How to Give Gifts, According to Psychology

Step 1: Figure out why you're giving this gift in the first place.


Sure, Christmas means freshly fallen snow, entire families decked out in matching sweaters, and annoying carols on repeat. But Christmas is undeniably synonymous with one thing: presents. And no one can deny that gift giving is probably the most stressful part of the holiday. What’s the perfect thing to get that person?

The way to go about it is to reframe your thought process and figure out why you’re giving the gift. According to psychology, there are three motivations for giving: altruism, self-interest, and being a sucker for social norms. Of the three, being an altruistic giver is demonstrably the best way to feel a rush of happiness during the exchanging of gifts. An altruistic person works within the boundaries of unselfish concern for the well-being of others. The very act of giving brings altruistic people happiness, circumstantially improving their psychological health. It’s a cycle that pays off for the people around them – altruistic people have a desire — a literal need — to give, that giving behavior creates happiness, and this happiness, in turn, increases further charitable behavior.

“Altruistic gift giving without any hope of reciprocity has been shown to make people happy: It generates what behavioral economists call a ‘warm glow,’” Wharton professor Katherine Milkman said in a statement. “To the extent that giving to others brings us happiness in observing, or imagining their reactions, is certainly not irrational.”

Looks like a self-interested gift receiver.


At the opposite end of the spectrum is giving gifts out of self-interest – which psychologists call “indebtedness engineering.” If you got assigned a person who is consumed with self-interest for the office Secret Santa, good luck; it will be difficult to appease them. According to David Byrd, a behavioral scientist at South University, these people can have immediate feelings of resentment if they feel a person has not spent enough and may end up feeling undervalued or cheated. A 2003 study found that men are more likely to report tactical motives when giving gifts when it came to giving gifts to their romantic interests. Ironically, this study also found that women assumed men used tactical moves more often — but the men in the study thought men and women tried to gauge the system equally.

All of these motivations for giving — particularly, the motivation of purchasing gifts just because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do — goes back to the idea that giving gifts is an act of the social psychology concept of symbolic interaction, the idea that people communicate with each other using symbols. Those symbols are an opportunity for the giver to express their perception of themselves, their perception of the receiver, and the very concept of exchanging gifts. If you think Christmas is a wash and get your aunt a random candle you hastily grabbed at a gas station (the candle here is the symbol), it’s pretty obvious that you don’t really care about the event.


But all most of us want to do is to deliver a gift that brings a smile to the face of the recipient. In this case, harness the power of psychology and symbols; think of stuff that is attached to uniqueness (you thought of this present especially for your friend, and no one else would have made this singular connection) and togetherness (the bond you have over a shared history that makes this present thoughtful). For example, a framed photograph of you and your recipient goes miles beyond an Amazon gift card. It’s a double whammy of joy: Psychologists have found that feelings of pleasure spikes when gifts are unexpected and sentimental. While that’s Hallmark card cheesy, it’s true.

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