Gift giving has long been a favorite subject for studies on human behavior with psychologists, anthropologists, economists and marketers all weighing in. They have found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Indeed, psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift. Frustrated by crowds, traffic and commercialism, people can be tempted during the Christmas season to opt out of gift giving altogether. A 2005 survey showed that four out of five Americans think the holidays are too materialistic, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption.
But while it’s reasonable to cut back on spending during the holidays, psychologists say that banning the gift exchange with loved ones is not the best solution. People who refuse to accept or exchange gifts during the holidays, these experts say, may be missing out on an important connection with family and friends.
“That doesn’t do a service to the relationship,” said Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard psychology a professor. “If I don’t let you give me a gift, then I’m not encouraging you to think about me and think about things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities. You do people a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.”
Some researchers believe evolutionary forces may have favored gift giving. Men who were the most generous may have had the most reproductive success with women. (Notably, the use of food in exchange for sexual access and grooming has been documented in our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee.) Women who were skilled at giving — be it extra food or a well-fitted pelt — helped sustain the family provider as well as her children.
Margaret Rucker, a consumer psychologist at the University of California, Davis, says men are typically more price-conscious and practical when it comes to the gifts they give and get, while women tend to be more concerned about giving and receiving gifts with emotional significance.
Gender differences in gift giving seem to emerge early in life. Researchers at Loyola University Chicago studied 3- and 4-year-olds at a day-care center, all of whom had attended the same birthday party. The girls typically went shopping with their mothers and helped select and wrap the gift. Boys, meanwhile, were often unaware of what the gift was. “They’d say, ‘I took a nap while my mom went shopping for it,’” said Mary Ann McGrath, the associate dean of the graduate school of business at Loyola.
Gift giving is often the most obvious way a partner can show interest, strengthen a bond or even signal that a relationship should end. One colleague of Dr. Rucker’s noted that she knew her marriage was over when her husband handed her a gift in a brown grocery bag.
People who stop giving gifts lose out on important social cues, researchers say. “Who is on your gift list is telling you who is important in your life,” Dr. McGrath said. “It says who is more important and who is less important.”
But the biggest effect of gift giving may be on ourselves. Giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring, Dr. Langer said.
Test your gift-giving Etiguette: