Ivory towers / Christmas viewed from an unusual angle

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The Independent Online
Done your Christmas shopping yet? Bought the dolls for your daughters and guns for your sons? Thanks to PsycLIT, the Ovid Technologies database of Psychological research, we are able to offer you a complete academic guide to the mysteries of Christmas presents, decorations, seasonal suicides and the psychoanalytic problems of Ebenezer Scrooge.

First, dolls and guns. The problem of sexual-stereotyping of Christmas presents has been widely researched. A study in 1989 ("Age and gender differences in children's Christmas requests", Play and Culture, 1989) showed that while boys and girls requested about the same number of Christmas gifts (CG), boys were more likely to ask for sex-appropriate toys.

This largely confirmed an earlier result ("An examination of fundamental sex-role behavioural change: Mothers' toy purchasing behavior", Parenting Studies 1984) which concluded that mothers give approximately equal weight to their children's requests and to their own desires. Non-requested presents tend to be sex-role neutral compared with requested ones, and daughters tend to receive more sex-neutral toys than boys.

A more specific result was obtained in 1985 ("Sex differences in adults' gifts and children's toy requests at Christmas", Psychological Reports, June 1985) with the finding that boys request and receive more vehicles while girls request and receive more domestic items. For both sexes, the number of toys requested increases with age, but the number of presents received remains constant.

The prize for experimental design goes to the authors of "Gender differences in preschool children's toy requests," (Journal of Genetic Psychology, 1984) for the following opening words: "102 female and 99 male 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children were asked by a researcher dressed as one of Santa's elves what they wanted for Christmas." The elf confirmed that girls want jewellery, clothing and dolls' houses, while boys want cars and machines.

Are some people easier to buy presents for than others? According to "Gift selection for easy and difficult recipients: A social roles interpretation," (Journal of Consumer Research 1993) 23.7 per cent of potential recipients of CGs are described as "difficult" compared with 17.4 per cent "easy". the social role termed the "avoider" is most difficult of all.

Ebenezer Scrooge was perhaps the most famous avoider of all. His problems were discussed in: "A Christmas Carol: A literary psychoanalysis" (American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1992). the story is essentially one of Scrooge's character disorder and alienation, particularly exemplified by the contrast between the orality of Christmas and the anality of Scrooge's misanthropy. His lack of decorations about the office must have been a contributing factor. A 1989 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that Christmas decorations correlate with sociability.

However depressed Scrooge may have been by the ghosts, suicide was never an option. As several studies have shown, suicides are always down at Christmas. Self-mutiliation, however, increases on St Valentine's Day.

And if you still haven't done the shopping, don't worry. It's all explained in "Christmas and procrastination: Explaining lack of diligence at a 'real- world' task deadline" (Personality and Individual Differences, 1993). Those who leave their shopping late, they found, may "attribute their lack of diligence to job-related attributes" or to personal attributes such as "perceived task aversiveness". In other words, you haven't done the shopping yet because you were either too busy or don't like doing Christmas shopping.

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