November 23, 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 waste about two hours each day playing stupid games on my iPhone. It feels so innocent, but it actually makes me lose focus at work and takes up time I should be spending with my wife and kids. Do you have an idea for how I can ditch this bad habit?


One way to fight bad habits is to create rules. When you start a diet, for example, you can set yourself a rule such as “I won’t drink sugary beverages.” But to be effective, rules need to be clear and well defined. For example, a rule such as “I will drink only one glass of wine a day” is unlikely to work. With this type of rule, it is not clear what size of glass we are talking about, or if we can drink more today and reduce our drinking next week. In essence, if the rule is not clear-cut and unequivocal, we are likely to break it while deceiving ourselves that we are actually following it.

In your case, you could decide that, from now, on you won’t be playing the iPhone between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. And to help you follow this rule, you should let your loved ones know. Or you could set up game bans for weekdays or working hours. Good luck.


Dear Dan,

I am in middle school, and there is one topic in school I really love and one I really dislike. There is also one teacher I really love and one teacher I am not very excited with. Would I be better off if the teacher I love taught the topic I love, and the duller teacher taught the topic I dislike? Or would I be better off if the teacher I love taught the topic I dislike, and the duller teacher taught the topic I love?


What you are really asking me about is the accumulation of pleasure and pain. On the one hand, you might argue that having one class with a great teacher and a great topic, and one class with nothing going for it, would give you at least one class to look forward to. You might also argue that, if a class isn’t going to be good, it doesn’t really matter how bad it is—adding a good teacher to a bad topic, for example, wouldn’t help much.

On the other hand, you might argue that a class with a bad teacher and a bad topic is going to be too much to bear. In this case, the combined pain might pass your tolerance threshold and color the entire semester.

I should say, first, that I am delighted you like some of your teachers and topics, and I don’t want you to stop thinking of school as joyful. But I do think that the mixing approach would be better for you.

I suspect that having a class with a bad teacher and a bad topic will be too much for you to handle. And I suspect that in the class with the teacher you love and the topic you don’t, you will learn to focus on the teacher and pay less attention to the topic, while in the class with the teacher you dislike and the topic you love, you will learn to focus on the material and pay less attention to the teacher.

I wish you many years of joyful (or at least not torturous) learning.


Dear Dan,

What do you think is the best psychological approach to getting over a girlfriend? Should you cut off seeing her completely? Continue getting together for coffee, etc.?


I suggest that you cut it off completely. Meeting an old girlfriend over and over, while wondering if you should have ended things or not, is just going to prolong the pain—and without any real value.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

November 15, 2013 BY danariely

During my recent trip to New York City, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in taxis—taxis with ads that endlessly drill messages into your thoughts. I’ve never watched much TV, so my brain hasn’t evolved that uniquely American ability to tune out the mind-numbing commercials. As hard as I try, I just can’t look away when there’s a TV in sight.

As the commercials looped, one ad stood out to me and had me grinding my teeth each time it popped onto the screen. It wasn’t that it looked like an old-fashioned PSA, or because its protagonist donned a charmingly insincere Mr. Rogers smile. No—this ad grabbed me because of its heartbreaking ignorance of basic psychology. The goal of this ad was to get passengers to buckle up for safety, but its method was painfully misguided.

A number of strategies have been used over the years to get people to buckle their belts. For example, we have:

Laws. This map shows the seatbelt laws in all US states, and according to the National Safety Council, seatbelt use is 13% higher in states with primary enforcement (meaning you can get stopped and ticketed just for not wearing a seatbelt) than those with secondary enforcement (88% versus 75%).

Penalties. Although people are probably not thinking about the $69 fine they might have to pay or even the drivers license points they could rack up if they get caught, it is possible that some people may buckle up to avoid these consequences.

Enforcement. Here, we’re talking about high-visibility enforcement such as checkpoints where all cars are stopped to check for seatbelt usage.

• Incentive awards for police officers to give tickets (ranging from small model cars awarded to individual police officers to much larger grants for police agencies).

• “Click it or Ticket.” This campaign has been particularly effective because it serves as a reminder of the immediate stakes (getting a ticket), even though they are smaller than the larger consequences (such as sustaining an injury in an accident). Reward substitution works. Fun fact: the campaign began in North Carolina, home of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and was adopted by other states because of its success (most likely due to its catchy name).

• Safety belt reminder systems. These excruciatingly loud alarms get my passengers to buckle up in record time.

