Hop­ing to get some­thing spe­cial for Valen­tines? Ben­jamin Chabot-Hanow­ell rec­om­mends that you shouldn’t give your beloved too much ad­vance warn­ing of what you want - or those roses might turn out to be a bunch of chrysan­the­mums.

In the Game of Thrones, Ned Stark warns us to brace our­selves be­cause win­ter is com­ing. In our Earthly realm, how­ever, it’s less about brac­ing our­selves from the White Walk­ers of Wes­teros and more for the on­slaught of need­ing to con­tin­u­ally buy stuff. De­cem­ber brought Christ­mas and this month it is Valen­tine’s Day. Some cope with the on­slaught by shop­ping early. Pro­cras­ti­na­tors, how­ever—well, they pro­cras­ti­nate. Th­ese last-minute shop­pers may be spend­ing more on gifts than the early birds: re­cent re­search pub­lished in the pres­ti­gious

Na­ture hints at one pos­si­ble rea­son for this phe­nom­e­non…

By mon­i­tor­ing in­di­vid­ual’s be­hav­ior in a va­ri­ety of money-ori­en­tated sit­u­a­tions, psy­chol­ogy re­searchers have ob­served that peo­ple are more gen­er­ous when they make de­ci­sions quickly – and more stingy when they take their time. One con­clu­sion is that kind­ness and co-op­er­a­tion are in­tu­itive to hu­mans, and that we be­come self­ish only when we cal­cu­late and think too much.

How to get what you want

Based on such re­sults, we could em­ploy some rather de­vi­ous tac­tics. Should we con­sider buy­ing gifts ear­lier, whilst en­cour­ag­ing fam­ily mem­bers to put it off so that we get more ex­pen­sive gifts? The ev­i­dence that last-minute shop­pers spend more stretches back many years and is

con­tro­ver­sial. In 1993, mar­ket­ing re­searcher An­thony Miyazaki found no link be­tween the amount spent on Christ­mas gifts and time pres­sure. How­ever, his ex­per­i­ments were flawed: for each in­di­vid­ual he ob­served, Miyazaki only recorded one day out of what might have been many days of hol­i­day shop­ping. More re­cently, for­mer In­ter­net com­pany Meebo sam­pled shop­ping and per­son­al­ity data from over 2,000 users. They found that last-minute shop­pers were 45 per­cent more likely than reg­u­lar shop­pers to pur­chase lux­ury gift items and 27 per­cent more likely to plan on spend­ing more dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son this year than last

year. In con­trast, early bird shop­pers were 34 per­cent more likely than reg­u­lar shop­pers to say they were bar­gain hunters, and 30 per­cent more likely to use coupons. So there’s at least some ev­i­dence that late shop­pers are will­ing to spend more at crunch time.

Are we mean-spir­ited or just mask­ing the pain?

The tra­di­tional the­ory for why time pres­sure leads to higher spend­ing has noth­ing to do with be­ing gen­er­ous. Renowned mar­ket­ing re­searchers like Leonard Berry and econ­o­mists like Gary Becker claimed that as we run out of time (a limited ‘re­source’ that can be ‘saved’ or ‘spent’), we be­come more will­ing to give up other re­sources (like money) to ful­fill our goals – like get­ting a gift for pa­ter­nal affine Great Un­cle Bart to help him re­mem­ber you in his will. Other mar­ket­ing re­searchers be­lieve that we are will­ing to pay more when we are pressed for time be­cause we are try­ing to make up for the emo­tional pain we will feel in the af­ter­math of dis­ap­point­ing some­one else with our lack of plan­ning and fore­thought.

The tor­toise and the hair: the devil and the an­gel

For psy­chol­o­gist-econ­o­mist-No­bel Lau­re­ate and best-sell­ing author Daniel Kah­ne­man, emo­tions and gut feel­ings play a cen­tral role in our gift giv­ing. In his re­cent book, Think­ing,

