The Psychology of Giving | KCUR

The Psychology of Giving

Dec 19, 2011

Today on Central Standard, we ask - what's the greatest gift you've ever received? What do you like about giving gifts in the first place? Dr. Bruce Liese joins us for a look at the psychology behind giving.

In the movie Citizen Kane, the newspaper magnet Charles Foster Kane lies in a white bed, holding a snow globe. He's dying. In his last breath, as the snow globe crashes to the ground, he utters, "Rosebud."

Now – SPOILER ALERT – viewers learn at the end of the film that Rosebud is no great love, but his favorite sled from his childhood. To Kane, Rosebud was the greatest gift he’d ever received, bringing him more joy than any amount of wealth or power could.  On today’s show, we ask – what’s your rosebud? What’s the greatest gift you’ve ever received? The most disappointing?

A look at some of the research that informed our conversation today.

Gift-giving has been defined by experts as “a ritual offering that is a sign of involvement in and connectedness to another” (Cheal, 1987, p.152). Gift-giving is a centuries-old universal phenomenon. Even ancient animal sacrifice falls into the realm of gift-giving. It was believed that the sacrificed animal would be pleasing to God or “the gods."

Gift-giving is obviously a symbolic gesture, and communicate without language. They may symbolize or reflect:

  • A sense of obligation (experts have argued that this sense drives the gift exchange system)
  • The joy of the gift-giver (who feels effective, generous, useful, and a greater sense of self-esteem)
  • A desire for reciprocity (“I hope you’ll give me a gift of equal value.”)
  • A need to maintain tradition (“What would a birthday or holiday be without gift-giving?”)
  • A selfless wish to make someone else happy (The “ideal” approach to gift-giving)

Gifts may be tangible (physical) or intangible. Tangible gifts may be purchased or homemade, expensive or inexpensive, new or used, serious or playful, etc. Intangible gifts may be experiential, psychological, emotional, social, the gift of time (e.g., skydiving, relaxing, retreating, helicopter flight, fun lessons, concert, massage, surprise party).

The four S’s of giving, according to Clark (2005) are surprise, suspense, sacrifice, and sharing.

The perfect gift meets six criteria:

  1. The gift itself reflects sacrifice by the giver (including the time it takes to find/plan the gift).
  2. The giver is motivated by giving joy to the recipient.
  3. The perfect gift is a luxury.
  4. It is uniquely appropriate to the recipient (and the occasion).
  5. The recipient is surprised by the perfect gift.
  6. The recipient is pleased by the gift.

Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas; the holiday dominates the month of December; approximately 1/6 of all retail sales are related to Christmas; on average American families spend over $800 on Christmas gifts; many people are still in debt six months after Christmas, and five million extra tons of trash are generated between Thanksgiving and New Years.

Kasser and Sheldon (2002) did research on “What Makes for a Merry Christmas?” They explain that activities during Christmas may include:

  • Spending time with family.
  • Participating in religious activities.
  • Maintaining traditions (e.g., decorating).
  • Spending money on others.
  • Receiving gifts from others.
  • Helping others in need.
  • Enjoying sensual aspects (i.e., eating holiday food).

They interviewed 117 people between the ages of 18-80. and found that:

  • More happiness was reported when family and religious experiences were predominant.
  • Less happiness occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated.
  • Engaging in environmentally conscious consumption practices also predicted a happier holiday.
  • The authors concluded that “the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel moresatisfied.”

Men and women differ in their perceptions and behaviors regarding giving. Women are generally the caretakers in American society. They are most likely to be responsible for shopping and gift-giving. They spend more time in the shopping process and buy more gifts. They tend to enjoy giving gifts more than men do. During the Christmas holidays in particular women tend to be in charge of shopping, gift wrapping, cooking, and cleaning. It’s no wonder that one research study (Sinardet & Mortelmans, 2008) found that older men are the happiest adults during the Christmas holiday season.

The giving of a gift reveals a lot about the giver and his or her view of the receiver, the relationship, and the circumstances. I’m reminded here of the Simpson’s cartoon episode when Homer gives Marge a bowling ball for her birthday with the initials “H.S.” engraved on it.

In addition to the findings above there are several other interesting things I found while researching the psychology of giving:

  • Children between three and eight years old are most likely to believe that Santa brought the gifts.
  • Giving to non-profits (e.g., NPR and KCUR) is a function of trust, identification with the beneficiary, and how the impact is communicated back to the giver.
  • Gift cards have become popular over the past decade. Gift cards, rather than gifts, are given for various reasons.
  • Third parties (friends, family, advertisers, media, etc.) are profoundly influential in the giving process.

The more I study gift-giving the more I realize how complex and interesting it is. Perhaps the best advice anyone can give about gift-giving is that it should be done mindfully rather than mechanically (with a dark cloud of obligation overhead). And don’t forget: Your gift will tell the recipient and the world a lot about you.