Gifting in a brain storm (aka swapping credit in the gift economy)

I'm doing a project on the future of food, fitness, sociality and spirituality in America.

This morning, I interviewed a planner in the ad biz.  We were yakking away on the phone and towards the end of the hour, I noticed something odd. 

The planner was giving me credit for her ideas.  And I was giving her credit for my ideas.

You know, the way people do.  "I think you're on to something there."  "Well, as you say, the thing that matters here is …"  "I loved that thing you said about …"  We were using these stock phrases of acknowledgment…except we were actually referencing our own ideas.  We were swapping credit.

Normally, of course, I'm a selfish son of a bitch.  I dislike sharing.  What's mine is mine.  Oh, and what's yours is mine.  What I can steal, I will steal.  Shamelessly. 

But in this case, sharing proved charming and productive. 

From an anthropological point of view, this reciprocity, plain and simple.  Gifts have power.  They oblige us to reciprocate (Mauss, Sahlins, below).  In the case made famous by Levi-Strauss, when we trade glasses of wine at a French bistro, nothing has changed.  We both still have a glass of wine.  But something has changed.  We are a "we" where before we were strangers.* 

But there was nothing zero-sum about this credit swapping.  It proved generative.  When my expert gave me credit for her ideas, I felt honored.  So honored, I became more active in the conversation.  So active, I became more productive.  So that the idea I returned to her was better, I think, than the one I would have had in any case.

Now, in a sense, this is merely what we hope for in a brainstorm.  The rule is that we must not contradict or jam the contributions of other people in the brainstorm.  In order to "get to 'yes,'" we tell everyone to say 'no' to 'no.'  (See my post, below, on the instruction I got from Denise Fonseca on brainstorming.)

But when we are swapping credit, we are not just staying out of one another's way.  We are not encouraging by not discouraging.  We were gifting one another with our ideas. 

And that seems to me another order of engagement. 

If we occupy an innovation economy, and if this innovation economy will, under the pressure of new media and new markets, become a gift economy, this gifting in a brain storm deserves closer scrutiny. 

Totally, I really like you're going with this.


Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1971. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Reissue. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

McCracken, Grant.  2004.  Idea generation: the M&Ms way.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 08, 2004.  here.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine Transaction.


* I know a cynic would say we were engaged in a kind of survival strategy.  If I say my idea is your idea, it has a much stronger chance of serving the conversation and remaining in memory, your memory.  This may sometimes be true but in the case of this conversation, given the purpose of the conversation, neither of us needed to care whether the idea survived in memory. 

5 thoughts on “Gifting in a brain storm (aka swapping credit in the gift economy)

  1. Scott Ellington

    “Groups flock, and they always move in the direction of the good ideas.” (?)

    Product placement/integration and the search for WMDs (in places indicated by suspect intelligence) are dubious ideas. The absence of dissent in conversation or in a brainstorming session leads skeptics to the suspicion that something’s being sold. There is an equilibrated middle ground between Borg assimilation of ideas and overt, skeptical hostility. That’s where they keep the beef. M&Ms (in the context cited) were used as a means of morbid control; my reading.

  2. Steve Portigal

    When I interviewed improv guy Chris Miller ( ) he offered something that I hadn’t heard anyone say before, that it’s your job in improv to make your collaborator look good. I was aware of the yes and no stuff that you mention for both improv and brainstorms but Chris took it to a more strategic level that includes the “yes, and” tactic but gave me a much deeper perspective.

    (and note that I’m giving him credit here, too!!!!!!)

  3. Domen

    Damn communists! It’s them internets, I knew it! It starts with people being kind to each other, and next you know, they take your babies away and force you to use Microsoft. Or was it Linux?

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