The Science Behind Gift-Giving

By Shinelle Black


Have you ever wondered why gift giving feels so good? Giving a gift makes us feel great, it allows us to see a demonstration of our own generosity, and, in theory, gift giving makes us feel better than gift receiving. This year I’ll play the devil’s advocate for a day and let you unwrap my gift to you: the psychological analysis behind gift giving.

A study conducted by Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, demonstrated that spending money on other people’s happiness caused an increase in individual motivation, joy and inspiration. When Norton questioned 632 Americans, he first analyzed their annual income. The subjects were then asked to recall as honestly as possible how they spent their money all year. Next the subjects were asked to write about how they would describe their state of happiness.    

Norton concluded that the men and women who spent more money on items for self-interest felt less mirth than those who spent unchecked amounts on items for others. Norton’s argument supports the theory that giving, a show of human generosity, can improve the condition of our lives.

Generosity, according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, is defined as “willingness to give money and other valuables to others.” The most important word in that definition is the word “willingness.” An article in the Scientific America  (January 2, 2012) evaluates human generosity. The question the economist and rationalist, Dan Arieley, tried to answer was, is human generosity a choice or is a “built in” instinct?

Inspired by the famous O.Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi,” Arieley began his psychological experiment.  The story is about a poor young couple, Della and Jim, who spend their last dime on a gift for each other, but in the end remain happy. The question that stems from that story was, why weren’t they selfish? Is it a matter of choice or is it an inescapable human tendency to consider the gesture of giving?

      Arieley’s group at UC-Santa Barbara authored an experiment in 2011. Below is a part of their conclusion, taken from the Scientific America article:

“In their model, the team managed to isolate an asymmetry that had previously been ignored: in an uncertain world, it is far more costly to incorrectly identify a situation as one-shot when it is in fact repeated than it is to mistake an actual one-shot encounter for a repeated one.”

Simply translated, human generosity is stretched and extended on the basis of the human idea that the “world is small.” An infinite amount of people has walked the earth, but our chances of encountering someone we have met before are quite high. Thus, we are driven to be generous to our peers, fearful of re-encountering them again and being prone to their judgment.

    Take, for example, our unending sympathy and kindness towards spouses and family. It’s almost second nature to protect these people. Gift giving may be that same way, not a choice but a necessity, one that in turn provides a sense of accomplishment. Thus, it makes perfect sense for gift giving at Christmas to be so important, considering the day is designed for family and friends to all come together in a compact space.

The arguments presented above have indeed changed the way I look at gift giving, and will affect the gifts I choose for the people I love. If wrapping a gift is more emotionally satisfying than opening a gift, I’m all for this human necessity. But for a moment, forget the facts of science and consider philosophy. The wonderful Anne Frank, whose beautiful life was cut tragically short, wrote, “simply put, enriching the lives of others makes us all wealthier.”

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