Ask Ariely: On Pleasing Presents and Sympathizing Sibling Game Download

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.

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Dear Dan,

My aunt gave me some money for my birthday. Since she wasn’t sure about my likes and dislikes, she said to spend it on something that would make me happy. Do you have any advice on how to choose?

—Katy

While I’m sure there are many items that would make you happy, spending the money on someone else could make you even happier. In an experiment, researchers gave participants either $5 or $20. They then randomly asked the participants to go about their day and spend that money either on themselves or on someone else. Later, the researchers asked them about their happiness. Those who had spent the money on someone else, regardless of the amount, reported feeling happier throughout the day.

But what to buy these other people in order to get both the glow from gift-giving and something that they will like? A different set of researchers asked people to name the last gift that they had received and say how happy they were with it.

Though gift recipients were happy with items that they had wanted, on average they were even happier with unexpected and surprising gifts. These made them appreciate the thought from the sender and got them to experience something new. Hopefully your aunt will also appreciate how you choose to spend her gift money.

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Dear Dan,

My sister is one of my closest friends, and she’s usually one of the first people I call when I need solid advice or someone to talk to. Our lives, however, are pretty different, and they are starting to differ more. Sometimes I hesitate to open up and ask for her advice because I’m not sure she can relate to what I’m going through. What should I do? Should I look for someone else to get feedback and advice from?

—Ingrid

It’s reasonable to think that it is best for someone to have “been there” in order to understand you and give you good advice. Indeed, a recent survey found that people predicted that a shared experience would lead to greater insights. But is that true?

In one experiment, participants listened to a short video describing a negative emotional experience. They were asked to analyze how the storyteller was feeling about the experience and also indicate if they had a similar story from their own past. The results showed that listeners who had a negative experience in common with a storyteller were much less accurate at describing how the storyteller felt.

It may be that people were more likely to focus on their own similar experience if they had one, which shifted their focus away from how the storyteller was feeling. These results suggest that even though someone has “been there,” they might not understand how you’re feeling in the moment you most need support.

So while your sister might not be going through the same things as you, that doesn’t mean she can’t empathize. In fact, her distance from your exact situation—but closeness with you—might give her a perspective nobody else can offer. Stick with your sister.

Ask Ariely: On Pleasing Presents and Sympathizing Sibling

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