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Don't Be A Stupid Cupid! Hear How Not To Buy A Selfish Valentine's Day Gift


All right, here is some news that might make you doubt yourself when you're doing your Valentine's Day shopping. NPR's Shankar Vedantam tells us there's new research suggesting that the more you love someone, the more selfish you are in your gift-giving.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: When we buy gifts for loved ones, we are thinking about them. But new research suggests that because we're thinking about people we love, the way we think of gifts can certainly change. Work by Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago, along with Yanping Tu and Alex Shaw, show that when you buy gifts for close friends, you often think of the other person and yourself as a unit. So you often end up buying gifts that benefit the both of you and not just the other person. Sometimes your gift might actually end up benefiting yourself more. Fishbach told me her husband once gave her a gift like that.

AYELET FISHBACH: My husband once got me a coffee machine. I don't drink coffee. He loves it. You know, he drinks like four cups a day, so it benefited him more than me, and it certainly benefited our family.

GREENE: Wait a minute. Her husband buys a coffee machine, she doesn't drink coffee at all, but somehow he thought that this was a loving gift to her.

VEDANTAM: So here's the thing, David. When we see such behavior, we often assume the person's just being selfish. But in a series of experiments, Fishbach and her colleagues show this is not the case. This might actually stem more from affection than selfishness.

GREENE: Oh, I'm excited to hear this.

VEDANTAM: Let me explain how it could work. Let's say you and your wife are going to get a massage, and they tell you, you can get a half-hour massage, and your wife can get a half-hour massage, OK. So that's enough option one. So both of you collectively are getting an hour's worth of massage.

GREENE: You as a couple benefit from getting these massages.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: Got it.

VEDANTAM: Now here's option two. They tell you, one of you can get an hour's worth of massage while the other person gets 15 minutes. Now...

GREENE: Clearly I would give the hour-long massage to my wife.

VEDANTAM: Well, but in this case, the point to keep in mind is that collectively, you're getting an hour and 15 minutes of massage, which is more than an hour's worth of massage. What Fishbach and her colleagues are finding is that regardless of who gets the hour and who gets the 15 minutes, people will choose this option when they're thinking about getting a gift like this for a loved one because they say in some cases, my loved one might give up 15 minutes so I get an extra half hour. In other cases, they say, I might give up 15 minutes so my loved one can get a half hour. Either way, the unit comes out ahead.

GREENE: The partnership is like maybe you'll sacrifice for me, maybe I'll sacrifice for you, but the greater good is benefiting. But, Shankar, she doesn't like coffee at all.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I think that's right, David. I think one of the implications of this work is that you have to be cautious about the kind of gifts you buy, especially because this kind of gift-giving can spring from the best of intentions. Here's Fishbach again.

FISHBACH: It might useful to be aware that by thinking about the total benefit, by thinking what we get from the gift, you are not really mainly thinking about yourself. So to say it in other words, I would say beware of selfish gifts.

VEDANTAM: The other thing to bear in mind, David, is if this ever happens to you and your wife and your wife gives you the 15-minute massage and keeps the hour-long massage for herself, you might want to say this actually springs from love and not from selfishness.

GREENE: So when I gave my wife a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey - and I'm the Steelers fan, not her - she might have thought that it was generous on my part, not selfish.

VEDANTAM: I think it was actually a wonderful gift because you as a family came out ahead. You now have a wonderful Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.

GREENE: Oh, I love hearing that. OK, Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Absolutely, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent, and he explores the psychology of Valentine's Day and other ideas on his new podcast, Hidden Brain.


BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) Because that's love. You'll see. We all commit a little bit of perjury. But that's no crime... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.