An Irrational Guide to Gifts

November 26, 2010 BY danariely

I have recently been asking people around me what they think makes a good gift.  And I don’t mean specific items like sunglasses or one of my books (which are all excellent ideas); I was looking to find some of the basic principles and characteristics of good gifts.  One of the best answers I’ve gotten so far is this: “A good gift is something that someone really wants, but feels guilty buying it for themselves.”  What is interesting about this answer is that the ideal gift from this perspective is not about getting the person something that they can’t afford, or something that they have no idea that they want – it is all about alleviating guilt connected with the purchase of a highly desirable (yet guilt invoking) item.  So, lets consider two ways in which good gifts can eliminate guilt:

Case 1* Imagine that you are walking by a storefront and you notice a beautiful coat that is just the right cut and color.  You walk in to check it out, and up close it is even more beautiful.  But then, you look at the price tag and you discover that it is about twice as expensive as you originally guessed, and after 30 seconds of painful deliberation you decide that you can’t possibly justify paying so much for a coat – and you go on your way.  When you get home, you find out that your significant other has purchased that same exact coat for you … from your joint checking account.  Now, ask yourself how you would feel about this. Would you say a) “Honey, this is very nice of you, but I have weighted the costs and benefits earlier and decided that this coat is not worth the money — so please take it back immediately” or b) “Thank you so much, I love it, and I love you!”  I suspect that the answer is b. Why? Because by getting you the expensive coat, your significant other got you what you wanted without making you contemplate the guilt associated with the purchase.

Case 2** Imagine that you have just finished a fantastic meal and have the option to pay with cash or with a credit card.  Which one will “hurt” a bit more?  You probably think that paying with cash will be a more miserable way of spending your money – but why?  Because, as Drazen Prelec and George Loewenstein show, when we couple payment with consumption, the result is a reduction in happiness. When we pay with a credit card the timing of the consumption of the food and the agony of the payment occur at different points in time, and this separation allows us to experience a higher level of enjoyment (at least until we get the bill).

To think some more about this example, imagine that I own a restaurant and I realize that on average people eat 50 bites and pay $50.  One day you come to my restaurant and I tell you that because I like you so much I will give you a great price and charge you half price – only 50¢ per bite. In addition, I will also charge you only for the bites you eat, and you will not have to pay for the bits that you don’t eat.  What I will do is serve you your food and stand next to you with my notebook open and mark in it each bite you take.  At the end of the meal I will charge you 50¢ for every bite you took.  I think you will agree that this would be a fantastically cheap meal relative to the regular price, but I also suspect you will agree that the process will not be much fun.  Most likely, every time you take a bite you will be thinking “is this worth it?” and in the process not enjoy the meal at all.  Woody Allen might have said it best in the Manhattan taxi ride when he turns to his date to say, “You look so beautiful, I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter.”

The lesson here is that when the timing of consumption and payment are close together, the experience ends up being much less pleasurable. From this perspective you can think about gift certificates for iTunes, drinks, movies, etc. as gifts that not only get people to experience something new, but also get them to experience something guilt-free, and without the pain of paying.

In summary, I think that the best gifts circumvent guilt in two key ways: by eliminating the guilt that accompanies extravagant purchases, and by reducing the guilt that comes from coupling payment with consumption. The best advice on gift-giving, therefore, is to get something that someone really wants but would feel guilty buying otherwise.

May this be a joyful gift-giving season – and in case you want to get me something, I love gadgets, but feel extremely guilty buying them.

Dan Ariely

A shorter version of this post has appeared at the WSJ

[* This example is based on a paper by Dick Thaler, “Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice,” Marketing Science, 1985]

[** This example is based on a paper by Drazen Prelec and George Loewenstein, “The Red and the Black: Mental Accounting of Savings and Debt,” Marketing Science, 17(1), 4-28, 1998]