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All I Want for Christmas is You: The Science of Gift Giving

Each year around mid-November, business owners begin to lick their chops: the next month will arguably be their busiest and most profitable. Last year, for example, Americans spent over $52 billion during the Thanksgiving weekend alone.1 Although large portions of these purchases are surely self-indulging, people also make a lot of purchases to take care of gift shopping for the upcoming holiday season.

Gift giving seems to be a biologically natural phenomenon across a range of species and targets – even organisms as simple as insects feel the need to get in on the giving. Male crickets, for example, gift their sexual partners with a nutritious treat to prevent them from prematurely consuming their sperm ampulla—essentially a big bag of sperm—after mating.2 Insect gift giving extends beyond sexual partners as well: burying beetles provide their young larvae with a tasty carcass to feed on and live in.3

Similarly, humans often provide their loved ones—children, mates, or otherwise—with an assortment of presents. Thankfully, these gifts tend to be less disgusting than those given by our insect counterparts. Although you may look forward to exchanging gifts with your loved ones this time of year, it’s worth asking: is gift giving good for relationships, or is it possible for gift giving to somehow harm close relationships?

As it turns out, there is a convincing amount of evidence to suggest that gift giving might undermine relationships. Receiving a gift from a loved one, in some ways, can feel like a reward for having a relationship with that person. Research, however, suggests that receiving such rewards might undermine peoples’ intrinsic motivation to be a part of these relationships.4 That’s right…receiving gifts from close others could actually reduce your perceptions of how rewarding those close relationships are. Subsequently, you may actually lose interest in those close relationships.

So are all gifts bad for relationships? Thankfully, research has provided some guidelines for navigating the complex (and sometimes stressful!) task of gift-giving. First, it seems that money spent on experiences (e.g., vacations) rather than on material goods (e.g., iPads) can increase happiness.4 One reason for this difference is that experiential gifts satisfy the psychological need for relatedness, leading to further feelings of vitality and happiness.5 Also, experiential gifts seem to be impervious to the sometimes negative consequences of social comparisons.6 Material purchases, alternatively, encourage us to compare ourselves to others, and to compare our gifts to those that others receive. Gifts that facilitate life experiences, alternatively, do not promote the need to measure how you might "stack up" against others, potentially because experiences are valued for intrinsic reasons, such as celebrating a relationship, rather than extrinsic reasons, such as the desire to signal status or wealth.

Gifts also promote happy outcomes when they allow for a positive interpersonal connection with the recipient.7 So, if you do plan to buy your loved one a material product, make sure that the product carries with it some sort of interpersonal meaning. Gifts that highlight the bond you share with the person, or spark a warm nostalgic memory of your time together, increase happiness and help to strengthen and develop the relationship in the long term. Finally, research shows that charitable giving makes people happier.7 Setting up an account with an organization like Charity: water or Re~cycle might be a great way to give the gift of charity this year.

So try something new this season. Instead of the latest-and-greatest consumer fad, consider getting you and your romantic partner tickets to see a theatre performance, or register for a cooking class together. Treat your parents to a nice dinner, or a weekend getaway. Spend a day with your kids at a local museum or science center. Give to charity. Doing so may indeed make your holidays more enjoyable, bring you closer in your relationships, and allow you and your loved ones to appreciate the greatest gift of all – each other.

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1Dickler, J. (November, 2011). Black Friday weekend: Record $52.4 billion spent. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com.

2Sakaluk, S. K. (1984). Male crickets feed female crickets to ensure complete sperm transfer. Science, 223, 609.

3Eggert, A., Reinking, M., & Müller, J. K. (1998). Parental care improves offspring survival and growth in burying beetles. Animal Behavior, 55, 97-107.

4Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.

5Howell, R.T., & Hill, G. (2009). The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 511–522. 

6Carter, T.J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 146–159.

7Aknin, L. (2012). On financial generosity and well-being: Where, when, and how spending money on others increases happiness (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Electronic Theses and Dissertations 2008+. (Accession Order No. T17:53:34Z).

John Sakaluk - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
John is interested in experimental existential psychology, sexual health, cultural scripts, double standards, and other sexual attitudes. He relies on theories such as attachment, terror management, and conceptual metaphor, while researching topics such as condom use and sexual strategies.

Matt Baldwin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Matt is interested in existential, humanistic, and cultural psychological approaches to understanding the self. His main area of research focuses on the psychological benefits and consequences of nostalgia, both for one's personal and collective identities.

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