Christmas shopping and the focusing illusion

Most in Europe stay prudent despite high festive costs
Posted on December 15, 2016

Like many others, you may be shopping for Christmas presents over the next few weeks. I have good and bad news for you.

Let’s start with the bad news. If this year is a repeat of 2015, 10% of people across Europe – and 17% in the UK alone – are likely to go into debt to pay for Christmas. That’s the share of people across 12 countries in the ING International Survey special report – Christmas 2016 who say they had to borrow last year to pay for the festive season.

And it gets worse. Even if you spend hours hunting for the ideal gift, just 10 months later 10% won’t even remember what you bought them.

“This suggests that 23% of Christmas gift giving is essentially wasted.”

Even if by chance they do remember your present, 15% won’t appreciate at least some of the gifts they received. Another eight percent won’t remember whether they liked, used or otherwise appreciated getting them.

When we asked people how much they reckon their unwanted gifts cost, their mid-point estimate was EUR45. That’s not small change. Last year’s ING survey found that the mid-point total Christmas gift budget across Europe was EUR200. If you apply a bit of maths at this point, it is possible to see that about 2.5% of the spending on Christmas presents is not appreciated. This is not a huge problem – I also wonder how much is wasted on wrapping paper – but it may help explain why Christmas is not joyous for some. Forty-two percent across Europe (44 percent in the UK) agree with the statement “I feel forced to spend money at Christmas”.

But here’s the good news. When you buy presents, 97.5% of the time, you will get it right. And if you are among the 10% who got into debt to pay for Christmas 2015, this may give you pause for thought.

“But – a tip. When out Christmas shopping, it might be best to avoid choices like perfume and clothing: these items tend to be less appreciated by the recipient, our survey discovered,”

Seventy percent (76 percent in the UK) agree Christmas is too focused on money. And don’t forget the 10% mentioned earlier who can’t even remember what you gave them.

So, whether you battle the crowds or shop online, take heart. There is no need to spend more than you are comfortable with. People’s complaints about Christmas appear largely related to the financial effects of the season – rather than the gifts given.

Nobel laureate and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman has explained how we can place too much emphasis on immediate events – including things that could be happening right in front of us at the time.

““Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, when you are thinking about it."”

Kahneman in his bestselling 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow

This is called the focusing illusion. So when it comes to Christmas shopping, it’s easy to lose perspective and develop a distorted focus on the task at hand – like a kind of tunnel vision. If you keep in mind that your present will usually be appreciated, it may reduce the financial pressure and worry about “getting it right”.

Previous versions of these surveys on financial and economic behaviour are freely available at eZonomics. These surveys are conducted by Ipsos.