DUBNER: I always wanted a one-eyed doll.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: How can you improve your gift-giving game?
DUBNER: I love getting wine so that I can then give it to someone else.
DUCKWORTH: How many bottles of wine are regifted? I think it’s got to be over a hundred percent.
* * *
DUBNER: Angela, a question today from one Julianna Bonner who writes to say that she is a senior economics major at Lehigh University.
DUCKWORTH: Which is close to my hometown here — Philadelphia, that is.
DUBNER: She writes that her dad, whose name is Neal Bonner, is who, “got me into your podcast.” She writes that her dad has undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics. He also has an M.B.A., and he now works for Nielsen. She writes, “He inspired me to read all the Freakonomics books, and he was the reason I wanted to major in economics.” But then she says, “Don’t worry, Angela. I am also minoring in psychology.”
DUCKWORTH: I get the silver medal.
DUBNER: Julianna continues. “My dad and I FaceTime every other week to talk about your show. And it is one of the things I look forward to the most. Unfortunately,” — so, that was all great news up till there, but now — “Unfortunately, he might be the hardest person to shop for during the holidays.” She says, “I’ve gotten him Freakonomics books the last three years,” poor fellow, “and vice versa.” Oh, poor Julianna. “And that is about the only thing he has actually enjoyed. And now,” she says, “I am at a complete loss. I am reaching out to you to see if, one, you have any suggestions for economists? And two, could you do a segment about why gift giving can be so difficult for some people?” So, Angela, let’s start with Julianna’s second question. Why can gift giving be so difficult for some people? Do you have any opening thoughts?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I have thoughts both on a kind of personal basis, because I would not categorize myself as a world-class gift giver, but also professionally as somebody who has looked at the literature a little bit — partly because I am such a terrible gift giver, and I’m looking for research that would help me be better.
DUBNER: Wait. You looked at the research because you’re a terrible gift giver or because you are a nerd?
DUCKWORTH: Probably both, but I’ll just say that, you know, whereas some people Google the answers to their life problems. I always Google Scholar. It’s a little more efficient for me — may not be for most. But there have been research studies, also theoretical papers, on this human tradition, right? I think we are the only species that gives and receives gifts.
DUBNER: Oh, come on. That can’t be so.
DUCKWORTH: Well, what is a gift? Right? That’s the question.
DUBNER: Well, you tell me.
DUCKWORTH: I think that the definition of a gift, I’m sure there’s research on that, which I haven’t looked at. But in terms of the psychology of it, I think a gift is not simply a transaction. So, if you go and take your car to Jiffy Lube and you pay your bill, we would not consider that a gift. But why not? You gave value to another person. The reason, I think, is that, at least implicitly, what a gift is, is like an unnecessary payment. It might be expected, but it’s optional, and it’s not an exchange for some other thing that I’m getting back. Although, again, there’s some expectation that you’ll probably give me a gift in the future.
DUBNER: Right. So, who am I to disagree with how you just defined gift giving, but sticking with the only animal that gives gifts, does a gift have to be, let’s say wrapped? Because I could imagine that most other animals would have a hard time wrapping their gifts.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think it’s the gift-giving wrapping. Because, of course, we give gifts all the time without wrapping, right? Like, you can send somebody an e-gift certificate. You can, you know, buy somebody something off of a registry — and I guess choose not to have it wrapped. I always find that an interesting — you know, when somebody registers for a wedding gift from Macy’s, or Williams Sonoma, or wherever, and then you have that option as the gift giver to, like, pay $3.99 to have it wrapped. The wrapping itself, I think, is perhaps indicative though of, like, what this thing really is doing. Right? And what it is, is surprise. I think that’s why we wrap gifts — that we are trying to prolong the suspense. I mean, if you just, like, hand somebody, I don’t know, like, an Alexa or whatever it is, you have zero surprise. Because, like, as soon as they see it, they know what it is.
DUBNER: What if you’re giving someone a car? Do you need to wrap that?
DUCKWORTH: Well, they do have those, like, huge car bows, actually,
DUBNER: Eh, I think only on T.V. commercials. Have you ever seen one in real life?
