Marcel Mauss and the psychology of gift-giving

Today we celebrate the birthday of Marcel Mauss (10 May 1872 – 10 Feb 1950), the French sociologist and anthropologist best known for his work on social exchange and gift-giving. His most famous book is ‘The Gift’ (1925).

Mauss had very interesting views about gifts and gift-giving that really makes you re-evaluate the whole custom of giving gifts. His main argument is that gifts are never free. History shows that gifts almost without exception give rise to reciprocal exchange, or at least the expectation thereof. So his basic research question became “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”.

This is a complex question with an equally complex answer, and according to Mauss it has to do with the fact that a gift engages the honour of both the giver and receiver. It becomes an almost spiritual artefact. The gift is irreversibly tied to the giver – in Mauss’ words, “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.”

The gift - a simple gesture resulting in complex interpersonal social bonds. (© All Rights Reserved)
The gift – a simple gesture resulting in complex interpersonal social bonds.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Because the gift is so tightly linked with the giver and receiver, the act of giving implies an important social bond, obligating the receiver to reciprocate with a return gift. Not acting on this obligation results in loss of honour and status, and in some cultures may even have detrimental spiritual implications – in Polynesian culture, for example, failure to reciprocate the gift-giving is said to result in a loss of one’s spiritual authority.

What is particularly fascinating in Mauss’ theories is the idea that, unlike something that changes ownership by getting bought and sold, a gift is forever bound to the giver. It never fully changes ownership – it is almost as though it is only given on loan, hence the difficulty of selling, or even giving away, something that was gifted. This also affects the need to reciprocate – by gifting something in return effectively repays the ‘gift-debt’. Now of course the returned gift is again irrevocably tied to the giver, and so a surprisingly strong social tie is created between two people who have exchanged gifts – they effectively own a piece of each other.

All this ‘baggage’ related to a gift really complicates the apparently simple act of giving a gift to someone, doesn’t it? In a way I feel Mauss’ theories over-complicate the whole gift-psychology, but when you think about it, it does really make sense. And while the responsibility to reciprocate feels like a negative concept, the idea of a strong social tie being created between gift-exchangers is quite nice, especially when you exchange gifts with loved ones. Perhaps the whole reason for exchanging gifts is to strengthen the bond between people.

So, next time you consider giving someone a gift, remember that you are entering into a significant social bond. But it’s not a bad thing – it’s exactly these social bonds that form the basis of our larger social cohesion. Gifts link you to others, weaves you into the social fabric of your community, and ties you to loved ones.

So don’t stop giving!

Celebrating good first impressions on Receptionists Day

According to my sources, today, 8 May (the second Wednesday in May), is Receptionists Day. Everyone knows Bosses Day and Secretaries Day, but I have to say the lesser known Receptionists Day is perhaps the most important of the office worker days. The receptionist is, after all, the person who very often represents the first line of human interaction between a company and its clients. Whether by telephone or in person, it is the attitude, presentation and tone of voice of the receptionist that is the first thing a client experiences.

And as we all know, there’s only one chance to make a first impression, making the role of the customer-facing receptionist even more pivotal.

It is not only new clients who deal with the receptionist first. Existing customers, staff, VIPs – all these people are likely to pass the receptionist as they interact with a company.

Whether in person or by phone, the receptionist represents the first line of interaction with clients. (© All Rights Reserved)
Whether in person or by phone, the receptionist represents the first line of interaction with clients.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So, what are the secrets to a good first impression? The science of perception, if you will. According to Business Insider Australia, there are a number of key techniques that have stood the test of time. These aren’t rocket science, but are probably worth mentioning again quickly, so here goes:

  1. Dress for success. Unless you’re operating in a particularly creative space, opt for something not too loud – rather err towards neat, classic and conservative. You want to be remembered for you, not your outfit.
  2. Choose your words with care. Words are loaded; think about how you want to come across (confident? humble? innovative?), and favour words that enforce that.
  3. Strike the right tone. Keep it calm but enthusiastic.
  4. Be aware of your body language – how you sit, stand, etc. A confident smile and positive eye contact can do wonders.
  5. Use the name of the person you’re dealing with. Everyone like’s to be made to feel special and be singled out, and they will respond positively.
  6. Be on time. ‘Nuff said.
  7. Focus on the other person. Avoid talking too much about yourself (but don’t overdo it – you don’t want to appear pathetic or secretive).
  8. Be a good listener. Getting the other person to talk is not enough – you actually need to listen, comprehend, react and remember.
  9. Be careful with humour. While being too serious may not be good, jokes are risky, as different people’s sense of humour can be very different. Humour is also culturally specific and can easily be taken the wrong way.
  10. Do your research. Don’t go into an interaction unprepared; with all the social media tools available these days, there’s no excuse for not knowing a little about the person you are about to meet. (Obviously this does not apply to a cold call or unanticipated meeting.)
  11. Relax and be yourself. While it’s important to choose your words with care, be aware of your body language etc, don’t over think the situation. Sometimes coming across as too tense and calculated can be worse than accidentally saying/doing the wrong thing.