• Safety belt ignition interlocks. Some cars will refuse to start until all belts are in, although you can imagine why the idea hasn’t gained much traction.

• Education. Teaching children about seatbelt safety in school, while not an official persuasion method that I can find in any academic paper, has turned diligent recycling enthusiasts who just say no to drugs into relentless seatbelt reminder machines. I imagine that if our kids were the enforcers of just about anything, we would all be better off.

Some of these strategies work better than others, but none of them are actually detrimental to seatbelt compliance. And yet this taxicab ad, which I was forced to watch over and over in agony, conspicuously ignored what we know to be a primary motivator of behavior: social validation.

The ad gave one pivotal piece of information, which you can see in the accompanying photo: “60% of taxi passengers do not buckle up.” This kind of scare tactic is ineffective because it simply sends the wrong message.


Robert Cialdini has shown over and over again that social proof is an intoxicating principle of persuasion. We look to others to decide what to do, and when we are told about how most people behave in a given situation, we are likely to follow their lead. (This is why “word of mouth” can be so powerful, and companies pay top dollar to try and influence what their customers tell their friends.)

So, what message does this ad convey to cab riders?

This statement gives an implicit recommendation, noting that most people do not wear seatbelts. As social creatures, we look to others to determine how to behave in all kinds of situations, and riding in a taxi is no different. Rather than encouraging seatbelt use, this statement lets seatbelt-wearers know that they are in the minority while giving non-seatbelt wearers the comfort of knowing that their behavior is normal. It doesn’t matter why the majority doesn’t wear seat belts—whether it is uncool, unsanitary, too much of a hassle, or even unsafe—now they know that most people don’t do it, and that’s a good enough reason to go along with the flow.

If you want to persuade people to wear seatbelts, you should tell them that 84% of people in the US do wear seatbelts. Or you can further tap into group identity by noting that 90% of New Yorkers wear seatbelts.

It’s a shame that a message as important as “wear a seatbelt” could be so badly butchered. If companies have figured out how to use the concept of social proof to get people to spend more money, why can’t our safety promoters figure out how to use it to get us to make better decisions?

For a quick review of all six of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion (reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority and scarcity), see this article.

~Aline Grüneisen~

P.S. Some friends have informed me that you can simply turn off the taxicab TV. Noted for next time.

November 9, 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 am the president of a local union that represents many federal workers. We are dealing with an interesting complaint stemming from the days during the government shutdown when employees were furloughed. Staffers who were furloughed are getting back pay for the days they were off, and because of this the employees who were designated as exempted from the furloughs (who originally felt special about their status and contribution) now feel gypped: Some of them expressed feeling like “a fool for working while others got to stay home.” Any advice? 


The current approach is clearly the wrong way to design paybacks after a furlough. Since we are likely to experience more government shutdowns in the years to come, maybe we should have a strategy for handling such situations.

I would suggest creating small groups composed of both furloughed and exempt employees and letting each furloughed worker decide how much of their back pay he or she is willing to contribute to the exempt workers in that group. A lot of research shows that people care to some degree about the welfare of others and about fairness, and we do so even at a cost to our own pocket. This kind of social utility should get the furloughed employees to act fairly, and they are even likely to be extra fair if the amount that they would give is going to be posted publicly and contribute to their reputation.

It’s possible that the government at some point will step in and do something to correct the issue. But while this local approach won’t completely fix the problem, it should make the distribution of income more equitable and, just as important, increase camaraderie among employees.


Dear Dan,

I love drinking good wine. Each time I go to a restaurant I wonder what is the ideal amount of money to spend on a bottle. What do you do?


A recent experiment suggests an answer. Ayelet and Uri Gneezy from the University of California, San Diego, teamed up with a winery owner in their state to figure out, experimentally, the best price for his Cabernet. On some days they sold the wine for $10, on others for $20 or $40. Demand fell off at $40, but the winery sold more bottles of its Cabernet when the price was $20 than $10. On top of that, the customers who paid more indicated that the wine tasted better!

Uri and John List describe that experiment in their new book “The Why Axis,” in which they use field experiments as a method to look at many of life’s questions, from wine to love to the workplace. Their main advice is that we should all do more experiments.

So, the next time that you go to a restaurant, order two glasses of the same varietal of wine, one rather basic and one fancy, and tell the waiter to write down which is which and not to tell you. Then see if you can tell the difference. Of course, trying this experiment with just two wines is bad science, because you could be correct by chance, so you need to repeat the experiment many times. My guess? Your ability to tell the price difference will be indistinguishable from random guesses.