DUCKWORTH: My step brother-in-law is a car salesman, and they have them, and you’ll be happy to know, because I’ve always wondered, they reuse them. So, you can, like, basically rent a bow. Now, that, of course, does not have the surprise thing, because you’re not like “Gee, I wonder what’s under this bow,” because it’s pretty obvious that it’s a car.
DUBNER: Unless you’re pretty unperceptive.
DUCKWORTH: But I think it’s just, like, a vestige of this thing that we do. Gift giving is probably, I think, a pretty complex human interaction. But there’s part of it, which is the moment of receipt. And some psychologists have suggested that gift givers think almost entirely about that moment of the gift exchange. Like, “When Stephen unwraps this, what is he going to feel and think?” Whereas we kind of neglect, I guess, the rest of the transaction, which is like: Stephen takes it home, and then Stephen’s going to use it or not use it for the rest of his life. And so, the mistake that, again, some psychologists have argued is that the gift giver frequently errs in only thinking about that very first stage and not thinking about the rest of life.
DUBNER: Well, this explains, A, why Julianna is so concerned about getting something for her father that he will like, and B, why we are generally so bad at giving gifts. I would also add to the list that it is okay to ask someone. I mean, Julianna could ask her dad. I think that’s a really interesting research point you make about, essentially, the gift givers thinking short term versus long term. We’re thinking about the moment versus the actual use or appreciation of the thing.
DUCKWORTH: Because that’s the only part we’re around for. Like, what else, you know, would we care about?
DUBNER: Well, theoretically. But a lot of times you give a gift to someone that you spend time with. So, it could be a friend. It could be a family member. So, you actually get to see them use it or not use it. I mean, I’ve given my wife a lot of gifts over the years — some of which have landed well, a couple of which landed amazingly, most of which didn’t land very well. And sometimes I’ll give her a piece of art, maybe by an artist that we both know, hoping that she will love it. Those pieces of art usually end up in my office, I will say.
DUCKWORTH: So, you gave yourself a piece of art.
DUBNER: Well, yeah. But, you know, if you look at the data on gift recipients’ happiness about the gifts that they get — let’s look at holidays — it’s pretty bad. So, I’m looking at one survey here, which doesn’t feel super scientific. But this one survey notes that 52 percent of Americans surveyed admit to getting at least one unwanted gift over the holidays. I think that’s probably absurdly low. I think that it should probably be 98 percent.
DUCKWORTH: I know, I was going to say, it’s a lower-bound estimate.
DUBNER: Here’s, a little bit different data. This is from Statista, which might be a little bit more robust. It lists the gifts that people dislike receiving for Christmas. I have to say, some of these really surprised me. What would you guess would be among the categories that people most dislike receiving for Christmas?
DUCKWORTH: This is like Family Feud. I’m going to go with, um, clothing.
DUBNER: No. Clothing is actually right up there among the favorites. Among other favorites are household items, and electronics, “tech gears” — does that say? “Electronics and tech gears?” I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.
DUCKWORTH: Very RadioShack.
DUBNER: Wait, I want to make sure I’m reading this right.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Do you have this list wrong? Because how can clothing —? There’s the, you know, “Don’t just think about the moment of opening. Think about the lifetime usage.” But I think the other thing we’re getting to here is, like, you have to predict what that person really wants. You have to have empathy. And I think that is no small feat. I think it’s very hard to have empathy about the clothing. I do have this one horrible gift-giving story, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell it.
DUBNER: I feel like I can’t be the person to give you permission, but let’s pretend I am. Yes. It’s okay to tell the story.
DUCKWORTH: So, one year, I think it was for my birthday, Jason goes down to the local department store, I guess — I don’t know, Nordstrom, or whatever — and he goes to the dress section for women. And he seeks out a salesperson and he describes me, his new wife.
DUBNER: Can I just say, everything about this is setting off alarm bells in my mind.
DUCKWORTH: I know, right?! This is like a horror movie. You’re walking backwards —.
DUBNER: And Jason, I’m sure you meant well. But okay, proceed.