Fast and Slow, Kah­ne­man de­scribes two rea­son­ing sys­tems that op­er­ate on dif­fer­ent time scales. ‘Sys­tem 1’ is fast: it is au­to­matic, emo­tional, stereo­typic, and sub­con­scious. We use it fre­quently be­cause rules of thumb, while im­per­fect, aren’t too in­tel­lec­tu­ally tax­ing, and they of­ten work. ‘Sys­tem 2’ is slow: it is ef­fort­ful, log­i­cal, cal­cu­lat­ing, and con­scious. We use it in­fre­quently be­cause it takes a lot of en­ergy and time to think this way. Evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists and some econ­o­mists think that we use Sys­tem 2 so much be­cause to­day’s prob­lems are so var­ied and com­plex. Un­der such cir­cum­stances, me­thod­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion is more costly than more flex­i­ble – al­beit flawed – rules of thumb. Among hu­mans, nat­u­ral se­lec­tion has fa­vored a brain that op­er­ates un­der Sys­tem 1 when we find our­selves in a tight spot. Yet given enough time to think about some­thing, we shift into ‘an­a­lyt­i­cal’ Sys­tem 2 think­ing, which is less co­op­er­a­tive – and, as a new study sug­gests, more stingy. Ex­perts from Har­vard’s Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy wrap it up like this: when in doubt, co­op­er­ate. Har­vard re­searchers an­a­lyzed the be­hav­ior of four par­tic­i­pants in a ‘pub­lic goods’ game. The rules are that play­ers are given a num­ber of money to­kens at the start and se­cretly choose how many to put into a pub­lic pot. The re­searchers found that in­di­vid­u­als who took 10 sec­onds or less to make a de­ci­sion made con­tri­bu­tions about 1.2 times the size of those made by in­di­vid­u­als tak­ing longer than 10 sec­onds to de­cide. More gen­er­ally, con­tri­bu­tions de­creased with each ad­di­tional sec­ond of de­ci­sion time. They also found that in­di­vid­u­als forced to make a de­ci­sion quickly made slightly larger con­tri­bu­tions than in­di­vid­u­als whose de­ci­sion time was un­con­strained, who in turn made slightly larger con­tri­bu­tions than in­di­vid­u­als

whose de­ci­sions were de­lib­er­ately de­layed. An even more in­ter­est­ing find­ing may re­as­sure any­one with a happy home life: gen­eros­ity came more nat­u­rally to peo­ple who graded their daily so­cial part­ners (e.g. their hus­band or wife) as co­op­er­a­tive. So what does this mean for your gift shop­ping? Will you over­spend on your true love this Valen­tine’s Day? If you are wor­ried about be­ing a dis­ap­point­ment, I might ad­vise that you give it some se­ri­ous thought. But then again, your Valen­tine won’t thank me for that.


• Berry LL (1979) The time buy­ing con­sumer. J. Re­tail­ing 55: 58-69.

• Binmore K, Samuelson L (1994) An econ­o­mist’s per­spec­tive on the evo­lu­tion of norms. J. Inst. The­o­ret­i­cal Econ. 150: 45-63.

• Becker G (1965) A the­ory of the al­lo­ca­tion of time. The Eco­nomic Jour­nal 75: 493-517.

• Hous­ton AI, McNa­mara JM, Steer MD (2007) Do we ex­pect nat­u­ral se­lec­tion to pro­duce ra­tio­nal be­hav­iour? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29: 1531-1543.

• Hutchin­son JMC, Gigeren­zer G (2005) Sim­ple heuris­tics and rules of thumb: Where psy­chol­o­gists and be­havioural bi­ol­o­gists might meet. Be­havioural Pro­cesses 69: 97-124.

• Kah­ne­man D (2011) Think­ing, fast and slow. New York: Far­rar, Straus and Giroux. 499 p. • Miyazaki AD (1993) How many shop­ping days un­til Christ­mas? A pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion of time pres­sures, dead­lines, and plan­ning lev­els on hol­i­day gift pur­chases. In: McAlis­ter L, Roth­schild ML, edi­tors. Ad­vances in Con­sumer Re­search Vol­ume 20. As­so­ci­a­tion for Con­sumer Re­search. pp. 331-335.

• Morgilin C, Aaker JL, Pen­ning­ton GL (2008) Time will tell: The dis­tant ap­peal of pro­mo­tion and im­mi­nent ap­peal of preven­tion. J. Con­sum. Res. 34: 670-681.

• Rand DG, Greene JD, Nowak MA (2012) Spon­ta­neous giv­ing and cal­cu­lated greed. Na­ture 489: 427430.

• The Meebo study was orig­i­nally re­ported by Ki Mae Heuss­ner for Ad­week.

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