Tag: Signaling

The Economic Inefficiency of Gift Giving: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

From Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania (now at Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management), has taken up the economic inefficiency of gift giving as a personal cause. By “inefficiency,” he means the gap between the value to you (maybe very little) of the $120 argyle sweater your aunt gave you for your birthday, and the value of what you would have bought (an iPod, say) had she given you the cash. In 1993, Waldfogel drew attention to the epidemic of squandered utility associated with holiday gift giving in an article called “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” He updated and elaborated the theme in a recent book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays: “The bottom line is that when other people do our shopping, for clothes or music or whatever, it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll choose as well as we would have chosen for ourselves. We can expect their choices, no matter how well intentioned, to miss the mark. Relative to how much satisfaction their expenditures could have given us, their choices destroy value.

Applying standard market reasoning, Waldfogel concludes that it would be better, in most cases, to give cash: “Economic theory—and common sense—lead us to expect that buying stuff for ourselves will create more satisfaction, per euro, dollar, or shekel spent, than does buying stuff for others . . . Buying gifts typically destroys value and can only, in the unlikely best special case, be as good as giving cash.”

Waldfogel’s conclusion:

“We value items we receive as gifts 20 percent less, per dollar spent, than items we buy for ourselves.”

If gift giving is so massively wasteful why does it persist?

It isn’t easy to answer this question within standard economic assumptions. In his economics textbook, Gregory Mankiw tries gamely to do so. He begins by observing that “gift giving is a strange custom” but concludes that it’s generally a bad idea to give your boyfriend or girlfriend cash instead of a birthday present.

But why?

Mankiw’s explanation is that gift giving is a mode of “signaling,” an economist’s term for using markets to overcome “information asymmetries.” So, for example, a firm with a good product buys expensive advertising not only to persuade customers directly but also to “signal” to them that it is confident enough in the quality of its product to undertake a costly advertising campaign. In a similar way, Mankiw suggests, gift giving serves a signaling function. A man contemplating a gift for his girlfriend “has private information that the girlfriend would like to know: Does he really love her? Choosing a good gift for her is a signal of his love.” Since it takes time and effort to look for a gift, choosing an apt one is a way for him “to convey the private information of his love for her.”

Why thoughtfulness matters

“Signaling” love is not the same as expressing it. To speak of signaling wrongly assumes that love is a piece of private information that one party reports to the other. If this were the case, then cash would work as well—the higher the payment, the stronger the signal, and the greater (presumably) the love. But love is not only, or mainly, matter of private information. It is a way of being with and responding to another person. Giving, especially attentive giving, can be an expression of it. On the expressive account, a good gift not only aims to please, in the sense of satisfying the consumer preferences of the recipient. It also engages and connects with the recipient, in a way that reflects a certain intimacy.

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Decision Making Psychology with Rory Sutherland

Below are three excerpts from a great interview with Rory Sutherland on decision making psychology.

Understanding Human Behavior

That attempt to model economic behaviour as though it were Newtonian physics was responsible for many past mistakes. This is closer to weather forecasting than to conventional physics as a science. But it is still a science and can still make progress like a science. And the great news is that we are starting from such a low base. If our ability to understand and predict human behaviour only improves by a few percent a decade, the benefits will be immense. And even a tiny reduction in misdirected effort (by abandoning daft, ineffectual sunk-cost-plagued endeavours such as the war on drugs or, at a more modest level, badly conceived choice-architectures in a new range of cars) all can be economically transformative.

The Physical Fallacy

The problem we all face is “The physical fallacy”. All of us, even those the social sciences, have an innate bias where we are happier fixing problems with stuff, rather than with psychological solutions – building faster trains rather than putting wifi on existing trains, to use my oft cited example. But as Benjamin Franklin (no mean decision scientist himself) remarked “There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do. The result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier.”

There is no reason to prefer one solution over another simply because it involves solid matter rather than grey matter. This is an interesting area where the advertising industry and the environmental movement (rarely seen as natural bedfellows) sometimes find common ground. Intangible value is the best kind of value – since the materials needed to create it are not in short supply.

Marketing and Advertising

If you need to understand why marketing and advertising (and reputation and brands) are important to the functioning of markets, Akerlof’s paper “The Market for Lemons” is essential reading. So too is his excellent and underread book “Identity Economics” written with Rachel Kranton. The problem is not with economics as practiced by great economists – it is the unquestioning adherence to the dumber assumptions of Basic Economics 101 as unthinkingly absorbed by the product of a thousand business schools.

You are particularly made aware of the pernicious influence of bad economics if you work in advertising. Even when advertising demonstrably works and is highly cost effective, people in finance and in the boards of companies don’t seem to like it very much. Since they have a mental model of the world in which everyone has perfect information, they have of course constructed in their heads a vision of the world in which marketing shouldn’t exist.