DUCKWORTH: It was tragic. It was, uh — it was catastrophic. So, you know, let’s say it’s my birthday. Maybe it was, like, Valentine’s Day. It was, like, an appropriately terrible kind of, like, setting for this, because expectations, I think, are another nuance of gift giving, right? Like, “What do I think I’m going to get?” So, we’re newly in love. I feel like my husband really knows me. I get this huge, beautifully wrapped box, with a bow on it, Stephen, and I open it up, and inside is, like, the teeniest little dress I’ve ever seen. I mean, I couldn’t fit my pinky into it. I tried it on, and then I wept.
DUBNER: In front of him? Like, while you’re trying it on?
DUCKWORTH: I’m not sure whether he was there for the trying on or not. I do remember, though, feeling — and again, I can’t believe I’m saying this, because now I’m a much wiser 52-year-old — but I was like, “Oh my God, I’m a whale.” I felt the way many women feel when they are given a piece of clothing which is, like, four sizes too small, which is: you feel four sizes too big.
DUBNER: Can I just say, in Jason’s defense, for a moment? Men don’t understand women’s clothing sizes.
DUCKWORTH: This is why I think that list has to have it wrong. Like, who gives clothing and feels confident that it’s going to land well?
DUBNER: Well, first of all, there are many items of clothing that aren’t a small dress. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you and Jason, but all I can tell you is that clothing are among the least disliked categories of gifts that people receive for Christmas — according to Statista, which now that I look at, the data is only a little over a thousand respondents.
DUCKWORTH: Ah, that’s not bad.
DUBNER: But listen, I want to get to the gifts that people most dislike. So, clothing, household items, and electronics, people like. I have to say, the top three surprised me. No. 1: flowers and plants. People don’t want them.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t really like them. Okay, good. I’m in that group.
DUBNER: No. 2: beauty products.
DUCKWORTH: Oh? Like moisturizer?
DUBNER: I don’t know, it just says “beauty products.” I guess it’s makeup? It’s anything like that. And I could imagine that there is a lot of mismatching going on there. I think in all these categories, the greater the possibility for mismatch, the greater the likelihood that there will be some dissatisfaction, right? Because I may think that you might like a certain category of something, but if I don’t know enough about the items in that category, I can imagine the mismatch being quite large.
DUCKWORTH: Well, give me the third one, and we’ll see if we can make a pattern out of this.
DUBNER: Liquor or drinks, which again, surprises me, because I’ve very rarely been ungrateful —.
DUCKWORTH: Right? For, like, a nice bottle of wine?
DUBNER: I don’t drink wine, but I love getting wine so that I can then give it to someone else.
DUCKWORTH: How many bottles of wine are regifted? I think it’s got to be over a hundred percent.
DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this. When receiving a gift that you don’t like, should you lie?
DUCKWORTH: You know, there is this developmental-psychology task that you use to test kids self-control. And most people think, like, “Oh, the marshmallow task.” Well, there’s another task that is sometimes used for little kids, and that is: you give them a gift that you know they won’t like. And how do you know? Well, at phase one in this task, you show kids all different kinds of toys. And sometimes they rig this, because, like, some of the toys are brand new, and the other ones are, like, broken or missing parts. And you ask the, like, 4-year-old, “Which of these is your very, very, very favorite?” And they point to the brand-new whatever it is. And then you say, “Well, which is the worst one?” And, of course, they point to the doll that has one eye or whatever, like, this thing that they don’t want.
DUBNER: I always wanted a one-eyed doll, I have to say.
DUCKWORTH: Wow. That is so disturbing.
DUBNER: Because I never like dolls, because they seem too perfect and perky. But if you’d given me a one-eyed doll? Man, oh man — friends for life.
DUCKWORTH: I’ll keep that in mind. I’m going to make a note of that. But in this task, Stephen, the unwanted gift is what the experimenter then wraps up all nice and fine, probably with a bow. And then, you know, after the kid’s kind of, like, forgotten about this, which doesn’t take too long — they’re 4, you hand them this gift, and they’re excited, and they unwrap it, and then, they get this thing they don’t want. And the question is: how self-controlled are you? What do you do? There’s, I think, a pretty reasonable gender difference here, which you can probably guess at? Like, which kids smile politely and thank the gift giver?
DUBNER: Definitely the boys, because we boys are raised to be conformist, polite, and kind to everyone.
