Updates

Ask Ariely: On The Carrot Law, Summer Season, and Sticky Situations

May 14, 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,

This depressing election season has left me deeply disheartened by the current state of American politics. Do you have advice on how I can remain optimistic? Are there any politicians whom you admire?

—Alfredo 

My favorite politician, without question, is Antanas Mockus—a Colombian mathematician and philosophy professor turned unconventional pol who served some years ago as the mayor of Bogotá and made several unsuccessful runs for Colombia’s presidency. During his two terms in office (1995-97 and 2001-03), Mr. Mockus introduced lots of positive behavioral changes to his unruly, crime-ridden city. He reduced water usage, prodded Colombians to obey traffic laws and reduced violence.

Mr. Mockus rooted his unconventional, often theatrical mayoralty in a deep understanding of our social nature. One of his inventions was the 1995 Ley Zanahoria (literally, the “Carrot Law”—in Colombia, the word for the vegetable evokes nerdiness), which ordered bars and other late-night joints to close at 1 a.m., thereby cutting crime and car crashes.

Mr. Mockus worked formally and informally to cultivate honorable civic behavior—praising good-humored citizens who played by the rules and didn’t cut corners. By popularizing this standard and asking citizens of Bogotá to call each other out when they saw unseemly behavior, he invited his city’s residents to end vicious cycles and reinforce virtuous ones. He led the way in establishing better, stronger social norms.

Mr. Mockus also had an unconventional way of saving water. As a World Bank report noted, he was once shown “in a TV ad taking a shower with his wife”—demonstrating how to get clean with less water while having more fun.

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Dear Dan,

As the school year comes to an end, I am starting to think about summer activities for my children—ages 10 and 13, both relatively good at music and interested in theater and dance. Would sending them to a camp for the performing arts be a good way for them to spend the summer?

—Vanessa 

First, kudos to you for being so thoughtful about your kids’ summer plans. One of the most interesting (and depressing) lessons we have learned about education is that, without summer enrichment programs, kids tend to forget a great deal while school is out.

Here’s the real question about your choice: Would your children be better off improving their skills in activities that already engage them (music, acting and dance), or would they be better served by learning skills that they haven’t yet cultivated?

Since your kids are very young and their tastes and talents haven’t yet matured and stabilized, I would suggest using the summer as an opportunity to expand their horizons by getting them to try things that they usually don’t get to explore. Maybe send them to a camp that focuses on creative writing, science or hiking.

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Dear Dan,

For a few years now, I’ve been trying desperately to overcome my addiction to pornography, without much success. Are there any techniques that can help to break such stubborn bad habits?

—Zain 

One thing we know about addiction is that staying in the same environment makes it very hard to quit. When we remain in the same spaces where we have engaged in addictive behavior, the environmental cues substantially increase our cravings—making it very hard to resist our desires. It is important for heroin addicts, for instance, to change where they live and the people whom they associate with.

With your pornography addiction, changing the environment is more complex—but try to replace your phone and computer so that you can have new devices that won’t evoke memories of your past behavior. Good luck.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Allowances for Appearance, Desirable Drafts, and Too Many Tasks

April 30, 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 a young woman who works at a Fortune 500 company, and I feel pressure at work to dress up. Between hair, makeup and a different, interesting outfit every day, I’d estimate that the extra effort takes about an hour a day and costs more than 10% of my income. So shouldn’t women be allowed to come to work an hour later than men and get paid 10% more?

—Maria 

You’re quite right that the different standards we have for men and women in the workplace create lots of inequalities that, as a society, we need to fix. But your modest proposal is inherently flawed. If we followed it to its next logical steps, we would give raises to people with strong body odor who need to spend more time in the shower. Would we make bald men work longer because they don’t need to spend time washing their hair? And what about women who worry less or more about their attractiveness? Would your “dressing-up allowance” of time and money be provided only to those who focus on such things? You are basically proposing that we overcome sexism with reverse discrimination, which usually creates new and sometimes more complex problems.
Still, even if we agree to disagree over whether women as a class should make more than men, I hope we can agree that equal pay for equal work would be a key step forward.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a college professor, and every year, I have a few wonderful students who work and work on their papers to make them better and better. They almost always miss their deadlines and get penalized. What can I do to get them to be less perfectionistic and more punctual?

