The Blog

Join Me Live to Talk about COVID-19

Hello, join me tomorrow, April 24th at 12pm EST for a live chat about the intersections of behavioral science and the coronavirus pandemic. There will be a live Q&A portion at the end!

Here is the event link. See you there!

Help with a Quick Survey

Hi, this is Dan Ariely, I am trying to understand how people think about the coronavirus. From time to time, I will add surveys here. If you have five minutes, please answer the survey below as truthfully as you can. We don’t know the real answers to some of these questions about the virus, so please just give me your best estimate.

https://duke.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4Mf8i0bG73aUjyt

Ask Ariely: On Healthy Handshakes, Bus Behaviors, and Diet Defenses

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 because of the coronavirus we are supposed to stop shaking hands. But when I meet someone I find myself doing it anyway, mainly because it would be awkward to suggest a different form of greeting. Any suggestions?

—Miguel 

When you’ve just met someone, there’s no time for a discussion about the coronavirus before you shake hands, and you don’t want to imply that you suspect the other person might be infected. What we need now is a substitute—something we can all do without thinking too much about it or causing offense.
During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Nigerian government discouraged handshaking to reduce the spread of the disease. Instead, they introduced the “Ebola handshake,” where people bend their arms and bump elbows. This approach recognized that it’s not enough to tell people what not to do; you also have to give them an alternative.

Now that technique is catching on in the U.S. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence was photographed greeting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee by bumping elbows. A video from Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, shows another approach: Two men say hello by tapping their feet together, a move dubbed “the Wuhan Shake.” If we adopt one of these new techniques in the U.S., however, let’s not call it the “coronavirus handshake,” because we might want to have it in store for future viruses as well.

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Dear Dan,

My son is a high-school senior who frequently misses the bus. Every morning I try to wake him up several times, but I often can’t get him out the door on time. When he misses the bus and I have to drive him to school, I end up reprimanding him, which makes him angry. How can we solve this problem?

—Alice 

People learn behaviors by making associations, either consciously or subconsciously, between an action and a response. Even though you’re trying to help your son, your response when he oversleeps reinforces his bad behavior. Every time you wake him up and drive him to school, he is learning that he has a viable backup if he ignores his alarm clock. My recommendation is to stop helping him get to school on time: Don’t wake him up and don’t offer to drive him. After a few painful failures, he should learn that he needs to go to bed earlier and respond more diligently to his alarm clock.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a committed vegan, but whenever I tell people they tend to have a negative reaction. Is there something about veganism that turns people off?

—David 

A recent study by Vlad Chituc, a doctoral student in psychology at Yale, found that people tend to dislike vegans because they give the impression of thinking that they are morally superior. Vegans can defuse this reaction, however, if they say they are avoiding animal products for health reasons rather than ethical ones. So next time the subject comes up with a new acquaintance, try emphasizing this aspect of your diet, at least to begin with.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Paper Punishments, Pious Patterns, and Painful Plans

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 shop at two different grocery stores. One charges a nickel for paper bags, while the other gives me a nickel when I bring my own bag. Which approach is more likely to reduce paper-bag use?

—Paul 

The general question you’re raising is whether punishment or reward is better at motivating us to change our behavior. Punishments are very powerful for motivating people to do something that they only have to do once—for example, installing a smoke alarm in their house or immunizing their children.

But when it comes to repeated behaviors, positive rewards are more effective. In a study conducted in a New York hospital in 2011, researchers found that when physicians were given positive feedback for washing their hands regularly, compliance with the hospital’s handwashing policy rose from 10% to 90%. I suspect that the same principle would hold here: Offering shoppers a credit for bringing their own bag should yield better results.

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Dear Dan,

Religion is supposed to make people behave better, but do more religious societies actually have less unethical behavior and crime?

—Chad 

I wish it was that simple. Research suggests that religion can play an important role in fostering ethical behavior, but its effects aren’t consistent across the board. A recent paper in the journal Psychological Science examined crime data from 1945 to 2010 for over 170 countries and found that as religious affiliation went down, homicide rates tended to go up—but only in areas with relatively low aggregate intelligence scores. How causation works among these variables isn’t clear, but I suspect that areas with higher intelligence scores are more likely to have institutions such as schools and community organizations that help to foster ethical behavior. So while religion isn’t the only factor, some kind of strong social institutions are crucially important for curbing our worst impulses.

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Hi, Dan.

We all know that we’re going to die one day, but most people don’t prepare wills or make guardianship plans for their children. Is there a way to motivate people to take estate planning seriously?

—Shani 

Making a will forces us think about an event that we don’t want to imagine, to make complex decisions we prefer not to deal with, and to plan for something that feels very far away. All these factors encourage us to procrastinate. But while we experience painful feelings when we think about estate planning, the pain for our survivors is much larger if we don’t make a will.