DUCKWORTH: Ah, Stephen. But, no. It’s reasonably well-established that girls pass this test with flying colors — relative, anyway, to boys. But my point is that when we receive gifts, it is also part of human custom to express gratitude — whether or not we really want the bottle of wine, the, you know, size-zero dress.
DUBNER: It’s part of the ritual. And if part of the ritual is charade, as some people say, then so be it. So, I would also love to know from our listeners: what’s the best gift you ever received? Who gave it to you? Why was it so great? If you have an answer to that question, make a voice memo. Use your phone. Just talk nice and directly into the phone, in a quiet place. Tell us your name, and send it to NSQ@freakonomics.com, and we may play it on a future show.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela debate when cash is an appropriate gift.
DUCKWORTH: I have to say that my kids would vastly prefer Venmo to any other form of gift giving, and they have increasingly gotten their way.
* * *
Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about gift-giving.
DUBNER: So, let’s go back to Joanna for a minute. She mentioned her dad is an economist — or, you know, studied econ. She, herself — she says she’s a senior econ major at Lehigh. So, she probably does know about what economists call “deadweight loss.” Are you familiar with this notion of gift giving?
DUCKWORTH: Why don’t you give me a little tutorial?
DUBNER: So, for those who wish to know more, you could search for deadweight loss — “deadweight,” one word — and Joel Waldfogel. W-A-L D-F-O-G-E-L. And he is an economist. I want to say he’s at the University of Minnesota. And this was a paper from a long time ago. And Joel subsequently wrote a book that revolved around this. It was called Scroogenomics. And it made the point that economists look at gift giving a little bit differently than most people might. And what he focused on — what he calls “deadweight loss” — is essentially a measurement of the gap between what a gift costs the giver in dollars, and how the recipient values it in dollars.
DUCKWORTH: It’s, like, destroying value, right?
DUBNER: Yeah. An example would be: your grandmother buys you a sweater for $100, and you, if in your deepest, most honest moment could admit what you would, let’s say, buy it for, and that price is $10, then the deadweight loss is $90. You can see why this is a fairly tricky subject, because so much of our culture and economy are built around the notion of buying stuff for other people. And so, if an economist comes along and says, “Hey, a great deal of the stuff that you buy for other people is just wasted. You’d be better off not giving them a gift, or maybe you just want to give them cash, which is something that most humans don’t really like.”
DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. You think that most human beings don’t want to get a cash gift?
DUBNER: I didn’t say “get.” I think many people would be really happy to get money, but I think our gift-giving culture has conspired against the comfort of being able to give cash. That’s why gift cards exist. It’s, like, almost as good, but it’s not really as good.
DUCKWORTH: Gift cards are fascinating, because it’s, like, basically cash but worse, because you can only use it at the Gap or something.
DUBNER: Way worse.
DUCKWORTH: Let me just quibble a bit though about “our” custom of gift giving. I’m Chinese — like, we almost only give cash. At my wedding, we did register. But the cash part — at a Chinese wedding, there are red envelopes. And those red envelopes don’t contain gift cards. It’s, like, cold, hard cash. And sometimes, like, they’ll write a check — that’s very modern. But I think in my family tradition, there is not only cash received and given at weddings, there’s also cash given and received at Chinese New Year. And then, of course, there’s no other gifts given the rest of your life, because we don’t celebrate birthdays, and we don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. So, this idea that it’s not customary to exchange cold, hard cash — it’s certainly not universal.
DUBNER: So, do you and Jason give your kids cash gifts?
DUCKWORTH: I have to say that my kids would vastly prefer Venmo to any other form of gift giving, and they have increasingly gotten their way. I think we had the years where they were too young. So, we were, of course, giving them, like, actual things. Now they’re, like, 19 and 21, and it’s almost all cash.
DUBNER: Do you think it would be appropriate — or even a good idea — for Julianna just to give her dad, the economist, some cash?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I mean she could print out the Joel Waldfogel article, “Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”
DUBNER: That’s the present. Just printing out an academic paper.
DUCKWORTH: Right. Like, “Dad, Merry Christmas. You’ll be happy to know there’s no deadweight lost with this gift. I’m not going to mispredict what you want.” She might get a good laugh out of that, actually. I think gift giving has all these different nuances and facets, and I think one is just this, like, transaction where you’re trying to guess what the person really will find useful. That’s just a part of it. I would say, for example, Stephen, like, I, around Thanksgiving, make a list of all the people that professionally I have some gratitude for. And then, there’s this column, which is, like, how much cash to give them. Like, the mailman, we usually just tape an envelope to the mailbox. The legal limit, by the way, is $20. I looked it up.
