“Wait, Dale got Hulk Hands?”
— Brennan Huff, Step Brothers

Christmas is here again. In a few days, those of us who celebrate the holiday will exchange gifts. And once again, like every year before, most of us will feign wonder and excitement as we’re presented with things we didn’t ask for and don’t need.

Why are we so intent on guessing what people want when we could just give them cash and the ability to choose for themselves? The answer is twofold:

  1. Successful companies — namely, Apple — create products that thrill us precisely because we didn’t know we wanted them.
  2. Gift-giving (and receiving) is a variable-reward-schedule-based mechanism, like slot machines or cell phones.

Apple: the best gift-giver you know

Throughout the years, Apple has proven uniquely willing to ignore what people say they want in favor of what it deems people actually do. We fall in love with Apple — just as we fall in love with particularly thoughtful gift-givers — because it has done so successfully.

Consider Jobs’s famous quote:

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Now consider the iPod: 1,000 songs in your pocket, or so the branding went. Prior to its release, the iPod was an unwritten page in the book of consumer preference. And though it wasn’t the first device capable of storing music digitally, it remains the device responsible for launching the digital music business. Prior to the iPod, most consumers wanted a thinner Discman. Most CEOs would’ve listened; in fact, most did. But Jobs wasn’t most CEOs. His strategies reflected as much.

Think back to the best gift you’ve given. Think back to the reaction of the person you gave it to. Now, imagine: Instead of one gift for one person, you have something you know will evoke the same reaction in millions the world over. Further, imagine you can plan an entire event with the express purpose of maximizing the gift’s shock value for millions.

Jobs imagined this and then did it, over and over again, for years. “There’s one more thing,” he’d say at the end of each keynote, eyes gleaming with the certainty of someone about to give the perfect gift. Then, he’d reveal it to a stadium’s worth of applause, basking in the glow I imagine he — like any of history’s greatest showmen — lived for.

To receive the perfect gift is to feel the ecstasy of being known better than you know yourself.

Thrilling someone with something perfectly unexpected is a transcendent feeling. It proves you know people on a deeper level than most. Similarly, to receive the perfect gift is not only to know that you are valued and understood, but to experience the sheer relief of legitimate gratitude. To receive the perfect gift is to feel the ecstasy of being known better than you know yourself.

There are many reasons for Apple’s success, but arguably the most salient is their ability to evoke this feeling at scale. This feeling is extremely hard to duplicate — for companies, yes, but for people, too.

Now, companies have a good excuse. They’re trying to convince millions of people, each with perpetually changing taste, to spend money. As individuals, however, we tend to know exactly who we’re buying for. Even if we don’t, we can usually connect with someone who does. The expectations, too, aren’t all that high. It’s just a gift. Surely we can find something in our here’s-an-easy-way-for-you-to-spend-your-paycheck culture. But we’re busy people, we don’t listen well, and we’re easily taken in by the convenience of shiny ads and supposed deals. (Rule #1 of Sales: Make it easy for people to say yes.) It’s unsurprising, then, that we struggle to get people what they say they want, let alone what they don’t know they want. Gift-giving is really, really hard. It just is.

People have literally died in Black Friday altercations they were only subjected to because they were trying to waste as little money as possible on Christmas gifts.

It isn’t like we don’t try to help ourselves. We’ve written articles annually since forever detailing the “best gifts of the year!” and they’re still reasonably popular. We’ve built brands and stores that exist for the express purpose of satisfying the “hardest people on your list” (read: Brookstone). We’ve come up with gift cards — whose abject absurdity and brilliance isn’t discussed nearly often enough — to offer the worst shoppers among us (read: me) a default option just below cash on the how-little-thought-did-you-put-into-this scale, if only because it requires you make an actual purchase.

Yet even with these literal training wheels of gifting, we fuck up constantly. We regift — perhaps by definition — badly. We ignore email reminders from our office culture reps about Secret Santa meet-ups. We launch into explanations we’ve been preparing since whispering “fuck it” and purchasing the D+ gift we’re now watching emerge from a C+ wrap job only to drastically underwhelm the person whose name we drew. People have literally died in Black Friday altercations they were only subjected to because they were trying to waste as little money as possible on Christmas gifts.

Why the hell do we keep doing this to ourselves?

The same reason we play the lottery even when we know we’re likely to lose: variable rewards.

Humans are uniquely susceptible to habitual engagement with systems that variably distribute rewards (read: slot machines and social media). We thus continue to guess what people might want even though the chance we’re wasting our money is extremely high. Similarly, because we’ve received one or two truly incredible gifts in our lives, we neglect to ask for cash when asked, “What do you want for Christmas?”

“Surprise me,” we say, opting again for a lottery we’ll never win.

