Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Maria Konnikova writes for Scientific American Blogs about the psychology behind gift giving. She cites research on how generosity is a winning game theory strategy, even seen from an self-maximizing economic perspective, because it is so difficult to tell whether you'll ever see that person again:

A group of psychologists from UC-Santa Barbara set out to test the long-standing conundrum that even in anonymous, one-shot games—in other words, in situations where you know that (1) you will never again encounter your partner and (2) no one has any idea what decision you’ve made—people more often than not choose to incur costs themselves in order to allocate benefits to others; an irrational behavior by traditional economic standards if ever there was one. In their model, the team managed to isolate an asymmetry that had previous been ignored: in an uncertain world, it is far more costly to incorrectly identify a situation as one-shot when it is in fact repeated than it is to mistake an actual one-shot encounter for a repeated one. Put differently, it is better to always assume that we will in fact encounter the same partners over and over. So costly is it to make a mistake in the opposite direction that, even absent any reputational or other mechanisms, it makes sense for us to behave generously to anyone we encounter. As the study authors conclude, “Generosity evolves because, at the ultimate level, it is a high-return cooperative strategy…even in the absence of any apparent potential for gain. Human generosity, far from being a thin veneer of cultural conditioning atop a Machiavellian core, may turn out to be a bedrock feature of human nature.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. Often people ask me, as a sociopath, whether I would leave a tip for a service professional whom I thought I would never see again, but I find that hard to imagine because one time I was accosted outside a restaurant by a service professional who felt that I undertipped him. Tipping generously not only had prevented that from happening since, it has also made a positive impression on my some of my dining companions that have had the chutzpah to actually check the tip that I've left, to ensure it was generous enough. So I find the hypo of never seeing a victim again difficult to imagine.

And if you're going to bother giving a gift, better make it count by getting something that they would particularly appreciate, or perhaps that could only come from you. Ariely describes these gifts:

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.

I understand exactly what Ariely is talking about, having always made this type of tailor-made gift-giving myself. Konnikova suggests that people could do just as well with empathy (or maybe she is saying that this can only be done with empathy?):

Ariely singles out this type of gift as one that makes the mental leap from your own vantage point to that of someone else. It’s a leap that is incredibly difficult to take—exhibiting empathy, let alone perfect empathy to the point of complete confluence with the mind of another person, is a tough feat even in the most conducive of circumstances—but that may be worth taking all the same. For, even if you fail to make it as accurately as you may have wanted, the effort will be noted. The actual accuracy is somewhat beside the point. What matters is that you try to make the shift from your own mindset to someone else’s, that you make the effort to think about what present would be best suited to another person.

What if you don't use empathy to make the leap from your own vantage point to that of someone else? Is it still the thought that counts? 


  1. All I want for Christmas is you!
    I think I have two chances.....

  2. The word "thoughtful" seems to apply here. A thoughtful gift is generally well chosen and the opposite of the sort of trinket a narcissist dispenses from on high.

    I am fascinated by the game theory approach ME takes here because if a version of it could be expanded to include all interactions (not just tangible gift giving) the riddle of helping a sociopath understand how it is in their self interest to treat ALL interactions as ongoing. Because I do think that's how life works.

    Sociopaths self sabotage because they screwed someone in what they assume was a one shot interaction, never considering that that person might "out" them to a future associate. No interaction is really one shot in terms of personal reputation.

    It's in the sociopath's best interest to build a good reputation. Their altruism may be calculated but who cares? Utilitarian ethics often trump sentimentally driven choices in terms of maximizing a positive outcome for everyone.

    1. I have to agree with you when you say "their altruism may be calculated, but who cares". This has long been my argument about people with npd and aspd. Although we can't always assume it's calculating because in some cases it's genuine, these individuals are attracted to power, and enjoy it when a lot of people admire them. Let's say for example that a college professor has npd, and he enjoys being admired so much by others that he frequently lectures all over the country, and writes numerous books. The sole motivation may be to get whatever he gets psychologically from people fawning over him, but my argument is who cares? If the whole group benefits, why does it need to be pathologized? Same with sociopaths that have done beneficial things for groups. I frequently talk about the political work John Wayne Gayce did in his community, and when he was in prison at one point for another crime he committed before going to prison for the murders. It seemed genuine some of what he did, and not so much done with the intention to manipulate, but even if it was done with the intention to manipulate does it really matter as long as others benefitted? The way empathy is processed in the cluster b personality disorders is really interesting. I have included a link below to a video by James Fallon where he talks briefly about having empathy for the larger group and for strangers, but not in interpersonal relationships. It's interesting because people with bpd also have this problem. In the new edition of the DSM they included as a symptom of the disorder lack of empathy towards others in their interpersonal relationships. A lot of people with bpd were really upset about this, but it's true. People with bpd do often lack empathy towards those in their lives, and will have extreme empathy towards strangers and larger groups especially groups that are marginalized, abused, etc etc. Here is the James Fallon link:

    2. "One that makes the mental leap from your own vantage point to that of someone else."