DUBNER: By the way, I think you should give your mailman a copy of the “Deadweight Loss” paper. Just see what happens.
DUCKWORTH: See what happens. But, you know, if I can’t Venmo them, and I can’t send them a check, or I can’t give them cash, then I send them Amazon — because I think that’s as close as we can get to cash. And you could say that there’s no bow, there’s no surprise, there’s no wrapping. And there’s also none of this guessing — this, like, empathy game that we play, where if you do nail it, if you do get somebody that gift that’s just perfect for them, then, you know, there’s more “utility,” as economists would say, than even if they had bought it themselves. But since the probability is that I’m going to get it wrong for this list of professional acquaintances, yeah — I just do that. Now, what do you think about that? Because I feel like it is both efficient for me, and, also, since I don’t know these people super well personally, since I’m likely to get it wrong, I feel like it’s like the perfect gift solution.
DUBNER: So, I think that is a very viable solution you’ve come upon. I’m not sure I would call it “gift giving,” however. I mean, you can call it a gift if you want, but it’s not what I think of as gift giving. If we think about gift giving as an action of intimacy, or love, or friendship, which includes reciprocity often — maybe not in the moment. Maybe you give me something for my birthday, and I give you something later for your birthday. But what you’re describing now, which sounds very nice, but it sounds to me like a cross between a professional bonus and a kind of thank-you payment — all of which are lovely. I’m sure people are grateful for it. I have my set of things like that. In New York City, we call it “tipping culture,” though, not gift-giving culture, around Christmas — which is, you tip all the people who work in your building. Same thing if you park your car in a garage in New York. You are expected to have an envelope for each of them too. So yes, I definitely engage in that sort of prescribed —.
DUCKWORTH: And that’s not a gift for you?
DUBNER: When I think of “gift giving” of the type that Julianna is talking about, it’s a relationship in a family where there are a variety of circumstances that make it quite different from what you were talking about and what I was talking about just now. And those are: there is a reciprocity, or an expectation of reciprocity, there is a relationship, and it’s a continuing relationship. And there’s also — I guess I would describe it as love, right? So, when I think about the kinds of gifts that are wonderful or terrible, I guess, to give or receive, I think of how they sort of change, or even improve, the calculus of the relationship between the people. In other words, I can think of a couple gifts that Ellen, my wife, has given me over the years —.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I want to hear the highlights and the lowlights from the Dubner family.
DUBNER: So, first of all, she’s just good.
DUCKWORTH: That does not surprise me.
DUBNER: I think she does a lot of things that the people who give advice about gift giving prescribe. I saw an article just recently in Vox called “How to Become a Truly Excellent Gift Giver.” And it advises you to ask three questions. No 1: “Can I introduce someone to something they might not otherwise know about? “No. 2: “Can I get them a nicer version of something than they would buy for themselves?” And No. 3: “Can I make them feel seen?” I’m not sure really what that means.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, God. That’s the best one.
DUBNER: Oh really? To make you feel “seen.” Why is that the best one?
DUCKWORTH: I think this actually does get to the heart of this, like, empathy problem. And the empathy game is, like, “Can I guess what you really are, and who you really think of yourself as, and what you really want and need?” I mean, some of the best gifts I ever got were from my aunt. In Chinese, it’s “xiǎo āyí,” which means, like, “little auntie” — like, my mom’s little sister. My parents would regularly get me no gift. They were not world-class gift givers. I am their daughter. But my aunt, somehow, would get me the perfect gift. I’m thinking about when was, like, a really little girl. She got me this little, yellow safe once — it had a little red dial. I just loved it so much. There was a store called Woolworths. And there was this little lipstick holder. It was so grown up, and it was so perfect. And she really made me feel seen. Like, she hands me this gift, and the gift, essentially, says, like, “I know you, and I see you.” So, I love that third criterion.
