Is It Irrational To Give Gifts?

Behavioral economics is more appreciative of gift giving than traditional economics:

Behavioral economics better understands why people (rightly, in my view) don’t want to give up the mystery, excitement and joy of gift giving. In this view, gifts aren’t irrational. It’s just that rational economists have failed to account for their genuine social utility.

So let’s examine the rational and irrational reasons to give gifts.

Some gifts, of course, are basically straightforward economic exchanges. This is the case when we buy a nephew a package of socks because his mother says he needs them. It is the least exciting kind of gift but also the one that any economist can understand.

A second important kind of gift is one that tries to create or strengthen a social connection. The classic example is when somebody invites us for dinner and we bring something for the host. It’s not about economic efficiency. It’s a way to express our gratitude and to create a social bond with the host.

If you want to better a social connection, don't give perishable gifts. “For a durable impression, better to give a vase or a painting. Even if your friends don’t like it that much, they’ll think about you more often.”

Another category of gift, which I like a lot, is what I call “paternalistic” gifts—things you think somebody else should have. I like a certain Green Day album or Julian Barnes novel or the book “Predictably Irrational,” and I think that you should like it, too. Or I think that singing lessons or yoga classes will expand your horizons—and so I buy them for you.

A paternalistic gift ignores the preferences of the person getting the gift, which tends to drive economists crazy, but it may actually change those preferences for the better. Of course, you might mess up by giving a paternalistic gift that someone hates, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

A holiday gift can straddle these categories. Instead of picking a book from your sister’s Amazon wish list, or giving her what you think she should read, go to a bookstore and try to think like her. It’s a serious social investment.

The great challenge lies in making the leap into someone else’s mind. Psychological research affirms that we are all partial prisoners of our own preferences and have a hard time seeing the world from a different perspective. But whether or not your sister likes the book, it may give her joy to think about you thinking of her.

My final category of gift is one that somebody really wants but would feel guilty buying for themselves. This category shouldn’t exist, according to standard economic theory: If you really liked it and could afford it, you’d buy it.


Dan Ariely is the best-selling author of The Upside of Irrationality and Predictably Irrational.