Ask Ariely: On Valentine’s Day, (Over)valuing our Things, and Parental Approval

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

My friends and I hate Valentine’s Day: It feels arbitrary, contrived and commercial. How can we change our attitude to make the day feel meaningful?

—Frank

What bothers you may not be the arbitrary nature of Valentine’s Day. Lots of celebrations occur on arbitrary dates (New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and so on), and few people complain. What probably bugs you is the feeling that Valentine’s Day was created as a ploy by the marketing departments of jewelry, chocolate and flower sellers. And it is this adversarial perspective that makes you dislike Valentine’s Day.

Let me suggest a different way to frame Valentine’s Day. In my experience, the vast majority of people aren’t romantic enough, and we often take our significant others for granted. This lack of attention and care translates to conflicts and joint misery. Basically, when we are left to our own devices, we just don’t do enough—as the noted behavioral economist Stevie Wonder put it—to say how much we care.

So since we seem to be romantically challenged, we probably could use some reminders and rules to spur more affectionate behavior. So think of Valentine’s Day as an annual mechanism to help us reflect on our loved ones and pay them a bit of extra attention. The only real question is: Why do we have Valentine’s Day only once a year? Don’t we need it once a week, or at least once a month?

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Dear Dan,

My job involves helping divorcing couples divide their marital estates—their income, assets and debt. I’ve often noticed that my clients irrationally overvalue what they personally own—from jewelry and furniture to pension plans. How can I get them to think more logically about their property?

—Adam

Sometime I ask the students in my classes to build a simple Lego car. When they finish, I place a large trash bin in the middle of the room and ask them to break their creation apart and deposit the pieces in the bin. I also tell them that I will be taking all the pieces, sorting them into sets and using them again in next year’s class. Each time, I see horror in their faces. What kind of a person would ask them to take their creation, destroy it and give it away?

I let them marinate in their grief for a few seconds as I head to the back of the room to haul in the trash can. Before anyone starts breaking their Lego creations, I stop them, tell them that they can keep their Legos and ask them to reflect on their feelings. The students had only a very brief relationship with their Lego masterpieces, but they got very attached to it—which demonstrates how quickly we get attached to the things we own. Now, imagine how much more attached people get if they own something for a really long time.

So what can you do about this attachment problem in your business? Try taking both parties’ possessions and moving them to a trust for a year. When you back come to distribute the property a year later, they may well feel less ownership—and be more open to a reasonable division.

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Dear Dan,

I don’t know how to tell whether I am in love. Each time I become close to a boy, I start thinking about whether my family would accept him and start seeing him through my parents’ eyes. So I never fully immerse myself in any relationship, and I can’t disentangle my opinion of the guy from my parents’. How can I figure out my own, independent feelings?

—Seema

A hint: If you’re thinking about your parents when you meet a boy, you aren’t in love.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.