Power Imbalances and Dane’s Hierarchy of Christmas Presents

Christmas is awesome as a kid because you get cool stuff that you can’t get any other time. (Yeah, yeah, you can tell me that Christmas is awesome because we celebrate the Savior’s birth or because we get to serve people, but if you were a kid like I was a kid, it really just came down to presents and time off school.)

Now here’s my “kinds of presents” list:

  1. Stuff the recipient doesn’t want (like Christmas ornaments — who ever thinks, “I’d love a Christmas ornament”?)
  2. Stuff the recipient likes and would probably get for themselves anyway (like clothes)
  3. Stuff the recipient likes and could afford but probably wouldn’t get for themselves (like a spa gift certificate)
  4. Stuff the recipient doesn’t know she or he wants yet, but will think is awesome when they get it (???)
  5. Stuff the recipient wants but can’t afford (???)

Christmas is awesome for kids because parents are usually able to fulfill the #5 option, which is the most impactful kind of present. My favorite present each year was the video game or big Lego set, which were far out of my allowance-funded price range.

But as we get older, the power imbalances decrease. When you’re 8 years old, your parents might make 1,000 times as much money as you do. When you’re 12 years old, they make maybe 100 times as much. When you’re 16 years old it’s perhaps down to 10 times as much. That income disparity is what makes #5 gifts possible. But then you become an adult. Your wants become much more expensive, and your parents aren’t so capable of funding them for you.

If I were trying to connect Christmas gift giving to the Savior’s atonement (and I admit it’s a bit of a stretch), those #5 gifts are the ones that best capture the spirit of it. Salvation is the ultimate #5 gift — the one thing we most want and can least afford.

The atonement works because the power imbalance between us and the Savior is so great. And it’s an amazing gift for the same reason.


A couple Christmases back, I asked a friend in the ward if I could get him anything for Christmas. He said, “Not unless you can pay my mortgage.” The power imbalance had disappeared. The two of us, on relatively equal financial footing, couldn’t provide those #5 gifts for each other.

So now, when I get gifts for other adults, I try to focus on the #4 ones. It’s harder; I’d guess that about 1 in 3 of them actually turn out to be something the person ends up loving. But when it works, there’s something wonderful about introducing a person to a new world that they didn’t know existed before. As adults, I think that’s the power imbalance that we can work with — the imbalance of awareness. You know about wonderful things that I don’t know about. I know about wonderful things that you don’t know about. So, this year, instead of buying you a Christmas ornament, maybe I’ll see if I can find you a good book on astronomy or the history of the Balkans. And maybe you’ll discover that the world is fascinating in new and wonderful ways you’d never considered.

19 comments for “Power Imbalances and Dane’s Hierarchy of Christmas Presents

  1. December 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    A woman would write an entirely different post!

  2. Jax
    December 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I thought the connection to the atonement was fantastic! Thanks!

    For another theory on Gift-giving I highly recommend Elder Eyrings “Gifts of Love” sermon (I downloaded it from BYU.edu)

    What about those #5 gifts that an adult CAN give to another (like paying off their mortgage) but doesn’t because in some way it would ‘damage’ that person (some twisted “if they don’t work for it than it isn’t good for them” theory). I think their is more to our not giving those type gifts than just not being ABLE to give them.

  3. Dane Laverty
    December 17, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Ardis, please elucidate!

    Jax, yeah, that gets into the morass of discussion about what constitutes “real charity” in my previous post. Hrmph.

  4. December 17, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Dane, I mean that while there is certainly a significant “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” sorority, I think women generally have a different interpretation of gifts, or at least would interpret “power” as something other than being able to buy stuff the recipient wants but can’t afford. I think most women would write this post in terms of strengthening relationships.

    “It’s the thought that counts” probably is too simplistic; however, the love or friendship represented by a gift is often of far greater value to a woman than the dollar value — as long as the “thought” means “someone has thought about what would please me” and doesn’t mean, as men often seem to interpret it, as “I remembered to pick something up at the last minute.” A plate of cookies from someone in the ward isn’t just a plate of cookies, it’s a reminder that someone cares; a “thing” that someone has chosen because s/he knows what a woman likes and wants to please her is worth far more than the “thing” itself regardless of the cost.

