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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Think twice before giving

    Matt Rolland columnist
    Matt Rolland
    columnist

    Thanksgiving weekend is full of uniquely American traditions: football games, family feasts of oversized turkeys and, for most Americans, the beginning of the shopping frenzy. The day after Thanksgiving, known affectionately to many as Black Friday, marks the onset of America’s biggest shopping season.

    This year, more than 132 million Americans braved the early morning chill to take advantage of door-buster sales. Spending an estimated $19.1 billion, the purchasing frenzy increased sales so far this year nearly 4 percent. The commercial nature of the holiday season is unavoidable. Advertisements carry promises like Crescent’s “”Diamonds make the perfect gift”” campaign, while a gift card to Panda Express promises to “”Give the gift of joy.””

    Not to be found anywhere else in the world, the massive outpouring of money in the gift season is one of the few solely “”American traditions.”” Gift Tracker, a market-tracking firm, found that nearly 10 percent of the $2.6 trillion in U.S. retail spending goes toward gifts. However, gift-giving can be an incredibly nerve-racking experience, especially when we are concerned more with the monetary worth of gifts than with the thoughtfulness they represent.

    Finding the elusively perfect gift is a learned skill. Each American learns strategies over the years to successful gift-giving: subtle hints and reminders, careful listening, outright requests. Too many Americans, however, treat the gift-giving season as a mere exchange of commodities, overlooking the amount of expression that can take place in a thoughtful gift. Bonnie Arriaga, coordinator for the UA’s first annual Holiday Expo (taking place today from 9 a.m. to noon on the UA Mall), said that the key to finding a good gift is to think of the recipient’s “”favorite things, colors, music, etc. Does the gift bring to mind that person, their personality, trigger a memory about them?””

    It seems paradoxical that gift-giving, an expression of good will and friendship, can be such an unpleasant experience. Doesn’t common wisdom teach us that “”it’s just the thought that counts””? Unfortunately, gift-giving is too often just an afterthought, a desperate attempt to preserve our self-image. A 2000 study by David B. Wooten, a professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, showed that anxiety in gift-giving increases when more emphasis is placed on eliciting a certain response from the receiver. Not only do we get more worried when we are concerned with how our gift will be received, studies have shown that we also get a lot worse at giving good gifts.

    An economics study by Joel Waldfogel found that people, on average, value gifts they receive at 85 percent of their monetary cost. The least effective gift-givers were the elderly; the value of their gifts was less than half the money they spent.

    So what are we to conclude? Do we just waste money by buying gifts? No – we just aren’t very good at giving people what they want. When we approach gift-buying by trying to find something a friend wants, economics explains why we are setting ourselves up for failure.

    Economics teaches that consumers purchase anything that falls within their financial means and is the most satisfying of what they can buy. A cash transfer would seem to be the logical answer, allowing people to choose what they want the most. But personal experience tells us that in the hierarchy of gift-giving, cash is somewhere between ties and underwear. There is something intrinsic in a gift that cannot be priced.

    Holiday gift-giving is a form of signaling, a way to communicate that we are in touch with not just what another person wants, but that our relationship is important to us.

    This is why the commercialization of gift-giving is so dangerous. In focusing on the material aspects, we forget the greatest benefit of gift-giving: signaling our love for another person. An ancient Indian folk tale tells the story of two Brahman women who gave gifts to each other over and over to try to fulfill their alms obligations. On their deaths, they were transformed into two poisoned wells from which no one could drink. While the Brahman women may have never traded boxes during a White Elephant gift exchange, the lesson is still the same: A gift given out of duty undermines the intentions of the holidays. The self-centeredness that marks the commercialism of gift-giving will only poison the eggnog.

    Matt Rolland is a junior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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