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The Strange Psychology behind Gift Giving

Contributor: Nina Amelie Lazaro

By now, I hope you’ve all realized that we’re well into the most important season of the year. And no, I’m not talking about exam season...quit worrying about the hybridization of a molecule or the derivative of an equation and turn your attention to a more important puzzle; what will you be gifting your friends and family this year?

Season’s Greetings!

The holiday season is one of the most fundamental periods of the retail economy. According to PwC Canada 2021 Canadian Holiday Outlook report, the 2021 holiday season is set to be a big spender. Canadian consumers are expected to increase their holiday spending by 29% from last year, resulting in a whopping average predicted cost of $1420 per person (“2021 Canadian Holiday Outlook”, n.d.). With this massive price tag, you’d better get ready to open your wallets while simultaneously receiving some incredible gifts.

A Token of Appreciation

But why do we give gifts in the first place? Why is this long-held tradition so important to our culture and seen as an integral part of the holiday season? According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, gift-giving is mainly seen as a form of reciprocity and exchange. Our gifts carry an important “symbolic dimension” and are said to be “expressive statements or movements”. The gifts we give are typically reflective of our relationship to the recipient and can be thought of as “tangible expressions of social relationships” (Sherry, 1983). The various attributes of the gift, such as the price and quality, are used to maintain said relationships and reflect the nature of the relationship as a whole. Additionally, there are deeper insights to consider when it comes to gift-giving, such as the way the gift reflects one’s personal identity and their identity's in relation to the recipient.

One of the main aspects of the psychology of gift-giving is the reciprocity norm. Simply put, the reciprocity norm refers to feelings of obligation to return the favour to someone who has done something for us. In a study by Babin et al. (2007), reciprocity is said to be motivated by the belief that “failing to return the favour of a gift will lead to social sanction and a possibility that the provider will no longer supply future gifts”. Logically, this makes a lot of sense in terms of Christmas and holiday spending. It is usually expected that people provide gifts to their family and close friends during the holiday season and it is dually expected that they also receive gifts in return. So while we buy and receive as a form of showing affection, strengthening our relationships, and displaying our love for others, gift-giving has deep psychological roots in reciprocity that drive these feelings and motivate our intentions as gift-givers.

The best gift of all

Psychology can be used to explain why gift-giving is such a big part of the holiday season, but science can also be used to determine the optimal gifts for your friends and family. Ultimately, gift-giving is merely a reflection of your understanding of a person and the relationship you have with them so here are three tips rooted in research to help you shop for the perfect gift.

Ask and you shall receive.

Oftentimes, gift-givers assume that unexpected gifts are more thoughtful and will be more appreciated by the recipient. They rationalize that by buying an unexpected gift, it shows a greater understanding of the recipient and their relationship with them. However, a review article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examines five different studies and shows that overall, gift recipients tend to favour gifts that they have explicitly requested rather than “surprise gifts” (Gino & Flynn, 2011). So if you’re wondering what to get your friend who seems to have it all, it might be worth asking them for what they want this Christmas.

The gift of… experience?

When you think of the gifts you have bought for friends and family in the past, I can guarantee that most of them are tangible, material gifts. And while you may have had much success with these gifts, this is unfortunately not the optimal gift research suggests. While gifters tend to give material gifts that elicit immediate positive responses and appreciation, studies such as one published in the Journal of Consumer Research show that experiential gifts tend to be favoured by gift recipients over material gifts (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). Experiential gifts have been shown to be better at strengthening the relationship between the giver and recipient while providing the recipient with a real-life experience that ultimately results in greater happiness. Thus, ensure you don’t underestimate the effectiveness of experiential gifts this holiday season and consider this a nice change from material gifts.

Money can’t buy happiness.

Recall the predicted findings for the 2021 holiday season which state that Canadians are expected to spend $1420 this year. It seems to be an unspoken rule that more expensive gifts are more desirable and thoughtful. Oftentimes, gift-givers equate the quality of their gift with the price they pay and while this may sometimes be true, the generalization is not entirely accurate. According to a review article by Flynn & Adams (2009) examining three different studies, recipients report no association between the price of gifts and appreciation. While expensive gifts may be more eye-catching, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will provide the best response from your recipient. The saying “quality over quantity” applies to gift-giving as well, keep that in mind at your next holiday shopping extravaganza this season and you may save a few dollars in your pocket!

Gift giving is an integral part of the culture created around the holiday season.

While altruism and generosity are probably the main reasons for your gift-giving this Christmas, these feelings are driven by deeper psychological and societal standards. By learning and using the science and research around us, we are able to optimize our daily activities such as finding the right present for your stubborn roommate. I hope you find these tips insightful and helpful and happy holidays to you and your gift recipients!


​​Babin, B. J., Gonzalez, C., & Watts, C. (2007). Does Santa Have a Great Job? Gift Shopping Value and Satisfaction. Psychology and Marketing, 24(10), 895–917.

Chan, C., & Mogilner, C. (2017). Experiential gifts foster stronger social relationships than material gifts. Journal of Consumer Research, 43(6), 913–931.

Flynn, F. J., & Adams, G. S. (2009). Money can’t buy love: Asymmetric beliefs about gift price and feelings of appreciation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 404–409.

Gino, F., & Flynn, F. J. (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in Gift Exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(5), 915–922.

PricewaterhouseCoopers. (n.d.). 2021 Canadian Holiday Outlook. PwC. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from canadian-insigts.html.

Sherry, J. F. (1983). Gift Giving in Anthropological Perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10(2), 157–168.

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