Helen Fisher, PhD


Gift giving time is coming.  O my.  Scientists know a lot about giving gifts to grandma, your school chums, your office buddies, even your spouse. You can’t go wrong if you give them what they want.  As it turns out, the thought’s not always the thing; it’s often the gift that counts.  Yet a very thoughtful gift can be a winner, if you got the right thought.   Scientists have also proven that your brain gets a rush of pleasure chemicals when you give, as does that of the receiver. Moreover, most gift givers don’t care if the gift-receiver proceeds to give the gift to someone new—but ‘regifting’ generally makes the gift receiver feel horribly guilty when they do it. 

 But gift giving isn’t just risky for the giver; it’s often pressure on the receiver.  Nothing worse than feigning joy when you hate what you just received–even compromising the thought, the moment and possibly the relationship. 

But what about giving gifts to a potential lover. Scientists don’t know much about that. Here, you’re on your own.  And it can be a land mine — because this is the big leagues—the wrong gift might even break a budding partnership. Too practical — you’re boring.  Too romantic: the receiver might feel threatened that you want to have their babies.  Too inexpensive: you’re cheap.  Really expensive — they might think you’re rich and want your dough. So many would-be lovers give food or a fancy dinner — relatively safe, albeit transient, presents (and perhaps you can enjoy some of the gift yourself).   

We are generous creatures.  For millions of years we gave gifts to cement relationships and express our feelings. But giving can be a minefield when you court.  So I’d like to make a novel suggestion: 

As you may know, I think we evolved four broad styles of thinking and behaving, what I call:  the Explorer (curious and energetic); Builder (cautious and traditional); Director (analytical and tough minded); and Negotiator (socially skilled and empathetic).  We are all a mix of all these styles, but we express some more than others.  So I would try to appeal to the basic nature of your receiver.  

I would give the Explorer an experience, rather than a gift — a night out on the town in a pedicab, a trip to an amusement park or a bizarre restaurant, and make it a surprise.  I would do something very traditional for the Builder — Christmas cookies, tree ornaments, a seasonal musical event or a jaunt to a national monument.  I would give something practical to the Director (like a traveling alarm clock, some steak knives, or the newest tech device). And I would give something highly personal to the Negotiator — a poem you wrote for him or her (even if it is awful), or any kind of keepsake that will increase in sentimental value with time.  And if you can be amusing, all the better.  Laughter is good for the mind — and the body.   

It has long been said that we should do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves.  I don’t agree. I propose that we do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.  And you may win life’s greatest prize — a mating partner.