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Ask Ariely: On Denying Donuts, Car Conversations, and Curbing Confidence

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 often fight with temptation, and it usually wins. I want to eat better, exercise more, save a bit for retirement and in general consider the future when I make decisions. How can I resist temptation?

—John 

There’s no easy answer to this old problem. As Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything except temptation.” The endless stream of enticements throughout the day makes it hard to consistently make good decisions. Even if we resist an urge here and there, we tend to end up failing a lot.

That’s where personal rules can help. In effect, we make a one-time decision when we create a guideline, and from then on, we are just executing a pre-existing policy, which makes life considerably simpler.

Imagine that someone in your office brought in a box of doughnuts every day, forcing you to decide every day whether to indulge. You would probably be able to overcome the temptation from time to time, but you would also probably break down on other occasions. If you simply had a flat personal policy—no doughnuts during the workweek—you would bypass the daily decision.

Of course, even the strongest among us is likely to break such rules every now and then, but having a policy and declaring it to yourself will help to keep you from giving in.

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Dear Dan,

Studies have shown that talking on a cellphone while driving (even using hands-free technology) is about as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. But talking to someone sitting in the passenger seat is widely considered fine. Why is talking on the phone in the car so much more dangerous?

—Larry

Your question revolves around the social norms of conversation. When we drive, a passenger can see what’s going on around the car—a bus swerving, a pedestrian running across the street, a light turning amber—and with this shared knowledge, both the driver and the passenger adjust the conversation. They chat more intensely when the driving conditions are good, and they shut up when road conditions demand more attention. A pause in the conversation isn’t strange for the passenger, who can also see what’s going on.

By contrast, when we’re talking on the phone while driving, our interlocutor has no idea what’s happening in and around the car and keeps up the conversation whether we can afford to divide our attention or not. The driver, who feels social pressure to be polite and keep chatting, has less attention to devote to the road and winds up taking extra chances. We thus put ourselves at great personal risk just to avoid being rude.

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Dear Dan,

I work at a consulting company where a heavy dose of personal overconfidence is standard. Any advice on how to reduce it?

—Jeff 

I’m not sure this is a problem. Social progress often depends on overly confident people. Consider those who open restaurants: They are clearly fighting the odds, and if they looked objectively at their decision, they might not be ready to gamble. But would we want to live in a society where people avoid such risks? The food would certainly be worse.

Overconfidence has an upside as well as a downside. So before you try to decrease it, think about the benefits it brings to your firm—including more innovation and motivation—and only then decide whether decreasing overconfidence is really the way to go.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.


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