Why Do People Give Gifts: Psychology Behind Gift Giving

Disclosure: We earn commissions (at no additional cost to you) if you purchase products from retailers after clicking on a link from our site.

Every Christmas, anniversary, birthday and special life event, we carefully choose and gift our loved ones. It is something that is ingrained into our culture, we do it automatically without even thinking about the implications. How and what we choose to gift can say a lot about us psychologically and emotionally.

Why is Gift Giving Important?

Why is Gift Giving Important

There are many reasons why you might gift a loved one, friend or colleague a gift. Gift-giving is an important way to connect to people, form relationships and even find a life partner. Here are some reasons why we give gifts and why this act is so important to how we communicate, bond, and love.

To Build and Reinforce Relationships

We often give presents to reconfirm or establish our connection with others. We get joy not just from receiving gifts but also giving. Some people give a gift to communicate feelings and appreciation to others. If you are not good with words, something a gift is a good way to get your feelings across.

A Way of Showing Love and Devotion

Gifts can symbolize love and devotion. There is a theory called symbolic interactionism that argues that people best communicate through the use of symbols like gifts. This is why it has become traditional for men to gift women they want to date flowers.

So, why do we say it’s the thought that counts? It’s because we attach symbolic meaning to presents. This means that a gift you are not keen with or don’t find appropriate can be interpreted as thoughtless despite its altruistic motives.

To Receive Something in Return

When using gifts to build or cement a relationship, they also require some form of reciprocation. Giving a gift can help create a debt-balance, so you should repay any gift you are given. This essentially creates a cycle of giving gifts to each other. Whether we realize it or not, we judge people who do not properly repay our gifts.

When reciprocating a present, it should be roughly the equal value to the one you received. Gifting something less value or significant may appear like you don’t value the relationship. Gifting something too expensive in return may cause an embarrassment and make it seem like you are trying to buy friendship.

To Help Others

Some gifts are given without anything expected in return. Love and appreciation are two reasons why people gift altruistically. For example, people love gifting small children and pets presents even though they cannot return the gift.

Giving gifts to help others can include donating money or volunteering for a good cause. There are several theories that explain this, including the fact that charitable gifting can activate dopamine-using pleasure circuitry. Effectively, we give altruistically because it makes us feel good.

To find a partner

Animals give gifts are part of their mating ritual, and humans aren’t that different. Chimpanzees, who are close relatives to humans, have been documented giving food in return for sex and grooming, while gibbons use gifts to keep the attention of existing mates. Humans also give gifts to attract and retain sexual partners.

Studies have found that men who are generous with gifts are better at attracting and keeping hold off mates in the long-term. It has also been found that women were less likely to use gifts for mating purposes and instead use gifts to strengthen their social network.

Psychology of Gift Giving

If you are anxious about buying a gift, it’s probably because of the social risk attached to it. A well-received and thoughtful gift can improve the relationship between people, can become a bonding experience and prove commitment. A poorly received or thoughtless gift can do the opposite.

The act of gift giving is more complex than you imagine and can be an important element of human psychology. Psychologists have revealed that it is often the giver, rather than the gift receiver, who enjoys the biggest psychological gains from a gift.

Their research suggests that not only is gifting beneficial, but it helps humans evolve emotionally and psychologically. Even at a young age, we can see how the societal and psychological benefits of gift giving are ingrained into us.

Researchers at Loyola University Chicago studied 3-and-4-year-olds at a day-care center, all of whom had gone to the same birthday party. The girls went shopping with their mother, choosing and wrapping the gift. The boys who attended had no idea they even had to gift something.

A 1999 study asked 129 people to describe a situation in which they had received a gift. Ten people reported gifts that weakened the relationship, and two people actually ended their relationship after receiving a bad gift.

A 2011 study asked respondents to think back to a wedding (their own or someone else’s) and how appreciative they were of gifts either listed on the gift registry or not. Recipients strongly preferred to receive gifts on their list. However, gift-givers wrongly thought that gifts not appearing on the registry would be considered more thoughtful.

It is also a misconception that expensive gifts are m0re thoughtful than personal ones. Receipts of presents have the same appreciation of a gift, no matter how much it costs. Some people asked would prefer to have a gift they can use, in comparison to a pointless yet expensive present.

Cash is considered unthoughtful because there is no real meaning behind it. No one wants to know the value of their relationship in dollars. In Chinese culture, money must be given in a red envelope to decommodify it, transforming the cash donation into a symbol of good luck.

A gift card is proven to be much more thoughtful but is considered a last resort by gift receivers. If your goal is to strengthen a current relationship, they will likely prefer an experience over a gift.

