Ask Ariely: On Lasting Gifts, Pre-engagement, and Incentivizing Scientists

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,

What is the best gift to give my mom for Mother’s Day?

—Logan

Mother’s Day comes once a year, but mothering is an everyday activity—which is why you should try to get your mother a gift that keeps giving in some way for the entire year. In general, transient things don’t make great gifts: flowers, gift certificates, cleaning supplies. Here are some better ideas: A special pillowcase, a nice case for her smartphone, a good wallet, an artistic keychain—or anything else that she’s likely to use daily, which will remind her of your gratitude. And of course, say something especially nice when you give it to her: The giving-ceremony and the accompanying words will define the way she will think about the gift and her relationship with you. And remember—you can’t be too mushy.

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Dear Dan,

My partner and I have been together for a few years. At some point, I am sure we will get married. However, I’m not in any hurry to get engaged, let alone worry about a wedding date and all the planning that comes after. My partner, on the other hand, he is perfectly ready. What should I do?

—Aline

First, let’s ask why your boyfriend is so keen to get engaged soon. Perhaps it’s because you’ve been dating for a long time, and he wants to feel that the relationship is moving forward. Or perhaps he isn’t sure that the two of you really are going to get married, and he wants to try to seal the deal.

Depending on his reasons, you might be able to help assuage the root cause of his concern without getting engaged. If his concern is just about moving forward, you can take some lessons from game designers. Right now, you are playing a three-step “game”—dating, engagement, marriage. You don’t want to move to level two or three yet, so maybe you can design a game with more levels—with several steps between dating and marriage. There’s dating, dating steadily, dating seriously, pre-engagement, engagement and post-engagement. By thinking in terms of these additional steps, your boyfriend could get a feeling of progress while you avoid a feeling of pressure.

On the other hand, if he’s looking for more certainty about where you two are headed, you can do all kinds of things to make clear that you intend to stay with him for a very long time. Maybe you could set up a joint bank account, make plans for things far in the future or buy a car together.

If you don’t know the real concern, use both approaches.

One last personal note: In my experience, whenever we face a decision about something good—and presumably, getting married is something good—delaying is rarely better. The one downside, of course, is that once you do decide to get married, your parents are going to start calling to ask when you are going to give them grandchildren.

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Dear Dan,

How can I find scientists who will study people’s poop-pickup behaviors and help design campaigns to get more people to clean up after their dogs?

—Emily

Offer them treats. Treats for scientists are a bit more complex than treats for pets, but if you were to announce a competition of ideas to solve the dog-poop problem, promise to try the different proposals in a scientific way and announce the winner publicly, that combination of ego and data would probably work nicely.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.