Ask Ariely: On Limiting Loneliness and Fundraiser Formulations

June 18, 2022 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.


Dear Dan,

I just won a free group session at an outdoor laser tag arena. The package is for 10 people, but I don’t have that many close friends. It got me thinking: Do other people have that many close friends? Is there an optimal number of friends to have? 


Friendships are important for our health and well-being. Their absence—loneliness—not only makes us sad but harms us physically, about as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Research suggests that having even one close friend can alleviate the negative effects of loneliness on health and well-being. But the ideal number of close friends is apparently somewhere between three and six. Beyond that inner circle, we also have casual friendships, and a wealth of these further increases our feelings of life satisfaction.

If you are looking to fill your laser tag party, you could ask each of your close friends to invite another close friend of their own. Not only will the game be more fun with a larger group of people, but you might also learn something new about your friends from their friends. You also might expand your circle: Since you like your close friends a lot, there is a chance that you will like their friends, too.

Of course, this being laser tag, you could try a more competitive approach. Invite 4 good friends and 5 people you don’t like so much, then pit the two groups against each other in laser tag. You probably won’t make new friends this way, but fighting together will draw your circle of close friends even closer.


Dear Dan,

I’m just starting to organize the 10th annual fundraising gala for the charity I work for. This is a special event where I hope to raise more money than ever before. How do you recommend I make this year’s gala extraordinary?


It is impressive that your organization has held this gala every year for 10 years, and it might be tempting to emphasize the fact. But be careful to do so in a way that stresses what is special about this year’s event—not what is recurring.

Research shows that people are more generous with their charitable giving when they believe they are doing something out of the ordinary—“just this once,” as you would tell yourself in making an exception from your diet or budget—as opposed to something routine. In one experiment involving online banner ads, more people clicked on an ad asking for support for a charity walk held “once a year” than for one held “every year.” Obviously, both formulations imply the same frequency, but “once a year” makes the event seem special, while “every year” stresses that it repeats.

To signal that your event is extraordinary, you could use the language of the experiment and advertise the gala as happening only once a year. Alternatively, you could promote this year’s gala as a once-in-a-decade event celebrating a special anniversary.


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Why Super Bowl Commercials Are So Much Better

February 2, 2015 BY danariely

superbowl adOn Sunday, the Super Bowl once again served up a batch of funny, cool, and even moving commercials. For decades now, Super Bowl commercials have continued to impress and touch us with a car starting Darth Vader kid,  a horse-befriending dog, a 1984 rule breaking Apple user, a Pepsi drinking Cindy Crawford, and on and on.

This has left many wondering: why aren’t all commercials as good as the Super Bowl commercials? If business can make such great ads, why don’t they always do so?

To answer these questions, we need to remember the real purpose of any advertisement is: to be effective. Unfortunately for viewers, ads don’t need to be good to to be effective.

The Super Bowl is a rare case where the audience is paying full attention expecting greatness. This environment allows the ads to be complex, nuanced, and entertaining.

However, outside the Super Bowl, ads have to play an entirely different game. Many everyday-ads have to fight to win the attention of highly distracted TV viewers, who are often channel surfing or multitasking. Many viewers don’t even look at the screen as they play on their computers, clean, or get ready for work.

This means the ads cannot tell an extended story about a puppy returning home like the #BestBuds Budweiser ad from this year. These ads only work during times like the Super Bowl when people say, “Be quiet the commercials are on!”

Instead, everyday ads must be loud, aggressive, and full of brand references. They must grab viewers’ attention and increase awareness.

Businesses want their products to enter into what market researchers call consumers’ “consideration set,” – the few products that come to mind when consumers thinks about a product category. This is often accomplished through annoying ads or unconscious mental processes, and can come at the expense of quality.

This means ads like Coke’s 2015 Super Bowl spot #MakeItHappy, though cool or even inspiring, do not work well during  the average commercial break. For instance this 2015 Coke ad features a somewhat complex premise with multiple lines of evolving text that require reading. And there’s no helpful guiding narration. The result: it is a super engaging ad, but only for viewers who are already engaged. This advertisement would not stand a chance during a Good Morning America commercial break, while a parent focuses primarily on prepping a child’s lunch.

Finally, most normal ads get heavy rotation. This means the ads need to be effective over relentless viewings. Many Super Bowl ads rely on a twist, shock factor, or a heartfelt narrative. Excessive viewings of these types of ads can lead to a loss of value and could even cause backfire effects.

For instance, the “edgy” 1984 Apple ad could lose its edge with each viewing. One can think of a Super Bowl ad like an amazing artsy song—great, but not for every moment—and everyday ads like the second radio single from any Maroon 5 album—mundane but infinitely digestible.

The Bigger Lesson

When we contrast Super Bowl ads with normal ads, we learn a powerful business lesson: being effective does not always mean being good. It’s a lesson many of us find hard to swallow, but it’s a bitter pill we all need to take.

Quality has its place in TV advertising and so too does effective mediocrity. Unfortunately, the latter is usually the norm. Yet, we can all be thankful that for one evening each winter, the stars align such that what makes an advertisement effective is also what makes it enjoyable.

By Troy Campbell


@TroyHCampbell studies marketing as it relates to identity, beliefs, and enjoyment here at the Center for Advanced Hindsight and the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. In Fall 2015 he will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business. 

The Science Behind Exercise Footwear

January 5, 2010 BY danariely

A few weeks ago Reebok unveiled a walking shoe purported to tone muscles to a greater extent than your average sneaker. All you had to do was slip on a pair of EasyTone and the rest would take care of itself.

Exercise without exercise? Great!

Considering the abracadabra-like quality of the shoe, it’s no surprise that it’s been selling like hotcakes. The question of course is “ does it work”?

According to a recent New York Times article on the topic, Reebok has accumulated “15,000 hours’ worth of wear-test data from shoe users who say they notice the difference.” (The company also quotes a study as support, but it’s one they commissioned themselves and only carries a sample size of five.) The two women quoted in the article further echo this sentiment.

Reebok’s head of advanced innovation (and EasyTone mastermind), Bill McInnis, says the shoe works because it offers the kind of imbalance that you get with stability balls at the gym. Unlike other sneakers, which are made flat with comfort in mind, the EasyTone is purposely outfitted with air-filled toe-and-heal “balance pods” in order to simulate the muscle engagement required to walk through sand. With every step, air shifts from one pod to the other, causing the person’s foot to sink and forcing their leg and backside muscles into a workout.

But as the Times article proposes at the end (without explicitly using the term), the shoe’s success could instead come from the placebo effect. Thanks to Reebok’s marketing efforts, buyers pick up the shoes already convinced of their success, a mind frame that may then cause them to walk faster or harder or longer, thereby producing the expected workout – just not for the expected reason.

And there are some reasons to suspect this kind of placebo effect:  In a paper by Alia Crum and Ellen Langer. Titled “Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect.” In their research they told some maids working in hotels that the work they do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. Other maids were not given this information. 4 weeks later, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before, their weight was lower and they even showed a decrease in blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.

So, maybe exercise affects health are part placebo?

Irrationally Yours


P.S. If you’ve had the opportunity to try the shoe, leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

The Significant Objects Project

December 25, 2009 BY danariely

Would you pay $76 for a shot glass? What about $52 for an oven mitt? And $50 for a jar of marbles?

You may shake your head and say no way, but in a recent series of eBay auctions, the consumers did just that: they shelled out considerable cash for objects that to all appearances should never have fetched more than a couple bucks.

So what made the difference? Each item came with a unique tale.

The auctions were part of the Significant Objects Project, an experiment designed to test the hypothesis that “narrative transforms the insignificant into the significant.” Or, put differently, the goal was to determine whether you could take an object worth very little and make it worth much more by giving it a story, by endowing it with meaning.

To that end, the project’s originators – NY Times columnist Rob Walker and author Josh Glenn – bought up 100 unremarkable garage sale knickknacks for no more than a few dollars each, and then had volunteer writers whip up fictional back stories for them. This, they thought, would up the trinkets’ objective value.

They were right. Whereas the objects had cost Walker and Glenn a total of $128.74 to buy, the same trinkets netted a whopping $3,612.51 on eBay when paired with stories. This Russian figurine, for example, came with the original price tag of $3 but sold for $193.50. And this kitschy toy horse made the leap from $1 to $104.50. (See also:$76 shot glass, $52 oven mitt, $50 jar of marbles)

The results may seem surprising, but this is actually something we see all the time. It’s the basic idea behind the endowment effect, the theory that once we own something, its value increases in our eyes. (In one study, Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (1990) randomly divvyed up participants into mug owners and buyers, and found that whereas owners requested around $7 for their mugs, the buyers would only pay an average of $3.)

But ownership isn’t the only way to endow an object or service with meaning. You can also create value by investing time and effort into something (hence why we cherish those scraggly scarves we knit ourselves) or by knowing that someone else has (gifts fall under this category).

And then there’s the power of stories: spend a fantastic weekend somewhere, and no matter what you bring back – whether it’s an upper-case souvenir or a shell off the beach – you’ll value it immensely, simply because of its associations. This explains the findings of the Significant Objects Project, and also how other things like branding works

Irrationally yours


Change Begets Change

September 25, 2009 BY danariely

Change Begets Change
This is how you put a positive spin on the recession.

