Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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In Our View: Science, religion: Better to give than to receive

The Columbian

For the past several weeks, Americans have engaged in the time-honored tradition of struggling to find a parking spot in order to jostle with other shoppers looking for the ideal Christmas gifts. Or, perhaps, the relatively new tradition of going online and doing a Google search for “ideal Christmas gifts.”

And however we do our holiday shopping, there is likely some angst and frustration and worry about whether it is all worth it. As University of Minnesota economist Joel Waldfogel wrote in a 1993 paper: “It is more likely that the gift will leave the recipient worse off than if she had made her own consumption choice with an equal amount of cash. In short, gift giving is a potential source of dead-weight loss.”

The title of the paper, naturally, is “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”

Yes, there is reason to question the efficacy of holiday gift-giving — aside from the expectation of receiving a gift in return. But rather than approach the issue from an economist’s viewpoint, the humanity in us demands a nod toward sociologists.

As Dimitris Xygalatas of the University of Connecticut writes: “Studies show that spending money on others feels better than splurging on ourselves. In fact, neuroscientists have found that making a donation makes the brain’s reward circuitry light up more than receiving a gift. Moreover, the joy of giving a gift lasts longer than the fleeting pleasure of accepting it.”

This philosophy has imbued the whole of human existence. The Bible (Acts 20:35) says, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” and ceremonial gift-giving is evident in cultures that predate even Biblical times.

As Anthony Gill, a University of Washington professor, says: “Gifting has been a nearly ubiquitous institution throughout history. If gifting wastes valuable resources, why does it persist?”

The reason, in part, is the abstract benefit of giving a gift. As a 2006 study found: “Remarkably, more anterior sectors of the prefrontal cortex are distinctively recruited when altruistic choices prevail over selfish material interests.”

We might not be academics, but we think that means that giving a gift makes us feel good.

If that is the case, Americans must be giddy. According to the National Retail Federation, holiday spending was approximately $886 billion last year in the United States — including decorations, food and travel expenses. With nearly half the population beginning holiday shopping before the end of October, we aren’t sure what counts as Christmas season, but it’s reasonable to say that Americans fully embrace its gift-giving aspect.

Meanwhile, giving is not limited to that hard-to-find gift for that impossible-to-shop-for relative. About one-fifth of annual donations to nonprofits typically are recorded in December, and for all of 2021, Americans donated a record $485 billion to charity. Charitable gifts the past two years demonstrate that we have responded to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by reaching deep into our pockets.

Such magnanimity makes sense. As research by the Association of Psychological Science has found: “The happiness we feel after a particular event or activity diminishes each time we experience that event, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. But giving to others may be the exception to this rule.”

All of which helps explain why many of us have spent weeks braving crowds at the store or digging into the depths of online retail. After all, ‘tis better to give than to receive.