Behavioral economist Dan Ariely writes wisely for the WSJ

Why We Ignore Friends to Look at Our Phones

A behavioral economist answers questions on a new digital faux pas and the importance of learning by doing


By Dan ArielyAug. 26, 2021 1:56 pm ET

Dear Dan,

After so many months of isolation, I am bewildered to observe that many people experience the compulsive need to check their phones at cafes or restaurants, completely ignoring their friends and family. Why do people engage in such rude behavior? —Alan

The phenomenon you are describing—using one’s smartphone during face-to-face interactions—has been termed phone snubbing or “phubbing.” Most people perceive it to be rude, and it can have serious repercussions for the level of satisfaction in a friendship. But it often has more to do with the phubber’s personality than with lack of interest in the conversation.

In a 2021 study of young adults, the authors found that depressed and socially anxious people are more likely to phub their friends. This is likely explained by the fact that people with social anxiety find online communication less uncomfortable than in-person conversations. On the other hand, phubbing is less common among people who score high on “agreeableness,” which psychologists define as striving to avoid conflict. Agreeable people make an effort to be polite and friendly in order to maintain social harmony.

If you find it hard to resist looking at your phone even while in company, what can you do? An easy solution is to turn off your text and email notifications, so you won’t be tempted to look at each incoming message. Even better, put your phone on airplane mode. If you want a polite way to suggest that a meal should be phone-free, deliberately place your phone with the screen down in the middle of the table, signaling to the other people in your group to do the same

Are Covid Fears an Okay Social Excuse?

A behavioral economist answers questions about when to tell the truth in declining an invitation and [omitted].


By Dan ArielyAug. 12, 2021 4:09 pm ETPRINTTEXTListen to articleLength 3 minutes

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely uses psychological research to advise on everyday dilemmas. Read more columns here.

Dear Dan,

A week ago, a close friend invited me to a wedding. I really want to join the celebration, but with the Delta variant and surge in Covid cases, I’m almost certain I won’t go. I have to tell my friend that I will miss this important day, but I want to do it without seeming judgmental. I’m not sure if I should mention my Covid safety concerns. What’s the most graceful way to decline this invitation? —Megan

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Saying no to social events can be tough, and people are inclined to provide all kinds of made-up excuses. Your question is whether it is better to invent a pretext for not showing up or rather to explain that you will be absent due to Covid concerns. The short answer is that in this case, it is better to be transparent and truthful. 

In a recent study with 822 participants, some people were asked to imagine that they were “excuse providers,” rejecting an invitation from a friend. Others were to imagine that they were “excuse receivers” whose invitation was rejected. The “providers” were sometimes asked to decline the invitation because of Covid risks.

The researchers sought to understand how people would feel about turning down invitations, or being turned down, on Covid-related grounds. They found that those making the excuse worried about hurting their friends when they offered pandemic-related justifications. Those receiving the excuse, on the other hand, actually reported feeling closer to the friends who cited concerns about Covid. They appreciated being reminded of the risks and viewed their friends as moral and caring.

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