It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

Have a Happy (and Fair) Holiday Season

How to smile through the gift exchange — and after!

During the holidays, it seems that questions of equality and fairness rise up constantly. As parents, people make sure that children have and equivalent number and value in their gifts. Until my husband and his brothers were well into their 30s, my mother-in-law still gave each son the identical gift each year at Christmas. And each daughter-in-law got a nearly identical hand-crocheted afghan. As adults, we navigate the principal of reciprocity with greater difficulty. What happens when you profer a Christmas card, but the friend bring a bottle of wine? What if you buy a gift after much thought, and you receive a gift that is clearly generic? Is regifting okay? What if you receive a gift that you know would be perfect for someone else? The thought is there, but the monetary contribution is not, does that count?

Christmas gift-exchanges involve complex mental math that far surpasses that covered in college-level calculus courses. Several theories from psychology can help us understand how to get the gift-given/gift-received equation to balance.

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First, is the principle of equity. According to Equity Theory, people are not only motivated by the outcomes they receive, but whether the ratio of their inputs to their outputs is equivalent to other people in the environment. In the work world, it comes down to believing that people who are not as productive as you are not getting paid as much as you, and vice versa. What is important about Equity Theory, and a similar Procedural Justice Theory, is that it highlights how little the actual amount of pay matters compared to the fairness of the process by which pay is determined. These theories explain why people resent being paid less than a manager or co-worker who is perceived as contributing less to the bottom-line, but may not bedgrudge a better salesperson getting a bigger bonus.

 Unfortunately, in the holiday-family world, the inputs and outcomes are harder to measure, and efforts can be hidden. Like a year-end bonus, people may expect that Christmas gifts can provide final reckoning of the year, and balance out all emotional and physical expenditures. Take for example, a person with an ailing parent and several siblings. The person may spend a great deal of time and effort helping the parent, while the siblings do little. At the Christmas gathering, that person might expect some recognition of that effort, whether it be a present or even just praise and appreciation, either from the siblings or the parent. However, assistance offered to the parent may be hidden or hard to quantify, and therefore is unlikely to factor into how the person is treated. Ultimately, the person feels slighted, the siblings that that person is acting like a martyr, and the holiday breeds resentment.

More simple situations, such as gift exchanges, can lead to similar effects. In a gift exchange, the ultimate goal is to determine whether equity was achieved. That is, were your inputs into my gift equivalent into my inputs into your gift. These inputs can include money, time, or thoughtfulness. Because of this equity may be achieved through parity in pricing, or through equivalency of thought. Exchanges of gift cards (which started happening in my family) makes things easy — exact monetary expenditures can be tracked, and the thought ceases to exist. The danger, of course, comes when one person measures through thought and another through dollars. For example, if one sibling is more affluent than another, large gifts may be handed out, and a less-affluent sibling may worry that the care and thought put into a homemade gift is not being counted.

In the work world, people respond to different kinds of inequity in different ways. In the case of overpayment inequity, people may exert more effort in order to "deserve" their higher level of reward, though this requires considerable insight and maturity. Or, people may recalibrate and view their lower level of input as more valuable than they had first thought. In the case of underpayment inequity, people may exert less effort in order to balance inputs and outcomes. This can be harder if people feel invested in the situation or a lack of trust in others. They may also recalibrate and view their higher level of input as less valuable than they had first thought, though this too requires considerable insight and maturity.

So, how to have an equitable and happy holiday season? One thing to do is to simple accept that things will be unfair. Perhaps trying to understand why the inputs of one sibling are more highly valued than another is a dead-end street. Accept that in life, as in a soccer game, bad calls will be made and you just have to live with them. Another idea is to scale back. If you feel like your efforts are not being valued, then reduce those efforts. You might find that things go just fine without your sweat and stress, and you'll enjoy a more restful season. Finally, make sure to recognize the efforts of others. Even if you can't afford a big gift, recognition can be a very sweet reward. Open your eyes, mind, and heart, and try to take in the whole situation and story. Then, pass the nog.

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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