—Howard 

Perfectionists don’t have it easy. They feel so bad about submitting subpar work (and of course, nothing is ever perfect) that they are willing to pay all kinds of costs in their struggle for perfection—including being late and getting lower grades.
To overcome the perfectionists’ problem, what if you asked your students to write their papers using Google Docs and to share their drafts with you? You would then have access to their work every step of the way, and the students—including the perfectionists—would know that you’ve been exposed to various versions of their less-than-perfect paper.
Alternatively, you could ask your students to submit their first drafts by the middle of the semester. You could explain that you expect these papers to be half-baked and encourage them to keep on improving their drafts by handing you an updated version every week. This approach would also make the students submit an imperfect paper, and once they did, they might be more relaxed moving forward.

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Dear Dan,

Children today are continuously exposed to multimedia on their cellphones and other devices. At a sporting event a few weeks ago, I saw some kids who were watching the live game in front of them while also playing a videogame on their phones. I’m amazed by such versatility. Are they more able to handle multiple tasks at the same time than us dinosaurs?

—Rob 

Kids these days certainly do a lot simultaneously, and they certainly think that they can handle multiple tasks—but they have the same limited attention span as the rest of us. The sad outcome of their overconfidence in their multitasking capacities is that they listen to a lecture while scrolling through Facebook, play a videogame while watching a movie and text while having a family dinner—and don’t really benefit from any of these activities.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Work as Play, Volunteer Value, and Shower Scheduling

April 3, 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,

Any tips for encouraging kids to view their homework as play?

—Gordon 

Not really. You can get kids to enjoy homework more or hate it less, but play is a different matter. A few years ago, some nonprofit groups came up with the idea of “PlayPumps”—merry-go-round-style systems hooked up to water pumps in rural parts of Africa that needed more drinking water. As children whirled about on the merry-go-rounds, their motion would pump groundwater up from below, whereupon it could be stored for later use.
The idea of PlayPumps seemed promising at first, but the results have been underwhelming. It turns out that when you take a play activity and force children to do it, you change the activity from play to work, and the fun goes away. Having to do something on command and on a particular schedule just isn’t play, and that isn’t ever going to change.
If you really want kids to view their homework as play, you need to change the way they view school. If school had more autonomy and choice, if students had more say in their daily routine there, education as a whole might start to become more playful. Sadly, in my experience, the only time in the educational journey when learning is genuinely self-directed is the dissertation phase of a Ph.D., but we should certainly try to introduce elements of play far earlier.

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Dear Dan,

I no longer enjoy my job, and I am considering quitting and volunteering for a few years at a local organization that does great work. Will my self-worth drop if I no longer have a job?

—Sabrina 

Sadly, I suspect it will. By trading a salaried job for pro bono volunteering, you are probably going to stop thinking about yourself as someone who has a career and generates income. Right now, both of these factors seem to contribute something to your sense of self, and they won’t be replaced. The wonderful organization you’ve found will surely offer you other sources of fulfillment and meaning, but the loss of self-worth will be there as well.
Organizations that rely on the goodwill of volunteers can take a few steps to help mitigate these problems. They can give volunteers titles that suggest a long-term view and offer a sense of making progress, such as “community manager” or “social dreamer.” They could even use the American Express trick of writing down the year that you started at the group and hailing someone as, say, a “Member Since 2012.” These small touches won’t turn volunteering into a career, but they might help the volunteers see their efforts as lastingly important.
All this still doesn’t address the problem of your lost salary. But what if nonprofits gave people a generic pay stub that recorded the impact that they had made for the organization? Such a pretend pay stub wouldn’t be the same as money, but it could give people a more concrete sense of contribution and worth.
One final point: I suspect that many new stay-at-home parents face an even worse crisis of self-worth. That is an occupation in which people have no prospects of career progression or even a faux salary, so maybe we also should think about ways to recognize how much their efforts matter.

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Dear Dan,

Is it better to shower at night or in the morning?

—Rachael

No question about it: at night. We get dirtier more quickly when we interact with the outside world, so showering first thing in the morning means that we will spend the rest of the day and all night in a grimy state. But if you shower at night, you will be clean while you sleep and thus maximize the number of cleanliness-hours per shower—clearly a better approach.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

New Years Priorities

January 1, 2016 BY Dan Ariely

Dear Dan,

What is your New Year resolution for 2016?

—Catherine 

Setting up priorities. I get a lot of requests for all kinds of time-consuming activities very day. In general I try to be helpful, but there are only 24 hours of the day and I already don’t sleep much. So, in reality every time I say yes to something I also say no to other things – and my sad realization is that my process for saying yes and no does not lead to a plate of activities that fits with my priorities. So, in 2016 I am going to try and figure out what my priorities are, and then direct my time in a consistent way with my priorities. Now, I do realize that this experiment will ultimately fail, but I will at least give it a try. 

Ask Ariely: Strategic Seating, Rush Hour Rudeness, and Loose Lips

December 12, 2015 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 fiancé and I are realizing that we’re going to have to invite some awful people to our wedding. These are close relatives whom we love despite everything, but they often say or do crummy things at parties. We estimate that they’ll make up about 4% of our guests at a 150-person wedding. 

So how should we arrange the table seating for maximum guest happiness? Should we put all of the troublemakers together, spread them among other guests who don’t know them well or put them with family members who are more or less used to their behavior?

—Susanna 

First, congratulations. If you apply this kind of forward planning to your life together, you might beat the divorce statistics.

As to your question, we know that people get a sense of what’s socially acceptable from the people around them. If you put all the troublemakers at one table, they’ll build off each other, take each other’s actions as signals of what’s acceptable and create a tremendous ruckus that will far exceed their actual size at the wedding. So I’d recommend that you split them up and seat them next to some stern grandmother to keep them in check.

Here’s a riskier suggestion: Put them at the kids table. Thinking about children often makes us become more idealistic and try to be the best version of ourselves. And if they still misbehave, the kids will get a good, memorable experience.

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Dear Dan,

Every day on the New York City subway, I encounter a plethora of commuters traveling with additional bags, taking up extra space at rush hour and making the trip worse for everyone. Why are they behaving so irrationally?

—Lenny 

The behavior isn’t really irrational from the standpoint of the people with the extra bags, but it is certainly suboptimal for the commuter community as a whole. This type of behavior falls under the heading of what we call “the tragedy of the commons,” derived from a scenario in which several farmers have one cow apiece, with a patch of grass (the commons) that serves everyone. One day, one farmer gets a second cow. Now the cows eat the grass at a rate slightly faster than its replenishing rate. Eventually, there isn’t enough grass for any of the cows; malnourishment sets in, and milk production drops.

The same process could be unfolding on the subway, which would function far better if everybody would take just one bag. Taking multiple bags may suit those carrying them, but it hurts the group and the commuting exercise as a whole.

This analysis won’t help your problem, but maybe you could start looking at it with some deeper appreciation for the complexity of social dilemmas.

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Dear Dan,

Recently, a friend told me a secret that belongs to a third friend. She even added that the third friend had explicitly asked her not to share it with anyone. Why did she tell me? Doesn’t she realize that I will trust her less now?

—Evelyn 

Your loose-lipped friend has demonstrated that she is the secret-sharing type, but she has also showed that she cares enough about you to betray her promise to the third friend for your supposed benefit. If I was being puckish, I’d say you should trust her more.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: Boss Behavior, Communal Correspondence, and Long-Term Love

November 28, 2015 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 having ongoing problems with my boss because of his leadership style: He is very rigid and formal, and he demands silent obedience from his workers. Should I rebel, recognize his authority or look for a new job?

