Facts about gift-giving

by on January 5, 2004 at 7:10 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

A recent Australian article cites some facts about gift-giving:

1. 28 per cent of surveyed respondents admitted that they “recycle gifts.”

2. Women give Christmas gifts to more people than do men. The average difference is 12.5 versus eight.

3. Women devote more time to selecting the appropriate gift, 2.4 hours per recipient versus 2.1 hours for male gift shoppers. [I will surmise, without any systematic data, that the real difference is far greater.]

4. Women are more successful in finding desired gifts. 10 per cent of women’s gifts were returned to the shop, as opposed to 16 per cent for gifts given by men.

A good theory of gift giving should account for the greater popularity of gifts among females. I could not help but notice that during my recent honeymoon, my wife bought gifts for many of her friends. I bought family-related gifts, but did not buy a gift for a single friend.

The linked article notes one theory of gifts, called the search theory:

…gift giving makes sense in cases where the giver’s knowledge of where to find something the recipient wants is greater than the recipient’s own knowledge. Or if the giver is in a position to get it cheaper. So the rule is that the giver gives a gift only when her “search costs” for the gift are lower than those of the recipient.

This emphasis on the hassle involved in finding suitable presents helps explain why, even though it’s regarded as poor form to give money, parents are more likely to resort to money as their children get older. The parents’ search costs rise as they become less certain what their kids would like, whereas the kids’ search costs fall as they become more independent. This theory also helps explain why people who go on trips return with presents. Their gifts tend to be things that are dearer or harder to find at home. Even so, it’s hard to believe the theory accounts for more than a fraction of gifts.

The search theory explains some of observed practice, but not why women devote more attention to gift-giving. Perhaps women, having lower average wages, also have lower average search costs. More likely, women find it more worthwhile to invest in a tight network of extended family and close friends. Men might find it more worthwhile to invest in a goal-oriented mentality, which will discourage large amounts of time spent shopping. When it comes to shopping more generally, gifts or not, men take less time, are more decisive, more prone to impulse purchases, and less likely to look at the price tag. Read this account of gender differences in shopping. Buying gifts may require an attention to shopping detail that men simply do not have in the first place.

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