Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Gift of Giving

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Since the holidays are upon us once more, I thought you would be interested to read about the psychology of gift-giving. In short, even though giving someone a gift is simple enough, the psychology behind this act is much more complex than most people realize.

A large number of scientists, ranging from psychologists to economists, have studied the purpose and ramifications of gift giving in humans and have learned a surprising number of things about it. Even though many people claim they are going to opt out of gift-giving altogether because they think the holidays have been overcommercialized, gift-giving actually serves a variety of social goals. Basically, giving a gift is used to strengthen an already existing social bond between two individuals. Thus, gift-giving has strong evolutionary selection because males exchanged gifts for sexual access and thus, enjoyed more reproductive success than those who were less generous, while evolution favored females who chose specific items that would sustain her relationship with her mate and nurture her offspring.

These evolutionary differences in gift-giving between the genders appear to be subtle, but actually have strong repercussions today. For example, men are generally very conscious of the price of the gifts they chose, whereas women tend to prefer items with emotional significance.

Interestingly, people who refuse gifts are cutting themselves off from important social cues by encouraging their social group to ignore them and their needs. Basically, by refusing gifts, they are isolating themselves from their loved ones and are weakening their relationship with others in their social circle.

“That doesn’t do a service to the relationship,” pointed out Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard psychology 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.”

So I am curious; what is the best gift that you’ve ever given to someone?


NYTimes (quote).


  1. #1 Mark P
    December 11, 2007

    I have always said that accepting a gift from someone is actually giving them a gift.

    I have sometimes wondered about a particular gift I gave once. A fellow graduate student from China admired a print I had on my office wall, so I gave it to him. He seemed very surprised, but he took the print. I wonder what became of him and it.

  2. #2 Kevin W. Parker
    December 11, 2007

    My wife and I are very good friends with a certain somewhat eccentric family. For Christmas one year I made up a game in which I depicted what it was like to visit them and various odd things that could happen while there (many of which actually had happened). The older daughter got on the phone to thank me after they’d opened it, but it took over a minute for her to stop laughing long enough to get any words out. They still say it’s the best Christmas present they’ve ever gotten.

  3. #3 mandy
    December 11, 2007

    Oh, okay, I never thought of it that way. I always thought that the holidays screams over ramification of the commercialized and materialistic ego, but I guess I might just be less of a Scrooge this year.

  4. #4 JPS
    December 12, 2007

    I had a neighbor I was friendly with when I lived in New York and we decided to exchange small gifts for Christmas. I was stumped what to get at first because there wasn’t anything obvious to get her.

    I could not get clothes or jewelry because I am dumbfounded by the style, tastes and sizes of women’s apparel. I finally figured what to get her when I was with her when she dropped off her car at a parking site that was on the west side of Manhattan a block or two away from the Intrepid museum.

    She saw that museum and mentioned that she had lived in NYC for a few years but had never been to many of the sights and attractions. I thought of the Onepass which is a booklet that in one purchase grants admissions to 10+ of the attractions in NYC, and bought it the next day.

    We both agreed it was a good gift for many reasons. First it was novel and surprise is a big factor in good gifts. Second it was not a “thing” really so it got away from the materialistic aspect of gift giving. Finally it showed that I put serious thought into the what type of gift would be good for the receiver and tailored the gift to make the receiver happy.

  5. #5 carolyn13
    December 12, 2007

    My sister and I have what we call the birthday wars. It started by insulting each other and the highlight of that phase was a box with a foam hill (as in “Over The Hill.”) We got bored with that (and so old we didn’t want to be reminded) so we started sending each other theme birthday boxes. I got a party in a box once, complete with helium balloons and confetti. My best one to her was a treasure hunt in a box. I wrapped fortune cookies in tissue paper sacks with her gift in one of them. She had to open 17 sacks before she found the real gift.

    For us, it isn’t so much the gift as how creatively we can package it. At the moment, I’m ahead on points. Did I mention that we are competitive?

  6. #6 Chris' Wills
    December 12, 2007

    As time goes buy it’s harder to know what to buy for people.

    It really is the thought that counts as you get older.

    I’ve found that these sites are a source of suprising gifts, assuming you’re buying for people who like something different.

  7. #7 Suricou Raven
    December 13, 2007

    The obvious solution is to give gifts of little or no financial value, but high emotional value. For example, I am giving one of my friends soon a biscuit tin decorated with painted seagulls. Its financial value is negligable (I paid £2 for it, and that much was a ripoff), but the friend in question is a huge fan of seagulls and a collector of any items related to them.

    The problems that gift-giving brings today can be traced in large part to the deliberate manipulations of advertising – the billions of dollars spend with the purpose of convincing people to spend and to create the impression that only an expensive gift will do.

  8. #8 CG Walters
    December 24, 2007

    ..the best gift I have ever given (or received) is one that was thoughtfully chosen specifically for the joy of the receiver, without prompting of a date or event (not a Pavlovian response)but only a response to the the connection I felt with my friend upon seeing something so akin to their nature or likes–ie returning the item to it’s rightful owner.

    Blessings to you and those you hold dear during this season and new year…

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