In a new study, Moore School of Business marketing professor Stacy Wood suggests that it’s in times of upheaval that we’re particularly inclined to leave our comfort zone and try new things.

On first thought, this sounds counter-intuitive. You would think that upon losing our job or girlfriend, we’d be more intent on crawling under the sheets with a favorite book or movie and lying low for a while – not deciding that now’s the time to quit smoking or take up sky-diving.

And yet, these are the very kinds of challenges that we’re likely to take on following a big life change, according to Wood. In her study, she ran five related experiments comparing participants’ consumer choices with the degree of stability in their lives at the time.

In the initial experiment, for instance, she had undergrads take their pick between a pack of tried-and-true Lay’s potato chips and a bag of unfamiliar and odd-flavored British crisps (Camembert and plum, anyone?). Afterwards, she handed out a questionnaire that checked for the number of changes occurring in the participants’ lives. And the result? The students who chose the unusual chips were also more likely to be experiencing lots of change at the moment.

Wood later switched up the order of the questionnaire and consumer choice task in a follow-up experiment, and in another she also expanded the choice test to include a wide range of items – and still, the results were the same. When she asked participants to think about either two big life changes or eight, those who thought of more chose the strange chips more often.

It seems that when we are confronted with one disruption to our daily routine, we become more open to other change. Or, to put it differently, when things break, we enter the right mind-frame for breaking our old habits as well. According to Wood’s rationale, this is because once something pivotal in our routine gets switched around, we’re no longer so attached to all the other habits that formed our daily script.

When it comes to our recessionary times, then, it appears that now is a good time for us to embrace all kinds of change. A tighter budget or shorter hours at work might be that catalyst you need to reevaluate your daily shot of Starbucks espresso or your aversion toward exercise. To paraphrase President Obama, (and for somewhat different reasons) now’s the time to believe in change.

The Nuances of the FREE! Experiment

August 10, 2009 BY danariely

The New York Times and Time Magazine have recently posted interesting articles about two new books that discuss consumer behavior: Chris Anderson’s Free and Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap (see links in The New York Times and Time Magazine).

Both books reference our Hershey’s Kiss experiment that is described in Chapter 3 of Predictably Irrational. If you recall, in one trial of one study we offered students a Lindt Truffle for 26 cents and a Hershey’s Kiss for 1 cent and observed the buying behavior: 40 percent went with the truffle and 40 percent with the Kiss. When we dropped the price of both chocolates by just 1 cent, we observed that suddenly 90 percent of participants opted for the free Kiss, even though the relative price between the two was the same. We concluded that FREE! is indeed a very powerful force.

It’s important to note that we have carried out lots and lots of studies on the effect of FREE!, many of which are detailed in Predictably Irrational. Describing them all, however, would be too much for those who are trying to make just one point abut this effect, so naturally we see authors making choices about which experiments to describe and which ones to leave in footnotes, or not to mention at all. But, some  kinds of omissions are made as well — ones that are important for understanding the complexity of the effect.

For example, in one study of FREE!, we tried lowering the price from 2 cents to one cent on the Kiss to see if we observed that same level of increase in demand in the Kiss. We didn’t. In another study we also tried seeing what would happen if we lowered the price from FREE! to negative one cent, and we also didn’t see a difference in behavior. We also tried the experiment on a broad demographic–not just college students, but also on children and older adults.
Personally, I think it is perfectly fine for people to take the main point from some experiments and build on it, but as readers (and writers) we should realize that often there is more complexity to the picture and that before criticizing particular findings, or citing them as supporting evidence, we should keep in mind the nuances.

Predictably Irrational Short Story Series No. 2

August 1, 2009 BY danariely

In a follow-up to the much acclaimed “Pinch of Saffron” , this latest Predictably Irrational Short Story is a thrilling Wall Street tale of overpricing CDOs, again written by one of my Behavioral Economics students, Andrew Holmberg. It’s entitled, “Fixed Income”, and you can find it here.

Introducing the Predictably Irrational Short Stories Series

July 15, 2009 BY danariely

I pleased to announce a new series of short fictional stories written by Duke undergraduate students who took my Behavioral Economics class this last spring.

I will post another one of these stories twice a month for the next few months.

The first story is called “A Pinch of Saffron,” which is about a business executive who redesigns her mother’s traditional Indian restaurant to monetize on people’s irrationalities. You can download it here.

Context effect in Britain’s Got Talent?

