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Ellen Langer

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Scroogenomics: Are the Grinches Wrong?

Posted: 12/28/09 03:02 PM ET

We either gave gifts as usual this Christmas or heeded the advice of Joel Waldfogel, Wharton Professor of Economics and author of Scroogenomics, who argues in his book that we should not have. My guess is those who chose not to give gifts were not so much persuaded by his argument, but found him a convenient expert to justify what they were already planning to do.

Now that the decision is past, do they suffer post decision regret? I bet many do. Sure, sometimes giving a gift is done mindlessly and thus may be meaningless. Sometimes it's also stressful. More often though, it creates memories that may last a lifetime that would be hard to quantify in an economist's cost/benefit analysis or to replicate in some non-gift-giving way.

Gift-giving may be likened to our system of law. We can never or rarely be sure if someone accused actually committed the crime or not. Thus we always run the risk of punishing the innocent or freeing the guilty. We take as a standard, innocent until proven guilty. A gift can be a waste of money where the receiver has no use or desire for it or it can be meaningfully received. We can run the risk of giving without benefit or not giving when there would have been benefit. I strongly vote for the former. Give, give, give. I wish I knew how many gave, gave, gave and now feel generous.

I spent Christmas Eve at a small party of eleven people, playing Santa. I chose a bunch of games that I had remembered being fun as a child and thought would still be entertaining. It was a big hit. For reasons I can't conjure up, however, while I bought a gift for a friend's two teens and his wife, I didn't buy one for the male host. I also didn't bring one for my partner, thinking we would exchange gifts the next day. They didn't need whatever silly thing I would have gotten. But like children, not having anything to open was a small disappointment and I felt Scrooge-like.

I've written elsewhere about how giving leads the giver to feel empowered and generous and in the process of choosing the gift to come to know the recipient better. The more mindful the individual is in trying to figure out what to get, the more rewards the giver will reap in terms relationship satisfaction. Moreover, much of my research on mindfulness suggests that more mindful gift choices may improve our health and well-being as well.

A gift didn't have to be expensive or even store bought. It just needed to implicitly say "I care" to be successful. My gifts that were wrapped with care brought smiles. Very easy, no stress, and very rewarding--even in a cost benefit way.

Economists have found that people often wouldn't buy the item they were given. So what? Seemingly even worse, they typically think it costs less than it did. Is this reason to stop giving gifts? Before answering, let me share a personal experience.

In December, 1997, my house had a fire that destroyed around 80 percent of what I owned plus all of the gifts that had arrived for the holidays and all of those waiting to be mailed. I arrived home from a dinner party at 11:30 to find my neighbors outside waiting for me and my house boarded up. They waited in the cold so I wouldn't have to face the event alone and to make sure I knew my dogs were okay. The next many days my dogs and I stayed at the Charles Hotel. Not surprisingly, we were not unobserved nor were we ignored.

On Christmas Eve, I left the room to go to dinner. When I returned, I returned to a room filled with gifts. They were from the chambermaids, the men who parked my car, the waitresses, the clerks at the desk. It brought tears to my eyes and still has that effect every Christmas when I recall the generosity of these loving strangers.

If an economist asked me if I would have bought the items for myself, the answer would have been no. That would be taken as evidence that I shouldn't have been given them. If these people had been convinced by experts not to give to anyone but immediate family, they probably would have felt less generous that Christmas. I would have missed an experience of a lifetime that keeps on giving, memory after memory.

Christmas is a time to give presents, it's a time to let people know you are there and that you care. The Grinches need to know that it's never too late.