My research lab at Duke works with a startup called GivingDocs that tries to overcome these obstacles. Before making a will, it asks people to think about the legacy they want to leave behind and the causes they care about, then helps them to plan bequests to the charities that matter to them. This general approach—combining a painful act with distant results, like creating a will, with something that’s immediately meaningful, like donating to charity—is a good way to get people to overcome their tendency to procrastinate.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Overwhelming Options, Better Budgets, and Expensive Emotions

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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Hi, Dan.

I offered to purchase a computer as a gift for a close relative, and I asked him to pick out the one he wanted. But he simply can’t make a choice. He keeps comparing different models and researching all the available features, even though I’m sure he will never use most of them. How can I help him to make a decision?

—Stanley 

Choice paralysis, or what’s sometimes called “paralysis by analysis,” is a common problem. Some famous experiments in behavioral science have shown that making decisions is harder when you have too many options and too much information. To force your relative to limit his search, tell him that the two of you will sit down together and go shopping online for two hours; then you’ll buy the best computer you’ve found in that time. Using firm deadlines is a good way to combat our indecisive nature.

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Dear Dan,

I use a budgeting app to set monthly spending goals for each category of expense, but every month I find that I’ve gone over my limit in multiple categories. Are budgeting apps just a waste of time?

—Anthony 

The struggle that you are experiencing is not between you and your app but between your emotional self, which wants to get things now, and your cognitive self, which wants you to plan for a better future. My guess is that you’d be in an even worse situation without the app.

Budgeting isn’t effective if you set a spending goal and then don’t think about it again until the end of the month. Instead, try using the app to analyze your spending every other day. That way, when you find yourself spending too much, you’ll be able to adjust your behavior to stay on track for your monthly goal, rather than discovering you’ve overspent only when it’s too late to do anything about it.

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Dear Dan,

Our daughter attends a very expensive private university, where I recently attended an event. There were lots of freebies for us to take, including fancy snacks and notebooks with the university logo. I was excited to get these items, but of course they aren’t really free since we pay so much in tuition.

I thought about this last week when my tennis team was playing a match at a different club, and we were asked to pay a $10 fee to use the facilities. This felt annoying and unfair, even though I spend a lot more than that on my tennis hobby overall. Why did I get so excited about those “free” items and so angry about this small expense, when neither of them really matters in the big picture?

—Juliet 

The problem is that we tend to think about each of our expenses separately, rather than seeing them in their overall context. This is the source of many of our irrational financial decisions and emotions—whether it’s paying high fees to money managers who don’t justify the cost, or paying Amazon an annual fee for “free” shipping or getting annoyed when the supermarket starts charging a nickel for a plastic bag. It’s not easy to think clearly about each small expense in terms of our total financial situation, but if you can, you will be able to make better decisions about money.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Simple Savings, Better Bonuses, and Revised Resolutions

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 partner and I are students, and we have very different approaches to dealing with money. My policy is to spend less than I earn and invest my savings for the long term. But my partner feels that since we will both be earning more money after we graduate, we should spend freely now and enjoy the moment. Is there any way to avoid fighting about this issue?

—Mathieu 

The bad news is that our preferences about spending and saving can be difficult to change. That’s why most divorced couples name finances as one of the major reasons for their split. The best way to avoid that fate is to recognize that you and your partner can’t change each other. Instead, you should minimize areas of conflict.

Try setting up a joint bank account in which you can both deposit your paychecks. Use that account to pay shared expenses such as rent and utilities. In addition, you should each have individual accounts for discretionary spending, into which you can transfer a fixed amount from your joint account every month. That money can be used for spending or saving as you see fit. You may still disagree, but this way you’ll only be arguing about the smaller amounts in your individual accounts, which limits the size of the problem. And remember, the goal of money is to buy happiness. If you keep fighting about it, what’s the point?

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Dear Dan,

I work for a tech company as a software engineer. Our bonuses are tied to quarterly evaluations, which means that managers are much more likely to reward short-term gains than ideas that take a year to generate results. Since the introduction of this bonus structure, I’ve been concentrating much more on short-term projects with visible results. Am I really doing the right thing for the company, or am I just gaming the system to get paid more?

—Justin 

There’s no question about it: Your strategy is designed to make more money for you personally, but it will hurt the company in the long term. When the company created this bonus structure, they probably thought it made sense, because short-term results are easier to measure. But it is counterproductive if employees become less motivated to take on riskier, more ambitious projects with potentially higher payoffs. It’s hard to ignore a bad incentive structure, so if I were you I would try to convince management to change it and measure the things that matter, even if they are complex or hard to quantify.

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Hi, Dan.

Do you think New Year’s resolutions have any value, given that most people don’t keep them?