While I got to the above list in the context of Receptionists Day, it obviously applies much wider – whether you’re interviewing for a job, meeting a client, or going on a date, making a good first impression is key.

So, enjoy the day, appreciate the receptionists you meet, and remember those first impressions!

Individuality versus the ‘group mind’

Moving our focus to the social sciences, today we commemorate the birthday of social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (7 May 1841 – 13 Dec 1931). Le Bon is best known for his book, ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’ (1895, English translation 1896), a study of the psychological characteristics of crowds.

Le Bon’s explanation of crowd behaviour was based on two main propositions: (1) that people in a group adopt a ‘group mind’, and (2) that this group mind is irrational and emotional. He also held the opinion that the emotions and will of an individual can spread through a group like a virus, taking over the collective emotional state of the group.

In groups, according to Le Bon, the normal control mechanisms that regulate an individual (social norms, values, ethics), are broken down, allowing the group to act in ways that would have been unacceptable to any of the individuals within the group.

Groups and crowds often act in ways that are markedly different to how the members of the group would have acted individually. (© All Rights Reserved)
Groups and crowds often act in ways that are markedly different to how the members of the group would have acted individually.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Le Bon’s theories on crowd behaviour gained popularity in the early part of the 20th century, with people like Wilfred Trotter (‘Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War’) and Sigmund Freud (‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’) popularising and expanding various aspects of his work. As such, Gustave Le Bon is rightly considered one of the key figures in the theory of group psychology and group dynamics. Group dynamics has since found application in anthropology, political science, psychology, sociology, epidemiology, education, business, social work and communication studies.

Political theorists found Le Bon’s theories particularly fascinating. It is said that Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ exploited the group propaganda techniques first proposed by Le Bon. Benito Mussolini was also a keen student of his work, as was Theodore Rooseveld. Edward Bernays, in his book ‘Propaganda’, considered the manipulation of the ‘group mind’ through media and advertising, to be a major feature of democracy.

I find the idea of the ‘group mind’, and how it can override the individuals within a group, fascinating, and frankly more than a little scary. While intergroup dynamics can have constructive application in things like team sports and certain work settings, I am just too much of an outsider to feel comfortable being absorbed into a group mind. At the same time I know I am being manipulated daily into group thinking through advertising etc – quite a scary thought.

Perhaps today is a good time to remind ourselves about the dynamics of the group, to re-evaluate the pros and cons of being a team player, and to critically assess how individual will can be superseded by the group mind. And perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look critically at our surroundings, to try and avoid becoming so caught up in the crowd that we lose our unique individuality.

It’s the International Moment of Laughter, so grab the opportunity with both hands.

Today, Sunday 14 April, we celebrate the International Moment of Laughter, an opportunity for everyone to laugh loudly, freely and openly, without holding back. The day was initiated by American motivational speaker and ‘humorologist’ Izzy Gesell to encourage people to laugh more.

Laugh long and hard enough, and eventually the world will laugh with you. (© All Rights Reserved)
Laugh long and hard enough, and eventually the world will laugh with you.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’ve posted a couple of times before about the benefits and value of laughing and smiling, and generally having a positive attitude. After all, “laughter is the best medicine”, as the saying goes.

So let’s just say that today is yet another chance to cash in on some free medication – smile, laugh and be positive, and feel the benefits flowing back to you, reducing your stress, relaxing tired muscles, and strengthening your immune system.

Watch your favourite funny movie, share some jokes, or simply get silly. And if you really want to optimise the benefits, share the laughter with those around you! As the great Mark Twain once said, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

It’s World Compliment Day, so go ahead, make someone’s day!

Today is, believe it or not, World Compliment Day, promoted as the most positive day in the world.

The day started off early in the 21st century in the Netherlands, where this year marks the 11th edition of Compliment Day. Since it’s inception, it has spread to Belgium and Norway, prompting the initiators of the day to re-brand it as an international event, calling it ‘World Compliment Day’.

What makes World Compliment Day ‘better’ than events like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or Secretaries’ Day, is that there’s no commercial connotation – the only gifts you’re meant to give on this day are compliments, and they’re free.