Dear Dan,

I recently watched your presentation at a professional conference and was wondering why an Israeli guy telling Jewish jokes is wearing an Indian shirt? 


In general I am not someone who should be asked for fashion tips, but this might be an exception. I like to dress comfortably, but in many professional meetings there is a code of uncomfortable dress: suits. My solution? I figured that as long as I am wearing clothes from a different culture, no one who is politically correct would complain that I’m underdressed. After all, the critics could be offending a whole subcontinent. Now that I think about it, maybe I should start giving fashion tips.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

November 5, 2013 BY danariely

I have been working on a documentary about cheating with Salty Features for a while now, and I am looking for the best title for the film. And who better to ask than you?

If you’d like to help me name this documentary, please take the survey here. It should only take you about 2 minutes to complete, and I very much appreciate your help.


Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

November 1, 2013 BY danariely

Costume1 Costume2

We all occasionally find ourselves paralyzed by looming decisions, unable to make up our minds with time running out. I was recently afflicted in just this way—I had no idea what to be for Halloween.

Costume ideas will usually just come to me, allowing enough time to prepare at a leisurely pace. I’d then confidently strut my way through Halloween parties full of friends in hand-sewn outfits with witty pop-culture references.

This year was different, though. My anxiety mounted as the big night approached and I had yet to pick a costume idea (let alone gather and assemble the required supplies). Before I knew it, it was the morning of the 31st and my Halloween-induced stress was at an all-time high. As the resident artist for the lab, my calling card is coming up with creative things.

Hundreds of ideas ran through my head, but everything was too difficult, expensive, or obscure. What to do?!

Fortunately, a friend directed me to a simple website which suggested a different nonsensical costume with each visit. Among the suggestions were ideas as disparate as “smutty rice cooker,” “exotic forklift,” and “immoral waffle.” Just a few quick clicks in and I knew what my Halloween costume would be: “The Salacious Rat King.”

Relief washed over me, and I began to mentally piece together my outfit. I could wear my sheepskin rug as a furry cape! I could make a mask from the box of desperately stale breakfast cereal! Suddenly, I was eager to go home and create my salacious rat king ensemble.

How did I go from immobilized by indecision to optimistic and enthusiastic about dressing up for Halloween in just a couple minutes?

By outsourcing my costume decision-making to a website, I was able to relinquish some responsibility over the outcome, lifting a weight from my shoulders. Instead of continuing to fret all day about my choices, the assistance of the costume-suggester gave me one humorous option at a time.

I no longer had to think, “What in the whole universe should I choose to assume as my identity for the night,” and instead, “am I more rakish ironing board or seductive mastiff?” This simplification of the process may have closed off some great costume options, but my enjoyment of Halloween was markedly increased once I accepted the computer’s suggestion.

In the end, my salacious rat king costume was a great success, and my Halloween was saved thanks to outsourcing my decision.

For more on the process of outsourcing decision making and the influence it has on stress and choice, we recommend this paper by fellow Duke Professor Gráinne Fitzsimons and this emotional TEDx talk by Stanford Professor and friend of the lab Baba Shiv.

~Matt Trower~

http://intl-pss.sagepub.com/content/22/3/369.full – paper


October 26, 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,

A strange thing happened to me a few days ago. One of my employees came into my office holding a few lottery tickets and asked, “You in? It’s 45 bucks.” I never play the lottery, but I felt an inexplicable urge to say yes–and I did. Was I being grossly irrational?


You were indeed irrational, but in a very common way. Usually, when you are considering whether or not to buy a lottery ticket, you take into account how your life would change if you won and contrast this with the cost of the ticket and the slim chance of winning. After making this quick computation, you decide not to buy a ticket.

But when another person asks you to “go half” with them on a tickets that they’ve already purchased, another factor comes into play: regret. Now you can’t help thinking how you would feel if that other person won. You quickly conclude that it would make you feel terrible and you also realize that you would keep on thinking about this forgone fortune for a very long time.

I think that too many people are currently losing too much money on various lotteries (often state sponsored), and I wouldn’t want more people to keep losing money this way. But if I were looking for a way to get more people to gamble, I would certainly try to play on our capacity for regret.


Dear Dan,

On a recent flight, the attendants declared it was “Breast Cancer Awareness” month and asked for donations from the passengers for this worthwhile cause. I give to a multitude of breast-cancer organizations, but this approach offended me. Maybe if the airline had offered to match my contribution dollar for dollar it would have made me feel we were partnering in this effort, but the way it was handled just annoyed me. Is it just me or were they doing this the wrong way and actually hurting the cause they are trying to help?


