Social science findings can help you find the perfect gift

As you shop this holiday season, some recent social science research can help you find just the gift you need. Keep these principles in mind:

1. You don’t have to spend any time looking for “thoughtful” gifts.

2. You don’t have to spend much money, either.

3. Actually, you may not have to spend any money.

Yes, I know this sounds too good to be true. I was skeptical, too, if only because it contradicts a previous holiday column of mine. After looking at anthropological research into the potlatch, and talking with a Kwakwaka’wakw Indian chief who carries on this gift-giving ritual in British Columbia, I concluded that lavish presents are essential to social harmony.

Read on to find out the results of experimental studies and how this compares to the ritual of potlatches. In this whole process, you may be best off using your “generalized other” and trying to anticipate what the receiver might want rather than doing what you would want.

It strikes me that all of this is inherently cultural. As gift givers and receivers, we have ideas about what the social norms are for each of these positions. When the norms (and our expectations) are not met, we feel hurt. It seems like these experiments are suggesting that the norms about gifting are changing and “manners” and “polite” behavior hasn’t quite caught up yet. If my cultural idea is correct, then experiments done in different cultural settings or perhaps even among different American generations would show differences.

An alternative takeaway: the Amazon wish list will (or already is?) taking over the whole ritual of gifting in American culture.

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