—Ajaan 

This is really a question about the likelihood that your boss’s behavior can change. While I would like to be optimistic about the chances here, it is pretty difficult to get people to change in general—and it’s particularly difficult to be optimistic in your case.

Imagine a world in which you were the only person working for your boss. If you rebelled, that would immediately redefine the work environment, and your boss would be quite likely to adapt and change. By contrast, if your company has hundreds of employees, even an outright personal rebellion would make up only a small part of the feedback going up to your boss, leaving him unlikely to learn and change.

As such, if you think that you can get all of your fellow employees to start demanding better treatment, then you should try rebellion—but if you can’t get at least a critical mass of allies on board, move on.

One final point: Feeling in control and having some sense of autonomy are incredibly important aspects of fulfilling work. Any job that doesn’t give you these elements is going to chip away at your well-being and happiness. So when you look for your next gig, make sure that you get a job that gives you more than just a paycheck.

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Dear Dan,

My wife and I have one email address for the two of us. Buddies from my soccer team often joke about our shared email address, calling me a sissy. Are they right? Should I convince my wife to get a separate email?

—Franz 

No—don’t change. I suspect that the notion that everybody should have their own email account emerged a long time ago when email was in its infancy—when we didn’t really know how we should be using it, let alone how it would grow and evolve. Over the years, email has become a vital, rich communications tool, but the notion of one email per person has remained our mental default setting—probably to the detriment of good communication.

You may have heard of an interesting new tech firm called Slack, which offers software to help groups of colleagues trade messages and share files. It could be, the Journal says, “the fastest-growing business application of all time”—and it is specifically designed to create shared communication between people in a manner similar to your shared-email approach. Slack’s popularity among high-tech companies suggests that you’re onto something.

I would tell your teammates that, rather than thoughtlessly accepting a default email habit, you’re ahead of your time—and that one day, they will catch up.

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Dear Dan,

I’m dating a wonderful guy, but I wonder: What’s the thing that’s most likely to solidify our bond and turn it into a successful long-term relationship?

—Logan 

The best advice I can give about long-term couplehood is to find someone you admire and aspire to emulate in some important ways—and have them simultaneously feel the same way about you. With this starting point, you can spend the rest of your joint lives striving to improve and catch up. I’ve adopted this advice myself and can personally attest to how magical it can make one’s life.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Regret over Rental, Guns under Control, and Dishes with Friends

October 31, 2015 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,

On a recent trip, the car-rental agency offered me insurance that cost almost as much as the rental itself. I ended up taking it, but when I got the credit-card bill, I couldn’t understand what I’d been thinking. Why do we buy these things?

—Benjamin 

It has to do with counterfactual thinking and regret. Imagine that you take the same route home from work every day. One day, along the usual route, a tree falls and totals your car. Naturally, you’d feel bad about the loss of the car—but you’d feel much worse if, on that particular day, you had tried a shortcut and, with the same bad luck, come across the car-wrecking tree. In the first case, you’d be upset, but in the shortcut case, you’d also feel regret about taking that different route.

The same principle applies to car rentals. When a rental agent offers us pricey insurance, we start imagining how stupid and regretful we’d feel if we skipped it and (God forbid) had an accident. Our desire to avoid feeling this way makes us much more interested in the insurance.

Now, it probably is OK to pay a bit more to avoid remorse from time to time—but when the price tag gets large, we should start looking for ways to cope more directly with our feelings of regret.

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Dear Dan,

I’m wondering what you make of gun control. Obviously, it is in everyone’s best interest to have a safer country where you’re less likely to be shot in public. But since the massacre in Oregon, gun sales have only gone up. Is there anything we can do to reduce gun violence?

—Skyler 

This all strikes me as a case of over-optimism. When we hear about gun violence, we tell ourselves, “If I didn’t have a gun, I might get attacked—but if I had a gun, I could protect myself.” We can imagine the benefits of gun ownership, but we can’t imagine the stress or panic we’d feel while being attacked. (In wartime, in fact, many guns never get fired because of the stress felt by people under fire.) We also can’t imagine ourselves as hotheaded attackers or imagine our new gun being used by people in our household to attack others.

