Behavioral economist Dan Ariely and his colleagues at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight have a pact. Every week, the group of 50 people picks one small business in Durham, North Carolina, and each person spends $100 there.
A one-time $5,000 infusion wouldn’t make a difference to Amazon, Costco or any other large retailer, but it could be enough to keep a local business afloat, Ariely says. Taking this action helps the group feel that they’re making a difference when so much of the world seems out of control.
“This is, to a large degree, a crisis of Main Street,” says Ariely, the bestselling author of books including “Predictably Irrational.” “We’re taking a retailer and we’re saying, ‘We’re giving you a little bit of breathing room.’”
Massive unemployment, a volatile stock market and a potentially prolonged recession related to the pandemic have left many Americans feeling helpless and fearful about the future.
“There are so many things we don’t have control over and can’t predict,” says Ariely, who also serves as the chief behavioral economist for the banking app Qapital. “And living without control is a very tough thing.”
But Ariely suggests that we can use insights from behavioral economics — which studies the psychological, emotional and cognitive factors that influence our decisions — to wrest back some control.
Sense of accomplishment
Ariely recommends looking for areas where you can measure progress. For example, walking is good exercise, but you’re not going to feel much improvement over time, he says.
“On the other hand, if you do a pushup, every few days you can do another pushup,” Ariely says. “You would feel a sense of accomplishment, you will feel a sense of control.”
Likewise, simply spending less — and seeing your checking account balance decline more slowly — isn’t very satisfying. What’s more fulfilling is adding to a savings account and watching the balance grow.
Automated transfers, such as 401(k) contributions from your paycheck, can help people save with little effort. But if you’re looking for more control, think about making manual transfers to a savings account as well.
“Every time you take this action, you’re in control, right?” Ariely says. “Psychologically, gaining some control is very healthy.”
In addition to disrupting our lives, the pandemic has disrupted our spending — and that ultimately could be positive, Ariely says.
“It’s a good opportunity to reexamine our habits and to see which habits we were spending a lot of money on that did not bring us a lot of joy,” Ariely says.
Perhaps we fell into a routine of eating out a few times a week because we failed to plan meals or didn’t know how to cook. If we look at how much money we spent eating out before the pandemic compared with how much we enjoyed the experience, we might change that habit even when conditions improve.
“If you said, ‘My life is miserable since I stopped going out,’ go back to it,” Ariely says. “But maybe you said, ‘The reality is that twice a month is just as good as twice a week. I don’t know how I got into this habit.’”
Applying for jobs can be a dismal experience. Even before the pandemic, when unemployment was low, job seekers might apply for dozens or even hundreds of positions before landing one, Ariely says. That means they have to hear a lot of “no” before getting to the desired “yes.”
“It just feels like a failure continuously,” he says. “And the thing about feeling like a failure is, guess what? It’s not very motivating.”
Instead of focusing on the end result, Ariely suggests setting daily goals, such as applying for three jobs every morning before you do anything else.
“If you’re making it a habit, the reward is in completing the habit,” Ariely says.
This approach can work for any goal that could be a long way off, whether it’s significant weight loss or enough money to retire. Measure yourself by your habits, such as avoiding sugar or contributing to a retirement account, rather than obsessing about numbers on a scale or the balance in your 401(k).
“You’re going to control what you do. That’s what you have control over,” he says.
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @lizweston.
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