A World of Possibilities: How Technology Has Changed the Psychology Behind Gift Giving

A World of Possibilities: How Technology Has Changed the Psychology Behind Gift Giving

A world map of possibilities
Online shopping has given us a new world of gifts, instead of the same Celtic Cross ornament I once bought my mom two years in a row. | Image courtesy Etsy seller SunnyRainFactory

The other day, sitting at my desk at work, I got a whiff of something in the air—maybe it was a dish someone heated in the microwave that had a distinct food court air, or a hint of the outdoor chill lingering in someone’s jacket, or it was just the early-dimming light of a late December afternoon—but I was transported back into a memory.

There I was, wandering around a childhood mall the first year I could drive, trying to find Christmas gifts for my family. This scene repeated itself probably 3 or 4 years in a row: banging around a run-down suburban mall, knowing I’d end up at the bookstore or the Irish tchotchke place, but hoping that I would inadvertently stumble across something with real meaning.

Anyone raised pre-internet likely has a similar gift-giving coming of age story from their teenage years, but recent technological advances have changed many aspects of our lives, including gifting. Possibilities have opened up, and we’ve adjusted our expectations of ourselves and others. As we adapt to this new reality, it’s important to look at the psychology behind how we give, and how it’s being impacted by the Tech Age.

A Change in Possibilities—and Expectations

For a long time, most of history really, two things have happened when someone gave you a Christmas list. It was either physically accessible or it wasn’t, with accessibility very slowly improving over time.

Let’s say you lived in a small town in 1885, for instance, and your daughter wanted a new doll, or a stick with a hoop, or something else old-timey for Christmas. You were left hoping the corner store had it, or you’d be getting her whatever it was they did have in stock for the holiday. It was disappointing, but the reality.

sears roebuck catalog
19th century gifting inspiration | Image courtesy Amazon seller Skyhorse Publishing

Now, say this happens a few years later in 1893. The new Sears-Roebuck catalog, which had just started printing in 1888, arrives at your door. This year it features more than just jewelry, everything from baby carriages and guns to clothes and a whole lot of stuff you never even knew you needed. There were also some toys, including a doll. And, just like that, you weren’t beholden to the local store—you now lived in the massively expanded world of the mail-order catalog. You and your family had higher expectations for gifts, although still tempered by a limited availability.

Fast forward to today and there are suddenly no limitations, except the laws of physics and the astonishing speed of international shipping. You want a doll? What doll in the world do you want? Where do you want it from? And when do you want it? Nearly anything can arrive at your door in a matter of weeks after a search that takes just a matter of minutes.

This is incredibly exciting for gift giving, which now isn’t met with the same sort of dread of letting someone down, or of not getting the right thing, or of guessing. Because not only can you find exactly what your recipient wants, but there doesn’t have to be any vagueness. You can even publicize your wish list online for all to see!

For the gift-giver, of course, this imputes a certain responsibility—you don’t have an excuse to just run to the mall and pick up whatever is available. You also shouldn’t improvise as much, because there is even less a reason to make the gift about yourself. You have a golden opportunity to get someone exactly what they want.

The Downside to Knowing Everything

handmade doll
The doll of any little girl’s dreams | Image courtesy Etsy seller piggyhatespanda

Now, to be sure, there are people who think this alters gift-giving etiquette a bit too much, that the gift-giver just becomes a vessel for wish-fulfillment or a living, breathing Amazon gift card (i.e. person enters what they want, and it appears without spending any money). Where, you might ask, is the surprise? The shock? That squeal of good fortune?

And I think there’s some validity to that argument. After all, there’s a certain anticipatory glow when someone is opening your gift, and you’re wondering if they’re going to like it or not. There’s also the joy that comes when you realize you’ve “nailed it,” and showed someone exactly how much you care about them—and know them. That’s always rewarding.

But then again, isn’t the point the happiness of the recipient? And they will be happy when they open something that sparked their interest enough to add it to a wish list. They won’t be disappointed. You don’t have to worry or panic anymore. You’ll be the person who got them something with meaning, and you did it by doing the most important thing you can during the gift-giving season: listening. That matters. That shows love.

The Ability to Buy for Anyone Around the World

And that love that you show can now be spread around the world. Our ability to communicate has changed dramatically over the last generation, and even more so this century alone since the introduction of smartphones and the rise of app-based ecosystems. I mean, you’re now able to hold real gatherings, helped by video conferencing, with friends and family a world away!

Elfster app
Appy Christmas! | Elfster app image from itunes.com

Technology, like gift giving and wish list apps, now allow us to create a circle of friends around the country, or even the world. You can easily organize gift exchanges, virtually fulfilling wish lists and opening presents despite the fact you can’t physically be in the same room, everyone sipping their preferred eggnog.

It’s hard to overstate what that means. As life drifts on, we also drift. Friends and family drift apart. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology, which in some ways has made us more atomized and pushed us deeper into our own intellectual bubbles, can also do the opposite. It can bring us together, and remind us of who we are, who we love.

We give because we love someone and want them to be happy. We’re now able to ensure that happiness, that their smile is just about them, and not our relief that the thing we found is in the ballpark of their desires. Instead, thanks to technology, it’s exactly what they want. And, importantly, they got it not by pushing a button, but because someone cared enough to gift it to them.

That’s what giving is all about. And now we can gift more freely, without panic, without fear, without the limitations of prairie-store toy aisles, without the store-peeking desperation of teenage procrastination, but with love, friendship, and kindness. There is a purity of our motivations now, made possible by technology, but an essential reality in our hearts.

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 for anyone on your list.

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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