DUBNER: I love that your little aunt gave you these great gifts, and it sounds as though she understood you, and yeah — saw you, and appreciated you, and had really great empathic skills. It’s also a little surprising to me to hear you talk about these gifts so positively when you just got done telling us that, “Nah, I’m Chinese, we just do cash.”
DUCKWORTH: But if I were as good as Ellen —.
DUBNER: But maybe you have a comfort in resorting to cash and saying that, “I’m particularly comfortable with this, in part, because I’ve got a cultural association with it, because I’m Chinese.” Whereas, in fact, what you really, really want — what Angela, Angela, Angela really, really, really wants — is just to be a little bit better at gift giving, and maybe you resort to cash because it’s so darn hard. And it sounds like Julianna is having that same problem. I think it’s really, really hard — especially, when you’re giving gifts every year, a couple times a year, maybe, to the same people over and over again. On the other hand, I would posit that there is great value in this, and even if you fail most of the time, that the times that you succeed really do make up for it. For instance, the most amazing gift I ever got was from Ellen, my wife. She commissioned an artist we both know — this was a while ago when our kids were pretty young — to paint a family portrait. And it was done through photographs, and voluminous emails, and a lot of drafts of the painting, in order that the portrait really reflected all four of us who were painted in a style that felt so true to us individually and as a family. We each had one item in our possession that was kind of subtly painted, but it was, like, the perfect item, and it was an amazing gift. And every time I see it on the wall in our home, every single time, I think of how much I love it and how much I love her for it. So, I would argue that you, who sound a little pro-cash — but also sound like you are in touch with at least that little girl, Angela, who loves to get that yellow safe with the red knob or the little lipstick case — I think even you can sense that when it’s done right, there is an emotional payoff that is worth pursuing, even if the rate of failure can be really high.
DUCKWORTH: Even if there’s a deadweight loss, on average. Okay, look, Stephen, I will concede a lot of this ground to you. I agree that if I could nail it, I would. But I like having this kind of, like, fallback, which probably is, you know, culturally, the script that I was raised on.
DUBNER: Well, can I borrow from my friend Angela Duckworth, and let’s say both/and, instead of either/or. I’m not saying you need to give people cash and some handpicked gift, but both are fine. You’ve established that giving cash really works. It’s useful. People like getting it. But also, you are someone who truly has a growth mindset. And if you truly do, I could imagine that you could set a goal for yourself of becoming a slightly better gift giver over the next several years. I think there are a lot of ways to go about doing that. I mean, the best advice I’ve ever heard is simply: don’t start thinking about giving a gift when it’s almost time to give the gift, because that’s really hard. If it’s someone that you know and spend time around, just always be on the lookout. So, I find that there’s a lot of fungibility in how we think about gift giving, good and bad, and I think that you have all the skills to become excellent at it, if you apply yourself.
DUCKWORTH: I feel like this is, like, a pep talk. This is, like, Stephen Dubner trying to convince Angela Duckworth that she can move beyond Venmo this holiday season.
DUBNER: Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Venmo. Can I share one other thing with you here though? This is an article published in the Journal of Business Research. This is from 2020. This article says that, “Gift givers do not repeat gifts nearly as often as recipients prefer, because givers perceive the act of giving a repeat gift to be less thoughtful and more boring than do recipients.” So, that I found really interesting, and it makes sense, because if someone likes something once, they’ll probably like it again. So, I’m going to take that to heart. And last year, I gave Ellen for some birthday or whatever, a monthly subscription to flowers delivered.
DUCKWORTH: What? Like, “flowers of the month”?
DUBNER: It’s a company called UrbanStems. I thought that gift was a little bit cliche, maybe a little bit tacky.
DUCKWORTH: Flowers and plants are No. 1 on the list of gifts that people don’t want.
DUBNER: There you go. But it turns out, every month we get a new bouquet. It is seasonally appropriate, and Ellen likes it. And so, I might get her something else in addition, but I’m definitely going to repeat that because, oh my goodness, once you find something that someone likes, why on Earth do you not just want to get it again?
DUCKWORTH: Okay, look, this is an infinitely complex topic. Like, yes, I agree, if something works — like, “They really liked the sausage of the month club, I’m just going to, like, click on the button again this year.” And, you know, joking aside —.
DUBNER: Wait a minute. Are you joking? Because “sausage of the month club” sounds kind of fantastic.