—Molly 

I do, but they’re just a start. To get a resolution to stick, we need to make the desired behavior automatic. For instance, if you want to exercise more, build a very simple habit: Every Tuesday at 5 p.m., go to a group exercise class after work. Ideally it will be something you find enjoyable and rewarding, so that the habit is more likely to stick. The more you repeat a behavior in the same context at the same time, the more automatic it will become and the less you’ll have to rely on willpower. For a good introduction to the research on this topic, I recommend Wendy Wood’s recent book, “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Irrational Investments and Company Complaints

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,

One of my credit cards bears the words “member since 1989.” The truth is that I haven’t used this card in years, even though I pay a $95 annual fee for it. But I can’t seem to bring myself to cancel it, simply because of that “member since 1989”! It feels like I would be giving up a status I’ve been building for 30 years. Why is it so hard for me to make what is clearly the rational financial decision?

—Arielle 

You’re suffering from what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy.” To understand how this works, imagine you have spent 15 hours writing a new book, and you have 50 more hours to put in before you’re finished. Then you learn that someone else’s book on the exact same subject will be coming out next week. Should you keep working on your book for another 50 hours? Most people would say no—why spend so much time on a project that is unlikely to be successful?

But now imagine that instead of 15 hours, you have invested 1,500 hours in writing your book. In that case, would you put in another 50 hours to get it done? Now most people would say yes—if you’ve already spent 1,500 hours on something, why not put in the last 50 to finish it?

In both cases you are being asked to make the same amount of effort for the same doubtful result. But when you’ve invested a lot of time—or a lot of money—it’s hard to make the rational decision to write off your sunk cost and shift your resources to something better.
You’re facing a similar problem when it comes to your credit card. To make the decision clearer, ask yourself if you would keep paying for the card if it only said “member since 2019.” If your answer is yes, then keep it; if the answer is no, it’s clear that you are a victim of the sunk cost fallacy and you should cancel the card now, before that cost gets even bigger.

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Hi Dan,

At least once a day, someone in my office sends an email to the whole company complaining about some small issue: Someone took the wrong lunch from the refrigerator, or someone drank the last of the coffee and didn’t make a new pot. I find it really annoying. Is there a way to get people to complain less?

—George 

It seems like it should be simple to convince people to be more patient and polite. But the truth is that it’s much easier to change your own attitude than it is to change the behavior of your co-workers. One approach would be to make a game out of it: Every Monday, make a prediction about how many of these complaints will come your way that week. If your prediction is correct, reward yourself with some small indulgence. That way, you can think about the complaints not just as annoyances but as a way to earn a reward.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Team Tragedy, Airport Anxiety, and Grumpy Gift-wrapping

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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Hi Dan,

I have a hard time watching my favorite football team on TV because I get so upset when they are behind, and when they lose I’m really miserable. Is there a way for me to enjoy the game without taking the result so seriously?

—Brian 

One option is to remove the element of surprise by recording the game and having someone tell you the final score before you watch. That way, you will feel less emotionally invested in the outcome and you’ll be able to enjoy the game more for its own sake.

Another approach is to pick a treat that you enjoy—let’s say chocolate—and have some only if your team loses. This would make the loss bittersweet, since you would offset the unhappiness of losing with the pleasure of the chocolate.

Still, as with all kinds of love, loving a team will inevitably bring occasional heartbreak. The best way to deal with it is by learning to appreciate that emotional complexity, with all the good and bad feelings involved.

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Dear Dan,

My partner thinks it’s better to arrive at the airport hours early to avoid feeling anxious about missing our flight. But I would rather put that time to good use and minimize the hours spent waiting aimlessly at the gate. What’s a good rule of thumb for travel planning?

—Emma 

The key here is your partner’s anxiety. If you were simply trying to calculate the most efficient way to use your own time, you would look at how much time you would waste waiting at the airport (discounted by the useful things you can do there, like catching up on email or reading a book) and compare it with how much time you would lose if you missed your flight. Then you could come up with an optimal solution for yourself.

But once you start considering your partner’s feelings of anxiety, you are in the irrational domain of emotions, which are harder to calculate. Try to figure out how severe your significant other’s anxiety is and how long it lasts. If he is highly anxious for, say, 48 hours before the flight, it would be worthwhile to agree to arrive at the airport a few hours early to eliminate his unhappiness. In general, we need to focus not just on how to use our own time efficiently but on what we can do to make our loved ones happy, rational or not.

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Dear Dan,

I spent half a day wrapping Christmas gifts for my family this year. Is it really worth my time?

