The Perfect Gift: The Miracle of Pain-Free, Guilt-Free Stuff

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By now, you’ve probably given some thought to the mysterious concept known as “the perfect gift.” You want to give it. You want to receive it. But what exactly makes a gift perfect?

In a WSJ piece, Dan Ariely, a psychology professor at Duke and the author of Predictably Irrational, writes that the perfect gift isn’t really about generosity or kindness so much as it’s about guilt. That’s better than greed, I suppose, though neither tends to come up when thinking about the traditional holiday spirit.

Ariely has been trying to get to the heart of what it is that makes a good gift, and after asking loads of people for input:

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 for themselves.” This perspective is interesting because it suggests that the ideal gift is not something that the recipient can’t afford or didn’t know she wanted. It all comes down to alleviating guilt.

Santa, it turns out, spreads joy by spoiling people so that they don’t feel bad about spoiling themselves.

Ariely explains how this works, using the example of a shopper who eyes a coat in a store window and wants it badly, but, after seeing the price tag and thinking it over, ultimately doesn’t buy it because it’s double what the shopper is willing to pay. To sum up, the shopper deliberated and concluded that this item wasn’t worth the money. But, Ariely writes:

When you get home, however, you find out that your significant other has bought you that same exact coat…using money from your joint checking account. Would you say, “Honey, this is very nice of you, but I have already weighed the costs and benefits and decided that this coat is not worth the money, so please take it back immediately”? Or would you say, “Thank you so much, I love it!” I suspect that the answer is the latter. Your significant other got you what you wanted without making you contemplate the guilt associated with the purchase.

My take is that this little head game goes deeper than merely alleviating guilt. As mentioned, the shopper had already decided the coat wasn’t worth the money. Or is it that the shopper decided that he or she wasn’t worthy of the coat at that price? If the latter enters the shopper’s mind even at the subconscious level, then having someone else give the shopper the coat sends a message, with the giver implicitly saying: You might not think you’re worthy of this coat, but I do.

From the child’s mindset, miracles happen every Christmas morning, with perfect, impossibly out-of-reach gifts arriving magically under the tree, with no pesky consequences or credit card bills to speak of. Likewise, the perfect gift for an adult also makes a miracle happen: The recipient is made to feel worthy of something that he’d previously decided he was unworthy of. The money spent in the transaction is easily overlooked, even if the recipient previously concluded that the item was far overpriced, and even if the money comes out of the recipient’s own bank account.

Back to the guilt factor: What’s key to the recipient enjoying a gift seems to be the idea that there are no consequences. It’s all joy, it’s magic. This is absurd, of course—somebody has to pay the bill!—but it’s a little mind game givers, or at least givees, play. Consumers want pure enjoyment, without pain, without guilt, and without much thought. This is hard to achieve when you’re spending your own cash, though it’s much easier when you’re using plastic, which is why credit cards are such enablers, allowing consumers to spend thoughtlessly and in a way that seems much less tangible and painful than using greenbacks.

Even better, of course, is having someone else give you something. What’s funny is that, even though cash is the absolute best gift—what else gives the recipient more freedom?—givers are hesitant to hand over greenbacks because it seems crass, and many recipients apparently don’t like cash either. Why? Once you have that cash in hand, it becomes painful to part with it.

For some reason, gift cards, however, which are often marketed for being just as good as cash (only they’re not cash), are thought of in a much more positive light by givers and getters alike. Now why is it that a gift whose main attribute is that it’s just like cash is perceived as superior to cash?

For recipients, it’s gotta be the pain factor. Or the lack thereof when using a gift card, which works just like cash, and is even less painful than swiping a credit card. As Ariely writes:

That’s why gift certificates for dinner, drinks, iTunes, movies and so on are so popular. They not only encourage people to experience something new, they let them experience it without any psychological burdens or the pain of paying.

And without any pain or much of any thought, consumers do really stupid things. It’s been shown that consumers using gift cards—who feel like they’re not paying anything—are more likely to spend foolishly, and on stuff they don’t need or won’t want in the long run. One study shows that gift card users are 2.5 times more likely to pay full price than consumers who are really paying for their purchases.

Despite this, and despite the recent fact that surfaced revealing that 27% of American consumers still have gift cards received last holiday season that they haven’t yet used, guess what the #1 requested gift is in surveys, for the fourth year running? Yep, according to the National Retail Federation, the answer is: the gift card.

Gift cards are on the top of consumer wish lists, and Americans are expected to spend more on them this year, an average of $145.61, up from $139.91 last year. Nearly 80% of shoppers will buy at least one gift card during the holiday season, and the average amount on each card is $41.48, up from $39.80 in 2009.

And what is this all about? Spreading joy by way of removing pain and guilt. For the person who has everything—including too much pain and guilt—I suppose this has the makings of a pretty good gift.

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