      I've been doing this recently with good results. One of the things I've actually learned on this site. It's interesting to 'get inside someone's head'
      and take a peak at how they see the world. It really does open up opportunity to improve relationships, as well as choose a thoughtful gift.

    3. Dr Ginger, is it sociopathic not to care about the"
      " why"

      I am talking about the knowing of someone elses ulterior motives and doing eye rolling at them because you know the other is not being giving because they love you.

      I had a boyfriend who was so generous with me during the seduction phase..too generous, you know? He had tons more money than I do. I knew he was not sincere in the sense that he knew how much it would make me happy, which, sure it did, but I knew it was coming from amanipulative place..a way to secure me with gifts. I guess it was working, too.

      But here is the thing. If I knew that this fellow was doing a kind of sort of shady generosity...like for example, being really good at sex TO another in order to keep them (I have done that, so I will use that )

      Ok here is my point. Both are examples of generosity, but with enough mo for them both to be on the shady side.

      If you know the other is being shady because you just know, and you dont say anything because the presents are good(or because the sex present is nice) then are you just as shady for knowing and accepting the gestures, accepting them with love in your eyes, kind of sort of lying about the way you react to the gesture?

      I ask because this can happen, when you meet someone who gives, and you know why and you dont say to them HEY I know you are trying to buy me! It would not be polite to do that. And also you do not mind the gift..they are nice. Does that make you a user, or does that just make you gracious?

    4. I do not behave like a prostitute..ie I do not do sex for gifts. That is not what I did. I am talking about trying to secure someone elses affection/love with sexual pleasure. Out of a desire for love from them, not anything more. So dont lets get onto calling me a prostitute, mr. Empathy free

    5. And also, I dont do it anymore...I have done it, but do not anymore. It is too important for me to have real love tor just my self. And I only did it sometimes anyway.

    6. It sounds like you are having an inner ethical conflict about the relationship you were in. I have to wonder if it has something to do with the value system you were raised with, but if there is reciprocity, you enjoyed receiving gifts, and he enjoyed lavishing you with gifts in exchange for your company, I’m not sure I see the problem.

    7. There did not seem to be q problem at the time, the first time he did it. It made hhim feel good to do it. I am not used to getting gifts..items I look at in a store and someone sees that it would be nice to have them, but because of the pricetag it is not an option. . He had wanted to surorise me to pay for a higher end quality necessity on the same day and i wanted to beat him to it b3cause i do not believe i should taken advantage of his wealth. But I saw the disappointment on his face, so later i let him see me wants some things. It made him happy to give to me.
      At the time I had ethical confusion but in a way I liked to make him happy giving to me. I benefitted too so I did not feel bad. He is wealthy. (I did not express any of this at the time. )

      But then one day he was a dick in the morning and then later on he was buying himself ridiculously expensive jeans for himself. It was directly after the morning he said to me how about we go away and I will go first class and you will go coach. He was being a douchebag. So I decided to try on jeans and pranced around then put them back...after all I only wanted to try them on :o . Because he likes to show off his winnings (pretty girl on his arm in hot jeans ×rolls eyes× ) I let him, .I was testing him. Do you understand? I was not happy about the douchebagian " putting me in my place " abt the plane tickets..I was never greedy with him. You see, he HAD to take away the happy factor after ue paid for the initial luxury. So with the jexns I was essentially saying to h7m fuck you,, i will now manipulate you and tempt you to pay for trying to put m3 lower than you. Do you understand this?

      Later, I realized that he is very very used to this, and tests women whather or not they take advantage of him. He only dates women financially lower. His first love fucked him over, accepted his money to make a career ...huge huge career and thevcheated on him. He had been "ruined" by her. I (I do not think she is a bad person. He actually chooses high quality girlfriends. )

      So later, I realized he was watching me for changes in my way of thinking. He sometkmes talked of money changing people...a projection.. He is a sad fellow. But a douchebag, nonetheless.

      So I always watch myself now, you know? I mean I still think that when someone feels goid about giving to me, ie I see their face happy when they please me, I let them. I believe that giving is making even antisocials feel good. Ofcourse, I am aware he was in seduction mode. I did not have illusions.

      I do now question everybody's mo, even mine now.

      But I do never date men without money. I have always been cool about that. I

      I did not like being misunderstoid by him though.. he did not know how his remarking about the plane ticket made me want to hurt him back. He should be told this by someone. No, no inhave no desire for him. I know it seems I do but I do not,

      What I took from the situation was communication is better . There was drama without such communication. I did not want to discuss feelings with him. I did think that the more amo I gave him, the more he would try to hurt my feelings. I kept my poker face very much. I was proud of that but it was a very tedious time.

