The Science of Gift Giving

Imagine its Christmas morning. You wake from a peaceful sleep as the morning glow shines through your window. A blanket of fluffy snow covers the ground. The smell of brewing coffee lifts you from your warm bed. Gathering around the sparkling tree, you smile with joy at the sight of your loved ones. Excitement fills the air as the gift opening unravels.

The most wonderful time of the year would not be so without a great deal of planning. Staying in tune with current trends and our kids’ ever-changing wish lists is not a simple task. But what really motivates us to put in all this effort? The answer lies in research from the fields of psychology and sociology.

There are various mental and emotional benefits which fuel gift giving. One of main reasons we give gifts is to show that we care. “A way to express feelings, giving reinforces appreciation and acknowledgement of each other” writes Darice Britt in an article titled The Psychology Behind Gift-Giving. Taking the time to select a gift and see the expression on the recipient’s face upon unwrapping provides a psychological lift. It also creates a deeper sense of connection between the giver and recipient. Giving altruistically – giving without expecting anything in return – has been shown to improve psychological health (1).

Another emotional benefit of gift giving is to reduce guilt. In the advent of globalization and with the convenience of online shopping, we can easily send thoughtful presents to loved ones at a distance. This can make us feel better about our absence as well as strengthen an emotional bond.

We give with the best of intentions, but how can gifting sometimes go so awry? One reason may be that our own preferences influence our gift purchases – we have a tendency to give what we would like to receive. We know how excited we would be if we received that new gadget or beautiful gown and we want others to feel that same enjoyment. However, what makes us happy may not be what pleases the recipient. An example of this disconnect can be seen with gift exchanges between partners. Men tend to go for more practical gifts and are price conscious, whereas women are more inclined to purchase gifts with sentimental value.

As we consider gifting this holiday season, we must remind ourselves that it’s the thought that counts!



(1) Brown, S. L. (2003). An altruistic reanalysis of the social support hypothesis: The health benefits of giving. New Directions For Philanthropic Fundraising, 2003(42), 29-57.