I suspect that many companies trying this approach to corporate responsibility don’t get much of a boost from it in terms of internal morale or customer loyalty. It turns out that companies get the most credit for donating to charity in two cases: One is when they give first and then tell the customers, “Look, we’ve already given on your behalf, now you can contribute as well.” The second is when they empower their customers to give themselves (“here is a $5 voucher for you to give to any organization you value”). The approach you describe, where the company simply says, “We have a charity that we like and want you to give to it,” is ineffective in every way.


Dear Dan,

It seems to me that any reading of social science research implies that we are all less capable in making our own decisions and that as a consequence we need help. Yet, it seems that Americans are emotionally against any hint of paternalism. Any idea how we can overcome this barrier?


I agree with your general position. I think that part of the problem is that, while we see irrationalities and bad decision-making in those around us, we don’t see these mistakes as readily in our own behavior. Because of this partial blindness, we are not as interested in limiting our freedom to make our own stupid decisions. I’m not sure what we can do to fix this part of the problem. But perhaps we can think about how to market paternalism in a better way. As a first step, I would change the term and call it maternalism. After all, who could object to listening to a mother figure?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

October 22, 2013 BY danariely

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With Pocket Ariely in your pocket, you can take me with you wherever you go. You’ll be happier (since you’ll never make another bad decision), healthier (since you’ll never make another bad decision), wealthier (since you’ll never make another bad decision) and wiser (yes, you guessed it: since you’ll never make another bad decision). We almost guarantee it!

Why spend $5 on an app? Think about how much you pay for one latte or one beer. Or how much money you waste on things you don’t need. Just think: you could improve your life forever by saving your lunch money and bringing a salad to work just once. Your waistline may thank you, too! But most importantly, think about how the purchase of this app will help the blossoming field of behavioral economics. All profits from this app will be put toward the research being conducted at my lab, the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University.

Thank you in advance for helping our research, and I hope you enjoy what Pocket Ariely has to offer.

Irrationally Yours,


Watch our Pocket Ariely teaser and trailer, too!


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October 14, 2013 BY danariely

Tomorrow (Tuesday, October 15 from 6-7pm), the Center for Advanced Hindsight will host a discussion on behavioral economics and applications in financial services. We are seeking partnerships with local financial services organizations that are interested in using behavioral-based strategies to help them better serve their mission. The attached Request for Proposals provides a summary of our proposed program. We will also be discussing the RFP on Tuesday and answering questions about the program.

The event is RSVP only. If you are interested in attending, please email rebecca.kelley@duke.edu


October 14, 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 was thinking about buying a Tesla electric car, and I was very excited about it, but given the recent news, I am not sure this is a wise decision. Is it too risky?


Indeed, earlier this month a Tesla Model S drove over a large metal object, and the object punched a hole through the plate protecting the battery, and the battery pack caught on fire. But this is only one part of the story. In August, the model S received five stars in all test categories—an unusually high rating—by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the two days after we all learned about the crash test ratings, the stock of the company went up by 2%.

We now need to add one more data point to this body of evidence: The fire happened on Oct. 1. The share price fell by 10% over the next two days. By the way, this means that the effect of one small piece of bad news can be four times more effective than good news based on much more data. (A rare downgrade of the stock by the R.W. Baird brokerage from “outperform” to “neutral” probably also contributed to the drop.)

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, pointed out in a statement Oct. 4 that no one was hurt, that the car warned the driver to pull over, and that gas cars are in no way safer. After the statement, the stock price increased by 3%, making the overall losses 6.2% from the day before the accident.

From a psychological perspective, this overreaction to one very salient (and very sad) accident is nothing new. It is a consistent way that we react to salient news, and it is perfectly irrational.

And after all of this, my suggestion to you? If you had decided to buy a Tesla before this accident, get one now—because the event didn’t add much to the information you used to make your original decision. In fact, given that other people might have an irrational fear of buying a Tesla, maybe the prices will go down a bit.


Dear Dan,

Why do people love to write to-do lists?