DUCKWORTH: Actually, that would be a really good gift for Jason, because he would feel seen.
DUBNER: Look at you! I am so proud of you. You have evolved so much in the course of this conversation.
DUCKWORTH: I know. So much progress! I think there’s another option here, in addition to sausage of the month, you know, commissioned painting, as ideas for Julianna. I have a suggestion that I used with my own dad — who was also hard to give gifts to. I wrote him a letter, actually, every Christmas, and it always hit. In a way, it’s, like, the opposite of cash. It’s not exchangeable. It’s unique, and I think there’s an element of gift giving that we haven’t quite gotten to yet, Stephen. And that is: what emotion do you think is usually the emotion that one has when one receives a gift?
DUBNER: I would say it would be gratitude.
DUCKWORTH: That is right. So, gratitude is experienced most when we feel like we have gotten something from someone else. And —.
DUBNER: And it’s fully refundable?
DUCKWORTH: No. Good guess. But that they’ve made some sacrifice — that it took something of their effort that they sacrificed, their time that they sacrificed, or their resources. There has to have been a price to it. So, when you write a letter to your dad, Julianna, you’re going to show that you have put in effort. So, look, it’s a complex issue, but I do think that when you have somebody that you really love, and it’s personal, and it’s not professional, what else is there than a letter that could kind of, like, hit all those notes pretty reliably?
DUBNER: That is a lovely and great point. I will say, in this case, this is an odd one, because Julianna somehow conned you and me into talking about her giving her dad a gift for the past half hour. And so, she can now just send him the link to this episode. So, Neal, Julianna is a crafty person, and I applaud her craftiness.
DUCKWORTH: I feel like we should just say, Mr. Bonner, that you have a wonderful daughter. And I hope that this conversation has been a surprise. I hope it’s something that you didn’t already have. I hope it was a nicer version of a podcast than you might have indulged yourself in. And I hope it makes you feel seen.
DUBNER: So, Angela, do you think anything we’ve discussed today changes your approach at all?
DUCKWORTH: I would say this: I think that you have to ask yourself, like, “How much of a risk taker am I? Am I going to go for the glory and try to guess at something that they don’t have, it’s nicer than they would buy for themselves, they’re going to feel seen? I think I’ve got it. Or do I want to play the safe option and give the equivalent of a red envelope filled with cash?” I think I’m going to make a case-by-case call, Stephen, but when I doubt myself, you know, given the deadweight loss issue, and given how many times I really have gotten things where I was like, “Oh my gosh, not only do I not want this, now I have to recycle it, or whatever, it’s a burden,” I’m going to be pretty risk-averse. I don’t know if that makes you feel like you’ve done your work as a coach, but I’m still going to be risk-averse this year, as I, as I have been in holidays past.
DUBNER: You know, I have faith in you. We’ll see how you do this year. Maybe we’ll check in next year and see if you’ve grown a little bit. Because I have massive belief in your potential to just keep growing. I would like to just add one thing. First of all, I think it’s very uncomfortable for many people to ask for a gift, and I am within that category, but I am about to break my discomfort level. And I am about to say to all our listeners, it is really lovely, many of you write to us with all kinds of words — kind words, inquisitive words, and so on. And a lot of people write to say that they want to do something for us. I will say there is something that people can do that would be a really nice gift, which is: tell your friends and family to listen to this show. In the world of podcasting, the single best way to grow an audience is word of mouth. And so, if you like this show, feel free to tell your friends and family. If you feel really committed, you can go onto your podcast app and leave a rating or review. If you don’t like this show very much and you do leave a rating or review, go leave your crappy rating on This American Life or Armchair Expert, or whatever. Save your five-star feelings for us.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Angela says that she thinks that humans are the only species that practice gift giving. This is incorrect. Certain other animals give gifts as well — although, admittedly, not wrapped. For example, University of Washington ornithologist John Marzluff has spent years researching how crows give presents to each other, and to humans. People who feed wild crows might be rewarded with found objects. A 2015 BBC profile of a young girl who befriended a crow in her garden reported that the girl had been given dozens of small objects — including a miniature silver ball, a pearl-colored heart, and a yellow bead. She also received a rotting crab claw — which demonstrates that what makes a good gift is subjective.
