A good gift should have these two characteristics

Editor’s Note: Valentine’s Day is upon us, so I took the opportunity to call behavioral economist Dan Ariely to talk about relationships and dating. Ariely gave a Google Talk on the topic back in October that piqued my interest. What I wanted to know was: What’s the best gift to buy a significant other?

It turns out, I’ve been giving gifts all wrong.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

The following text has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Kristen Doerer: What is the best gift to buy a significant other? I’m sure that’s probably something that’s on a number of people’s minds right now as they scramble for last-minute gifts.

Dan Ariely: A good gift has two characteristics. The first one is that it alleviates guilt. So there are gifts that are basically about economic exchange — for example, you buy someone who doesn’t have money socks. It’s a gift, but it’s a transfer of wealth. When we give gifts to people we love, it’s not about a transfer of wealth. If you’re married to them, you’re just transferring the wealth within the family. So you want to give purchases that have a very high “pain of paying.” Pain of paying is that feeling that comes from something that you really want, but you would feel guilty buying for yourself.

So think about massages or pens. We really don’t use pens that much anymore. Would you really spend $300, $400, $500 on a pen? It’s kind of crazy, right? So I actually make a point of giving pens. I give pens to all my Ph.D. students. I buy an expensive pen that they will never buy for themselves, because it’s a pure waste economically speaking. I bring that pen to the dissertation defense, I get everybody in the committee to sign their dissertation using that pen, and then I give it to them. They wouldn’t have bought it for themselves, plus I endow it with extra meaning. So that’s the first thing: Give something that has a very high pain of paying.

The second principle is you want a gift that will keep on reminding the person about your love for them. So this is the case where even if it gives you a high pain of paying, a massage comes and goes. It’s not going to be a reminder. But if I get you a good pen and you keep it on your desk, I’m kind of a part of your life for a long time.

Kristen Doerer: Alright, so a massage fulfills one of those principles. So would that be a good gift, or are you saying it would be better to do both?

Dan Ariely: It’s better than chocolate and flowers, but it’s not good enough. I would say aim for both.

Now, there’s another approach — there are some things in life that you don’t even know that you like, but I think that you would like it. That’s the more of a “paternalistic gift,” where you say, “There’s something that you’ve never experienced, but I think that you would benefit from it.” And giving something like this — if it’s successful — is actually very good.

We did a study on a lot of gift givers, thousands of them, and we asked people to categorize the last gift that they gave, and we asked people to categorize the last gift they received. And what we found that people were very timid gift givers; they didn’t want to take risks. What’s the least risky gift you can buy when you go to somebody’s house for dinner? A bottle of wine. It’s not as bad as giving them cash, but it’s really not a gift. You’re not taking any risks. If you’re giving them a painting, they might hate it, so now you’re taking a risk.

But what was interesting is that while gift givers were very afraid of taking risks, gift recipients really wished the other person took more risks. You see, if you give me a bottle of wine, sure, we’ll consume some wine, but it will go away. But if you take a risk and give me something I don’t like, I’ll get to learn something new, maybe even about the stuff I don’t like, and then maybe I’ll give it away to somebody else. Whatever I do with it, it’s not necessarily going to be worse than a bottle of wine from the perspective of my understanding of you.

Now, if you give me something I really hate, you know I might say, “Oh my goodness, you really don’t have any idea of who I am!” So there’s a risk there. But I think there is a tremendous benefit in trying something and taking more risks.

Another gift I really love is headphones — expensive headphones. You get the headphones with your phone that cost $20 and then there are ones that cost $500 or more. And it feels kind of crazy to spend a lot of money on headphones, but headphones are a very romantic gift if you think about it. Something that you have given remains in that person’s ear. So my idea recipe is that you say to your significant other, “Happy Valentine’s Day,” you give them a kiss, and then you say, “I want you to always remember this love, and this moment, and how we feel about each other, and me standing here whispering in your ears and telling you how much I love you. And I want you to take this, and every time you put it in your ear, I want you to think about this moment.”

Now, will they keep on thinking about it? Probably not all the time, but from time to time, great.