dan,

Is regifting OK? Over the years, I’ve received plenty of gifts that I didn’t want, and I’m thinking about getting rid of them this holiday season. Can I tell the people that I’m regifting what I’m doing?

—Beth 

In general, I consider regifting a wonderful practice. So long as the present that you are regifting is something that you think the new owner will appreciate, you aren’t just giving them something that they will like; you are preventing waste and saving money.

As to whether you can tell your friends and family that you’ve regifted them a present, sadly, we still aren’t a sufficiently enlightened society. So for now, I would slap on fresh wrapping paper and keep the history of the gift a secret.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Snooze Strategy, Better Bottles, and Productive Procrastination

October 29, 2016 BY danariely

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 having trouble waking up in the morning. I set my alarm clock, but I always wind up hitting the snooze button or turning it off completely. Any advice? If I want to wake up at 7 a.m., what time should I set my alarm for, and how many times should I hit snooze?

—Phillip 

Set your alarm for exactly the time you need to get up. Since you want to start your day at 7, you may be tempted to set the alarm a bit early (let’s say 6:40) and hit snooze a few times until it is 7 or maybe even 7:15. But if you pick this snooze strategy, your body can’t learn the conditioned response between hearing the alarm and getting up.

In general, our bodies do better when they can get used to a single clear rule: Get out of bed the moment the alarm sounds. When we play with the snooze button, our bodies get a confused message: Sometimes we hear the beeping and get up, sometimes we hear it and stay put for 10 more minutes, sometimes we lie there for another 20 minutes, and so on.

So just bite the bullet and get out of bed when the alarm tells you to. Do this faithfully for a few months, and the conditioning should start to kick in. It won’t be fun in the beginning, but over time, it should pay off. Good luck.

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Dear Dan,

When I’m out for dinner, I occasionally encounter a wine so special that I buy a case of it to drink at home. But the subsequent bottles never taste as appealing as the initial one, so I wind up not only regretting the purchase of additional wine but also spoiling some of the wonderful memories of my night at the restaurant.

So why can’t I enjoy the same wine as much at home? Is there something special about the way the restaurant handles the wine or the glow of the original occasion?

—Eugene 

After an excellent dinner out, we might remember the wine as impeccable. But we probably won’t realize that part of our enjoyment of the wine flowed from the flickering candles, the beautiful music, the tasty food and the charming company. At home, the same wine is just the wine, without the halo effect, and it isn’t the same experience. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “misattribution of emotions”: We assume that the source of our enjoyment is one thing when it is really another.

It’s almost never possible to revisit special experiences. The place where you spent your honeymoon, for example, probably won’t make a good family vacation spot: A few days of chasing the kids and trying to eke out a few hours of sleep will certainly taint (if not erase) the original memory.

Next time, enjoy the wine, commit the whole experience to memory, don’t try to relive it, and look forward to new experiences.

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Dear Dan,

I recently started using a smartphone app to manage my to-do list, and I’m really enjoying it. Every night, I take some time to make my to-do list; every morning, I go over it; and as I tackle different tasks throughout the day, I check them off my list. I feel not only more organized but more productive. Is there good documentation about an increase in productivity from to-do lists?

—Lev 

You might be experiencing some increase in real productivity, but my guess is that you are mostly experiencing “structured procrastination.” That is the feeling of productivity that we get from making lists and crossing things off them—which spurs us to spend time on things that make us feel productive rather than on being productive. I am not recommending that you stop using this app, but I hope that you will measure your productivity based on what you’re getting done in your real-life projects, not on racking up checkmarks.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Ingesting Insects, Tracking Troubles, and Making Matches

October 1, 2016 BY danariely

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,

Many insects are edible, nutritious and even tasty, and they are consumed by millions of people world-wide. But when I try to eat one, I cannot get past the idea that bugs are, well, gross. Why?

—Zach 

For many in the West, thinking about insects, not to mention eating one, evokes a powerful feeling of disgust. Psychologists often think about disgust as a sort of mental immune system, a deeply ingrained emotion that we have developed for evolutionary purposes to help us avoid pathogens, poisons and other pitfalls. You can even observe disgust in babies when they narrow their nostrils, constrict their lips and close their mouths while trying to expel or reduce contact with a potential contaminant.

So how could you get over your revulsion here? One option would be intensive immersion with insects. You could perhaps spend a week surrounded by pictures of them and then spend the next week locked in a room with nothing to eat but bugs.

Another less extreme option: Buy some insect powder and ask a friend to sprinkle it randomly into your meals, without your knowledge, and only tell you the next day which ones contained insects. Once you realize that the food still tasted good, your disgust should decrease.

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Dear Dan,

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that for many young adults, using a personal monitoring device may not help them lose weight. Should I stop using my Fitbit?

