Ask Ariely: On Disappearing Socks, Grandparents with an Agenda, and Arming Teachers

June 22, 2013 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.


Dear Dan,

I have a question that has been bothering me for a very long time: Why is it that socks always get lost in the laundry?


This is a deep and important question, and I actually looked into it some time ago with one of my Israeli friends, Ornit Raz.

We discovered that belief in the supernatural is very strong when it comes to the disappearance of socks. Otherwise reasonable people, who think that they have a strong grasp of the forces of nature, feel at a loss when it comes to this universal mystery, and it deeply shakes their faith in the laws of physics.

We also found one mechanism that can explain this mystery—the overcounting of missing socks. You have many socks, and if you see one of them and don’t immediately find its partner, you say, “Oh! A sock has been lost!” You remember that a sock is missing, but you do not exactly recall its type or color.

Later on, you see the matching sock, but you don’t remember that it forms a pair with the first sock, and you say to yourself (again): “Another sock is missing. Where is its partner? I can’t believe so many socks go missing.”

So we often count as lost each sock in a pair—even though neither is really lost. At the end of the day, the mystery is not due to the suspension of the law of physics but to the much larger puzzle of how our memory works (or doesn’t work). Yet I still feel that, at the back of my laundry machine, there may be a black hole that is suitable just for socks.


Dear Dan,

Our daughter has been married to a bullying control freak for the past five years. We have no sympathy for her; she is an admitted gold-digger, and her hubby has boatloads of money. Knowing our feelings about the marriage, they have shut us out. My wife and I would like to see our grandson, but grandparents have no visiting privileges in our state. Any advice?


It is hard to give advice on this complex issue, but here are a few suggestions. First, try calling your daughter and her husband and simply saying that you’re sorry about previous negative encounters. You don’t sound sorry to me, but that’s OK—just say it and say it repeatedly. In experiments, we found that saying sorry works rather well, and it works even if people don’t mean it. It works even if the person from whom you ask forgiveness knows you don’t really mean it.

The point is that, when someone says he or she was wrong and asks forgiveness, it’s hard to keep on being mad at them. You might find it hard to swallow your pride, but think about this relationship as a game of chess. You really care about the king (seeing your grandson), and pride is just a pawn in the game (well, maybe a bishop)—so it’s OK to sacrifice it.

If this approach doesn’t work, and if you’re serious about getting access to your grandson, I would recommend that you move in next door. This will force some interaction between you, and hatred is going to be harder to maintain—particularly if you are nice to your grandson (what parents can hate people who love their kids?) and if your grandson wants to spend more time with you (what parents can resist their kids?).

Finally, I should mention that my personal experience is that living next to my parents-in-law is not only incredibly helpful, meaningful and useful, but that the pleasures of an extended family have been beyond my expectations.


Dear Dan,

With the recent debate over gun control and protecting school children, should we arm schoolteachers to make schools safer?


Hard to know from the point of view of policy, but here’s one thing that is clear to me: If my own schoolteachers had been armed, I would not have survived middle school.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.