Thursday, December 29, 2011

Is It Really the Thought That Counts?

For reasons that are easily explained this phrase has great currency over the holidays: “It’s the thought that counts.”

Yet, it sounds more like a cheap excuse than a pearl of wisdom.

It’s what you want your friends and family to be thinking when they open up a disappointing gift.

Now, the behavioral economists and cognitive neuroscientists tell us that it really is the thought that counts. Better yet, they can prove it scientifically.

Or, so reports Jonah Lehrer.

In my view, the burgeoning field of behavioral economics is a vast improvement over the pseudo-wisdom promulgated by the therapy culture.

Behavioral economics has much more to do with science than do, for example, Freud’s musings.

On the other hand, behavioral economics should not be taken as holy writ. Or as settled science. Or as precepts to live by.

Let's leave it to naïve columnists like David Brooks to embrace the latest psychological experiment as the ultimate truth about human nature.

Under no circumstance should we allow science to take over the work of ethics.

One has also noticed that the Obama administration has been trying to use behavioral economics to manipulate the public mind and economic behavior. With little success.

It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last, where science or superior knowledge has been evoked as a reason to deprive individuals of their free will.

Now, science is here to tell us that gift-giving is all in the mind. If you think it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. If you think it tastes good, it does not matter whether it tastes good.

Researchers show subjects two paintings, one, a real Rembrandt, another, the work of one of his students.

If they are shown the imitation and told that it is the real thing their brain waves will react as though they are seeing a real Rembrandt.

If they are offered a glass of cheap wine but are told that it is expensive wine, they will savor it as though it were an excellent vintage.

Lehrer reports that research has proven these basic truths. Neither he nor the researchers tell us whether the research subjects have any taste.

He also does not seem to consider that the subjects might be more interested in fulfilling the researchers’ expectations than offering an objective judgments about the wine. Or that their wish to be seen as savvy colors their experience of taste.

Of course, if you follow the logic behind this science you might end up thinking that when you attend your New Year’s Eve party you can save money by pouring some sparkling white wine into an empty Veuve Cliquot or Dom Perignon or Kristal bottle. No one will know the difference, because, you see, it’s all in the mind. 

For the sake of argument we shall overlook the difficulties of getting the cork back in the bottle, but still, the experiments show that if people believe they are drinking expensive wine it will taste better than if they are told that they are drinking Two-Buck Chuck.

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s platitudes, but still, how thoughtful is it to deceive your friends into thinking that you have offered an expensive gift?

Even that is not the strangest part. Wrapping himself in the mantle of science Lehrer delivers a homily about the true meaning of the holiday season.

I would not call it an original thought. It is certainly not a scientific fact.

Lehrer tells us that the newest research proves that we have become too materialistic.

In his words: “We live in an age that is obsessed with things. We fill our homes with the latest gadgets and fashions and then, when we run out of space, rent a storage unit.

“This obsession is most vividly on display during the holidays, especially now that the weeks after Thanksgiving have become a frenzy of mad sales, long lines and endless emails promoting free shipping. Christmas has become a collective excuse for consumption, as if the best way to celebrate the spirit of the season is to rack up credit-card debt buying stuff for others. The implicit assumption is that happiness can be gift-wrapped.

“Here's the problem: Material things can give us jolts of pleasure, but that pleasure isn't rooted in the thing itself. As a result, we end up squandering Christmas looking for joy in all the wrong places.”

No one can dispute that the true meaning of Christmas does not lie in the quantity or quality of the presents you give or receive. Every clergyman will tell you as much, more eloquently.

And yet, gift-giving and consumption are not the same thing. They are not even close to being the same thing.

Moreover, the practice of exchanging gifts—which is not the same as consuming them—is intrinsic to social interactions. It binds people in society. 

If you receive a gift but do not give one, you are on the way to losing a friend. Gift-giving is a way to manifest the rule of reciprocity: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The rule does not say: think unto others....

Shouldn't students of behavioral economics understand the social significance of gift-giving?

True enough, the thought counts, but it only counts as that it is made manifest in the gift. Exchanging gifts affirms your relationship. 

If you love someone and give him a gift that he would never want or like, you are showing that what you feel as love for him is not really love for him.

Besides, if it’s only the thought that counts, why give any gifts at all. Why not just give thoughts? Assuming that you know how to give thoughts.

Lehrer offers the scientifically-correct advice: “The real moral of this research is that even the most wonderful things in the world—and what's more wonderful than Rembrandt and fine wine?—aren't wonderful for purely material reasons. Instead, the joy and beauty we find in these objects depend on all those feelings and beliefs we bring to them, infusing the lifeless possessions with the life of mind. It really is the thought that counts.

“Given this psychological reality, we should reassess our holiday priorities, spending less time shopping and more time with the people we're shopping for.”

Infusing lifeless objects with the life of the mind, as Lehrer so inelegantly puts it, is not a psychological reality. It is a metaphor.

It should be reasonably obvious that neither a Rembrandt nor a glass of port comes alive because you have been told what it is.

If the mind has a magical power to infuse lifeless objects with life, doesn’t that imply that there is no real substantive difference between champagne and sparkling white wine, between a Rembrandt and your child’s last finger painting?

If it’s all in the mind then works of art have no intrinsic value, beauty does not exist, and great art is an optical illusion. Worse yet, there is no real difference between a glass of champagne and a glass of sparkling white wine.

Just because group of college students can be tricked into confusing the real from the fake does not mean that objects are lifeless receptacles of mindfulness.

As for the value of a gift, it does depend on who gives it to you on which occasion. That's what it means when we say that a gift or gesture thoughtful. A thoughtful gift that does not bankrupt you might be more meaningful and more representative of your relationship than a thoughtless gift that costs too much and is not your taste or style.

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