Giving a compliment is the verbal equivalent of giving someone a lovely bunch of flowers.(© All Rights Reserved)
Giving a compliment is the verbal equivalent of giving someone a lovely bunch of flowers.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The American psychologist William James said “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” It is this basic human need for recognition and appreciation that is the principle motivation behind Compliment Day. All that is asked of you is to identify something positive about every person you interact with on this day, and compliment them on it – simple as that.

In the words of World Compliment Day initiator Hans Poortvliet, “A sincere and personal compliment costs nothing, but the impact on the recipient is huge. Nothing stimulates more, gives more energy, makes people happier and, as far as business is concerned, increases productivity and commitment faster than sincere appreciation. So why not use it a little bit more?”

The hashtag for the day is #complimentday. Go ahead, make someone’s day!

Émile Coué and the power of optimistic autosuggestion

Today we celebrate the birthday of Émile Coué (26 Feb 1857 – 2 Jul 1926), a French pharmacist who is best known for his advocacy of optimistic autosuggestion, or positive reinforcement.

As a pharmacist, Coué noticed the people he interacted with in his pharmacy appeared to react very well to positive suggestion. To reinforce and improve the effectiveness of the medicines he prescribed, he made a habit of praising the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, and leaving small positive notes with the medication he sold.

This recognition of the power of suggestion led him to study the effect in more detail, and he became convinced that it held great potential. Even though he had no formal training in medicine or psychology, Coué introduced a method of primitive psychotherapy which involved the frequent repetition of the phrase ‘Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux’, translated as ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ A strong believer in the power of suggestion, he was convinced that regularly repeating this phrase (morning and evening) would result in tangible physical and mental improvements in a patient.

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better.(© All Rights Reserved)
Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.
(© All Rights Reserved)


In 1920 Coué published a book on the topic, entitled ‘Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion’ (available for free on the Gutenberg project). In his book, he reiterated the potential power of autosuggestion, describing it as “… an instrument that we possess at birth, and with which we play unconsciously all our life, as a baby plays with its rattle. It is however a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously. It can on the contrary save your life when you know how to employ it consciously.”

Thanks to his tireless work in this field, his method of autosuggestion, sometimes referred to as ‘Couéism’, became very popular in the early part of the 20th century, first in Europe and later also in the USA. He had his detractors, particularly from other schools of psychoanalysis, but his approach has remained popular among many followers.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the Émile Coué approach comes to us courtesy of Rev Charles Inge, who composed this limerick in 1928:

“This very remarkable man
Commends a most practical plan:
You can do what you want
If you don’t think you can’t,
So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

George Miller, human memory and the magical number seven

Today we commemorate George A. Miller (3 Feb 1920 – 22 Jul 2012), an American psychologist, and one of the founders of modern cognitive psychology, and recipient of a National Medal of Science in 1991.

Miller contributed to the establishment of psycholinguistics as an independent research field in psychology. He studied the production and perception of speech, and later shifted his research focus to human memory.

Can you remember phone numbers with more than 7 digits? The argument that the average person isn't able to remember more than 7 digit numbers is an incorrect assumption drawn from George Miller's research on human memory.(© All Rights Reserved)
Can you remember phone numbers with more than 7 digits? The argument that the average person isn’t able to remember more than 7 digit numbers is an incorrect assumption drawn from George Miller’s research on human memory.
(© All Rights Reserved)

He published a classic paper on memory recall (one of the most highly cited papers in psychology), entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information” (1956). The paper addresses the limits of human information processing and recall abilities.

Miller basically finds that the number of objects a person can recall in short term memory to be approximately 7. Similarly, in a ‘one-dimensional absolute-judgment task’, where a person is presented with a series of stimuli (different sound tones, for example) and has to respond to each stimulus with a pre-learned response, people can on average relate around 7 (plus or minus 2) stimulus-response pairs.

Since this article, many other cognitive numeric limits have been suggested, and these limits have been refined based on age, the complexity of the objects to be recalled, etc. Miller’s article, however, continues to be one of the most often referred to, and its reference to the ‘magical number seven’ have been used in various contexts, including the the argument that phone numbers should not exceed 7 digits, as this is the largest number people can comfortably remember. (This is one of the many examples where Millers results have been misappropriated, as the recall of phone numbers tend to be more of a long-term memory function, while Miller’s article referred to short-term (‘immediate’) memory.)

Based on his contributions to the field of cognitive psychology, Miller has been rated as one of the top 20 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.

Dress sharp and look the part on International Suit-up Day

Today, 13 October, is International Suit-up Day, the day to get out your smartest suit and ‘look sharp’. With the day falling on a Saturday this year, I guess sporting a formal ‘black tie’ look at work won’t really be an option for most people, but there’s nothing wrong with a night on the town dressed up like someone who just stepped off the set of the Godfather.

