• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Illustration/Getty Images

What your Valentine’s Day gift says about you

Not all gifts are equal at all times and for all people.

There is a list on the internet for everything. There are even websites that list websites that list things. Take Valentine’s Day – searching for the exact phrase “best Valentine’s gifts” generated 222,000 results.

Some of the people behind these lists clearly haven’t heard of the tyranny of choice. That’s the idea that the more options you give someone, the harder it is to choose, the more likely he or she is to regret their final decision and the more resentful the consumer becomes.

Take goodhousekeeping.com, which presents “50 Valentine’s Day gifts for her that are more unique than flowers”. Townandcountrymag.com opts for 52 list items. Or countryliving.com, which, not to be topped, lists 70 gifts (admittedly for her and him) to “delight your partner this year”. Crikey, it’s not enough just to remember Valentine’s Day but we have to delight them, too.

And what do we give each other? Recent consumer data shows that jewellery is high on the list (and that Valentine’s Day is the fourth most popular day for marriage proposals). Romantic meals rate in the top five, too, along with Valentine’s cards (more than a hundred million in the US alone). And, in spite of goodhousekeeping.com’s apparent allergy to flowers as gifts, flowers and chocolates are right up there – chocolates are the No 1 gift, in fact. A 2017 report identified caramels, and chocolate-“enrobed” nuts were tops.

According to research by Vivian Zayas and colleagues at Cornell University, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Valentine’s Day, they suggest, is a trigger for “naturally occurring cultural priming”. Priming occurs when experiencing one thing influences how we respond to something related. You’ll be quicker to identify a desk as a piece of furniture if I’ve just shown you a picture of a chair, for example.

Valentine’s Day comes but once a year, Zayas and colleagues point out, and as February 14 gets closer, the more we’re likely to think about it, and our gift preferences should be primed based on the strength of their cultural association with the celebration. Sure enough, their study (involving almost 15,000 Americans) showed that people were increasingly positive towards red roses and chocolate as Valentine’s Day approached, relative to evaluations of a relationship-related, but not Valentine’s Day-related, product. By the same logic, I imagine turkeys are thought of more positively as we get closer to Christmas.

In a study so hot off the press that it’s dated March 2020, a group of American and Belgian researchers have just shown, or perhaps confirmed, that not all gifts are equal at all times and for all people. There is a lesson here for men, in particular.

Perhaps the bottom line is don’t give women fancy, luxury gifts if your relationship is just budding. Expensive presents cue people to power imbalances in relationships and, I suspect, make people feel bought. They can also invite people to feel bad if they can’t reciprocate, particularly in budding relationships.

People in established relationships tend more towards “communal” gifts (maybe a single gift that both can enjoy), whereas it’s more expected that you’ll go gift-for-gift as you test out your new relationship.

But we know, from movies if not our own experience, that perhaps not all women are offended or concerned at receiving luxurious gifts. Indeed, research shows this is most likely when the receiver believes that it’s just the way of the world that some people (for example, men) have more resources than others (women, say).

I was rather surprised in my Google searching that there wasn’t a single hit for the phrase “non-binary Valentine’s gift”. In fact, the whole process and even the research I’ve found are very much stuck in a binary view of the world.

This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.