Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gift Giving

This week I got to go back to Santa Cruz to run another session with my lovely UCSC grad student group. As before, this session was a kind of a grab bag of exercises I’d come up with--mostly as a reflection of the research I’ve been doing on influence. And once again, we encountered some fascinating results.

Perhaps the most striking game for me this time was a variant on an improv classic called Presents in which players take turns to give each other gifts. (You can find it in the improv encyclopedia.) I picked this game because I wanted to explore the impact of reciprocity in the clearest way possible, and this seemed like a natural place to start. (To understand what I mean by reciprocity, take a look at the previous post.)

Normally, a gift recipient in Presents gets to decide what gift he’s being given and little or no value is assigned to the emotion with which the gift is received. This time, instead, I had givers say what they were giving. I then asked recipients to be as honest as possible about how they felt about the gift they’d been given. The idea was that each player would gradually figure out how to make their partner happy, and the result of the game would be a sense of achievement and increased trust for each pair.

However, shortly after the game started it rapidly became clear that things weren’t going as planned. Some participants were much pickier about what they received than others. Also, people were having trouble tuning in to their partner’s preferences. With each transaction that passed, some faces showed looks of greater and greater discomfort. By the time I halted the game, many participants still hadn’t really figured out how to make their partner happy. The game had had the opposite effect to the one I’d intended.

Fortunately, the group I was playing with have developed terrific rapport and a huge amount of trust, so the outcome didn’t matter, but it certainly surprised me. In the discussion that followed, it became clear that several things had been going on. For starters, the discomfort started when people didn’t appreciate the very first gift they were given. On reflection, one can see that this is because the reaction to a gift is as much a part of the reciprocity process as the gift itself. People give a gift and hope to see delight. An unsuccessful initial transaction immediately weakened the relationship for that pair. This made it harder for players to be pleased by later offers.

Secondly, there wasn’t enough information in the game for people to tune in to their partner's likes. This was even though I had suggested before the game that players offer things that they themselves liked the first few times before trying to work out what their partner wanted. I think everyone started with so much confidence that they’d be able to meet their partner’s needs that they didn’t pay too much attention to revealing information about themselves.

Most significantly for me, though, was how much the game appeared to matter. I base this on the body language and facial cues that the game revealed. People *really* don’t like reciprocity transactions to go poorly. The habit goes very deep. So much so that we have created all sorts of social behaviors to conceal our true reactions to gifts. And, ironically, those that are closest to us are probably most likely to received a censored response.

The strength of this habit may in party explain the enduring ritual draw of Christmas gift giving, and why so many of the emotions that arise from it are nuanced and not entirely positive. The fact that reciprocity--a mechanism intended to increase mutual trust--is so powerful that it causes us to routinely conceal the truth from each other says something about the extraordinary subtlety of the relationships that human beings form.


  1. Present Face:


  2. When receiving a gift, we appreciate that the giver likes us enough to spend money and time on us-- but if we don't like the gift, it's disappointing at the same time, to realize that they don't know us (our likes/wants/needs) as well as we thought or wanted...

    Reciprocity is so important to balanced relationships. When friends take too much, it seems like mooching or charity rather than a friendship. When friends give too much, it feels "off" too. It's really important to be balanced, e.g. reciprocity! But reciprocity is tricky because, as you say, it's such a subtle/delicate transaction!

    P.S. Awesome vid, Yasmin -- were some of those actresses from Scrubs and HIMYM?

  3. Very funny vid, and exactly on target!

  4. Hi Alex,

    I always love looking at what improv can teach managers and supervisors about managing people and this exercise is interesting from the perspective of a supervisor giving recognition.

    Let's say the supervisor praises the shy person publicly. The reaction is one of discomfort and avoidance. This is not the reaction the supervisor expected. This supervisor isn't going to feel like she has been paid back (reciprocated) for the gift of praise. While she should be thinking she didn't read the employee's preferences very well, it more likely that she will label him ungrateful and move on.

    Great exercise!

    Cindy Ventrice