Gift giving relationship psychology and its importance

The psychological factors impacting gift giving

Let’s take a step back. Why do we go through all the trouble to give presents? Why the bother? What’s the psychological mechanism underpinning this age-old tradition?

  • Social bonding. Charles Darwin, whose natural selection theory suggested that each individual is only interested in its own survival, would have struggled to explain why we as humans are interested in giving gifts to other people. But we’re a highly cooperative species. The principle of reciprocal altruism may explain a lot of the positive relationships we have with other people. As John Cacioppo wrote: “The more extensive the reciprocal altruism born of social connection, the greater the advance toward health, wealth, and happiness.” In other words—you scratch my back, I scratch yours. But altruism doesn’t need to be reciprocal. The positive psychological feelings we get from making someone happy are often enough to justify the effort.
  • Cultural beliefs. Of course, we give gifts because we feel traditionally obliged to do so. Gifting goes way back to ancient cultures, whether Persian, Greek, or Roman. During the Roman empire, people would present each other with good luck tokens. You also have personal gifts of betrothals given as dowries. And, of course, holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Again, we are social animals. Most of us don’t want to be the only one not pertaining in a collective cultural tradition. So we don’t think about it, and just go with the flow.
  • Long-term satisfaction. Have you ever given a gift to someone only to see them abandon it the next week? Giving someone a gift works best when you consider the long-term appreciation the recipient will experience. As Peter Bregman said, “This isn’t a performance review.” Giving someone a gift is not about how you feel about them and how you want them to feel right now. It’s about how you feel about them and how you want them to feel in general. Studies found that gifts that consider happiness overtime work better. Consider gifting someone a dozen red roses versus a potted rose plant with buds about to open. Which one will produce more long-term satisfaction? Yes, the gift that keeps on giving.

“When givers give gifts, they’re trying to optimise on the moment they give the gift and see the smile on the recipient’s face right in that moment. But what recipients care about is how much value they’re going to derive from that over a longer time period.” — Jeff Galak, Associate Professor, Carnegie Mellon School.


Tracking Spending

Since I identified the underlying cause of my stagnating savings account, I could go about fixing it. I started tracking the dollars that left my bank account each month and realized just how much was going to small gifts. Paying for gas for my girlfriend’s SUV was an incredibly friendly gesture, but it hurt in the long run. This isn’t to say I needed to stop with my generosity, but tracking my spending allowed me to create a column just for gift giving. It stopped being a mindless act and more a conscious decision, which in turn provided me with more joy in the activity. This way, I was giving something from my daily life to be generous toward others, which to me, seems a much truer definition of generosity.

2. Pick a gift that brings longer-term satisfaction rather than initial enthusiasm

Have you ever given a toy to your child only to see him abandon it on the same day? It could be that you were so focused on anticipating his excitement at opening the present that you neglected the importance of finding a gift that brings more happiness over time. 

In a series of experiments, researchers looked at how anticipating someone’s response to a gift determined gift choices in different circumstances. In all cases, givers tended to choose gifts based on whether or not they thought the gifts would wow recipients, rather than thinking about happiness over time.

For example, in one experiment, male participants chose a flashier Valentine’s Day gift, like a dozen red roses, over one more satisfying, like a potted rose plant with buds about to open—despite recipients’ preferences, which were often more mixed. Why would that be? According to the researchers, givers seemed to be interested in eliciting surprise or joy from receivers, perhaps losing touch with the longer-term benefits of a gift—enjoyment over time, not just in the moment.

These findings suggest that when selecting a gift, we should be careful to focus less on creating an emotional splash and more on finding a gift that keeps on giving.

4. It’s good to give experiences

Science has shown that people tend to be happier when they receive gifts involving experiences rather than material ones. But when to give experiences may depend on context.

One study found that when you don’t feel very close to a recipient, you’re more likely to pick a material gift. Doing so helps to relieve anxiety about making a wrong choice, since choosing an experience for someone is more personal and implies more closeness. But, for your intimates, it will likely make you even closer if you choose an experience that is a bit extraordinary.

In a recent study, participants were asked to guess their own reactions to engaging in an extraordinary versus everyday experience to see how it affected their sense of closeness to an acquaintance or close friend. Examples included things like shopping for black (extraordinary!) versus white (ordinary) toilet paper or shopping for amazing light bulbs for a holiday event versus shopping for ordinary light bulbs for a residence. In other words, the “extraordinary” activities weren’t awe-inspiring, just a little unusual.

The researchers found that engaging in the more extraordinary experiences brought more feelings of closeness to participants, probably because these kinds of experiences engaged their attention more.

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Of course, the experiences in this experiment were not gifts. And they were shared experiences, which probably increases intimacy more than an unshared experience. However, these findings fit in well with other studies that have found novelty to be beneficial in committed relationships and may provide a clue for how to make experience gifts more effective.

History of Gift-Giving

Interestingly, the practice of gift-giving is as old as the world can remember and pre-dates civilization.

Even during the primitive cavemen days, presentation of gifts was quite common and a serious event as far as showing love and affection was concerned.


Even For Hindus, Dana is part and parcel of one’s Dharma (religion obligations).

Hinduism also teaches that each person has specific Dharma towards society, family, and the world as a whole.

This can be seen well from the wider context of the wealth one acquires.

You see, it’s traditionally for the overall welfare of the community and not for him/herself.

It therefore follows that Hinduism and closer religions like the previously discussed Buddhism have gifts at their core.

Hindu ceremonies where gifts are given

During this Hinduism worship (performed when shifting to a new house), waters and flowers will be offered to the deity. Guests eat offered meals and give gifts to the host family.

Perhaps the most popular festival, sweets, clothes, and butter are exchanged in plenty between family, close friends, and business partners.

Toys, candy, new clothes, and other children items are popular during kid’s birthday.

This celebrates love between brother and their sisters. Gifts including chocolate baskets, personalized coffee mugs, kitchen appliances, handbags, perfumes, and more may be given.

Expecting mums are given jewelry, traditional Indian dresses (baby saris), and even cash.

This is another popular occasion.

Gifts and food items are again exchanged among buddies and siblings. It’s however more of a fun day and not religious.

Dana is also practiced in Hindu weddings. In one ritual, the father gives the daughter's hand to the groom after asking him (the groom) to swear that he will never, at any one time, abandon his quest for Dharma (morally upright and lawful life), kama (love), and Artha (wealth).

That said, money is the most revered wedding gift. Other acceptable gifts include decorative items, beautiful jewelry, and silver products.

What Hinduism Says about Giving

Various Hindu texts speak of the tenets of gift-giving:

  • A gift should be given without expecting any appreciation or rewards from the recipient.
  • Gifts given reluctantly and/or while expecting some advantage harms both the giver and recipients.
  • Gifts should value the personal feelings of a recipient and should only be given at the right time so you shouldn’t give items that they abhor.

Recent news

Refusing to buy from a registry

Research suggests one of the reasons for buying off-list is that they are close enough to know what gift they need or want and don’t need to use a registry. Another reason is they might feel a sentimental gift or an experience would be better than something more generic. But studies continue to show most people prefer to receive gifts they’ve asked for more often than not.

Intercept the gift at the door

If the grandparent is banking on the “Yay, Grandma’s here!” reaction, consider taking that out of play, suggests Isay. Without being rude, take the item before they have the chance to give it to your kid, and say something like, “You can play with this when Grandma isn’t here.” Direct them to something in the house, like a craft brought home from preschool, to get them interacting. Your kid’s attention will be on the grandparent, rather than the new toy, which will hopefully strengthen their bond and make the grandparent feel more secure.