It’s that time of the year again, when thoughts turn to the impossibility of the gift.
Usually (as in the ghost of Christmases past, e.g., here, here, and here), attention is given over to neoclassical economists, who bemoan the inefficiencies caused by the normal pattern of gift-giving and recommend instead that money be offered, so that recipients can buy their own presents.
This year, things are a bit different. Psychologists are the ones who are called on to identify the impossibility of the gift. In their view (e.g., the research by Jeff Galak, Julian Givi, and Elanor F. Williams and Yan Zhang and Nicholas Epley), as it turns out, much the same problem arises: givers can’t possibly know what the recipients want.
But, psychologists add, the reverse it also true: recipients often don’t know the motivations of the givers. “It’s the thought that counts” only counts when recipients are somehow prompted to consider a giver’s act of generosity.
If gift receivers consider a gift giver’s thoughts only when triggered to do so, then gift givers are likely to have difficulty correctly anticipating the impact of their own thoughts and intentions. Gift givers, after all, have a very different perspective on the exchange than do gift receivers. Gift givers do not experience the automatic evaluation that comes from receiving a gift and thus would not be triggered to use their thoughts to predict a receiver’s feelings and evaluations in the same way as gift receivers. Thoughts may indeed count for gift receivers, but not necessarily in ways that givers will predict. The capacity to anticipate a receiver’s feelings and evaluations is a critical aspect of gift exchanges because maximizing the receiver’s happiness and satisfaction is arguably the most common objective in gift exchanges. . . Any gap between a gift giver’s predictions and a receiver’s actual evaluations will undermine the primary goal of gift exchanges.
In both cases, when they don’t know what recipients want and try to have their own good intentions recognized, givers are prone to make mistakes in choosing the appropriate gift.
The researchers therefore step in to try to help them, by suggesting gift givers make better decisions: either “choose gifts based on how valuable they will be to the recipient throughout his or her ownership of the gift, rather than how good a gift will seem when the recipient opens it” or “give priority to choosing gifts that receivers actually like rather than gifts that reveal thoughtfulness.”
What none of the teams of psychologists considers (just like the neoclassical economists before them) is that when the gift is something that is offered out of generosity, without an interest or concern in reciprocity, then as soon as the gift is identified as a gift, with the meaning of a gift, then it is cancelled as a gift. The gift, which creates a debt of a return—of an indeterminate reciprocity, concerning when and how—is thereby annulled. And that’s true even with the best of intentions or choices on the part of gift-givers.
But, I hasten to add, that is also the case with monetary exchange, since it is also replete with diverse and conflicting motivations, desires, and concerns on both sides of the transaction. As with gift exchange, those on one side (e.g., buyers) have a very different perspective on the exchange from those on the other side (e.g., sellers).
Consider the example of purchasing a car (which I recently did). The buyer has no idea what goes into the intentions and behavior of the seller: are they attempting to inform the seller of the qualities of the various vehicles being considered, looking to push unnecessary options or extended warranties, worried about meeting their monthly quota, or subject to pressure from the dealership to boost profits? For their part, the seller doesn’t know anything about their opposite number: from the financial situation of the buyer to what they’re looking for in a vehicle, not to mention the condition of any trade-in, the possibility of repeat business, and so on.
And, of course, both buyer and seller are constituted, and transformed in an unpredictable manner, during the course of the long, complex relationship that develops before, during, and after the purchase. It’s a relationship that, at various times during the transaction, both invokes and undermines notions of mutual beneficence, trust, concern, calculation, and much else.
Errors are made, then, in monetary exchange no less than in gift exchange. The goals on both sides of the transaction are only partly fulfilled even when the exchange is completed. Sellers can walk away with another vehicle sold but they don’t know, under all the conflicting pressures, if they did the “right thing” (for the buyer, themselves, their employer, and so on). And buyers, after they drive away, will be affected by all the qualities and features (both positive and negative) they were only dimly aware of when they bought the vehicle, not to mention the comments and questions from family members and friends, which influence how they look at and appreciate their new vehicle. And then of course there’s the depleted bank account or the loan, which determines what the transaction means in terms of their own and others’ wealth and property, the effects on their financial well-being, and what exactly was traded when the vehicle was purchased.
And so we muddle on—exchanging gifts, engaging in monetary transactions, or, as is often the case this time of year, combining the two (purchasing commodities with money to give as gifts)—even when we know the gift and commodity exchange, at least as modeled by mainstream economists and psychologists, are in fact impossible.