A 2016 study asked people to give a friend either a material (food, clothing, or flowers, for example) or experiential gift (tickets to shows or a movie). Recipients of the experiential present displayed a stronger improvement in the strength of their relationship in comparison to those who were gifted something material.

Types of Gift Givers

Psychologists have broken down the different types of gift givers into different categories. This dictates how they consider gifting and what they expect from the gift.

  • The Genuine Giver who actually thinks about the gift they are buying. They love working out what someone would like and genuinely don’t mind if they don’t get the same in return.
  • The Status Hound sees gifting as a show of money, power, or both. These people don’t care if you return the gift, just that you notice that they gifted you something. This type of gift giver can cause offense and sometimes emotional trauma when it’s a loved one.
  • The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing wants to be thought of as a genuine gift giver, yet is actually a status hound. They are likely to gift money and will happily re-gift items to other people. They will also discriminate within the family, choosing to favor some people over others.
  • The Power Player knows how to manipulate the symbolic nature of gifts. They are likely to cause hurt, or at least disappoint us. They don’t understand the psychological effect of a gift, yet some will go out their way to give you a hurtful gift as a sign they hold power over you.
  • The Complainer will let you know how many times and money they spent purchasing your gift. They can’t wait to tell you the inconveniences they suffered when trying to find the right present. This isn’t too hurtful, but comes across as rude and selfish.

History of Gift Giving

The practice of gifting has existed since the beginning of civilisation. Evidence has been found that caveman gifted unusually shaped rocks or animal teeth to each other as a way to strengthen social connection and show their appreciation. The art of gift giving became more elaborate as social structures developed over time.

For thousands of years, Native American tribes have engaged in the tradition of potlatch. This is a complex ceremony where gifts are given to confirm or reconfirm the status and wealth of a gift giver. The more elaborate the gift and ceremony, the more powerful the gift giver is considered.

Similarly, in Alaskan Iñupiat tradition, after a successful hunt, whaling crews gave the largest portion of their catch to other tribe members. The more tribe members receive gifts, the more respected the whaling crew is.

Early records of Egyptian history indicate that the dead were buried with goods or gifts for the afterlife. It was the duty of the eldest son to oversee the burial of his parents, including the gifts for the afterlife. The purpose of the gift was to help protect the deceased and help them transition into the afterlife. These gifts would include everything from bowls and combs to amulets, jewellery, and furniture.

The ancient Greeks also gifted elaborate gifts to express emotion, build relationships and offer emotional aid. Families were expected to welcome travelers, who could be gods in disguise, with a warm meal and place to rest. Gifts were given as a sign of both devotion and respect. These gods were expected to give gifts in exchange for protection of the battlefield.

During the Middle Ages, gift exchanges were an important way to show allegiance and form a social bond. Dowries were also a popular way to promote relationships. This involved the father of the bride presenting lavish gifts to the groom in return for marrying his daughter. Dowry presents include land, livestock, or money.

Also Read:  The 20+ Best Gifts Ideas For Beach Lovers

Why Do People Give Gifts: FAQ

Is it better to buy one big gift or lots of little gifts?

If you someone who likes to bundle up gifts, for example, flowers and champagne. If you do, you should stop this. When people receive gifts in a bundle, we tend to unconsciously average out their value, so a small, inexpensive gift added onto an expensive present will lessen the impact of the it.

A 2012 study on the Presenter’s Paradox gave participants the choice of an iPod alone or an iPod with a free download. Those offered the iPod with the download valued it 20% less than those without. Yet when asked which one they would be more likely to gift, they all said the iPod with the download.

Is it rude to gift a gift card?

Yes, if you are unsure what to buy someone, a gift card is less offensive than money. While gifting cash is popular in some cultures, it’s not for everyone, as it can be seen as acting lazy. Some people may also take offense to this.

The relationship you have with the person will dictate how rude giving a gift card will be. A co-worker, friend or distant family member will appreciate the gesture, yet a close friend, family member or partner will see it as rude. This is because you should know how to shop for loved ones.

Avoid putting a gift card in just an envelope, as this will look lazy. Instead, buy an accompanying greeting card that’s appropriate for the person or the occasion. Take time to write a note, perhaps apologizing for the gift card as you didn’t want to buy them something they didn’t want or felt unsure of what to buy them.

Make sure the amount is appropriate to your relationship, but still in your budget. General gift card etiquette is usually under $20 for casual acquaintances, like work colleagues, $30-$75 for close friends and family members and more for someone like your spouse or for a big occasion (weddings, big birthdays). Always let them know how much is on the gift card, either by writing it on the card itself or on a slip inside the envelope.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment