Gifts & Reciprocity, AKA: No Strings Attached?

In this week’s show we did our annual “best of this year’s science books” with the lovely John Dupuis of Confessions of a Science Librarian and Mary Brock, Skepchick’s book club queen. After we added to your reading list, we also created a top science-themed gift idea list, curated by the excellent Courtney Caldwell from Skepchick and Mad Art Lab, and Simon Saval of Geekwrapped.

I could just keep spamming you with gift ideas. You can find more great 2015 science book suggestions here and here. And I probably don’t need to remind you that Mad Art Lab’s 2015 gift guide is up with more nifty suggestions, while Geekwrapped has both an “everyone” list and a kids-specific list. Really, there is no excuse: buy everyone you know a science themed gift this year! I expect to see many Aromaforks, Surley-Ramics, and science books sticking out of everyone’s stockings.

Instead, let’s talk about the other side of gift giving. The actual science part.

Gift giving is altruistic! We give because we care! Well, yes. But also because social norms and reciprocity rules tell us to. And it turns out, in certain situations receiving a gift can come with some invisible strings attached that have a surprising amount of power over our behaviour.

Christmas Cards From Strangers

Way back in 1976, Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott wrote up a paper called “Season’s Greetings: From My Status to Yours”. What they were actually trying to figure out was how status signals on the cards impacted the return rate. They tested this by changing up the quality of the card – some super fancy while others were simplistic or hand made. They also varied the way the return address was formatted and the way the cards were signed: some were from “Phil and Joyce” while others were from “Dr. and Mrs. Kuntz”. It turns out this does have an impact on the return rate, which probably surprises no one.

What is surprising is that all of these cards went to perfect strangers, and yet 20% of the recipients sent their own Christmas cards back to the unknown “Phil and Joyce”. Some of the replies were as generic as you’d guess, but others included photos and pages-long letters chock full of personal information.

This is reciprocity at work. Cultural norms and reciprocity rules have so much weight that if we receive a Christmas card from a stranger we feel an uncomfortable pressure to send a card back. To someone we don’t know. With photos of our kids and dogs.

So if you had a sad last year because you didn’t receive many Christmas cards in your mailbox, the best strategy to guarantee yourself a satisfying haul is to send your own out, and do it early enough that people have time to respond. They don’t even have to be to people you know. Then sit back with a mulled wine, delight in your Machiavellian mastery, and wait for the cards to roll in.

Psychology of Gifts: The Rules We Don’t Talk About

Giving and receiving gifts can be a minefield depending on what you’re giving, who you’re giving it to, and what your relationship is. Giving can be an altruistic act, sure. But it can also be a symbol of power, dominance, and economic disparity.

Alice Robb wrote a great piece about the sociology of Christmas gifts at New Republic a few years ago. There are a lot of rules around who we give gifts, ranging from our relationship to the person in question to how far away they live from us.

In her article, she talked about sociologist Theodore Caplow, who interviewed 110 adults in a small town in 1979, discovering some of the unspoken rules of Christmas gifts that are probably similar to the ones in your gift-giving circle:

“Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants… Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances.

“Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual.

“There is little reciprocity in the gift giving between non-kin. A large number of the gifts in this category are addressed to persons who provide minor services; reciprocation in those cases would be bizarre. Gifts from employers to employees, from grateful patients to physicians, and from pupils to teachers do not call for reciprocation.”

Some families create their own rules to help clear up the very real stress that can come with choosing and buying gifts. If your family has a dollar value cap, or if you draw names so each person only buys and receives one gift, then in some way you’re trying to subvert these cultural norms and expectations.

Ever wanted to get a gift for one or two of your close friends but can’t afford to get something for everyone? What do you do: cheap out and get everyone something kinda rubbish, or sneak the quality gifts to the select few you’ve chosen without your other friend’s knowledge? It’s a conundrum lots of us deal with every year, especially if the budget is tight.

Better To Give Than Receive?

If it’s not enough to worry about what message the gift you’re buying (or not buying) someone says, there’s also plenty of fretting available for you on the receiving side as well. Ever receive a gift from a family member, friend, boss, romantic partner that clearly outpaced your bank balance and made it impossible for you to reciprocate? There’s nothing like feeling suddenly and uncomfortably indebted to someone you were thinking about breaking up with.

From Krystal D’Costa in an article titled “The Obligation of Gifts” in Scientific American:

“All gifts, no matter how small, carry with them a responsibility and an obligation. And while we may try to mitigate those responsibilities and obligations with social codes of our own devising, we can’t truly escape them.

“The stress of reciprocal gift giving might be most apparent during the holiday season, but it’s present at any exchange. Birthdays, where we are celebrated and are the sole recipient of gifts, are returned throughout the year when we celebrate others. A luncheon or a drink or a dinner outing where we are treated is usually repaid in some way at a later time… Gifts should be offered; they become obligatory because they help create and maintain relationships, and as a result gift giving establishes a hierarchy of giver and receiver. This is most clearly seen in the obligation to receive.”

The rules of reciprocity in our culture make gift giving chock full of extra baggage. In particular with romantic relationships, as Adrian Furnham covers in a post about the psychology of gift giving on Psychology Today:

“Young, unattached men often view giving gifts as ‘fiscal foreplay’. However, there is a strict sliding scale of the value and size of the gift in comparison with the stage of the relationship. Too expensive a gift too early in the relationship can feel like a sexual bribe, while small, cheap gifts well into the relationship can be seen as the sign of a cheapskate. Old etiquette books say that women who accept costly gifts are incurring sexual debts, just as men’s magazines say that rich old men can attract beautiful young women by buying them expensive gifts.”

My own personal strategy for first dates and early-days dating is based on what I’ve read over the years about the unconscious power of reciprocity norms: I buy my coffee/meal/ticket, you buy yours. At the end of the date, no one owes anyone anything, and no one is under any obligation to meet again. We part or meet again later as equals. (Sidenote: it’s also a really good way to immediately suss out highly problematic sexist tendencies in dudes you don’t know: if they protest way too much when you don’t let them buy you coffee, you know it’s not gonna work.)

If you want more about the intersection of gifts and reciprocity, read through “The Gift” by French sociologist Marcel Mauss. Written in 1925, it’s actually aged surprisingly well. For a TL;DR version, try Catherine Lucas’ review on her blog “Anthromodeology”.

Featured photo by Paul Roth.

Rachelle Saunders

Rachelle is the producer and one of the hosts of "Science for the People", a syndicated radio show and podcast that broadcasts weekly across North America. It explores the connections between science, pop culture, history, and politics. By day she slings code as a web developer and listens to an astonishing number of podcasts.

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