The psychology of Christmas presents

The present giving business is an emotional minefield. And so as you might imagine there’s all sorts of interesting research on the psychological meaning of gifts. But before getting into that, Anthropologists also have a take on the subject and predictably the whole thing is thought to be down to sex. Evolution it is claimed favours those who give generously. Thus in early man someone who gifted food or ‘possessions’ had more reproductive success. And even to this day there are tribes in which extreme gift giving (potlatch) is celebrated. Well it could all be about sex and status (times haven’t changed much, have they?), and it certainly gives a new slant on taking someone out for a meal.

However, back to the psychology: to start, you may feel in a Grinch-like way that you would be happier keeping the money you spend on Christmas presents for yourself. After all buying presents is hard, cold work, and what thanks do you get? Surprisingly in all sorts of ingenious experiments it has been shown that those who give presents are happier than those who spend the money on themselves. Also, perhaps even more surprisingly, people think beforehand that the Grinch is right – personal spending brings greater happiness than spending on others. It doesn’t.

Additionally there’s evidence that men and women react quite differently to receiving ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gifts. The background being that we assume that if someone knows us well they will give us an appropriate gift. If they don’t, it says something about the quality of the relationship. But here’s the thing: men and women seem to have a different way of dealing with a bad (poorly chosen) gift. Women are far more likely to react positively, even if they don’t like it; whereas men tend to say what they think. By the way, men, this is not an excuse for giving poor gifts… cheap, tatty, ill-thought out presents will chip away at any relationship.

Oh, and watch out if you’re thinking of giving money. The problem is that it cannot send a meaningful message about the quality of a relationship, and certainly sends the wrong message about its status. I presume this doesn’t necessarily hold for large wads of cash, but be careful when you distribute the £10 notes, and maybe those book tokens are looking a bit problematic…

Believe me there’s lots of this stuff. The bottom line appears to be that men are more price conscious and practical when it comes to what they give, and also with regard to what they would like to receive, whilst women are far more concerned with emotional meaning. And you know what?  That’s why it’s harder to buy a present for a woman rather than a man. Buy a man an expensive gadget and he’ll be happy, whereas getting it right for a woman is far more complex – meaning and emotional symbolism really are the name of the game.

Finally it’s good to report that there is now scientific proof that Santa Claus does exist, but unfortunately he cannot work any magic on the gifts we buy for each other. That’s down to us.

Want to give your present buying expeditions a psychological make-over? Start here:

Dunn, E.W., Aknin, L.B. & Norton, M.I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.

Dunn, E.W., Huntsinger, J., Lun, J. & Sinclair, S. (2008). The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gifts Influence Relationships. Social Cognition, 26(4), 469-481.

Burgoyne, C.B. & Routh, D.A. (1991). Constraints on the Use of Money as a Gift at Christmas: The Role of Status and Intimacy. Journal of Economic Psychology, 12(1), 47-69.

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One Response to The psychology of Christmas presents

  1. [...] típicas. Y si este año, de una vez por todas, quieres acertar con tus regalos, no dejes de leer The Psychology of Christmas presents, en el blog de Mark Parkinson. También el post de Christian Jarrett en BPS Research Digest del [...]


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