[Note: Some years back I served a year as president of the Psychological Society of Ireland. As well as presiding over psychologists, I had the task of producing a monthly column for the Irish Psychologist, the Society’s house journal. The following is my column from the December issue, my first contribution to the ‘science of Christmas’ milieu. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations has expired, so you can’t sue me for jumping on bandwagons. Sorry!]
If you have been concentrating, you might have noticed that each year the month of December is interrupted by a major cultural, sociological, and media festival. As far as I can tell, the main features of this festival include the festooning of public spaces and domestic dwellings with foliage, plastic, and illuminations; the obligatory winding down of workplace activity and the resultant diminution in the efficiency of support services; the rampant consumption of high-fat, high-sugar, high-additive foodstuffs that are mass produced and yet only temporarily available in retail outlets; the near-compulsory exchanging of cards, gifts, and pleasantries with carefully collated selections of personal acquaintances; and, lest we forget, the suddenly available opportunity to catch up on James Bond movies on television. Interestingly, despite the late nights, the office parties, and the annual peak in domestic alcohol consumption, we are habitually informed that all this fuss is really a time for the children. Awww.
Personally, I must admit an intense fondness for this time of year. The ritualised nostalgia, the countless number of retrospective analyses of the year’s events in the media, the intensifying of the entertainment industry, and the elevation of people’s moods mean that I am more than willing to tolerate the temporary interruption to the weekly routine of my work as an academic. I experience a particular frisson annually when my atypical exposure to daytime television introduces me to a phenomenon to which I have previously been oblivious, but which I discover has gripped entire strata of the populace for most of the preceding year.
Of course, for many people the break from one’s lifestyle and occupational routine is intended to provide for a period of self-reflection, self-improvement, and moral re-engagement. For me it is no exception – in particular, I find the extended downtime presents an ideal opportunity to catch up on my reading and to hone my videogame-playing skills.
Few cultural events so endemic to society can go unnoticed by scientists. In support of my yuletide binge-reading a few years ago, I purchased a book entitled Can Reindeer Fly? by Roger Highfield, Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph. In this book, Highfield sets out across twelve chapters various areas of scientific research and theorising that pertain specifically to the holiday season. Interestingly, apart from discussions about the Newtonian dimensions of reindeer flight and the logistics of circumnavigating the globe in one evening, most of the scientific interest in the season has come from the behavioural sciences.
For example, I bought my copy of Highfield’s book in a second-hand bookshop, and so it bears an inscription inside the cover from the previous owner. Or should I say, from the person who presented it as a seasonal gift to the previous owner. From my reading (although I claim no expertise in this area), the inscription was intended to convey a romantic overture. However, given that the book found itself on the shelf of a second-hand retailer within months of its receipt, I can only assume that this particular overture was unsuccessful. Indeed, the fact that I found the book in such pristine condition that its pages clung together with static electricity as they must have done since the day it rolled off the printing press, leads me to suspect that the recipient was so unhappy to receive it that he made a keen effort to expedite its disposal. All this is made relevant by the fact that Highfield describes in detail research conducted by psychologists Carole Burgoyne and Stephen Lea of theUniversity ofExeter into the mores and etiquette of seasonal gift exchanges.
According to Burgoyne and Lea (and, indeed, to common sense), the simple act of giving a gift is fraught with socially mediated difficulty. At this time of year, unlike with birthdays for example, gift-giving is reciprocal and simultaneous and so allows for an immediate assessment of the status of the relationship between givers and receivers. Of course, although one’s first instinct might be to strive for some form of social equity in gift exchanges (essentially treating the act as one of bartering rather than of generosity), social psychology allows us to consider that things might be a little more complicated. The achievement of equity must take account of the relative statuses of those involved, so it may well be the case that a gift that is too expensive or too showy might backfire on those intending to impress. Of course, all this assumes reciprocity. When reciprocity is expected but not realised, such as when you give somebody a gift but they don’t give you one in return, the result can be socially disastrous.
Just in case we become guilty of speciesism, we should reflect on the fact that gift-giving is not necessarily the result of nurture. Animals exchange gifts too (but, admittedly, not necessarily in December). Highfield describes how in many insect and bird species, gift-giving is a necessary precursor to mating. In some cases, the collection of the relevant gift is life-threatening, thereby illustrating how gift-giving behaviour highlights the necessity of sexual prowess for sexual selection even if it endangers survival. Now, who says you can’t extrapolate from animal research to humankind?
Health psychologists have long been aware of the direct impact of such cultural events on people’s physical wellbeing. Research has repeatedly shown that the death rates of seriously ill people appear to suggest that they can “hang on” for a few days longer than they might otherwise do, in order to join in seasonal celebrations. For what it’s worth, debate rages as to whether this is the result of direct or indirect aetiological mechanisms. In other words, is it the case that emotional involvement with one’s family and one’s community somehow mediates the body’s processes in ways that can slow down the deterioration of an illness; or is it alternatively the case that the observed effects are linked to dietary and aerobic factors that are associated with holiday-related social interactions?
In terms of mental health, psychologists have long observed that the impact of seasonal celebrations is not always positive. Many people experience low mood at this time of year. With no little irony, some attempts to theoretically account for this have been quite entertaining. According to one theorist in the 1950s, for some people the yuletide season reawakens conflicts related to unresolved sibling rivalries. This is particularly so, given that the holiday in question is purported by some to celebrate the birth of a child so favoured that competition with him is futile. In a similar vein, psychoanalyst Richard Sterba famously likened the entire holiday season to the process of childbirth (pregnant readers, look away now): as well as the preparatory excitement, secret anticipation, and last-minute panicked preparations, the season is characterised by taboos about entering the “room” that contains the “gift”, and the traditional depiction of gifts being delivered through chimneys (an apparently obvious gynaecological signifier). Seasonal affective disorder, then, can be seen as a form of postnatal depression. (Unfortunately, this theory does not adequately explain the therapeutic effects of interventions based on presentation of ultra-violet light.)
One true seasonal tradition that I forgot to mention is, of course, moaning; particularly, nostalgic moaning. It is expected that one spend some of the available time complaining that the season is not what it once was. We are required to point out that, “years ago”, the festivities were better and more sincere, that people were much nicer to each other, and that nowadays everything has gotten so commercial. However, this might be influenced by well known cognitive distortions of memory. One suggestive indicator in this regard is that nostalgic moaning is nothing new. Try to guess when this opinion was first published:
Within the last half century, this annual time of festivity has lost much of its original mirth and hospitality.
2000? 1990? 1980? In fact, anybody who places this quote in the current century – or the previous two – is wrong. The comment appeared in the editorial of The Times way back in 1790.
In this season, purported to be of goodwill, why don’t we try to kick that particular tradition into touch? Happy holidays.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.