Searching for a Sense of Meaning in Gifts

According to the National Retail Federation, a third of all gift recipients returned their presents last holiday season, up from 2004.
According to the National Retail Federation, a third of all gift recipients returned their presents last holiday season, up from 2004. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006

What did you get your mother for Mother's Day? Was it beautifully thoughtful, or a rush job you fixed with a few clicks of the mouse and a credit card?

Mothers are probably more forgiving than most about thoughtless gifts, but statistics show that astonishingly large numbers of Americans return or exchange gifts -- more than a third of all gift recipients and nearly half of all people younger than 35 returned gifts to stores last holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.

Because returning gifts is not something one discusses in polite company, the real number may be far higher -- and this doesn't begin to count those who "re-gift" presents they don't want. Recognizing that recipients are often unhappy with gifts, givers are increasingly enclosing receipts with gifts to allow for exchanges; 49 percent did last year, up slightly from the year before.

All this is causing economists, psychologists and philosophers to scratch their heads.

The idea of the gift goes back centuries. But gifts don't mean the same thing today as they once did: For one thing, people have far more stuff than they used to, which makes getting a truly unique gift less likely. A lot more gifts also change hands these days, which makes it harder to put a great deal of thought into each gift.

As gift-giving is inherently reciprocal, some scholars ask why people give gifts at all. Everyone would agree that giving and receiving equal amounts of cash is pointless, yet, as Wharton business school professor Joel Waldfogel once calculated, the fact that people do not like their gifts devalues presents by as much as a third of their monetary value. In other words, exchanging gifts should make even less economic sense than exchanging wads of cash: For every $10 you give in gifts, on average, as much as $3 gets lost because the recipient doesn't like your gift.

In part, such data explain the growing popularity of gift cards, which give recipients flexibility in choosing their own gift. Gift cards have a certain liquidity, without the unpleasant implications of, say, giving cash to your girlfriend.

Although the growing exchangeability and liquidity of gifts are appealing to many people, several scholars argue that it is exposing the increasingly transactional nature of gifts -- and slowly eroding the reasons people started exchanging gifts in the first place.

"The very idea of the soul of the gift has been lost," said Antonio Callari, an economics professor at Franklin and Marshall College, who is interested in the cultural and psychological aspects of gift-giving. "The gift has lost its character as a gift and become a product, a commodity."

Even if gifts have always involved reciprocal exchange, what is really being exchanged, many of these scholars say, is more than the monetary value of the gift. As the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss noted early last century, emotional, social and cultural ties are enhanced by gift-giving.

"The gift is about people participating imaginatively in each other's lives," said Lee Anne Fennell, an associate professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who believes that the very problem Waldfogel identified with gifts -- that monetary value gets lost because the transaction doesn't involve liquid cash -- is what gives gifts their social meaning.

At its core, gift-giving involves risk, said Mark Osteen, an English professor at Loyola College in Baltimore. There is a risk in giving the wrong gift -- besides the financial loss that Waldfogel identified; there is the psychological loss of having the recipient conclude the donor does not know her very well.

But the understandable desire in modern American society to minimize the risk in gift-giving is paradoxically what is causing a devaluation of the gift's intangible qualities, Osteen said. In the tension between what makes economic sense and what makes psychological sense, the economic argument is winning. This is why people tell loved ones what they want for gifts, why donors include receipts, and why so many people exchange gift cards. All are ways to minimize economic and psychological risk.

How can taking risks with the wrong gifts make psychological sense?

For that, we may need art, not science: In "The Gift of the Magi," that master of the American short story, O. Henry, tells us of a couple sacrificing their greatest treasures for each other. He pawns his gold watch to buy her the hair adornment she long desired; she cuts and sells her hair to buy him a platinum fob for his watch.

Reduced to its economic elements, the transaction is a disaster. By risking everything, the couple lose everything. But, as O. Henry notes, mathematics gives us the wrong moral to the story. Our instincts know these are lucky people.

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