Christmas: An Evolutionary Explanation (repost)

I wrote this five years ago. Perhaps it is a holiday tradition to repost old posts about the deadweight loss of gifts.

In a kitchenware store a few years ago I came across the Rotary Nutcracker, a futuristic-looking device that cracks nuts in a new way. The girl at the cash register gave me a few walnuts to test it. It didn’t crack any of them. This was a curious product, I thought. Who would buy it? The salesperson told me that they’d stocked it for less than a year. I was the first person to test it. It had sold well during holiday season. Now I understood: people didn’t buy it for themselves, they bought it as a gift. As a gift, it mattered much less how well it worked — “it’s the thought that counts.” No wonder I was the first to test it.

Here, I saw, was my theory of human evolution in . . . well, a nutshell. Part of it. Humans are the only animals with occupational specialization — we specialize, and trade. It started with hobbies. Hobbies became part-time jobs. Part-time jobs became full-time jobs. To support full-time jobs — to generate enough demand for the products of this or that specialization — there has to be enough expertise, which builds up slowly. To build up expertise, our brains changed so as to cause creation of special events like Christmas, Japanese New Year, Spring Festival (in China), and a thousand other examples around the world. Such events increase the demand for high-end craftsmanship, thus helping the most skilled craftsmen — the ones most likely to advance the state of their art — make a living. Christmas increases the demand for Christmas cards (fine printing) and Christmas-tree ornaments, for example. Traditional gift-giving has the same effect: It increases demand for “the better things in life.” Most gifts, if you follow the usual norms, are (a) not something you would buy for yourself and (b) not something the recipient would buy. (As Alex Tabarrok has noticed.) They are harder to make — and thus reward skilled craftsmen more — than the stuff we buy for ourselves, just as Christmas ornaments are harder to make than common household objects and Christmas-card printing is more difficult than most printing. Weddings, with the gifts, finery, invitations, etc., are another example. The Rotary Nutcracker didn’t work in my tests but it almost worked. If enough people bought it as a gift, that would finance the research needed to improve it.

Marginal Revolution and James Surowiecki have recently written about the “deadweight loss of Christmas” — about how gifts tend to be worth less than their cost. I think they see this as bad thing but I see it as a good thing — at least, in our evolutionary past it was a good thing. Deadweight loss = research grant. Likewise, the denizens of The Devil Wears Prada appear slightly defensive about the social value of fashion. They seem to believe that fashion is less useful than “curing cancer” (by which they mean doing research to learn how to cure cancer). Actually, high fashion, with its hard-to-make skirts, belts, and accessories, is the same as curing cancer — they’re two ways of increasing the human skill set. Art is the old Science.

5 Responses to “Christmas: An Evolutionary Explanation (repost)”

  1. Tom Says:

    It’s hard to get rich selling people what they need, as we need so little. But what we want never ends.

    Yesterday, I stumbled into a “Home Goods” store. It was the first one I’d ever seen, though apparently it’s a major chain. And it occurred to me: Everything in this store is useless. No one needs ANYTHING in here!

  2. Seth Roberts Says:

    It’s hard to get rich selling people what they need, as we need so little. But what we want never ends.

    I disagree. I think what we want is an excellent guide to what we need. When we are cold, we want warmth. When we are thirsty, we want water. Societies need innovation…you can’t keep doing the same thing forever. Innovation costs resources. To get those resources, the need for innovation must be turned into wants that cause innovation.

  3. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    I think people need variety– new stimulation.

    Odd consumer goods may not be the best way to get it.

  4. Sonny Eraut Says:

    Cultural products are software running on the operating system of human perceptions and emotions. I think it’s more likely that instead of humans developing a tendency to observe days of celebration because it provides some opportunities for specialized trade, humans already had an ability to observe and respond to seasonal events, in common with other animals. Monkeys would show up at stands of trees at certain times of year, just when the fruit was ripe. There’s also seasonal migration as part of the explanation of holidays.

    Now we aren’t looking for where the food is in nature at certain exact times of year. We’re creating the experience of that in our artificial ways, indoors. Christmas meant to me when I was little a long trip to see our relatives, and mandarin oranges, the smell of Christmas trees, and some other kinds of treats, including nuts. That should be a clue what secular holidays are, besides an oxymoron.

  5. Seth Roberts Says:

    Thanks, Glen. Those are very helpful comments and I will study them carefully. You ask: “Have you ever been to a Chinese factory?”

    No, I haven’t. Here’s what I can add to the discussion. 1. It is far from the truth that Chinese factory workers are a sea of misery within a wider context of happiness and joy. In fact, a survey of happiness in China found that construction workers (not factory workers) were among the happiest of any group in China. Construction workers are quite different from factor workers, of course, but the point is that simple Western ideas about who should be happy and who should be sad are wrong. I agree that Halpern’s reflexive assumptions along these lines (e.g., long hours = bad working conditions) are just wrong. It is utterly true that factory jobs are better than rural village jobs. That’s why people migrate to get them, leaving behind their family and sometimes their children. 2. Comparison of raw suicide rates is not a good idea. Compare them after they are adjusted for age and sex and income. 3. Foxconn workers have legitimate complaints. Illustrated by Mike Daisey’s show. For example. “Daisey actually went there.” 4. I don’t believe that much is gained by Apple deciding that a Foxconn factory should be X, Y, and Z. That is the “audit” approach. I believe a lot can be gained by figuring out a way that Foxconn workers can have more power over their own working conditions. (Just as my work illustrates how one person can have more control of their health.) Isn’t that one thing Apple supposedly sells: empowerment?