Ask Ariely: On Gauche Gifts, Pleasurable Promenades, and Ideal Incentives

January 24, 2021 BY Dan Ariely

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.


Dear Dan,

I bought my brother a top-of-the line espresso machine for his birthday. My wife remarked that it was a very generous and thoughtful gift, so I took that as a hint and got her the same espresso machine for her birthday. But she ended up not being very happy with my gift. Why do you think she wasn’t as excited as I expected?


Gifts are ways to give people things they want, but with romantic partners, what they really want is to feel special. According to a recent study by Lalin Anik of the University of Virginia and Ryan Hauser of Yale, that’s why people often prefer to receive a unique gift from their significant other rather than a lavish one. By giving your wife the same coffee machine you gave to your brother, you’re not communicating that she is special to you; in fact, she may feel that you simply wanted to spend a minimum of time and effort finding a gift. Even if you were to give her a coffee machine, it would have been better to give her a different model and tell her how much time you invested finding the exact right machine for her.


Dear Dan,

It’s only January, and I’m already bored by my New Year’s resolution to go on a walk each day. What can I do to make this daily exercise more enjoyable?


Rather than dreading the time you set aside for your daily walk, why don’t you try to combine it with something you find more pleasurable? For example, you could allow yourself to listen to your favorite audiobook or podcast only while you’re walking. The key is to keep this pleasure only for your walks and promise yourself not to listen to it any other time. This way you will start to associate taking a walk with something positive, making you look forward to it as a reward rather than seeing it as an unpleasant obligation.


Dear Dan,

I’m responsible for setting up a mentorship program, and I need student volunteers. Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time getting enough people to sign up. Should I offer to pay students for volunteering?


Traditional economics teaches that financial incentives are the best way to reward and motivate people, but in some cases they can backfire. For instance, research has shown that when it comes to rewarding people for a public-spirited action like volunteering, a small gift is likely to be a very good motivator, while a small amount of money is worse than offering nothing at all. That’s because we are used to thinking of money as payment for work, so we start to evaluate whether the amount being offered is fair compensation for the effort involved in volunteering. Gift-giving, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of social exchange; it’s something we do to build relationships and be part of a community.
If you were paying students a large amount of money, on the other hand, that could be a very good motivator. But since volunteer efforts and nonprofits usually can’t afford to pay much, projects like your are better off keeping people in the realm of social exchange by offering volunteers small gifts, like a T-shirt or a pen.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.