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Dan ArielyBack to OpinionDan Ariely

Don’t regret the future: why it’s hard to ‘just say no’

One of the main difficulties I face on a daily basis is an inability to say “no.” I have always had this problem, but it used to be that nobody really asked much from me, so this weakness didn’t pose a real problem. Now that behavioral economics has become more popular, I receive invitations to speak almost every day. Accordingly, my inability to say “no” has turned into a real challenge.

I think it is because of three different reasons:

1. Avoidance of regret.

Regret is a very interesting, uncomfortable feeling. It is about not where we are, but where we could be. It is too easy to imagine that things could have been better. Think of a circumstance in which you don’t feel regret at the moment but want to avoid feeling it in the future. Let’s say you are buying an expensive new flat-screen TV. As you are whipping out your credit card to pay, the salesperson offers you an extended warranty for an additional 10 percent off the sticker price. You don’t relish the thought of paying more for this extended warranty, but the salesperson asks you to imagine how would you feel if, six months down the road, the TV stopped working and you had passed on the opportunity for the extended warranty. To make the moment even more salient, the salesperson adds that the offer is only available to you now (and only now!). With this final push, you go ahead and purchase the extended warranty — paying a premium to avoid the possibility that in the future you will tell yourself that you should have purchased the extended warranty when you had the chance.

What has all this got to do with my own inability to say “no”? My version of the extended warranty is that I get invited to all kinds of stimulating conferences and meetings in amazing places, with interesting people. And the invitations always feel as if they are my only chance to see that particular place and meet those particular people.

2. The curse of familiarity.

When a problem is large, general and abstract, it is easy for us to turn our heads away and not care too much about it. But when the problem is close to home our emotions are evoked, and we are more likely to take action.

Similarly, when I receive formal invitations from people I don’t know, it is relatively easy to politely turn down their offer. But when I receive invitations from people I do know, even if only superficially, it’s a different story altogether. The better I know someone, the harder it is to say, “No, sorry, you know I would really love to come, but I just can’t.”

One of the clever ways I attempt to deal with this is to ask my wonderful assistant Megan to say no for me in the cases where I have to do so. This way, I don’t have to feel the pain of saying “no,” and because she is not saying “no” for herself, she has a much easier time with it than I do.

3. The future is always greener.

I also find that it’s easier to say “yes” to things in the future, particularly the distant future. If someone asks me to come to an event in the next month or two, I generally have no choice but to say “no” because I’m either traveling or fully booked — there’s just no space in my schedule. But when someone asks me to do something in a year, my calendar naturally looks far emptier. Of course, the feeling that I will have lots of extra time in the future is just an illusion – my life will likely be just as full of myriad, often unavoidable things. It’s just that the details aren’t filled in yet.

My friends Gal Zauberman and John Lynch, who have done research on this topic, recently gave me some interesting advice. They suggested that I imagine that every single event I’m asked to attend will occur exactly four weeks from the present. With this exact schedule I mind, I should then ask myself whether I find it important enough to squeeze it in or cancel something else.

What if I had an advanced calendar application made just for people who have a hard time admitting out how busy they will be in the future? Ideally, such an application would take all my meetings and travel from a given period and, based on that schedule, simulate what my time would look like in a year. Perhaps this advanced calendar application is something I should start working on in a few months…

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. His latest book, “The Upside of Irrationality”, was released in 2010. This essay originally appeared on his blog.