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Ask Ariely: On Mug Matters, Smoking Stoppers, and Pregnancy Preferences

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,

In the kitchen at work, my colleagues often leave piles of dishes and mugs in the sink, right in front of the sign asking everyone to clean up their things and put them away. How would you get more of my co-workers to deal with their own dirty dishes?

—Rosie 

Use transparency—that is, try to make it possible to tell exactly who’s following the clean-up rules and who isn’t. When we feel anonymous, it’s much easier to commit minor infractions like leaving a dirty cup or dish behind. Eliminating the anonymity would make your coworkers feel more accountable.

At our lab at Duke, we had the same problem. As soon as there was a single dirty mug in our sink, people thought it was OK to add more. Soon the sink would be full. So we bought everyone a mug with his or her name on it and got rid of the old nameless mugs. Now it’s clear who the mug offenders are, and this solved the problem.

I would suggest asking everyone to bring in personalized dishware. For those who don’t comply, get a permanent marker and write their names on the back of dishes. As long as people see that their less-than-desirable actions are evident to everyone else, the pile of dirty dishes won’t come back.

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Dear Dan,

Two cigarette manufacturers in the U.S. recently had to start airing TV and newspaper advertisements explaining the negative effects of smoking as well as the addictive properties of their products. Will these ads have any effect? It strikes me as a naively rationalistic approach of the “if people only knew, they would change their behavior” variety. This strategy has existed for decades—and it has not made a difference. Do you think that the new ads will actually reduce smoking?

—Steve 

I suspect that you are correct and that this is going to be a very costly, ineffective way to curb smoking. By now, it’s common knowledge that smoking causes cancer and other serious health problems—no one will be surprised by what’s in these ads. In general, information about health risks has done little to promote healthier behavior. Just think about the many ignored pleas to wash hands, to pay attention to calorie labels or to stop texting while driving.

If it were up to me, I would try an emotional approach that focused on some immediate negative effects of smoking like body odor or yellow teeth. A more extreme approach, which uses moral outrage, would be to tell people that if they smoke they are simply slaves of the cigarette companies, the same ones that for years have deliberately and knowingly harmed their customers.

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Dear Dan,

My boyfriend doesn’t want to have children, but I do. What can I do?

—Amy 

There is an interesting psychological reflex called the endowment effect. Basically, once we become the owners of something, we start looking at it from a different perspective. In particular, we begin to look at what we own as more valuable. Here’s where your question comes in: The endowment effect would suggest that someone who has not been that excited about the idea of having children starts looking at them more favorably if he learns that he is the owner (father) of a child.

So this weekend why don’t you ask your boyfriend to play a game called “spot the fake news.” Tell him a few things that are true and a few that are not, including the “news” that you are expecting. Before you end the game and reveal the truth, have another discussion about having children—and see if the new perspective gets him to see things differently. Good luck.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.


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