Our human tendency to crave variable rewards forbids us from acknowledging how rarely we receive — or are able to give — truly great gifts. We’re far more likely to favor situations with extremely low probabilities of incredible outcomes (read: lottery tickets, standard gifts) as opposed to situations with extremely high probabilities of good outcomes — like, say, a cash gift that would allow us to purchase what we already know we want. Where, after all, is the fun in that?


Companies like Apple (and people whose gift-giving ability resembles Apple’s) have illustrated how incredible — albeit improbable — it is to give or receive the perfect item, so we’ve all become conditioned to expect judgment if we simply give someone cash. Society sees cash gifts as lazy and thoughtless. We assume the gift-giver doesn’t care about evoking the feeling of surprise and delight that comes with receiving a truly amazing gift.

There are many social norms worth questioning. This is one of them.

Consider, after all, what a cash gift actually represents. It’s an acknowledgment that you don’t have any idea what the person on the receiving end of the gift wants. It’s the humility of saying “I don’t know” — the wisdom of curiosity as opposed to the hubris of religion. At its core, the cash gift represents faith in people’s ability to choose for themselves. It also represents a kind of faith in our market economy, which by definition must support individual choice, lest it cease to function.

Cash gifts are an antidote to the Jobs-ian view of consumer desire. For all his brilliance, Jobs wouldn’t have believed in a cash gift because he lacked faith in our ability to determine what we want for ourselves.¹

Wasting money isn’t thoughtful — it’s wasteful.

Granted, if everyone were like Apple and routinely churned out surprising, delightful, useful additions to our lives, I might reconsider my argument. But they aren’t. We shouldn’t take one company’s ability to build things we didn’t know we wanted as evidence that we can each do the same for those we’re charged with gifting. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to figure out what that perfect gift for someone might be, but it should remind us what comes of this mindset at scale: stressed shoppers, yes, but also failed companies.

It is undeniably true that almost nothing is better than giving or receiving the perfect gift. But if you’re going to spend money on something you’re not sure someone will want, just give them cash. Wasting money isn’t thoughtful — it’s wasteful.² This would seem to be an obvious idea. Our behavior, however — both individually and societally — suggests otherwise.


Just as we frown on cash gifts for our loved ones, we resist giving cash to strangers, too. Instead, we send shoes and clothing to remote villages (and impoverished communities in the U.S.), thinking ourselves generous for donating what we don’t need. The truth we tend to ignore is that often, the people we’re donating these things to might not need them either. This isn’t to say we should cease foreign aid, but it is to say that those in need have a much better idea of what they need than we do. The most useful type of foreign aid, then, is that which enables them to purchase it: cash.

Outside of emergency situations… it makes more sense to give individuals the ability to choose what they need for themselves.

The exception to this would be emergency aid. In emergency situations, the most effective aid is that which helps victims meet basic needs (food, water, clothing, etc.) quickly. The argument for cash instead of objective goods here is futile. Cash is great, but it’s useless if there’s nothing to buy. Outside of emergency situations, though — situations in which even the slightest delay in the delivery of resources can mean loss of life — it makes more sense to give individuals the ability to choose what they need for themselves. Cash, clearly, is the best method of doing so.

Economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok point to the success of a charity called Give Directly as evidence that this strategy works. Give Directly takes cash donations and sends them directly to people in need via mobile phone. It’s simple, easy, and it takes the guesswork out of it. You can also bet that no one in a third world country is lamenting the “laziness” of a cash gift as they spend it on clean water instead of a sweatshirt celebrating the 2018 NBA champion Cavaliers.

Barring the most dire of situations, no one will ever object to being able to decide what they want for themselves — especially in situations where they might never have been able to before. For people in desperate need, in fact, the ability to choose is a gift in itself.


Now, I get it. You still need to get stuff for people. You’re busy. Buying something from Amazon is easy enough. My proposition? Take the money you were going to spend (read: waste), donate it, and use the time you won’t spend shopping to create something with your hands. Write a note. Create a painting. Make a scrapbook. Engrave something. Bake a dessert. If you’re going to buy something, make sure it’s something the person you’re getting it for would actually spend their money on. Otherwise, cash is literally guaranteed to be a better gift.

What’s the best gift you’ve ever given or received? Respond below! I’d love to hear from you.


Footnotes

  1. Crucial caveat: Apple has always maintained that the homogeneity of their products enables creators on the grandest scale. Apple — and Jobs — were simply intent on making sure creators had best possible tools, and insisted Apple and Apple alone would build them for you. That very much reflects a faith in people to create because it illustrates a belief that everyone can if given the right tools. In that sense, Jobs was about as free market as it gets.
  2. As the old saying goes, “The best gifts are those money can’t buy.” There’s truth to this, certainly. But I’d argue this has less to do with the gifts money can’t buy and more to do with the gifts it can. Cash, after all — for the exact reasons I outline above — is almost always better than the latter.