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Ask Ariely: On Opposing Opinions, Feeling Failures, and Adjusting Activities

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 recently learned about research showing that when people hold extreme beliefs, giving them data that contradicts their basic opinions actually strengthens those beliefs! Does this mean that there is no way to change the beliefs of people with extreme opinions?

—Jordan 

Changing people’s opinions is indeed difficult, but there is hope. With people who hold extreme views, one paradoxical finding is that presenting them with even more extreme arguments in support of their beliefs persuades them to moderate. In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, Boaz Hameiri and colleagues describe a citywide intervention in Israel where they used this approach in an ad campaign about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The ad campaign was designed to try to change the opinions of right-wing Israelis who oppose peace.

The ads presented the participants with absurd claims about the benefits of the conflict—for example, that it’s good for camaraderie and morality and helps to create the unique culture of Israel. The results showed that the campaign changed minds: From what they said and how they reported voting, those with right-wing views became more conciliatory and cut back their support of aggressive policies, compared with residents of a comparable Israeli city without the ad campaign. The researchers hypothesize that the intervention succeeded because the ads caused people to more deeply consider their own beliefs.

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Hey, Dan!

Why do we believe we can learn from our own mistakes but blame other people’s failure on their personalities and/or lack of sufficient skills? Has this “one-way street” phenomenon been studied?

—Darin 

You are describing behavior that falls under the heading of what social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” In general, we tend to see good things that happen to us as the product of our own doing and bad things as the result of outside circumstances. Conversely, we tend to attribute good things that happen to other people to external circumstances and bad things to their own doing.

We believe that we can learn from our own mistakes because those mistakes aren’t really about us. We think they involve external circumstances that we can learn to handle better.

Can we learn to override this type of judgment? I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley recently, meeting with executives of startups and venture capitalists. I was struck by what often happens when a startup fails: People in Silicon Valley approach the setback much less negatively than the rest of the world does. Executives sometimes even look at their colleagues’ failure in a positive way, as a sign of experience and learning.

Can we generalize from Silicon Valley to the rest of the world? I’m not sure, but it seems to me that we can change the way we look at other people’s failures, and maybe even limit the blame we assign to them, as we would with our own failures.

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Hi, Dan.

Let’s say that your regular activities include things like playing poker with friends every week or gardening every weekend. How do you decide when to keep on going with these activities—or stop and try something new?

—Joanne 

Questioning the value of our routines is good, because it can help us to stop doing things we no longer enjoy. It’s bad, however, because such questioning gets in the way of whatever happiness the activity gives us. So I suggest that you question yourself—but only for a short time. Perhaps take the last week of December to evaluate how much pleasure you get from your leisure activities—and consider what you could do instead.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.


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