—Jessica 

Even though it’s time-consuming, wrapping gifts is worthwhile since it makes the recipients enjoy them more, according to a 1992 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The effect holds even when the wrap is transparent and the recipient can see what’s inside. That’s because wrapping slows down the process of opening the gift, which helps us pay closer attention to the experience. Unwrapping gifts is like the ritual of drinking wine: Swirling it in the glass, looking at it and smelling it all slow things down so that we can focus on the pleasure ahead.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Soiled Sinks, Busy Bathrooms, and Dainty Donations

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,

People in my office drink a lot of coffee, which means a lot of mugs pile up in the sink. What happens is that one person leaves a dirty mug, and the next person to use the kitchen doesn’t want to clean that mug along with their own, so they leave theirs in the sink as well. Soon the sink is overflowing with these dirty dishes, and no one wants to take the time to wash all of them. If everyone just washed their own mug there wouldn’t be a problem, but what can we do to enforce this rule?

—Oran 

As you observed, the heart of the problem is the first mug: If someone observes a dirty dish in the sink, they are less likely to wash their own, and so the problem is compounded over time. In my lab at Duke University we had the same issue, and we tried two different solutions. First, I put a picture of myself above the sink, looking directly into peoples’ eyes, with the message “Please don’t leave your dish in the sink.” This was meant to remind people of the importance of the rule, but while it helped a little, it didn’t eliminate the problem. Our next step was to issue everyone in the office a mug with their name written on it, so that it would be obvious who was responsible for leaving a dirty mug in the sink. The threat of being publicly embarrassed managed to solve the problem almost completely.

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Dear Dan,

When I’m using the urinal in a public bathroom, it seems to me that I finish much faster when I’m alone than when someone is standing at the urinal next to me. Do you think this is a real phenomenon, or does it just feel that way because I’m more self-conscious when someone else is nearby?

—Joe 

I once conducted an experiment on this subject on the MIT campus, in which a research assistant would enter a public men’s room alongside unsuspecting students. Sometimes he would use a urinal right next to a student, while other times he would leave a free urinal between them. We found that when men have someone using the urinal next to them, it takes them longer to start urinating, but once they start they finish faster, as if they’re trying to get it over with and leave quickly. So you’re not imagining it: Being observed in the bathroom does make the experience more stressful.

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Dear Dan,

Recently I’ve been bombarded with requests for donations from various charities and political groups. Is it better to donate larger amounts of money to a few causes or smaller amounts to many?

—Barbara 

There are many ways to define “better,” but if you’re asking what’s better for you personally, I would recommend making smaller, more frequent donations. Every time we help others, even a small amount, we get a boost of positive emotion, so you would enjoy this benefit more often. And because it’s psychologically harder to part with large amounts of money, you will enjoy making small donations more, which means you’re more likely to make giving into a habit.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Doing Dishes, Curbing Consumerism, and Reducing Regret

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,

When I host friends for dinner, can I ask them to help with cleaning up afterward? I hate doing dishes, but maybe it’s impolite to ask guests to share the load.

—Evelyn 

I think that you should ask your friends to help. Doing dishes isn’t fun, but if your guests pitch in they will derive satisfaction from knowing they are helping you out. Not only is it a way for them to express appreciation for the meal, but working together on a task is a way of increasing social bonds.

But since the end of an experience is important in determining how we remember and evaluate it, you may want to avoid ending the evening with this chore. Instead, try cleaning up together right after the meal and then invite everyone for a final drink. Of course, that would create a few more glasses to wash, but you would end the evening on a positive note.

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Hi, Dan.

I’ve told my family and friends that I don’t want them to buy me any gifts for the holidays this year—I already have everything I need. I’ve also learned about the bad working conditions for store employees during the holiday season and don’t want to contribute to the problem. Still, I’m worried that by cutting out gifts, I’ll miss the fun and energy of the season. Do you have any suggestions for other ways to show generosity?

—Name 

Your commitment to avoiding consumerism this holiday season is admirable, but naturally it would be disappointing to see all your friends having fun and getting gifts while you don’t.

Why don’t you make a list of items you have at home in good condition but don’t want, and ask your friends to make a similar list. On Black Friday weekend, instead of hitting the sales, you could all get together and exchange things on your lists. If you want to have the fun of hunting for bargains, you could even hold an “auction” where you negotiate which items you are willing to trade. This way you will get some new things for the holidays, you will experience some of the fun of shopping and looking for deals, and you will be sticking to your principles.

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Dear Dan,

I’m shopping for a new car and I’ve been finding it hard to make a decision. Which would I regret more—buying a car I really want but later finding out that I made a bad choice, or not buying the car I really want and later finding out I should have bought it?

—Warren 

Research shows that in the short term, we tend to regret actions—in this case, buying a car—more than inactions. But in the long term, we’re more likely to regret the things we didn’t do. Psychologists suspect that this is because the consequences of inaction are uncertain and take much longer to make an impact. So while you might have regrets at first if you buy a car you don’t like, choosing not to buy a car you love would be worse in the long run.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.