What’s the Best Valentine’s Gift, According to Science?

The science is in: Price matters less than memories.


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Valentine’s day is, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” If you’re in love, there’s no getting out of gift-giving on February 14th—but that doesn’t mean it has to be hard. According to Whitman’s Sampler of behavioral research, seemingly important things like the cost of a present and the ‘wow’ factor may not matter as much as simply making nice memories or explaining why you got the gift you did. Here, dear Valentines, are seven research-backed rules for making your gift-giving even more appreciated.

RELATED: Get our free Valentine’s Day guide packed with dozens of quick tips and sweet ideas for an amazing V-Day celebration

Buy experiences over things

You don’t need science to tell you that our most cherished memories come from time spent with loved ones. Consider this research a reason to double down, then: Experiences not only produce more immediate happiness than material gifts, but often ensure greater long-term happiness, too. “57 percent of Americans reported that the experiential purchase made them happier than the material purchase, while only 34 percent reported the opposite,” write Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn, authors of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. What’s more: “In study after study, people are in a better mood when they reflect on their experiential purchases, which they describe as ‘money well spent.’” Happy memories are like compounding interest on your gifts; invest in them.


Spill the beans early

Once you’ve secured your chosen gift, consider giving your Valentine a little hint, something to drool about. “Delay can enhance the pleasure of consumption not only by providing an opportunity to develop positive expectations, but also by enhancing what we call the ‘drool factor,’” Norton and Dunn write. They point to a recent study where students were given the choice of eating a piece of Hershey’s chocolate immediately, or 30 minutes later. “When students had to wait for their candy, they enjoyed it more and expressed more interest in buying additional Hershey’s chocolates. Even though they didn’t learn anything new about the chocolates, the delay provided an opportunity to build visceral desire, to drool a bit.” You don’t need to tell your Valentine everything. Something as simple as “leave the night of February 14th open—and wear your favorite suit,” is plenty to drool over.


Give them something useful

According to Jeff Galak, an assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and author of a recent gift-giving study, one of the biggest sources of gift disappointment is when the giver goes off-script in an attempt to surprise the receiver. This creates a fundamental “mismatch” in thinking—“the giver wants to ‘wow’ the recipient and give a gift that can be enjoyed immediately, in the moment, while the recipient is more interested in a gift that provides value over time,” Galak writes. “Put another way, there may be times when the vacuum cleaner, a gift that is unlikely to wow most recipients when they open it on Christmas day, really ought to be at the top of the shopping list as it will be well used and liked for a long time.”

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More to the point: Give them what they want

Has your Valentine been dropping hints? Abide them. A 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that gift recipients would rather receive what they asked for than a “thoughtful” surprise. “At the root of this dilemma is a difference of opinion about what purchasing an unsolicited gift signals: gift givers expect unsolicited gifts will be considered more thoughtful and considerate by their intended recipients than is actually the case,” the study authors found. There’s no shame in giving someone what they want. On the other hand, if you’re the one hankering for a specific gift, be blunt. The same study found that “when gift recipients request one specific gift, rather than providing a list of possible gifts, givers become more willing to purchase the requested gift.”


It’s the thought that counts (but only if it’s obvious)

If you do decide to take a stab in the dark and buy someone a gift they didn’t explicitly ask for, be ready with your explanation. A 2012 study found that participants who were given an odd, unwanted gift of little value (a wooden ruler from a museum gift shop) rated it more desirable when they were told it had been thoughtfully picked just for them. Even if your gift is one of obvious value to the receiver, tell them why you got it for them anyway — it makes the thought seem even more thoughtful.


Price does not predict enjoyment…

In a pair of 2009 studies, researchers asked people to rate their levels of appreciation for a suite of gifts including books, jewelry, and iPods. Despite the gifts’ obvious differences in monetary value, the receivers reported no more satisfaction with expensive gifts than with cheaper ones. A thoughtful book may bank you as much good will as new MacBook.


…But ribbons and bows might

Whose heart doesn’t skip a beat when they see a wrapped package with their name on it, festooned with ribbons and string? According to Yale researchers, giving someone a wrapped present literally heightens their expectations—which can work in your favor if you’ve obeyed our other rules and bought your Valentine something they truly wanted. If not? Well, “Nice wrapping sets expectations that might make the disappointment of receiving a gift you don’t like worse,” the Yale team says.


MORE:

19 Gifts Women Actually Want for Valentine’s Day

7 Valentine’s Flowers that Beat Roses

8 Books to Read for a Romantic Valentine’s Day

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