Gift exchanges are a cultural icon that can be traced back as far as the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. Ancient literature describes a Gilgamesh, a hero, giving gifts to peasants as a display of strength. Roman literature describes gifts given to a king as a symbol of loyalty.
Examples of using material exchange to symbolize emotions can be found in nearly every facet of society. Although the context of these actions is different from culture to culture, the principal of the act remains the same. Giving personalized gifts represent the social glue that make it possible for humans to maintain relationships with each other.
Every parent has once had to remind their children that the Christmas season is about giving, not receiving. But deep down, we can all recall our own childhood where we much preferred to receive gifts than to give them. Gandhi did claim that greed is basic human nature, so wouldn't it make sense if people inherently enjoy receiving gifts? Or is the pleasure of being kind to others able to overpower our desire to consume?
The Psychology of Gift Giving
Giving someone a gift is a way to show compassion, appreciation, and gratitude. Psychologists have identified gift giving as a powerful way to strengthen the emotional bond we have with another person. The psychological benefits of giving do not actually come from the act of handing over property, but from the process of selecting the gift. Identifying the needs of a loved one and selecting a product to address them requires you to mentally identify with them. When you select a gift for somebody, you're essentially protecting them by looking after their needs. The idea that others will look after you the way that you are looking after another satisfies our need for safety, and provides us with a source of pleasure.
Understanding our Need to Receive
Unlike giving gifts, the pleasure we get from receiving gifts does not stem from our basic human needs. For most people, the implication that you are loved is the biggest source of pleasure from receiving gifts. For some individuals, this feeling has strings attached. If they have not reciprocated the gift, the receiver can feel a sense of guilt. Others may feel as if there are conditions attached to the gift, and that they are somehow indebted to the giver. Because the pleasure derived from receiving gifts is a more complicated psychological process, the emotions attached to the event can differ from person to person.
In our capitalist society, we are constantly told how a product or service will improve our life. Instead of promoting the features of a product, we are often told that the product will make us happy. This is a very effective marketing strategy, as many people have a deep seeded need for consumer gratification. When opening a gift, these people experience both the excitement of anticipation and the expectation of future pleasure. Whether or not the gift actually improves our life, the simple expectation that it will make us happy is enough to trigger the reward pathways in our brains. This provides a powerful, but fleeting source of happiness.
Factors in Reciprocal Gift Giving
Many people who give gifts expect to receive one in return. You might be surprised to learn that this is not an act of greed. Although the process of searching for the right gift can be a bonding experience, actually transferring something out of our own possession is an act of submission. Additionally, expressing our feelings for another person can leave us feeling vulnerable and expectant of a reciprocal display of compassion. It's not actually the gift we are looking for, but the gift has been made to symbolize the emotional connection humans inherently desire. This exchange can be made even more complicated when we are able to mentally assign a value to the gift. If one person feels that the gift they received is of less financial value than the one they gave, they can subconsciously take this as an indicator that the other person values their emotional connection less than they do.
The Value of Altruism
Clearly, there are many psychological factors involved with gift giving. Attempting to symbolize our affection for another person with consumable goods can trigger many different reactions in different people. In spite of all these factors, the one thing that remains consistent is the importance of caring for others. Taking time to mentally identify with your family and friends while making a conscious effort to improve their lives triggers an emotional event that leaves us feeling safe, secure and happy.