Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Giving, Getting, and Grey Matter

I give you the Griswold family Christmas tree. Did you see
Rusty there? That’s Leonard from The Big Bang Theory! He
also starred in the one other big budget 1989 Christmas
movie, Prancer. By the way, did you notice that in this
Griswold movie Rusty went from being Audrey’s older brother
to her younger brother.
The Jelly of the Month Club – the gift that keeps on giving. It’s that time of year again, time to feel the love or the loathe, battle the mall or e-tail ‘til you drop. Everyone likes to get gifts, but it seems our brains like giving them more.

Your kids make gifts for you just as you made gifts for your parents. Why, because kids don’t have any money (or maybe they do, more on that below).  You loved it when Ma or Pa unwrapped your macaroni necklace or the intricate drawing of the spaceman being eaten by the dragon.

The reason you thought your gift to them was so great can be explained by how your brain works. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist, wrote about this is his book, The Upside of Irrationality. People value their own work more than they value other people’s work.

His example in the book had to do with building Lego toys – people would bid more to buy their own products than they would to buy the same products made by others. So the macaroni necklace from you was really a Tiffany original and your drawing put Renoir to shame.

And your parents loved your homemade gifts just as much as you love those from your kids. Why? Because your brain makes you….. er, allows you to. Receiving a gift activates the reward center of your brain. What's more, giving something away feels the same as when you receive something special, your brain doesn’t know the difference.

Research shows that giving a gift activates the same reward centers in the brain that light up when you receive a gift. Giving is a pleasure for the giver just as much as it is a pleasure for the receiver. This is why some Scrooges complain that people give to charity to make themselves feel good, not those they are helping.

If we covered the hands and present, could you tell who was
giving the gift and who was receiving it? Giving and getting
stimulate the same responses in the brain. However, women
are better at picking out gifts and men are better at
accepting gifts they don’t like.
Gift giving might even be more self-serving. In addition to the reward center activation, a 2006 study showed that gift giving activates the part of the brain involved in social connections and altruism. This part of the brain is activated when the gift is of greater benefit to the receiver than to the giver and is a true mark of giving in the best sense.

On the other hand, studies say getting a bad gift can actually harm a relationship. Men that received a gift from their significant other that did not match their known preferences or interests reported having less of a connection to the giver because of the choice. So the key is to pick out a gift that tells the receiver that you know them, you listen to them and you consider their perspective.

Popular theory has it that women are better at selecting gifts for other people than are men. That ain’t so at my house, but don’t tell my wife I said so. I think that women are better in general because they have more practice. They buy gifts all the time; little I’m thinking of you gifts, thank you for your gift gifts, thank you for your thank gift gifts.

That’s my hypothesis, but a scientific group in the Netherlands refused to take my word for it and did a series of experiments. They had men and women rank a series of possible gifts for people they knew and then had the potential recipient rank the gifts as well. Women did better at predicting the recipients’ preferences.

Another experiment in this study sought to determine why women were better. There results suggested that women were more connected with the meaning of the gift to the recipient. In short, women pick better gifts because they think more about the things they give.

Pearl is Mr. Crabs’ daughter and boy is she spoiled. Research
shows that giving kids too many gifts makes them unable to
discern needs from wants and puts pressure on them because
they know deep down that they don’t deserve them all. Now
explain to me why Mr. Crabs’ daughter is a whale!
So the quality of a gift can lead to stronger relationship and feelings of reward for both the giver and the receiver. But beware the power of gifts – you can have too much of a good thing.

Parents that overindulge their children through the giving of too many gifts can do harm. They don’t mean to, quite the opposite. They want to make their kids happy – it’s their job.

However, studies show that too many gifts cause insecurity and anxiety in kids. They can’t react strongly to too many gifts. So they pick one as a coping mechanism – and then they worry that they will offend the givers of the others.

In addition, giving your kids too much (material overindulgence) may lead to problems later in life with responsibility, delaying gratification, and in knowing what is normal.

Dr. David Bredehoft, the preeminent expert in the field warns that overindulgence leads to, “not knowing the difference between needs and wants; needing constant stimulation and entertainment from others; not taking responsibility for their own actions; overeating, overspending, and dysfunctional thinking (increased depressive thoughts). Paradoxically, overindulged children can develop an overblown sense of self-importance which can lead to problems at school, on the job, and/or in relationships.”

The problem continues as the overindulged become parents, “the more children are overindulged the more likely they are to become parents who: feel ineffective; believe they are not in control of their own life or their child’s behavior; think they are not responsible for their child’s actions, and that raising good children is due to fate, luck, or chance.”

This ad shows the brain at work. They tell you that you have to
add the eggs and that this creates “that homemade goodness.”
Do you think that change would be necessary today?
We can sum up gift giving for the kids through another lesson from behavioral economist Dan Ariely in The Upside of Irrationality. In the 1950’s, instant pie crust and instant cake mixes were introduced at the same time. They had pretty much the same ingredients, but the pie crust mix was a hit while they couldn’t give the cake mix away. It turned out that to make a pie, you had to add things to the crust, but the cake mix was the complete product in and of itself. Housewives had no pride in a cake they made from mix because they felt they hadn’t worked for it – they hadn’t earned it.

When manufacturers removed the powdered egg and oil from the cake mix, women started to buy it. They had to add something to create the cake. They took pride in serving it to their family or giving it away because they felt they earned it. It didn’t take much, but some work needed to be involved.

The moral - people value things they earn more than things they are given. The same is true for gift giving and receiving. If you have worked to make sure the gift you are giving is the product of your hard work, thought, and planning, you feel better about that gift. Likewise, if you have some sort of feeling that you deserve a gift and that it holds some meaning, then you will appreciate the gift more.

Too much given too easily lessens the specialness of the holiday season.

Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD

Pollmann, M., & van Beest, I. (2013). Women Are Better at Selecting Gifts than Men PLoS ONE, 8 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081643

Dunn, E., Huntsinger, J., Lun, J., & Sinclair, S. (2008). The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gifts Influence Relationships Social Cognition, 26 (4), 469-481 DOI: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.4.469

Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (42), 15623-15628 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0604475103

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