‘Tis Better to Give: Reciprocal Altruism and the Psychology of Gift Giving

‘Tis Better to Give: Reciprocal Altruism and the Psychology of Gift Giving

heart in hands
Image courtesy flick’r user Sean McGrath

I used to be terrible at gift giving. I was always prolific in my gifts, sure, but I wasn’t very good at picking them out—I often bought gifts based on what I liked, and what I assumed the recipient should like. “Here!,” I was basically saying, “I loved this book, so you certainly should as well.” And that tends to make for a bad present—not only is it not what the person in question wants, but it puts pressure on them to act like they enjoy it. Your gift becomes a sort of litmus test, even if that’s not your intention.

Because that’s the thing: there’s a psychology to gift giving. There’s a lot of social interplays, expectations, and realities at work behind the scenes. But there’s also a joyful and deeply human reason why we love giving gifts, why giving people something makes us so happy, and why the cliché about how it is better to give than to receive is actually true. In order to really enjoy the entirety of gift giving, though, we have to understand the psychology behind it.

And, it all seems to start with this first lesson: know thyself.

The Concept of Reciprocal Altruism

I’m going to digress here in what seems like a weird tangent. Years ago, I was leaving a girlfriend’s house. It was a cold, midwest morning, so I brushed the snow off her car so she could easily get to work. As I was doing it, I wondered if I was brushing her car off because I was a good guy, or if it was just that I wanted to act like a decent sort of bloke.

custom pendant necklace
Know thyself was the first lesson of the oracles, and, ironically the best way to pick a gift | Image courtesy Etsy seller ExpressioneryPendant

But then I was struck: what’s really the difference? Maybe, just maybe, there isn’t one. I was being selfless (it really was freezing), but for selfish reasons. I wanted her to see me as a gentleman. And yet, regardless, her car was cleaned of the snow. There was a real lesson there—i.e., motivations are complicated.

Indeed, if you look at the theory of reciprocal altruism, popularized by the neuroscientist Stephen Pinker, our inherent generosity is somewhat complicated. The theory is basically that if, in our prehistoric history, you helped someone fight off a lion, at some point they would help you build a fire. It was these mutual chains of dependence, based not on innate selflessness, but on mutual need, that led to our being hardwired for generosity.

A lot of people don’t like this theory. They think it’s too deterministic, too materialistic, and really, just not very romantic. But, just like me heroically brushing some snow off a windshield, it doesn’t really matter what the ultimate motivation is. What matters is that the other person is happy. That’s the real heart of gift giving, and that’s why you have to know yourself.

You have to really think about your motivations. After all, you may ultimately be giving a gift because it makes you feel good to do so, but are you giving a gift to show off how great a gift giver you can be? Or are you doing it to genuinely make the other person feel happy? If it’s the latter, that warm glow you feel for bringing a smile to their face is totally earned.

Mutually-Assured Delight

That’s what I finally managed to do this year. I read, months ago, that the author of a cookbook my wife loved was coming out with a new book. Mimi Thorisson wrote A Kitchen in France, which we had used to make our rustic farmhouse feast. Anyway, Mimi had written a new book, called French Country Cooking. My wife, surprisingly, hadn’t mentioned it, so I assumed she hadn’t heard about it yet.

French Country Cooking | Image courtesy Amazon
French Country Cooking | Image courtesy Amazon

Naturally, I bought the book. Normally I may have bought her some novel I loved, or an album that would show just how deep and interesting and full of good taste I was—because I was making the gift about me. But this was different. This was entirely, 100% about what she wanted, and what would make her happy. And it worked: she let out an audible squeal of glee when she unwrapped it.

Hearing that squeal made me feel good—great even. It’s a feeling I recognized from flickering videos of our early Christmases, when the camera caught one of my parents smiling contentedly as their jittery Irish brood tore nuclear havoc through a flurry of beautiful tissue and wrapping paper. They were happy because we were happy, and their happiness was something genuine and pure. And that’s the right way to give a gift.

The thing is, I think people make two big mistakes when gifting:

  1. They make the gift entirely about themselves, only thinking about the reciprocal part of the altruism; or
  2. They deny themselves the pleasure of giving a gift, making it a miserable exercise in abnegation.

I should say there is no wrong way to give a gift, but both of these do seem wrong to me. When giving a gift, you should recognize and cater to the recipient’s happiness, but be glad that you’ll get enough from it as well.

3 Ways Psychology Affects Your Gifting

There are a few normal human psychological quirks that impact the gifts we give, and how we give them. Recognizing these traits can help you reduce the nervousness that comes with giving.

This is the thin gateway toward mutual happiness | Image courtesy Target
This is the thin gateway toward mutual happiness | Image courtesy Target

1. The fear of looking like there’s something you don’t know: It’s the same reason we sometimes don’t ask, “What do you want for Christmas?” We think it makes us seem like we don’t want to think about ideas on our own—or like we’re unsure of ourselves.

The solution: Ask! Asking someone what they want isn’t a sign that you don’t know them well enough, it’s a sign you love them enough to get them something they truly want. It’s a kindness, not a shortcut.

2. The fear of trying and failing: It’s way easier to imagine you’d be good at something, and not do it, than to do it and fail. So it is with gift giving. If we try to find the perfect gift, and it isn’t, in fact, perfect, we feel deflated, which is why we sometimes deliberately don’t put any thought into a present.

The solution: Try anyway. If you try to give a loved one something that matters, but come up short, that still means a lot more than giving a default, thoughtless gift. The effort actually does matter. Don’t let that “I don’t want to be wrong” voice overpower your “I want to do my best” voice.

3. The need to one-up yourself: Think of a basketball player who is really good at shooting three-pointers. They’ve gotten so good at it that the ability loses value for them, and they begin to think they also need to start trying to dunk more—a skill beyond their reach. We do that to ourselves by thinking that if we gave a great gift last year, we have to give a better one this year—and it has to be something completely different.

The solution: Don’t. Don’t do this to yourself. I’m not saying you should give the same thing every year. But don’t think, “Well, he really liked that subscription I got him to Foreign Policy, but now I have to change gears entirely!” If someone liked something, they liked it. It isn’t about the novelty, it’s about their tastes. Keep that in mind, and you’ll feel great about what you give.

It’s not selfish or inhuman to want to feel good about something you’ve done for someone else. It gets to the heart of gift giving, whether you see it as a tradition dating back to the earliest human stalking around the savannah, or your coworkers playing Secret Santa at the office Christmas party. You’re happy because you made someone else happy. You smile because you created a smile.

And you know what? That means the recipient of the gift gave you one as well. And then, your happiness becomes a secondary gift back to them. It’s mutual, it’s circular, it’s something both parties enjoy, and it’s what ultimately makes us human by reminding us that we’re all in this together—that love, mutual respect, and seeing another person as worthy of a gift, of a smile, of basic kindness, is the only way we can make it through the sometimes dark and lion-filled plains of life. And understanding that is maybe the greatest gift of all.

Let us know how happy gift giving makes you by connecting with us on Facebook, Twitter @Elfster, or Instagram @Elfstergram. And, for carefree gifting inspiration, browse our gift guides.

Brian B

Brian B

Brian thinks that giving someone a gift is just about the most fun you can have, so long as you don't stress out about finding the right one. He likes helping people not stress out during the holidays. Hit him up for ways to make your Christmas more fun.
Brian B
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