Gift-giving tips from scientists

The following op-ed appeared in the December 17, 2017 print edition of The New York Times:

Every holiday season, as we drive ourselves crazy at the mall or shopping online, soaked in the existential dread that comes from trying to find gifts our loved ones might appreciate, I think of the great writer and social critic James Baldwin, who wrote: “If the hope of giving/is to love the living,/the giver risks madness/in the act of giving.”

Perhaps social science can keep us sane. In an effort to help you with your gift-giving decisions, I offer three insights gleaned from recent research.

First, don’t be a soulless utilitarian. Most of my fellow economists fall into this category, many even advocating we simply give one another cash for the holidays. A variant on this is to give very practical gifts, such as household appliances at the high end, or tube socks on the low end.

The fundamental error here is not economic efficiency per se, but excessive usefulness. The best gifts are, in fact, useless. By this I don’t mean worthless, but rather, valuable for the intrinsic satisfaction they bring as opposed to being a means to some other end. While economists are busy ruining their marriages with cash and blenders, marketing experts have long found that people get the most satisfaction from “useless” experiences that have emotional impact, like going on a beautiful bike ride. Researchers believe this is especially true for older people, who derive much more pleasure from experiences than possessions.

How to use this fact? Tell Grandma that you were planning to buy her a Mercedes, but after reading some social science research, you have decided to take her to the park instead. She might look a little disappointed, but no doubt in her heart she will be glad.

One major exception to the uselessness rule is gift giving in the form of philanthropy. As the president of a large nonprofit organization reliant entirely on donations, I can assure you that a long walk on the beach is not what your favorite charity is looking for from you.

Second, “regifting,” or giving away a gift someone else gave to you, though considered a social taboo, is not quite as ghastly as often thought. Researchers showed in the journal Psychological Science in 2012 that we overestimate how offended people will be to learn that their gift was passed on to someone else. Participants in the study reported that if they gave someone an unwanted gift, they would prefer it be given away than thrown away outright. So that’s something.

Furthermore, there is a narrow range of circumstances in which regifting is not just tolerated but actively embraced. The key is to follow what I call the Fruitcake Principle: If you don’t value it, don’t regift it. Only pass on things you yourself own and authentically treasure.

If you have doubts about the wisdom of regifting used items with sentimental value, you aren’t alone — but you may be missing out on a special opportunity. For instance, scholars at Carnegie Mellon recently demonstrated that we’re more likely to give practical gifts that seem personal (such as a jersey for the recipient’s favorite football team) than sentimentally valuable ones (say, a cherished photo we have had for years). However, they also found that recipients would actually prefer to receive fewer practical gifts and more sentimentally valuable ones.

So if a friend gives you something you truly love and you think it will make someone else happy as well, feel free to regift it. On the other hand, if it’s a fruitcake, you’re fooling no one. Toss it.

Third, no matter how terrible your gift, wrap it up nicely. The other day I had the misfortune of finding myself at the mall. My despondent gaze fell upon a large artificial Christmas tree under which was a pile of beautifully wrapped empty boxes. To me, this seemed a sad metaphor for life, worthy of an Ibsen play. However, I sensed that to casual passers-by — many of whom appeared not to be social scientists — the display seemed to enhance the Christmas spirit.

As it happens, the appeal of well-wrapped, worthless gifts is nearly universal, and even goes beyond Homo sapiens. Early this year in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, researchers showed that some male spiders — Paratrechalea ornata, to arachnologists; “fuzzy brown ones” to the rest of us — give food gifts to prospective mates that are nutritionally worthless but wrapped ornately in the silk produced by their bodies. Imagine giving your beloved a chicken nugget meticulously wrapped in beautiful fabric, and you get the idea. Apparently for spiders, as for humans, it’s the wrapping that counts, because the worthlessness of the gift inside did not affect the receptivity of the female.

I shared this wonder of nature with my wife, who observed that while she has little hope for the quality of my gifts, I might learn a thing or two from the spiders about how to wrap them. I found this insensitive.

To sum up, there are three ways to improve your gift-giving this year. Give away useless stuff. Only regift what you want to keep. And if all else fails and your present is still terrible, just don’t forget to wrap it nicely. You’re welcome, and happy holidays.

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