TCS Daily


Valentine's Day Trap

By James D. Miller - February 14, 2003 12:00 AM

We are all in a horrible Valentine's Day trap with no solution but for men to waste large sums of money on expensive, soon-to-die, thorn-studded vegetation.

Why do men give flowers to their girlfriends on Valentine's Day and why do women who don't receive flowers on Valentine's Day get depressed? Valentine's Day flowers signal love, and many of us are worse off for it.

Women are often uncertain whether any of the men in their lives are romantically interested in them. Since it's customary for men to give women whom they desire flowers on Valentine's Day, women who don't receive flowers learn something. They learn that it is not likely that any of their male acquaintances are romantically pursuing them. Valentine's Day is a day of judgment for many women and so those who don't receive flowers sometimes feel damned.

Men are almost forced to give flowers to their girlfriends on Valentine's Day. Flowers, particularly roses, are expensive (especially on Valentine's Day). Men who don't really care about their girlfriends consequently won't spend the money to get them flowers. Could a man who did care about his girlfriend convince her that he didn't need to buy her Valentine's Day flowers?

Men who (a) don't care about their girlfriends and (b) don't buy their girlfriends flowers have an incentive to lie and pretend that they still do care about their girlfriends. Consequently, it's difficult for men who care but don't buy flowers to convince their girlfriends of their devotion.

Furthermore, the more upset girlfriends are known to become if forsaken on Valentine's Day the more it signals when their boyfriends don't give them flowers. If a woman knows that her boyfriend knows that she would be upset if she didn't get flowers, then the woman is automatically justified in getting upset if she doesn't get them, for now her boyfriend has knowingly hurt her. Even a woman who hates flowers would be rational in getting mad at her boyfriend for not buying her flowers on Valentine's Day, because by not wasting resources on her the boyfriend has signaled his disinterest.

Valentine's Day flowers are like celebrity endorsements. Why do consumers care if celebrities endorse a product? Perhaps it causes us to associate the celebrity's coolness and fame with the good. A more rational answer, however, is that we know that celebrities are expensive to hire. Consequently, when a firm hires a celebrity, we know their making a large financial commitment to their product, so perhaps we should trust their company. Wasting money on a celebrity is similar to wasting it on flowers: it signals devotion and long-term commitment.

James D. Miller is an assistant professor of economics at Smith College. This article is based upon a passage from his book Game Theory At Work, which will be published this March by McGraw-Hill.
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