      I did not think he was ever worth the effort to tell my insides to, but I do now realize that I am more materialistic than i was aware. I mean i am not too bad. Being with him did change me, in that embrace more freely my materialism. I enjoy knowing i enjoy material things now. It helps me see what i require without feeling guilty

      You know how chris rock says women cannot go backwards monetarily, and men cannot go back sexually? It is true for me haha.

      There are very sekf righteous people in this world who judge people sensible enough to mate with money when they themselves o not have a lot. (I make enough. For myself. But my town is very expensive . I am frugal and i do not have debt, so it is nice to be treated, )

      This man made me question myself.

    8. Yes dr ginger., I grew up with the "BEST" values lol. I am joking, ofcourse. Do you know how a parent tries to tell you that everyone else in the world is frivolous because THEY do not believe in any luxuries? Do you know people who look down upon the "haves" because the "haves" are "less than"? The haves are wasteful, stupid, phony, all those things that someone tells themself if they are a low income narcissist? You know, poor people's snobbery?

      That is the kind of narcissist I grew up with. It was very confusing to me. Then later when you ar3 older and you get " oh your bf doesntt buy you anything ....what good are they?" How crazy is that??? You cannot win with a narcissist. thats why I did not know ehether I was coming or going. That is the insanity i dealt with.

  3. Merry Christmas M.E. !! to you and your family ! really enjoy this blog, its been life changing for me, glad i bumped into it this past year. helps me see things in a versatile way.

    Merry Christmas to all in this SW community. xxx

    1. Merry christmas and belated happy channukah to you, too, and me, and all of sw!

      Thank you for your generosity!

  4. My way of being generous is by being appreciative. Its the only way I know how. Here are two magic words in life: Thank you, I love you. I've gotten very good at thank you. I practice saying it to things (my microwave, my kitchen when I'm done with it, anything before I throw it out.. ) So anyways a genuine thank you is magical. It shows appreciation, which is one of the most generous things you can do.

    1. a thank you gift next, perhaps?

      Oh yeah, baby steps :)

    2. well said carlos. you'll never go wrong with being appreciative. :)

  5. from the forum:

    With Christmas and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ upon us, I've been contemplating the following conundrum:

    Why haven't you murdered your daughter?

  6. Regarding gifts, perhaps it should be the 'thought that counts,' but it can be quite a turn-off when you receive a gift from a potential love interest that is so obviously suited to them and not to yourself.

    A friend with whom I had long flirted bought me a novel for the holiday. Less than a month prior, we had had a conversation in which I had happened to relate that I was more interested in non-fiction and wasn't so interested in novels.

    I had been considering the idea of dating this woman, but had recently decided against it. The gift confirmed for me that I didn't want to be involved with this woman.

    It wasn't that she didn't have empathy. It was actually quite the opposite -- she always seemed very concerned about other people. She once started crying upon hearing that a complete stranger had cancer. And she was always trying to cheer me up whenever I was down.

    The problem was that her empathy felt too generic. And generic empathy, even when it is heartfelt, feels hollow to me. When I told her about some situation, she would give some standard, trite response of concern seemingly without paying attention to the details of what I was saying. In most cases, I didn't care (and actually found it quite annoying) to hear someone tell me that "everything is going to be okay" or "I'm sure it will all turn out okay in the end." What I had wanted was simply a good conversation partner who would reflect on the particularities of whatever it was we were talking about. Instead, she would resort to generic sentimental gestures.

    The same pattern was reflected in this gift. Even though she knew me pretty well, she made no attempt to find a gift that suited me. Instead, in an attempt to connect to me she gave me something that she was interested in, when (if she were honest with herself) she would have known full well I had no interest in it. It made no sense. It was as if I, who knew she had no interest in tablets or smartphones, had bought her a slew of iPhone apps for the holiday. Useless.

    1. She sounds disappointing. You want someone to see you deeply the way you can see them.
      And if she cant see you clearly then it may feel like she is dumb. Also, how are you supposed to know if she is liking an incorrect image of you she has in her head? Disconnection.

      But it is also posssible that the art of gift giving was not cultivated in her upbringing. I do not think this sounds like a self honesty issue. She is either not tuned in or not as deep a thinker as you are, or she is a lame gifter.

      Go deeper with her. Share more of your inside. Tell her you hope she wants to get to know you as eagerly as you enjoy getting to know her. Maybe you can teach her to have the kind of attention you want her to.have.

      Maybe her simple sentimental gestures are just that she is nervous uncreative and does not know you well 3nough to say things that will speak to you. Give her more chance to get to know you so she may be able to figure you out more

    2. She also may have forgotten you said no novels. I hate to say it, but lots of guys do this add thing of not really listening. They are labeled "clueless" . Maybe she is a man.

    3. Boring..next!


  7. Im talking about the woman not you fyi


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