    Someone could have me melting into puddles of love and gratitude by knowing me well enough to recognize collections I have that bring me great pleasure, and could give me an exquisite addition to one of those collections without having spent more than $30. The exact “thing” would vary from woman to woman, but I don’t think I’m unusual — it’s having someone know you well enough, and care enough, to note what you enjoy and take the trouble to hunt it down, rather than just spending big bucks on something nice but generic. If that’s power, it’s a different kind of power than the one you’ve written about.

  5. December 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    And I think you could draw an analogy to the Savior from my version as easily as from yours.

  6. December 17, 2011 at 3:04 pm


    I like those ‘look, this person knows who I am’ gifts, too. That someone can distinguish you from ‘what women want’, or ‘what men want’, is very nice. The pressure is on, though, to not get a ‘don’t you even know who I am’ gift. Hence the check down into nice and generic.

  7. Jax
    December 17, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    That “thing” Ardis is talking about is key to that talk by Elder Eyring and his theory about how to give GREAT gifts! Sorry for the followup plug, but it was really a great talk to listen to this time of year!

  8. Jax
    December 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm


    The ciscumstances I’ve seen where this kind of extreme giving don’t fit what I would call “charity”. It’s more us just a “taking-care-of-each-other” type thing that I would really only expect to see in families, but is absent even there.

    Example. Friends of mine have some reasonably wealthy parents. We were over to parents house with our friends quite regularly before our most recent move. The mother of this family often lamented the struggles that housing costs were putting on her children (mortgages) but acted like I was absurd for suggesting that she should pay those mortgages off then – consider it a type of pre-death inheritance. She wasn’t worried about her children squandering themselves into more debt, but was concerned about lost opportunities her kids/grandkids were missing because of financial strain. I ponder on such a scenario from time to time and keep coming up with new blessings that would arise from such a gift (charity) from one person to another.

  9. December 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    I think there should be one inserted that’s the sort of personal gift Ardis is talking about. One friend made a big compilation cd for me of songs I loved, a mix of ones I knew and new ones for me, and then decorated the cd elaborately and artistically, ditto the case, etc. It probably cost him $2 or $3 but took many hours of effort. Amazing gift! Something I cherish years afterward. So those are probably the best gifts of all. I think they count as sixes.

    But since I suck at thinking up and making things like that, I always tried to do 5s, back when I had money. 4s are great but take a certain amount of willingness to try on the part of the recipient that can’t always be counted upon.

    I once bought my dad a book of Escher prints before anyone much knew about Escher, and knowing he would love them. He said “thanks” and set it aside. At least 10 years afterward he happened to look at the book and said to me “whose book is this?” I said “it’s yours, Daddy; I gave it to you for Christmas a long time ago.” He responded enthusiastically, “It’s a wonderful book! I love this book! It’s so great!” I said, “I knew you would like it and that’s why I got it for you.” But, like, all the other 4s I got him through the years never got many second glances. So they’re risky, those 4s.

    Also, it’s really hard to tell for sure about people’s tastes. What I think they’ll like is sometimes wrong. I probably hit more like 1 in 5, instead of your 1 in 3.

    But I aim for 4s nowadays for people I know well. People I don’t know well, or people to whom a pro forma gift is obligatory I generally just get 1s. =)

  10. clark
    December 17, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I like Christmas ornaments…

    However to me half the fun is figuring out what someone would like as a present. I hate it when someone tells you exactly what they like.

  11. Dane Laverty
    December 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Ardis, definitely. That’s a beautiful approach to gift giving!

  12. December 17, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Oh, by the way, the friend who is so good at 6s is a guy, and I, who sucks at stuff like that, am a girl, so I respectfully reject the stereotype put forth that 6s are girl things!

  13. Audrey
    December 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm


    Exactly! I love it when a friend gives me a book that they’ve read during the last year and loved. I don’t even care if it’s new. Or maybe a new little gadget that made their life easier in some way. Or even just something that made them smile. Being thought of in a personal way is so much better than an expensive gift.

  14. Chadwick
    December 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Ardis: I’m not sure it’s fair to draw your scenario vs Dane’s scenario on gender lines. I tend to find myself more in your way of giving (that is, really thinking about what people want rather than how much it may cost; I frequently bake cookies or whatnot on Sunday evenings and take my kids to drop it off at the neighbors house) and I know plenty of women that just seem to want stuff.