I suspect there are rational and irrational reasons for the very large amount of list-making activity we see around us. On the rational side, lists help us with faulty memory and allow us to share tasks with other people simply and efficiently. On the irrational side, making lists and checking items off these lists give us the false sense that we are actually making progress. The term for this by the way is “structured procrastination.” It’s an attempt to capture the momentary feeling that we are progressing—whereas in fact when we look back at the end of the day on what we achieved, we realize that we did not get much done. I also suspect that all the apps that help us make lists and then make it fun for us to check things off are reducing our collective productivity, by replacing real work and focus with structured productivity.


Dear Dan,

I am always upset by bad news online when I turn on my computer. But negative news is pervasive, so what can I do to make myself feel better and get down to work immediately?


One approach is to start each day with the most depressing set of news around for about five minutes and then move to the regular news. The idea here is that contrast between the highly depressing and the regular will make you feel good in comparison.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

October 7, 2013 BY danariely
The author (right) with his dog (left) who is probably not a person. Photo credit: Cindy Wolters

A few friends, well aware of how completely obsessed I am with all things dog-related, have been sending me this recent New York Times op-ed about whether or not dogs are people. The answer that Emory neuroeconomist, Gregory Berns, gives is “yes.” At least the kind of limited personhood we might grant to small children. I was hoping to love this piece but instead felt frustrated that the findings seem to rely more on—to borrow a phrase—the seductive appeal of neuroscience, rather than any empirical basis.

Berns begins by noting limitations in understanding animal emotion, disparaging the “behaviorism” in animal research. He tries to get around these restraints by putting dogs in an fMRI machine. After some trial and error (that’s adorable to visualize), Berns explored activation in the caudate nucleus—a brain region associated with reward, memory, and learning—focusing specifically on the caudate’s role in anticipating things that we enjoy, as well as its functional and structural similarity across dogs and humans. He writes in the critical two paragraphs:

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

First, it seems an empirical and philosophical stretch to consider “experiences positive emotions” as a coherent and plausible criterion for personhood. I’m also unconvinced that caudate activity is solid enough ground to infer sentience, since rats have a functioning caudate that responds to rewards.

Second, it’s not at all clear to me why neuroscience is required to make this conclusion. If we want to give personhood to animals that experience positive emotions, then why go through the trouble and expense of putting dogs in an fMRI machine? It’s pretty obvious to me when my dog is happy. He perks up, he wags his tail, he grins, he looks at me lovingly when I scratch his ears, he sighs contentedly when he chews on bones and other things, and so on. I don’t need to examine activation in his caudate to realize that he’s experiencing positive emotions.

It could be argued that we can’t actually observe the positive experiences in dogs—we can only make inferences from behavioral similarities. And in that case we’d want to look deeper into the subjective experience that dogs might have. Neuroscience is a tempting alternative, but it’s a shallow one—it only feels more scientific without providing much payoff.

What fMRI scans tell us is that certain regions of the brain receive more blood at certain times during a task. So if we see more blood flow to the caudate when dogs look at their owners or see a hand signal associated with food, we infer that the caudate is more active. But how is caudate activation enough to infer something about what dogs experience?

We still haven’t observed any emotion, but rather brain activation. You could appeal to structural or functional homology, as Bern’s does (i.e. “dogs and humans both have caudates that respond to similar things, so they must feel similarly, too”), but notice we’re no better off than where we started. We’ve simply replaced one assumption with another. If the first (“dogs and people both smile, so dogs feel like people do when they smile”) is unjustifiable, so must be the neural one. We’ve learned nothing new about what dogs experience, but rather that dogs show activity in reward regions when they see things they enjoy (which, like, duh?). We’ve only bought the sexy feeling that the science we’ve done is somehow more legitimate.

Which leads me to my last pet peeve (hah) about the OpEd—the constant suggestion that neuroscience has triumphed over the constraints of behaviorism, while ignoring that psychology has been looking beyond behavior just fine for a long time. Animal psychology has been no exception, here. I know of and have been involved in a lot of comparative cognition research with animals (the operative word being “cognition,” not “behavior”). I have good friends who work with Brian Hare at Duke, the co-director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke and author of The Genius of Dogs, and my undergraduate advisor is currently diving into dog cognition, herself. There is a lot of great research that explores how canines think, not just behave. All without the aid of fMRI’s.

fMRI is a great tool, no doubt. But it’s not the only way to learn about the mind, and it certainly has it’s limits. These limits do not go away, however, when looking at other animals. So even though I love my dog (a lot), he’s probably not a person (though I might treat him like one, sometimes). If he is, though, it’s going to take more evidence than this study to convince me.

~Vlad Chituc~

This piece was originally published on the author’s personal blog, which he encourages you to follow.