Sorry, Dan, but I’ve Got to Disagree with You On This One (Again)

Here’s the opening to a post I wrote about six months ago:

I’ve mentioned Dan Ariely several times before in my posts (here, here, here, here, here, and here). He’s one of my favorite behavioral economists, and has written a couple of best-selling books on decision making, including Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. Dan is a Professor at Duke University and has also published in many of the leading academic journals. He also writes a frequent column for the Wall Street Journal titled “Ask Dan”.

I then went on in that post to note that I disagreed with a piece of advice he had given to someone in regards to teacher gifts.

Well now I’m back at it again, or should I say Dan is back at it again, giving advice that I don’t agree with.

Here’s a question that was in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

We grow lots of tomatoes in our backyard garden, and we eat or freeze all of them. Each year, our neighbors hint about wanting some share of the bounty. We like our neighbors and occasionally socialize with them, but we fear that sharing our tomatoes will create an expectation for subsequent years. We also worry that such a gift would suggest the tomatoes are free when they actually cost us dearly in time and effort. Are we right, or are we just stingy tomato-hoarders?

And here is the start of Dan’s response:

You’ve got a point. Just giving your neighbors the tomatoes that they covet will indeed encourage them to take for granted the work that goes into growing them. It will also create the expectation of future installments.

At this point I just assumed that Dan was trying to be funny, and that in the next paragraph he was going to say of course you should offer some of your tomatoes to your neighbors, that’s what neighbors do.

But that’s not what Dan suggested.

He kept going with the theme he established in the first paragraph of his response:

You could try to pre-empt the issue altogether by complaining demonstratively to your neighbors at the start of each growing season that you fear you won’t be able to grow enough to meet your own needs this year. But that would be dishonest.

Here’s a better approach: help your neighbors to experience firsthand the effort involved. This season, pick a weekend when you’ll be doing a lot of arduous garden work (maybe tilling the soil) and invite the folks next door to help out.

This will lessen your own workload and let them see how much sweat goes into gardening. You will then feel better about sharing some of the tomatoes that they will have helped to grow. Maybe your neighbors will learn to like gardening enough to start their own garden—and will share their own crops with you next year.

Well I’m glad that Dan didn’t recommend the dishonest approach.

But his recommendation to invite your neighbors over to help with the gardening seems like one of the craziest suggestions I could think of. Maybe my neighborhood is different, but I haven’t heard of anyone inviting their neighbors over to help them with their garden, particularly with a hidden agenda of not wanting to share your harvest with those neighbors.

To me it’s a simple solution. If your neighbor asks for some tomatoes, give them a few tomatoes. Whatever you estimate as the cost of doing so I assume will be more than made up for in the goodwill you’ve established with your neighbor.

Ultimately, I think your neighbors are more important than your tomatoes.

If these disagreements with Dan continue, it may be time for me to start my own advice column. Perhaps I can resurrect the weekly advice column I wrote for my college newspaper during my junior and senior years. All of the letters I allegedly received from readers were fabricated, and the advice I offered was even more untrustworthy.

But fake news seems to be hot these days, so maybe the timing would be perfect.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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