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Gifts and Burdens

When is a gift not (just) a gift?

blickpixel/Pixabay CC0
Source: blickpixel/Pixabay CC0

Gift-giving is a tricky business. Who do you buy for? How much do you spend? Will a homemade gift seem extra-thoughtful, or just extra-cheap? Many of us cycle through these questions, year after year, as our finances and our relationships wax and wane.

There’s something a bit puzzling about the way we emesh gifting in a complicated web of obligations and duties. Isn’t it the very essence of gifts that they are freely given, a delightful extra which stands outside the everyday to-and-fro? After all, we have other, less delightful names for the obligatory transfer of material goods: debt, coercion, even extortion. No wonder the whole business can seem so stressful.

The trouble is that gifts communicate not only the giver’s generosity, but also her gratitude for the gifts she has previously received, or anticipates receiving: We often try to match others, not spending too little, but not spending too much, even if we are lucky enough to have the financial resources to do so. Especially during holidays, gifts are supposed to be reciprocated, and lack of reciprocation can breed resentment.

Psychologists and economists often study people’s behaviour by getting them to play specially designed games. The so-called Ultimatum Game is particularly intriguing for what it tells us about our notions of gifting, sharing, and fairness. Each participant is paired up with a stranger; the first of each pair is given $10, and invited to choose how much or how little of this to offer to the second person. The second person can either accept what they have been offered or else refuse, in which case the $10 is returned to the experimenter, and both participants go home empty-handed.

Thinking in purely economic terms, we might expect the second participant to accept whatever she is offered. After all, even a dollar – or a dime – is better than nothing at all, right? In practice, experimenters consistently find that most people will reject any offer less than $2, and many people will reject offers less than $4. When we feel like we’re not being treated fairly, we’d rather get nothing at all than see our ‘oppressor’ profit. And, in practice, the most common offer was to split the money 50-50: We seem to know that others will reject ‘unfair’ offers.

This ultimatum game has been played thousands of times, in different experimental settings. Around the turn of the millennium, Joseph Henrich and his collaborators were able to take it global: They persuaded people from a range of small-scale non-industrialised societies to play the game. And the results varied a lot. For example, the Gnau people of Papua New Guinea rejected any offers which were ‘too generous’, i.e. more than half of the original cash pot. It turns out that the Gnau regard gift-recipients as committed to reciprocating at a time and scale of the giver’s choosing: Better not to accept anything more than your fair share, since you can’t tell what you’ll have to do in return.

But around the Christmas tree, or across the family dinner table, we don’t always have the option of refusing over-generous gifts, or turning up our noses at less-than-generous offers, nor should we. The complicated bonds of reciprocity are an essential part of human social life. When you live without obligations, you live without relationships. The trick, if we can all manage it, is to communicate early and often about expectations and hopes, then breathe a sigh of relief when it’s all over for another year.


Werner Güth and Martin G. Kocher: 'More than Thirty Years of Ultimatum Bargaining Experiments' - a scientific overview of findings (Güth was one of the originators of this line of research).

Joseph Henrich and others: 'In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies', American Economic Association Papers and Proceedings (2001). Reports the findings from different cultural groups.