After all, we’re such good, reasonable people, and those surrounding us are similarly upstanding and calm. So people buy guns, often with good intentions—but these guns make it easy for someone having a moment of anger, hate or weakness to do something truly devastating.

Since humanity will keep having emotional outbursts, what can we do to lessen gun violence? One approach would be to try to make it less likely that we will make mistakes under the influence of emotions. When we set rules for driving, we’re very clear about when and how cars can be used, which involves heeding the speed limit, obeying traffic rules and so on. Maybe we should also set up strict rules for guns that will make it clear when and under what conditions guns can be carried and used. And we could require gun owners to get licenses and training—again, on the model of car safety—with penalties for breaking the rules.

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Dear Dan,

When my chore-hating kids visit their friends, they clear their dishes and help in the kitchen. How can I get them to do that at home?

—Jon 

Like many of us, kids are motivated by the impressions they make on people they care about. Clearly (and sadly), you aren’t on that list. Maybe you can get one of those home cameras, connect it to your kids’ Facebook feeds and observe the power of impression management as they try to impress their friends.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: Firing Failures, Deceptive Deals, and Noisy Neighbors

September 5, 2015 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,

Is it smart to fire someone for failing? We often hear about politicians, generals and executives who blow it and then lose their jobs, but how can anyone gain experience if failure means their dismissal?

—Danny 

This problem is worse than you might think. Organizations that don’t tolerate failure not only stop their employees from learning from their mistakes but also create a risk-averse culture that fears trying anything new. A related problem is that organizations generally reward (and punish) people based on the outcomes of their decisions, not on the quality of their decisions. In general, you’d hope that good decisions would lead to good outcomes, but that causal link rests on probabilities, not certainties—so reward and punishment are often misapplied. Imagine, for example, the manager of a chain of seafood restaurants who invested in five new branches along the Gulf Coast—six months before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The chain lost money, its share value plummeted, and the manager got sacked. But should he have been? What if the manager had meticulously analyzed the market and made the best decision given the information available at the time? Should the company have punished him—or rewarded him for making a sensible, thorough decision? Obviously, we should reward and retain people who know how to make good decisions, but most of the time, we just reward good outcomes. As long as organizations behave this way, we will be stuck with conservative, risk-avoiding behavior, and we will keep firing some of the wrong people.

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Dear Dan,

My son wants a Nerf football. I found a real bargain online—just $2.50 on Amazon, but with a $7.50 shipping charge. The combined price of $10 is a really good deal, but paying three times as much for shipping as for the product itself seems like a rip-off. I know that what really matters is the total amount paid, but I somehow feel that the cost of delivery ought to matter too. Am I being irrational?

—Fay 

This is exactly why Amazon introduced Amazon Prime back in 2005. For only $99 a year, you get “free” shipping on your orders.  Of course, the shipping isn’t really free, but it gives you the feeling that you aren’t paying for it. One other clever aspect of Amazon Prime is that once you have paid for it, every additional purchase on Amazon further amortizes your investment, thereby helping you further justify your initial decision.

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Dear Dan,

A friend of mine and her husband live in an apartment building, and their upstairs neighbors often have noisy sex between 3 and 8 a.m. My friend’s husband has no problem sleeping through the raucous romping, but my friend is being woken up every night. Should she let her neighbors know that their early morning love sessions aren’t as private as they might think (without embarrassing them or herself) so she can get her beauty sleep again?

—Kim

Maybe she could start with a compliment, explain the problem and offer a solution. How about, “I’m very impressed with your level of energy during the early hours of the day. How do you stay so passionate after so much time together? I’m a bit jealous.  And by the way, we got a heavy carpet for the bedroom to help give us more privacy.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Reader Response: Day 15

June 3, 2015 BY danariely

Like this reviewer, you may discover some untapped talents after reading Irrationally Yours.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

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).