Mention the word ‘suit’, and a couple of images involuntarily pop into most people’s minds.

  • First and foremost, you cannot help thinking about the classic mob movies such as the Godfather series, where the characters look as dangerous as they do smart, and you just know you don’t mess with a guy in a suit.
  • Then, of course, there’s the sharp dressed singers of old; Frank Sinatra (OK, perhaps he belongs to the first category above), Leonard Cohen (who has famously proclaimed that he has simply never felt comfortable in a pair of blue jeans) and the younger contenders like Michael Buble and the like.
  • For the twenty-somethings, suits will probably be synonymous with Barney Stinson, the sharp-dressed character from the hit TV series How I Met Your Mother, who refuses to be seen in anything but a suit and tie, even when he’s in bed. I am sure Barney deserves an award for making suits cool again to a new generation.
Suits are synonymous with sharp dressed dudes smoking fat cigars and playing poker.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On the topic of suits, it is interesting how the way you dress influence the way you are perceived by others. Whether it’s dressing in a suit, or a scientist’s lab coat, or a pair of torn jeans and a t-shirt, your choice of clothing goes a long way towards determining people’s opinions of you before you’ve said a word, and before they’ve even met you.

Suits in particular can have a strong impact – numerous behavioral science studies have shown how dressing sharply can increase your perceived status among peers, boost self-confidence, and even make you more productive at work. For a mini-masterclass on suits and sharp dressing, look no further than the US TV show Suits. When Ross (a young lawyer who passed the bar but didn’t go to law school) asks, “What does it matter how much I spend on suits?” Harvard graduate Specter replies, “People respond to how you dress so like it or not this is what you have to do.”

It turns out what you wear may even influence how you feel about yourself, and how you act. You’ve probably all heard the advice to people who work from home, that says you should dress as though you’re going to work, as it will influence how professional you come across on the phone etc. (Apparently wearing a singlet and underpants won’t do the trick if you’re planning to spend some quality phone-time with your clients.) Beyond this amusing fact, research reported in the New York Times has shown how people wearing lab-coats actually become more attentive and precise in their actions. Researchers got a group of people to wear white coats (said to be scientists’ lab coats) and then perform mental tests. These were compared to a reference group wearing their normal attire, and the ‘scientists’ did significantly better in the test. Surprisingly, when the test was repeated with new groups, but the overcoat-wearing group were told they were wearing artists’ coats, they did not perform any better than the reference group.

If you extrapolate this to suits, wearing a suit may well influence how you perform at different tasks. The problem is, however, that your opinion of suit-wearers will colour the impact the suit will have on you. If you consider suit-wearers to be important, responsible, trust-worthy people that you look up to, wearing a suit may well result in you ‘stepping up to the challenge’ and acting more responsibly yourself. If, however, you see suit-wearers as sharks and underhanded crime lords, donning a suit may perhaps not do your personality any good…

Whatever your normal daily attire, today is a chance to go all out.  Dig out your best suit, heck, rent one if you don’t have one, and live like Ol’ Blue Eyes for a day.  Here’s to a dashing International Suit-up Day – have fun!

World Pet Day, and the pros and cons of owning a pet

It is World Pet Day today. Actually, according to some sources it is World Animal Day, which is a significantly wider concept, but for the sake of this post let’s stick to pets.

The decision to get a pet can be quite a significant one. For many it’s a no-brainer, they couldn’t fathom the idea of not having a pet in the house. But at the same time it is a huge responsibility – more so than many people unfortunately realise.  Personally, being a freelance photographer who is regularly away from home on assignments across New Zealand, a pet would complicate things – I need to maintain a lock-up-and-go lifestyle. And having to check your pet into a kennels or cattery each time is a traumatic experience of both pet and owner.

Pets can have various health benefits, not least of all the fact that they make you get out and exercise more.
(© All Rights Reserved)

There’s a lot to be said for getting a pet. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, for example, Dr Froma Walsh of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago says that “having a pet can meet many human psychosocial needs and has been undervalued in the field of mental health.” Pets reduce stress through the companionship and unconditional love they give their owners. According to Dr Walsh, heart attack survivors who have pets are likely to live longer. Relationships with pets help people through hard times and “provide connectedness in an era when family connections are fragmented.”

There’s a plethora of articles claiming health benefits from pet ownership – these range from decreased risk of heart attack and lower blood pressure, to positive psychological benefits.  I am sure most pet lovers will agree that their pets are beneficial to their health and well-being.