June 13, 2009 BY danariely

I got this suggestion from Thomas Aedy in Eton College in the UK:
Dear Dan,

The final for Britain’s Got Talent was on Saturday June 30th and this final was very interesting because it involved 3 choices, 2 of which were very similar, and 1 of which was different. In our show, viewers have to vote in by telephone on the night of the show for a winner to be decided, and there was some shock when the favorite (Susan Boyle – a singer) didn’t win, and lost out to one of two dance groups (Diversity were the winners, Flawless were the other dance group) – whilst the dance group were very good, most people thought that the singer would edge win.

I think this is a case of relativism:

Option A – Singer – Susan Boyle who was generally regarded (before the final) as the favorite contender for the win

Option B – Dance group – Diverstiy

*   Probably the better of the two dance groups – more creativity and flair, and possibly more entertaining
*   That is largely my view, although their victory in the competition would suggest that they were the better of the two dance groups

Option B’ – Dance group – Flawless

*   Also a very talented dance group, but more straightforward dancing – not very many surprises from them
*   We could view them as the ‘dud’ choice of the two (although this is somewhat harsh)

General points

*   Frankly impossible to judge who were the best of all three – all of them were very talented, but it is impossible for most viewers to try and think whether Option B was better than Option A (comparing singing and dancing)
*   However, on the night, it is fair to say that Option B was better than Option B’
*   Thus whilst most found it impossible to establish who was better of A and B – it was clear that B was better than B’, and this made it easier to select an overall winner (which would be Option B)

In my mind this could be seen as an example of relativism

Very best wishes,

Thomas Aedy

PS: YouTube videos of the 3 acts if you’re interested.

Option A (singer) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2xiAQCTy2E

Option B (dance) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJIz8BgRQc0

Option B’ (dance) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NY9I6pxnVpM


I did not watch this show — but I find the idea plausible and interesting.


How Concepts Affect Consumption

June 7, 2009 BY danariely

Our prehistoric ancestors spent much of their waking hours foraging for and consuming food, an instinct that obviously paid off. Today this instinct is no less powerful, but for billions of us it’s satisfied in the minutes it takes to swing by the store and pop a meal in the microwave. With our physical needs sated and time on our hands, increasingly we’re finding psychological outlets for this drive, by seeking out and consuming concepts.

Conceptual consumption strongly influences physical consumption. Keeping up with the Joneses is an obvious example. The SUV in the driveway is only partly about the need for transport; the concept consumed is status. Dozens of studies tease out the many ways in which concepts  influence people’s consumption, independent of the physical thing being consumed. Here are just three of the classes of conceptual consumption that we and others have identified.

Consuming expectations. People’s expectation about the value of what they’re consuming profoundly affects their experience. We know that people have favorite beverage brands, for instance, but in blind taste tests they frequently can’t tell one from another: The value that marketers attach to the brand, rather than the drink’s flavor, is often what truly adds to the taste experience. Recent brain imaging studies show that when people believe they’re drinking expensive wine, their reward circuitry is more active than when they think they’re drinking cheap wine – even when the wines are identical. Similarly, when people believe they’re taking cheap painkillers, they experience less relief than when they take the same but higher-priced pills.

Consuming goals. Pursuing a goal can be a powerful trigger for consumption. At a convenience store where the average purchase was $4, researchers gave some customers coupons that offered $1 off any purchase of $6, and others coupons that offered $1 off any purchase of at least $2. Customers who received the coupon that required a $6 purchase increased their spending in an effort to receive their dollar off; more interestingly, those customers who received the coupon that required only a $2 purchase to receive the dollar off actually decreased their spending from their typical $4, though of course they would have received their dollar off had they spent $4. Consuming the specific goal implied by the coupon – receiving a savings on a purchase of a designated amount — trumped people’s initial inclinations. Customers who received the $2 coupon left the store with fewer items than they had intended to buy.

Consuming memories. One study of how memories influence consumption explored the phenomenon whereby people who have truly enjoyed an experience, such as a special evening out, sometimes prefer not to repeat it. We might expect that they would want to experience the physical consumption of such an evening again; but by forgoing repeat visits, they are preserving their ability to consume the pure memory – the concept – of that evening forever, without the risk of polluting it with a less-special evening.

While concepts can influence people to consume more physical stuff, they can also encourage them to consume less. Offering people a chance to trade undesirable physical consumption for conceptual consumption is one way to help them make wiser choices. In Sacramento, for example, if people use less energy than their neighbors, they get a smiley face on their utility bill (or two if they’re really good) – a tactic that has reduced energy use in the district and is now being employed in Chicago, Seattle, and eight other cities. In this case, people forgo energy consumption in order to consume the concept of being greener than their neighbors.

We suggest that examining people’s motivations through the lens of conceptual consumption can help policy makers, marketers, and managers craft incentives to drive desired behavior – for better or for worse.

by Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton

The full paper on which this article is based is available here.