But first, a consumer warning: none of the facts and figures the academics toss around so confidently comes with a money-back guarantee. Read them, be impressed, do not commit to memory.
I must start by acknowledging the seminal contribution of economists to the Yuletide Killjoy movement. One economist who shall remain nameless made his name with a journal article and then book titled The Deadweight Loss of Christmas. His point was that, in the frequent cases where the gifter of a gift paid more for it than the giftee valued it, the difference was a “deadweight loss” – money spent that yielded no benefit to either party.
His solution was that if you must keep giving presents, stick to cash. Great. Remember, the goal of all Christmas advice is to be admonitory rather than helpful. I’m smart; you’re not so.
But the purveyors of the dismal science have no monopoly over the academy’s efforts to increase the dismality of Christmas. The charge is now being led by, of all people, the marketing experts, themselves led by Dr Adrian Camilleri of the University of Technology Sydney, and Professor Gary Mortimer of the Queensland University of Technology.
Camilleri’s research into the psychology of gift-giving finds there are two potentially conflicting goals. First is to make the recipient happy, which mostly depends on whether the gift is something they want. Second is to strengthen the relationship between giver and recipient. This is achieved by giving a thoughtful and memorable gift – one that shows the giver really knows the recipient. “Usually this means figuring out what someone wants without directly asking,” Camilleri says.
See the problem? Asking them what they want is the way to achieve high marks on desirability, but yields a fail on communicating thoughtfulness. But now we step up the analysis (stop me if I’m going too fast). Camilleri sets up a matrix, showing the four quadrants made when you account for degrees of thoughtfulness and then degrees of desirability.
In the top left-hand quadrant – unthoughtful and undesired – would be a gift of, say, a pair of socks. The top right-hand quadrant – unthoughtful and desired – would be, say, a gift of money. In the bottom left-hand quadrant – undesired but thoughtful – would be a present you’d never imagined getting, but quite liked. In the bottom right-hand box is a gift that’s both desired and thoughtful.
See how high are the chances of giving a present that misses the mark? “This is why buying a gift can be so anxiety-inducing,” he says. “There is a ‘social risk’ involved.”
But isn’t it the thought that counts? Not as much as you think. Research shows gift-givers tend to overestimate how well unsolicited gifts will be received. Research also shows people tend to overestimate their ability to discern what a recipient will like.
As well, gift-givers tend to overestimate the extent to which more expensive gifts will be received as being more thoughtful. Turns out recipients appreciate expensive and inexpensive gifts similarly. And they actually feel closer to those who give convenient gifts such as a gift certificate for a nearby, ordinary restaurant, rather than a distant, flash restaurant.
Mortimer and colleagues warn against the evil of giving for giving’s sake. They report that $400 million unwanted presents were given in Christmas 2018, comprising about 10 million items, many of which probably went to landfill. Topping the unwanted list were (in order) novelty items, candles, pamper products, pyjamas or slippers and underwear or socks.
“The shopping frenzy is not good for the planet. It generates a mountain of waste, including plastics, decorations, wrapping paper and party paraphernalia only used once. It also involves thousands of air and road miles to transport goods, which creates up to 650kg of carbon dioxide per person,” we’re told.
Which brings us to overeating. Under the heading of “How not to give the gift of food guilt this holiday season”, Dr Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at California’s Stanford University, asks: “Are you overloading your loved ones with indulgent treats they’ll regret?”
I tell you, we’re much better out of the whole thing.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.