    I also think, Jax, that we do ourselves a great disservice when we waste time worrying what the receiver will do with the gift from the giver. Case in point, a few years ago my sister gave my brother’s family a substantial sum of money for Christmas because said brother had complained about paying the bills. Come Christmas morning, said brother had a new-fangled flat TV. Oh well. My sister did what was right by her. Had she NOT given the money, and had they NOT bought a new TV, how would that have helped them? Would NOT receiving money really have convinced them their lives were not financially in order? In this instance, tis true, the gift did more for the giver than the receiver. But sometimes isn’t that enough?

    Seems to me a lot of us could do more giving without judging than worrying how the recipient may ruin the gift by squandering it. The story of the Prodigal Son illustrates that well, both in the beginning, and in the end.

  15. Jax
    December 17, 2011 at 8:51 pm


    I know my example and extrapolated comment/principle fits a very narrow window, BUT it is what came to mind in terms of fulfilling a need someone else can’t fulfil for themselves. Sorry if it doesn’t fit all other scenarios.

  16. December 18, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Stuff the recipient likes and could afford but probably wouldn’t get for themselves (like a spa gift certificate)

    Often are the gifts most appreciated.

  17. December 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Great thoughts, Dane. This post is a gift. :)

    Did you see the recent NYT on the psychology of expensive and less-expensive gifts? Some interesting results from studies. It’s at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/science/aiming-for-the-perfect-gift-its-much-closer-than-you-think.html . Here’s a snippet

    In one study, when people were asked to recall a birthday gift they’d given, there was a predictable correlation between price and expectation: the more someone spent on a gift, the more appreciation was expected for it. But when people were asked to recall a birthday gift they’d received, price didn’t matter. The recipients of expensive jewelry and gadgets were not significantly more grateful than those who had gotten T-shirts and books.

    This effect was also demonstrated when experimenters asked people to imagine giving or getting a graduation gift. The people who gave an iPod had higher expectations than those who gave a mere CD, but the recipients were equally grateful for either one.

    Why would price matter more to givers than receivers? Dr. Flynn and his Stanford colleague, Gabrielle Adams, attribute it to the “egocentric bias” of givers who focus on their own experience in shopping. When they economize by giving a book, they compare it with the bracelet that they passed up.

    But the recipients have a different frame of reference. They don’t know anything about the bracelet, so they’re not using it for comparison. The salient alternative in their minds may be the possibility of no gift at all, in which case the book looks wonderfully thoughtful.

  18. December 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    I really like your analysis, Dane, particularly because I miss getting #5 gifts, and you put your finger so nicely on why that just doesn’t happen anymore.

    Regarding the alternative #4 route, Matthew Yglesias endorses it too, in a recent Slate column:

    The problem with presents is that you’re never going to do a better job of satisfying the gift-recipient’s preferences than she could do herself. But preference sets aren’t fixed. If someone had handed me $10, I never would have spent it buying the Cults album, for the simple reason that I hadn’t heard of the band. When it was given to me, I immediately checked it out and loved it.

  19. January 12, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Dane, this has nothing to do with your topic, but I wanted to put a link here somewhere to the most recent post that I put up on my new blog, and the only posts that I feel comfortable placing that link are the ones left by you and Kaimi.

    If no one else reads it besides you, it’s okay. Anyway, I went to a photography workshop with master Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey in New York City at the end of September. All participants needed to shoot a photo essay. I was originally going to do mine on a building, but the workshop began with all participants putting up a slide show. Although I had originally intended to do something else, I wound up doing a family and death oriented show. It included three shorts of Mormon missionaries.

    David then suggested that I shoot my essay on Mormon missionaries working in New York City. This link will take you to the main post that I put up last night dealing with that experience. It goes off into my own experience growing up Mormon, serving a mission, dealing with racial issues and, ultimately, marrying interracially.

    It is very long and I feared no one would read it, but I have been getting a good number of comments back, so I know some people are reading it.

    Here it is:


    And here is the master link to the series, which is not yet complete. It does include the entry that explains how this project came about:


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