—Nati 

When people start an exercise regimen, they often gain weight. The main reason: After we work out, we feel that we deserve a reward, such as a few scoops of ice cream. These extra calories can exceed those that we burn during our workout. I suspect that a similar phenomenon occurs when we wear tracking devices: We see that we’ve walked 10,000 steps or stood up 12 times during the day, and we feel justified in celebrating our amazing achievements. And of course, when we fail, we don’t feel that we need to deprive ourselves—so either way, it’s easy to wind up putting on pounds.

Still, you shouldn’t stop tracking your behavior. It is important to your health to understand when and how you become more or less active. Measurement can motivate you to become more active. And at the same time, you can work to discipline yourself not to expect a “reward” for hitting your daily targets.

You might also change the way that you measure success. What if, for example, you defined success not by making it to the gym on a particular day but by making it there on at least 80% of the days in a month—and only reward yourself when you clear that bar? If you move to such a system, I predict that tracking your health will work for you.

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Dear Dan,

Like many of my friends, I love Tinder. The dating app provides a slideshow of potential romantic partners, and if two people “like” each other, Tinder tells them that they matched. How can such a simple app with so little information be so effective?

—Denise 

When we think that we’re compatible with someone, we behave accordingly. A few years ago, the dating site OkCupid told users who had been rated only a 30% match for each other by the site’s algorithms that they were actually 90% matches—and these users ended up liking each other more. In Tinderland, when both people learn that they “like” one another, their expectations change, the match seems more appealing, and the power of self-fulfilling prophecy takes over.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Freelance Feedback, Teacher Tardiness, and Meal Money

September 17, 2016 BY danariely

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 a freelance copywriter. I like not having to hold a regular day job, but I never get performance assessments, never learn what I can do better, and never know why people stop hiring me. So to improve my performance, I’ve been thinking about sending my clients a short survey about the quality of my work. But I worry that if they’re forced to think about it, they might say, “Hmm, she’s not actually that friendly” or, “Hmm, her work is just average”—and stop hiring me. What do you think?

—Dana 

Ask for the feedback. You might lose some clients in the short term, but the surveys should help you improve your work in the long term.

The trickier question is how to ask for feedback in a way that minimizes negative perceptions about your work (and maybe even spurs your clients to see your work more positively). You can do this by asking your clients to list 10 ways you could improve your work.

My guess is that your clients will easily find one or two ideas for how you could perform better, which will be useful feedback. But after that, they will find it increasingly difficult to come up with pointers until, perhaps at suggestion five, they will run out. By then, they will start thinking, “I can’t find many things wrong with this copywriter—so she must be great.” By creating the expectation that there should be 10 ways to improve your performance and having them come up well short of that, you incline them to think more positively about your work.

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Dear Dan,

At my school, in an effort to discourage teacher absenteeism and tardiness, we’ve instituted a carrot-and-stick system: Teachers gets a monetary reward if they are on time every day of the week, but if they are late on even one day, they lose a corresponding amount from their wages. Does this system make sense? Do you think it will work?

—Miriam 

Yes and no. Assuming that the reward money is a substantial amount, the teachers will probably try hard to be there on time. On the other hand, since you’ve made the reward all-or-nothing (perfect attendance or a penalty), your teachers are also likely to experience the “what the hell effect.”

Imagine, for example, a teacher who was late for class on Monday. What will be his or her motivation for being on time for the rest of the week now that they’ve missed the mark on perfect attendance? Less dedicated educators may well shrug and start showing up late on purpose. I’d predict that teachers will start each week trying to be punctual, but once they slip, they’ll give up completely. You would probably be better off with a less punitive approach that is more compatible with a learning environment.

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Dear Dan,

I’m an excellent cook who’s planning to host a gourmet, home-cooked meal for about 10 people. I’d like to use the pay-what-you-want method. So what’s the best way to ask for the money? Should I ask people to pay up front or at the end, and should it be in public or anonymous?

—Labanya 

Based on the principle of reciprocity, you should ask for the money at the end of the meal (when people will know how good your food was). I would give people envelopes with their names on them at the end of the evening and ask them to put their payment inside. This way, your guests will be accountable to you but won’t know exactly how much their fellow diners paid. Have fun.

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.

Ask Ariely: On Risky Questionnaires, Great Expectations, and Victims of Piracy

May 23, 2015 BY danariely

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.

This week, in celebration of my new book Irrationally Yours (which is based on this column), I’d like to share some feedback that I received from a reader. Please enjoy the video.

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Dear Dan,

I am ready to start investing for my retirement, but I’m struggling with those risk questionnaires. I’m not sure that I really know any of the answers. The results show that I’m somewhat conservative, but I don’t trust their conclusions. Any advice? 

