2005.11.09 A gift of tat denied

Written by David Green.


Dagnabbit! I’ve been rummaging around in the bathroom cabinets in search of cotton balls and I came up empty handed. I need one to give to my wife as a little present. I’m supposed to awaken her in a few minutes and I really want to give her a cotton ball to see what it means to her.

As of now, I have a miniature ball pulled off the end of a cotton swab, but that’s not much of a gift. She probably won’t be impressed and I can’t blame her. But maybe size doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s the thought that counts.

I’ll let you know later.

This thing got started when I read an article titled “‘Worthless’ gifts get the good girls.” A pair of researchers at University College in London (with a lot of time on their hands) set up a mathematical model to study the effect of gift-giving. Their conclusion: Wooing girls with essentially worthless gifts is a winning courtship strategy for both sexes.

Females can assess how serious or committed a male plans to be in the relationship. The male can decide if the girl is just a “gold-digger” who takes the presents with no intention of a long relationship.

One of the researchers, Peter Sozou, came up with idea after reading a newspaper account about a man who paid the rent of a woman he considered his girlfriend. He gave her a valuable gift. She, on the other hand, was heartlessly taking the present but dating another man on the sly. She was living off her sugar daddy.

Sozou thought that perhaps the man should have bought the woman expensive dinners instead of paying her rent. She probably wouldn’t have strung him along so much, he said.

SO INTO the lab went the two researchers to set up a model based on dating decisions. The male had to decide what kind of gift to give—valuable, extravagant or cheap—based on his attraction to the female.

Females had to either accept or deny the gift and then decide whether to mate with the gift-giver. To mate? No details were given here. Let’s just assume the female decided whether or not to become a couple with the gift-giver.

The scientists reviewed the data and decided that it’s best if males give extravagant but intrinsically value-free gifts for the majority of the time and only occasionally toss in something that’s worth much.

The model showed that if valuable gifts were given too often, females would begin to exploit the situation. They would take the diamonds and run, as the researchers put it.

But when the gifts are worthless, an uninterested female has little incentive to accept the gifts. Why waste an evening for dinner and a movie?

Well not so fast, says social psychologist Alison Lenton at the University of Edinburgh, who apparently enjoys an evening out with a lout.

“I do not necessarily agree that theatre tickets are ‘worthless’,” she said.

Lenton says scientists have found that experiential purchases such as movie tickets make people happier in the long run than material gifts.

She also faults the study for assuming that females obtain a negative outcome for accepting an unattractive, though committed, male.

The model also fails to take into account the potential of cheating females, Lenton says. She uses birds as a model. Some females raise their chicks with a “nice” male and then mess around with other attractive males, and she says there is similar evidence among humans.

The worthless gift guys find their own support in the animal world, referring to studies about the dancer fly in Scotland. Some males offer a mate hard-won edible insects; others give twigs and other “common tat.” And they seem to get away with it.

Scientists with masters degrees replaced the insect gifts with cotton balls and discovered that those with a “reduced investment” still had a satisfactory sex life.

OK, back to the real-life laboratory. I presented my wife with a little cotton ball and she tossed it away as though it was common tat. I picked it up, placed it on her forehead and explained it was a gift. She flung it aside again and accused me of giving her bellybutton lint.

I went out looking for insects.

     - Nov. 9, 2005
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