The not so virtuous side of gift giving

It is the season of giving. And choosing, buying and offering presents is a pleasant and gratifying activity, right? Lovely for both the giver and the received of the present, we are told.

Well, not necessarily.

It can also be a stressful and very unpleasant process, as described in the paper “The Dark Side of the Gift” by John Sherry Jr and colleagues – available here.

The authors of this paper describe gift giving as a periodic test of social ties, where both givers and receivers feel pressured to do the right thing. For the giver, there is the expense and the trouble of sourcing the right present. For the recipient there is the need to respond in a way that matches the intention of the giver, even if getting the ‘wrong gift’ makes the recipient feel misunderstood or wonder how much care was put into choosing the present. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that giving – and receiving! – can actually trigger negative emotions.

Specifically, the authors identify 4 sources of anxiety associated with gifting:

  1. Resentment from being forced to participate in a ritual.
  2. The relationship between the substance for the giver (i.e., the cost and time of identifying and acquiring the right gift) and the sentiment attached to the present by the receiver.
  3. When it is too easy or too difficult to obtain the present.
  4. The threat of disappointment when opening the present, particularly if preceded by high expectations (e.g., lovely wrapping).

So, if you have been feeling less than delighted this festive season, don’t worry. There is nothing wrong with you. It’s just the dark, but very common, side of gifting.

trainersThe researchers also describe what makes the perfect present for both giver and receiver. The perfect present is the one that is low in substance but high in sentiment. One example is the handmade gift from a child to the parents. Another example is something connected to a private joke or some shared experience between the giver and the receiver. And, now, if you excuse me, I am going to unpack my Christmas gift – I don’t know about the substance, but the sentiment was spot on 🙂

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