—Rick

Deciding how much risk to stomach in your investment plans is a huge decision that will have a major impact on your savings and ability to retire. AND I don’t think you should base that big decision on your response to some risk-assessment questionnaire. The questions in most of these risk-attitude-assessment tools are about feelings, but you should focus on how much money you’ll need to retire and the quality of life you would have under different investment scenarios. Let’s just assume that you hate the feeling of losing. So what? Should we doom you to a life of poverty just because you feel bad when you lose money? My advice: Figure out how your life might look like with various investment approaches, figure out which tradeoffs you are (and aren’t) willing to make and plan your investments accordingly. Meanwhile, you can deal with your fear of risk directly. Learn yoga, meditate, take some medication, avoid looking at your portfolio more than twice a year—do whatever you need to deal with your emotions, but make sure that doesn’t interfere with the way you decide to invest.

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Dear Dan,

The other day, I ordered a new drink, a “London Fog tea latte,” at a local café. It arrived on the counter in a porcelain teacup with a saucer, and four lavender seeds were arranged in a fleur-de-lis at the center of the froth. The barista gave me a bestowing nod. It was the best tea latte I’d ever tasted; I found myself saying “Mmm” before the cup even reached my lips. Do our expectations actually affect how things taste to us? 

—Chelsea 

For sure. In an experiment we conducted about ten years ago at MIT, we gave the students two small beer samples and asked them to pick the one they wanted a full glass of. One sample was just plain beer, but the other sample was a regular beer plus some balsamic vinegar. We didn’t tell some students about the special ingredient, and they liked the beer with the dark additive. But when we told our tasters about the vinegar, their expectations kicked in; they expected to hate it and sure enough, they did. Such results show that expectations do indeed change what we like. More important, they show us that expectations are a fascinating interplay between our brain and our mind. We are always trying to predict the future and prepare for it. As our body changes to accommodate to the anticipated experience, it also makes those anticipations more likely to materialize. This is why expectations can change our actual experience—and why we should embrace them as much as we can. (My next answer, by the way, is going to be particularly insightful. Wait 30 seconds, and read on.)

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Dear Dan,

My nephew has been downloading music and movies illegally from the Internet. How can I get him to respect intellectual-property rights without sounding self-righteous? 

—Patricia 

My own view on illegal downloads was deeply modified the day that my book on dishonesty was published—when I learned that it had been illegally downloaded more than 20,000 times from one website. (The irony did not escape me.) My advice? Get your nephew to create something and then, without him knowing, put it online and download it many, many times. I suspect that will make it much harder for him to keep up his blithe attitude toward piracy.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Justifying Gadgets, Job Satisfaction, and Just Flowers

April 25, 2015 BY danariely

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 thinking about buying the new Apple Watch, but I’m sure if it is worth it. Any advice?

—Greg

I’m not sure I can be truly objective here: I just might want one, and if I suggest that you shouldn’t get one, how could I justify buying one for myself later?

So without wanting to limit my own future purchases, let’s more generally consider the question of how we figure out whether luxury items are worth the cost.

Let’s take a very different product, black pearls, as our example. When black pearls were first introduced to the market, nobody wanted them [for more about this story, see Predictably Irrational]. But then the famous jeweler Harry Winston placed black pearls in his display windows alongside his rubies, sapphires and diamonds. He set the price of black pearls high, and they have been very valuable ever since. An important lesson from this story is that people tend to make relative judgments and to use only objects that are easy to compare as the standard for appraisal (like those rubies, sapphires and diamonds).

This implies that when you’re examining future purchases, you should ensure that you don’t just compare the object of your desire to similar objects but to other, very different things that you might also want. As you expand your scope of comparison, you should be able to make more reasonable decisions.

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Dear Dan,

I’m an air-traffic controller at a large airport. I don’t work in the tower but in a remote radar facility about 30 miles away, handling traffic within 50 miles of the airport. As a radar controller, everything is completely abstract. Would being able to actually see the planes I am guiding take off and land generate greater job satisfaction than just seeing targets on a screen?

—Zack

Probably. In many different domains (including moral judgment and empathy), when we present information in increasingly abstract ways, emotions get suppressed, and we care less. So if you plan to stay in this type of job for a while, moving to a tower might well boost your motivation.

But even if you stay put, other changes might increase the perceived meaning of your labor. What if your screen showed how many passengers were on each plane? What if, at landing time, you were told that they were all healthy? What if you were shown some pictures of the people waiting for them at the airport? With such changes, the information you have about the passengers in your care would be more than just a dot, and both your caring and your motivation should increase.

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Dear Dan,

I sometimes invite friends for dinner, and they usually ask me which dish they can bring. Actually, I really don’t want them to bring anything: It doesn’t help me out, and it might not fit with the meal I’ve got planned. But I’m not sure how I can politely reject their nice offer.

—Sigrid

I’ve had the same problem. At one point, I Googled “most difficult recipes” and picked the one I liked most. The next person who asked me what dish they could make got that recipe. I’ve been using this approach ever since, while also telling people that it truly is fine not to bring a dish. They inevitably end up bringing wine or flowers.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

 

By the way! “Irrationally Yours,” a book based on this column, will be published May 18 by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).