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?