Later, Stephen doubts that attaching giant bows to cars is a phenomenon that exists outside of television commercials. But Angela insists that the company her car salesman brother-in-law works for allows customers to rent bows. Websites like Carbowz.com, King Size Bow, and of course, Amazon, offer a multitude of purchasable options from gigantic Christmas-themed bows to massive ribbons that read “Sweet 16.” The concept was popularized by Lexus’s “December to Remember” campaign, which launched in 1998. Today, King Sized Bows, the company responsible for the bows in Lexus ads, reportedly sells thousands of car bows a year that are shipped all over the world. Clients can customize the color, sheen, size, and number of loops.
Finally, Angela shares that because of her Chinese background, she often feels more comfortable giving money than physical presents. We should also note that while Angela chooses to Venmo her colleagues to show appreciation, gift giving does occur in Chinese workplaces. It’s relatively common to bring physical gifts to important business meetings — presents that have strong associations with the giver’s local identity are appreciated. Gifts are usually quickly reciprocated with a present of equal value.
That’s it for the fact-check.
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Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts on our recent episode on how to be a better communicator. Here’s what you said:
Justin GEHRTS: Hi, Stephen and Angela. I was a broadcast meteorologist in local T.V. for over a dozen years. So, I’ve done a lot of communicating — especially taking complex information and making it meaningful. My advice: don’t try to impress a general audience by using stuff like jargon. To paraphrase the movie Anchorman, 60 percent of the time it backfires every time.
Jeff BLADEN: Hey, Angela and Stephen. This is Jeff from Philly. Great communicators start with the answer and work back from there. Getting quickly to what you think the answer is before spending time on why you think that’s the answer and what data backs up your conclusion is a great way to hook your audience, but it also hopefully avoids them checking out because it’s otherwise taken too long to get to the point. Thanks again for all the work you put into your weekly podcast.
That was, respectively: Justin Gehrts and Jeff Bladen. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear your stories about the best gift you ever received. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and if you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela hear from a young listener who admits that he’s been cheating at school for years.
DUBNER: Aidan goes on to say, “Even in my favorite classes, I can’t help myself but cheat on virtually every assignment. I have spent far longer learning how to cheat than the time it takes to actually do the assignment.”
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. Katherine Moncure is our associate producer. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: I’ve seen that painting. It’s gorgeous — even for me, who’s not your family.
DUBNER: Even for you, who actively dislikes my family, you find it to be a meaningful portrait!
DUCKWORTH: Even me, who finds each and every one of you repugnant.
- Joel Waldfogel, professor of strategic management & entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota.
- “How to Become a Truly Excellent Gift Giver,” by Eliza Brooke (Vox, 2022).
- “How to Calculate a Holiday Tip for the Doorman,” by Ronda Kaysen (The New York Times, 2022).
- “Least Favorite Gifts to Receive for Christmas in the United States in 2022, by Generation,” (Statista, 2022).
- “(Not) Giving the Same Old Song and Dance: Givers’ Misguided Concerns About Thoughtfulness and Boringness Keep Them From Repeating Gifts,” by Julian Givi (Journal of Business Research, 2020).
- “Does Anyone Really Buy the Giant Car Bows You See in Every Commercial?” by Aditi Shrikant (Vox, 2018).
- “It’s the Motive That Counts: Perceived Sacrifice Motives and Gratitude in Romantic Relationships,” by Mariko L. Visserman, Francesca Righetti, Emily A. Impett, Dacher Keltner, and Paul A. M. Van Lange (Emotion, 2018).
- “Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving,” by Jeff Galak, Julian Givi, and Elanor F. Williams (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2016).
- “The Girl Who Gets Gifts From Birds,” by Katy Sewall (B.B.C. News, 2015).
- “The Disappointing Gift: Dispositional and Situational Moderators of Emotional Expressions,” by Renée M. Tobin and William G. Graziano (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2011).
- Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, by Joel Waldfogel (2009).
- “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” by Joel Waldfogel (The American Economic Review, 1993).
- United States Postal Service Employee Tipping and Gift-Receiving Policy.
- “Have a Very Homo Economicus Christmas,” by Freakonomics Radio (2012).