Interestingly enough, however, a recent article from the New York Times suggest that the health benefits of pet ownership may have been overstated. For the elderly, in particular, a cat or a dog can be a potential risk – Judy Stevens of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is quoted as saying “Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly.” Harold Herzog, Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University, furthermore refers to studies that show the more attached elderly people are to their pets, the more depressed they are, that people with strong social networks are not made happier by their pets, and that adolescents with pets reported more psychological problems than those without.

The one area where there does not appear to be an argument is that pet owners, or dog owners to be exact, tend to be more active – according to a Canadian study dog owners walked almost twice as much per week as their dog-free counterparts. And that is definitely a good thing.

Personally I don’t think it is possible to make blanket statements about the benefits (or not) of pets – it probably comes down to personal preference, with the level of benefit derived from a pet being different for different personality types. I do, however, strongly believe that if you do get a pet, you make a multi-year commitment that you need to be sure you can honour – the pet depends on you for love and care and there are way too many abused and abandoned pets already.

So for all the pet owners out there – happy Pet Day, and look after them well. And for the rest of you – go out and get some exercise! 🙂

Positive Thinking Day – Accentuate the positive (but acknowledge the negative…)

Today is Positive Thinking Day. The day reminding you that if you can think it, you can do it. That if you smile and focus on positive thoughts, you will feel better. That you need to visualise success in order to achieve it.

Yeah right…

The ‘power of positive thinking’ has been one of the most jumped-upon bandwagons ever in motivational pop-psychology – so simple, such a positive message. Try a Google or Amazon search for ‘positive thinking’ and you will be inundated with self-help books, courses, motivational posters, famous quotes, you name it.

“Happiness is evolution’s way of saying, go out and discover new things. Go play, go explore” – Adam Anderson Canada Research Chair in Affective Neuroscience at the University of Toronto.
(© All Rights Reserved)

It all started as a legitimate new field of psychology in the 90’s, known as Positive Psychology, led by the likes of psychologist Martin Seligman. Where much of the the focus in psychology had historically been rather negative (mental illness, addiction, etc), the idea behind positive psychology was to explore and better understand positive aspects such as happiness, virtue, resilience and optimism. The idea was never, however, to advocate indiscriminate, mindless optimism  – even Seligman long ago expressed the warning that optimism “may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with the necessary clarity”.

Many aspects of positive psychology struck an obvious chord with motivational speakers, self-help authors and the like, and soon positive thinking went from one weapon in the psychologist’s arsenal to the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems.

As such it’s not surprising that there has been a bit of a backlash from the scientific community to the magical magnificence of positive thinking. For example, some of the literature showing the correlation between a positive attitude and good health, may have stretched things a bit by using this relationship to support the claim that a positive attitude will result in improved health. Yes, there seems to be a clear correlation between attitude and health, but little prove of causality. Does positive thinking cause good health, or does good health result in a positive attitude? Or can it be that there is no causative relation between health and attitude at all, and that it is just that a specific subset of people in society (perhaps those with, for example, naturally high energy levels) happen to exhibit both good health and a generally positive attitude.

A healthy dose of pessimism or negativity may also help us identify potential challenges we face in pursuing our goals, which may help us better prepare for these eventualities, thereby actually increasing our chances of success.

Researchers at Wellesley College have found that forcing people out of their natural attitudinal state may have a detrimental effect on their performance – a group of defensive pessimists who were forced to try and change their attitude and ‘cheer up’ actually performed worse at subsequent tasks. A 2001 study by Seligman and Isaacowitz, involving participants from an elderly community, also found that the pessimists in the group were less likely than the optimists to fall into depression after experiencing negative life events such as the death of a partner or good friend.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in the field of positive psychology, with psychologists like Canadian Jamie Gruman, co-founder of the new Canadian Positive Psychology Association, again promoting the study of human well-being and happiness and emphasizing strengths rather than ailments. The new proponents of the field are careful, however, not to be seen as just another ‘lollipops-and-rainbows’ approach, but rather to promote a balanced approach to living a positive life.

So, I guess the message on Positive Thinking day should be to think as positively as you feel comfortable doing. Even if positive thinking may not necessarily be the magical prescription for good health and a long happy life, I am at least not aware of any studies showing that being positive may actually be bad for your health.

Except of course if you go happily venturing down dodgy, dark and dangerous alleyways because of your unshakably optimistic belief in the goodness of your fellow man…  Or if your unflinching positivity starts driving your less flowery fellow workers to physical violence…

Whichever way you roll, here’s a little song (a wonderful new version of an old classic) to brighten your day. Happy Positive Thinking Day everyone…

Can Positive Thinking Be Negative? Scientific American.
Canadian social psychologist proposes science of positive thinking. The Vancouver Sun.