Ask Ariely: Holiday Edition

December 22, 2012 BY danariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Hi, Dan!

Every year it’s the same problem: My husband and I struggle to get his dad a few perfect gifts, only to see them sit unused for eternity. These are good things, too, expensive and high quality—specialty tools for his car, toolboxes, super-handy gadgets, etc. But years later, the tools sit there unopened and the toolbox has dust on it. He still carries his broken wrenches and stripped screwdrivers around in a ripped plastic sack!

OK, an old story, I know. But would it be so wrong if we just took the gifts back? He doesn’t want them. We could use them ourselves. Since the objects were “ours” at one point, we feel that we still retain some residual interest in what happens to them. Is it because we invested so much thought and effort in acquiring them?

Thanks for all your good works, and happy holidays!


No, you may not take the gifts back. (Note that I didn’t write “your gifts,” because I don’t think you should picture them as yours.)

The sad thing is that you and your husband feel unappreciated because your thoughtful and expensive gifts are not bringing the dear old man the happiness that you hoped to give him. Instead of taking the gifts back, I would try to increase the likelihood that the tools will get used. First, I would take them out of their packaging and replace the old tools in his plastic sack with the new ones—thereby making the act of using them more likely. As for the old tools, just put them in the attic for now.

If your father-in-law protests, I would restore his old tool kit and suggest spring cleaning and the donation of unused household goods to a local charity. He might be willing to give the new tools up for a good cause. And if that doesn’t work, stage a robbery and steal them, leaving cash and other valuables untouched. The added benefit of this approach is that it might also show your father-in-law how valuable your gifts are.

As for this year, buy him something that gets better over time, such as good whiskey or wine. That way, if he doesn’t use it, it will at least grow in value and not bother you as much.


Dear Dan,

I bought two bottles of wine at a wine store that was running a “Buy one, get another for five cents” deal. The first bottle was priced at $16.99. I bought the second one, a different wine but listed for the same price, for five cents.

If I’m going to take one of the bottles for a holiday dinner at a close friend’s house, which wine should I take? Will the fact that I paid only five cents make me take that one over the full-priced bottle?


We’ve known for a long time that there’s a correlation between what you pay for a wine and how good it tastes to you, but this correlation only exists, of course, when people know the price. As Robin Goldstein from www.fearlesscritic.com has shown, when people don’t know how much a wine costs, there’s no correlation between the price and how good they think it is.

Taking this into account, the first question you should ask yourself is whether to tell your friends about the cost of the wine or not. If you don’t tell them, then there’s no problem—just take the cheap one. It is true that by knowing the price that you paid for it, you will enjoy it less, but everyone else will be just fine. On the other hand, if you decide to tell them the price, I would suggest bringing the $16.99 Bottle, and maybe even include the cost of driving to the wine store.


Dear Dan

Do you believe in New Year’s resolutions?


Yes. Every year for about a week: for about five days before New Year’s Day and for about two days after.


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.