The trouble with gift-giving is that there’s trouble with gift-giving.
And it resides where we least expect to find it: in our hearts.
Here’s the quandary.
We want to (or feel compelled to) surprise and delight our friends and family with gifts that demonstrate the time and effort we put into finding just the right present for just the right person.
Surely, we think, our loved ones will be touched by our thoughtfulness, by how we met desires they didn’t even know they had.
Thoughtfulness, however, is a double-edged word.
Studies say that people who get unexpected gifts often wonder why the giver was so thoughtless as to ignore their wish lists, so clueless as to miss the clues, so selfish as to think that if she liked it, everyone else would, too.
Harsh? A little. And there’s always the chance that you nail it with your intuitive gifting.
But if you want to be considered truly thoughtful, to give a gift “they’ll really feel grateful for, get them what they want,” according to a 2012 study from the University of Chicago in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Sounds easy enough. But researchers also acknowledged the inherent downside for people who delight in the gift hunt, and gain real joy from surprising a friend. The thing is, the recipient rarely grasps the effort involved.
“With regard to thoughtfulness,” the study said, “it’s the giver who appears to reap more benefits from thinking a lot about a gift than the receiver.”
Humans actually are hard-wired to give gifts. Native tribes of various cultures had gatherings in which a family’s status rose not by how many possessions they had, but how many they gave away. We give (and get) gifts as efforts to gain someone’s attention, to show gratitude, to curry favor.
Still, there’s something about Christmas gift-giving, nestled between tradition and obligation, that can put a wail in wassail.
Give surprises a rest
From a purely economic point of view, this seasonal flurry of gift exchanges makes little sense.
Joel Waldfogel, an economist with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, doesn’t discount the social value of genuine sentiment that gifts can inspire. But if someone gets a gift they don’t value, “in dry economic terms, is this a question of good resources allocation?” he asked.
Not by a long shot.
Waldfogel estimates that Americans drop around $65 billion a year on Christmas shopping and estimates that at least — at least! — 20 percent of this is spent on things that recipients don’t value. Say, around $13 billion.
That’s money out the window — and money that could have been better directed, he suggested in his 2009 book, “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.”
We know the punchline gifts like plaques with singing fish or the clutter-monsters like asparagus steamers. But bad spending also encompasses the well-meant black turtleneck that will be shelved alongside the three that the recipient owns.
Waldfogel sounds utterly reasonable about sounding Scroogey. He’s not against giving, “just against bad giving.” He knows that giving and getting can indeed bring joy.
“The dilemma is that if that joy can only be produced by giving in the traditional way of shopping secretly and surprising someone, then we are really stuck with bad resource allocation,” he said.
“It’s not as though stopping the practice of gift-giving would solve the problem, because then we’d lose the good stuff of meaning and sentiment.”
Waldfogel sees two encouraging developments growing in popularity over the past 20 years: gift cards and charitable donations.
“There’s been a huge shift over to gift cards,” he said. In 2013, more than 80 percent of holiday shoppers said they planned to buy at least one, according to the National Retail Federation, which also noted that 60 percent of shoppers said they wanted gift cards, making them the most requested gift item for eight years.
“People are trying to preserve value in the sense of stuff that the recipient would want,” Waldfogel said.
The other trend is more charitable giving in someone’s name, Waldfogel said, especially when you feel obliged to give something to a person who needs nothing.
“The question becomes, ‘What might I do for you?’ and you could give them a bottle of wine, sure, but how about a gift to someone who really is in need, in your name?”
Waldfogel said he isn’t advocating any approach, but merely observing how people are changing the gift-giving ritual. “I think they’re responses to people saying, ‘Gosh, we really are spending a lot, and are we actually getting something for it?’ ”
Still, give a gift
The National Retail Federation reported that in 2013, holiday celebrants spent an average of $730 on gifts, food, decorations and more, with more than nine in 10 Americans celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah.
But some psychologists say that the temptation to stop exchanging gifts with loved ones is a bad idea, because it denies people the chance to make a connection.
“That doesn’t do a service to the relationship,” Harvard psychology Prof. Ellen Langer told the New York Times. “If I don’t let you give me a gift, then I’m not encouraging you to think about me and think about things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities.”
One growing trend is giving gifts of experiences, still a relatively novel idea in the U.S. compared with the United Kingdom and Australia, which have companies built around offering “do it” experiences. (Think: day with a chef, race car driver, golf pro, etc.)
Of course, experiential gifts also can be offerings of companionship, activity or time. (Think: lessons on knitting, playing guitar, ironing shirts.)
A study from the University of Pennsylvania at Wharton found that experiential gifts not only seem thoughtful at the time they are given, but they “produce greater improvements in relationships than material gifts” when they are used.
Santa could only wish.