The psychology of gift giving

Reading time: 8 minutes

The holiday season is around the corner. For most of us, it means we need to get gifts for our loved ones—our family, our friends, maybe even for people we don’t know all that well, such as clients and coworkers. The holiday season is notoriously stressful. Surveys show that nearly 7 people out of 10 are stressed by the feeling of having a “lack of time” and a “lack of money.” And over 50% of people are stressed about the “pressure to give or get gifts.”

I used to struggle with this period of the year. I still do, to a certain extent. It’s a reminder of the people we’ve lost, a time when we may be forced to hang out with people we’re not that familiar with, a succession of family events where we’re being asked personal questions we’d rather not answer.

Despite the stress-inducing ordeal of the holiday season and having to buy gifts for many people at the same time, gifting itself can be a wonderful experience. But it does help to get an understanding of what exactly is going on inside everyone’s minds when giving and receiving gifts.

psychology of gift giving

The psychological factors impacting gift giving

Let’s take a step back. Why do we go through all the trouble to give presents? Why the bother? What’s the psychological mechanism underpinning this age-old tradition?

  • Social bonding. Charles Darwin, whose natural selection theory suggested that each individual is only interested in its own survival, would have struggled to explain why we as humans are interested in giving gifts to other people. But we’re a highly cooperative species. The principle of reciprocal altruism may explain a lot of the positive relationships we have with other people. As John Cacioppo wrote: “The more extensive the reciprocal altruism born of social connection, the greater the advance toward health, wealth, and happiness.” In other words—you scratch my back, I scratch yours. But altruism doesn’t need to be reciprocal. The positive psychological feelings we get from making someone happy are often enough to justify the effort.
  • Cultural beliefs. Of course, we give gifts because we feel traditionally obliged to do so. Gifting goes way back to ancient cultures, whether Persian, Greek, or Roman. During the Roman empire, people would present each other with good luck tokens. You also have personal gifts of betrothals given as dowries. And, of course, holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Again, we are social animals. Most of us don’t want to be the only one not pertaining in a collective cultural tradition. So we don’t think about it, and just go with the flow.
  • Long-term satisfaction. Have you ever given a gift to someone only to see them abandon it the next week? Giving someone a gift works best when you consider the long-term appreciation the recipient will experience. As Peter Bregman said, “This isn’t a performance review.” Giving someone a gift is not about how you feel about them and how you want them to feel right now. It’s about how you feel about them and how you want them to feel in general. Studies found that gifts that consider happiness overtime work better. Consider gifting someone a dozen red roses versus a potted rose plant with buds about to open. Which one will produce more long-term satisfaction? Yes, the gift that keeps on giving.

“When givers give gifts, they’re trying to optimise on the moment they give the gift and see the smile on the recipient’s face right in that moment. But what recipients care about is how much value they’re going to derive from that over a longer time period.” — Jeff Galak, Associate Professor, Carnegie Mellon School.

psychology of gift giving

What gifts are more meaningful

If you’re going to spend time and money trying to find gifts for your loved ones, may as well make it count. Lucky for you, scientists have been exploring that field and have a few hints as to how you can pick the perfect holiday gift.

“The reason experiential gifts are more socially connecting is that they tend to be more emotionally evocative. An experiential gift elicits a strong emotional response when a recipient consumes it—like the fear and awe of a safari adventure, the excitement of a rock concert or the calmness of a spa—and is more intensely emotional than a material possession.” — Cindy Chan, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto.

  • Make it practical. A research study looked at the level of practicality of gifts in relation to the satisfaction levels of gift recipients. The researchers looked at gifts like pens—think a high-quality but heavy pen versus an easily transportable but ordinary one—or restaurant gift vouchers to far-away but trendy restaurants, versus close-by but ordinary restaurants. Turns out, people felt closer to someone who gave them a more practical gift compared to a fancier one. So don’t worry about getting something fancy, just make sure your gift is useful.
  • Make it personal. You know how they say—it’s the thought that matters? Whatever you decide to get for someone, make sure to add a message and to wrap the gift. Whatever the circumstances, avoid giving money—if the person does need money and you want to help them, make that a separate thing rather than a holiday gift. Do you feel completely stuck? Good news: studies show that people are more appreciative of gifts they ask for than ones they don’t. So, in doubt, just ask what they want.
  • Make it simple. Gift boxes where the recipient can pick among a hundred options of spa days, restaurants or wine tours have become increasingly popular. These gifts put the onus on the recipient to pick whatever they like best among a long list of options. They are basically shifting the burden of analysis paralysis from the gift giver to the person receiving the gift. But people are prone to overthinking, and research shows that too much choice can be anxiety-inducing. This is called the paradox of choice, as coined by American psychologist Barry Schwartz.

One great way to combine these three rules is to give people an experience. Research shows that people tend to be happier when they receive gifts involving experiences rather than material ones. Have a friend who likes beer? Instead of getting him some fancy hipster beers, get him a ticket to a workshop to learn to make his own. Have a friend who’s into cosmetics? Don’t buy them makeup. Go with them to the Makeup Museum (opening in New York City in May 2020, you’re welcome).

Make it practical, personal, and useful, and you’ll go a long way towards picking a gift that feels both meaningful and satisfying to the recipient. But, let’s be honest, the holiday season is just plain stressful. So what can you do to manage your anxiety levels?

psychology of gift giving

How to manage holiday stress

Figuring out what to buy, actually finding a place where to buy it, getting it wrapped, having to sit next to that weird uncle you haven’t talked to in years. The holiday season can suck. Here are a few tips you can apply to make the whole thing easier.

  1. Plan ahead. Okay, I know, easier said than done. But if you can afford to, try to plan for the holiday season a couple of weeks in advance. Avoid the holiday rush, do some research, order whatever you need online. There’s no better stress-relieving feeling than receiving all you holiday gifts two weeks before you have to give them out.
  2. Honour the loved ones you have lost. (but take care of yourself first) The holiday season is even hardest to go through when you have lost someone. Take the time to reflect on these special memories, talk to your friends and family. Losing someone sucks, and the holiday season is usually a painful reminder of that loss. Don’t ignore it.
  3. Be mindful of your finances. Yes, you want to make everyone happy. Between gifts, drinks and dinners, it can amount to a substantial amount of money. Make a budget beforehand so you don’t end up spending January crawled in a hole because you burned through your savings. (burning through your finances ≄ being broke, but being way over budget)

If only reading about psychology research could make the holiday season easier. I have no such expectations. Instead, I hope you’ll realise that it’s a stressful moment for many people—whether you’re trying to find the perfect gift or because your family genuinely sucks—and that you’ll find a couple of coping mechanisms in this article. Happy holidays!


Hello! 👋 I'm Anne-Laure Le Cunff. I write about what I learn as an entrepreneur and neuroscience student. Do you want to make the most of your mind? Subcribe to Maker Mind, a weekly newsletter with neuroscience-based insights on decision making, continuous learning, thinking, creativity, and productivity.

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