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Social Psychology of gift-giving

G ift-sharing has been a part of our civilization for a prolonged period. It helps in preserving social associations along with defining and extending your connections. Bergquist et al. (2001) talk about how gift-giving helps construct openness between the communities and affirms relations between people in a certain way. It fits into our common sense now on how gift-giving helps with creating and maintaining social ties. This is because it is a part of our tradition to give gifts to your loved ones on occasions such as Christmas. Tradition comes into existence from our knowledge of history and how we functioned in the old times, we continue to act in the normative pattern to maintain and preserve our tradition. In his book, ‘The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of gift giving ’ William Waits (1994) talks about how the current culture of Christmas is influenced by the recent history dating back to the late nineteenth century. Even though people tend to attribute the history of celebrating Christmas to further back in the past, the current form of celebrating and gift-giving during Christmas happened with the changes in the economic and social state of America in the nineteenth century. Since then, the celebration of Christmas involved sharing gifts which has now become the new norm. We have socially evolved in so many aspects since the nineteenth century, with changes in our law, relation systems, and the functioning of society due to our natural awareness between wrong and right. However, what is the reason that we still tend to follow the practice of gift-giving? I strongly believe it has to do with the emotions pertaining to receiving and giving a gift.

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Value of giving a gift sphere of influence

There has been a number of studies done to understand the role of human experience in connection with giving gifts. The book ‘Giving Gifts: A Research Anthology’ (1994) presents a lot of research done in relation to gifts by different scholars from a variety of different fields such as anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology, and other various fields. In part 2 of the book, they focus on the aspect of gift-giving behavior and conjunct the principle of personal value. They talk about the suggestions found in the experiment conducted by Sherry (1983) which emphasizes the motive for gift-giving is either altruistic, meaning focusing on the pleasure of the recipient, or agnostic, focusing on the donor’s own satisfaction in the process of gift-giving. They also talk about a study conducted by Wolfinbarger (1990) where he constructs three categories to explain the reason behind giving gifts.

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The three categories were presented as self-interested giving, compliance with social norms, and altruistic giving. Even though most of the research presented within the book with respect to behaviors had mostly to do with a person’s value, one research in particular interested me. Lowes et al (1971) discovered that the most important reasons for gift-giving were: to give pleasure (42%), to obtain pleasure (27%), or because of expectations (15%). The reason I found this study particularly interesting is that it brought the principle of expectation. The majority of the finding was talking about the nature of values and about intrinsic pleasure or extrinsic pleasure.

Gift-giving and social reciprocity

In my opinion, the expectation of receiving gifts has a lot to do especially during a special occasion. For example, most young couples expect some sort of gift when it’s their first wedding anniversary and if one presents a gift, and the other does not, there’s some sort of expectation from the person who gave the gift, and the person who received the gift now finds an obligation to return the gift because of the expectation. The expectation aspect also sets a precedent, what I mean by that is- you get a gift for a person for a special occasion, now when the special occasion rolls by again, there would be an expectation to get it again. Drawing from our example above, let's say none of them forgot to get a gift, both of the individuals got flowers for each other to celebrate their first anniversary, and went out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. Now, when their second anniversary comes around there must be an expectation for something similar from each other, because of the precedent that was set during their first anniversary. This also takes us back to why giving gifts on Christmas hasn’t changed during all these years. It sets a precedent and expectation to get gifts on Christmas day. People believe the expectation aspect takes away the value of the gift, however, in my opinion, it’s just the way the humans function in the society to emphasize their social ties with each other.

Gift-giving and happiness

In their study, Dunn et al (2008) were trying to deviate away from the previous research done to find how the amount of income you make affects happiness. They shifted the focus on how our spending habits influence our emotions (happiness to be precise). In their research, they found out that spending money on others instead of yourself promotes happiness which they called the prosocial spending habits. This aligns with our theory about how gift-giving promotes the reinforcement and strengthening of social connectedness. Aknin et al (2011), went further to investigate based on the previous research to find out what led to greater happiness, spending on weak ties, characterized by “less frequent contact, lower emotional intensity, and limited intimacy” versus spending on strong ties like close families and friends. They hypothesized that spending money on strong ties would generate more happiness than spending on weak ties. The results supported the hypothesis and they found that spending money on strong ties did generate more happiness compared to weak ties.

Social connection and norms

This also brings me back to the theory of this research article, because social connectedness is stronger with the people you meet more often and care about on a greater scale like your family, friends, or significant other. In that sense, spending money on a stranger might give you a sense of happiness in an altruistic nature however spending money on a loved one will be much more. On the other hand, some communities are very close-knit and even in a big community if there is a sense of strong bond, the happiness would be much similar. In the paper, by Qian et al. (2007) they tell us that in Singapore, a country with multiple ethnic diversity, the three largest ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay, and Indians, all give gifts at weddings, the birth of a newborn, and social event such as birthdays. This makes us understand that this might work on the principle of expectation, however, it does not mean that it won’t generate happiness because otherwise, we wouldn’t have been following it. Social connection works on the principle of following norms and in following norms we expect some sense of generosity from us and/or others.

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According to Hu (2021), the process of gift-exchanging in itself helps to maintain informal social networks. This would explain why we engage in the nature of gift-giving. The expectation aspect of gift-giving can also be explained in the same paper done by Hu. He finds that receiving gifts tends to make you feel more socially connected. This means when we engage in the process of gift-giving even with an altruistic motive as Sherry pointed out (1983), there is some part of our brain which is agnostic where we feel happy about the process of giving gifts. The process of gift-giving due to ‘expectation’ as mentioned by Lowes et al (1971) conjuncts with these altruistic and agnostic motives. As we engage in the process of gift-giving, the altruistic motive is combined with the agnostic motive because we will be happy by the reaction the recipient will give us. Now, due to the nature of expectation, they will feel obliged to return a gift to you. This will create a sense of stronger social connectedness between both of you as supported by Hu (2021). The process of gift-giving is a cycle of maintaining and establishing stronger social ties amongst the communities and society.

Suprabh Kesav
Psychology Blogger,
The Shared Secrets Lab,
GiftAFeeling Inc.

Read The Official Research Paper On - The relationship between gift-giving and its influence on social connectedness

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