Why George Clooney Giving $1 Million to Friends is Insulting

Yesterday, I kept seeing this quote from George Clooney on my Twitter feed where he talks about giving 14 of his friends a million dollars. Along with the retweets of this quote were jokes that became played out within an hour or two. Thousands of people retweeted the quote saying things like, “I knew I should have hung out with George Clooney that one time.”

While yes, since most of us are living paycheck to paycheck, a million bucks from a friend would be nice. But, it’s also quite possible that George’s friends were highly insulted by the fact that he gave them money.

To put it into perspective, we’re coming up on the holidays. Thanksgiving is next week, and after that, we have Christmas. For a moment, let’s imagine that you go to your parents’ house for Thanksgiving, or maybe you’re like me when I was growing up and go to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving. Now, imagine eating that delicious meal, having some great conversation, and making memories.

Then…you hand the person who made the meal $50.

How do you think that would go? They’d probably be extremely insulted by your gesture. Like George Clooney, you’re trying to show your gratitude, and you think words can’t do it, so you do some math in your head and figure the meal was worth about $30. The service was great, so why not a big tip? So, you give the cook $50.

This doesn’t go over well because of societal norms, and I thought this would be interesting to discuss because I recently had to have this conversation with my son. My son has been so good about saving money that he still has money from Christmas last year and his New Year’s Eve birthday. Since Christmas and his birthday are coming up again, he’s been spending more of his money because he knows some more is coming in.

With his money, he’s bought a few new video games, but he’s made some gestures that may come off offensive. Recently, he’s offered me money for my fatherly duties like going grocery shopping. He even offered my girlfriend money when his headphones broke, and she gave him her extra pair.

So, I had to sit him down and explain norms and how this kind gesture may come off as offensive.

Again, while you and I would gladly take George Clooney’s $1 million, I can’t help but wonder if his friends were offended. I’m not sure which of his friends he gave money to, but money is relative to your net worth. If his friends are fellow millionaires or even billionaires, George Clooney giving a friend $1 million would be like me giving a friend $10 for hanging out with me.

Personally, I’ve always questioned norms, and I do think some of them are silly and completely irrational. That’s why I absolutely loved the book
Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays by Joel Waldfogel.

I love the holidays, but more for the spirit and not the gift giving. How often to we get gifts that we never use? How often do we give gifts that the person never uses? How often do we get a little upset that we spent our hard-earned money on something that the person doesn’t use? I have a friend who is a mother, and each Christmas and birthday, she spoils her son with gifts. That kid has dozens of unopened gifts from the recent 3 to 4 years. And I can’t help but think that money could have gone to some sort of charitable cause.

In his book Scroogenomics, Waldfogel looks at gift-giving from the perspective of an economist. Sometimes, economists can be cold and calculating like Spock, but that’s why I love them. Joel Waldfogel realized a long time ago that there’s a strange stigma around giving money as gifts, and to his credit, that’s where I first heard the thought experiment about paying a friend for making you dinner.

As a professor, Waldfogel has done experiments where he sees what the perceived value of gifts are, and the results aren’t surprising at all. On average, most people value gifts they receive far less than what the person paid for the gift. This is most common when the person receives a gift they didn’t want or need.

This happens because, for most of us (or at least adults), we buy the things we want during the year. So, there’s a low chance someone is going to get us something we actually want or need unless we ask for it specifically. The other exception is if a person gets us something we wanted but didn’t want to spend our money on. But how often does that happen during your typical gift exchanges?

This is also why the invention of gift cards was a genius idea. Giving a gift is more about the thought. As a species that is constantly signaling to people, giving a gift shows, “I was thinking of you, and I listen to your wants and needs. I know you, so I purchased you something that proves that I care about you.” For us, that signal is more powerful than the actual gift, but most people would just want money because they can buy what they want. The gift card gives the signal that you know what they like, but they can spend the money on whatever they want.

I remember one Christmas as a kid, I finally told my parents, “Just give me money.” That’s all I wanted. I was into video games and building computers, but I’d rather just handle the purchases myself. But when they did what I asked, it just didn’t feel like Christmas. Now, my son is almost 12 years old, and he’s starting to just ask for money as well, and I wonder if it’s going to feel less like Christmas for him too if I give him what he asks for.

At the end of the day, I agree with Joel Waldfogel’s way of thinking in Scroogenomics. We should realize when we’re following norms that are irrational, but we should also show the people we care about that we love them. So, while my son is getting money for Christmas, my girlfriend is getting some things so she knows I pay attention.

So, although some of George Clooney’s friends may have been insulted by his cash gift, I’ll join in on the played out joke by saying that I wish George Clooney would insult me, too.

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