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December 8th, 2020

The psychology of gifting

By Dan Whale (HelloSelf)

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Other Anxiety Disorders
  • Stress
  • Therapy

For many of us the holiday period is going to be a bit different this year, with Covid restrictions preventing us from celebrating as we might like. However, one thing we’re still able to do is give and receive gifts.

Whilst this has always been common at Christmas, gifting is something which transcends all cultures and religions. There is evidence of gifting throughout all human history, and it is even said that our earliest ancestors would give each other unusual rocks or animal teeth as presents.

Clearly it’s an important part of our evolution, but why do we do it? Science has given us several reasons as to why we love giving and receiving gifts.

It helps our survival

Humans are social creatures. Darwin’s adage of ‘survival of the fittest’ is sometimes interpreted to mean that an individualistic approach to life is key to our evolution. However, human survival has been proven to benefit far more from cooperation.

In the 1970s the scientist Robert Trivers explained this through the idea of ‘reciprocal altruism’. If you are on your way to an interview and your car breaks down, you might call a friend. It’s in that friend’s interest to give you a lift, as they may need assistance themselves at some point and they’ll know they can count on you to return the favour. Therefore, ‘gifting’ their time benefits both you and your friend in the long term.

This theory essentially suggests that giving gifts is a way to contribute to our long term safety and success.

Maintaining social bonds

If ad hoc gifts can be seen under the concept of reciprocal altruism, giving gifts at certain occasions such as Christmas are a way of us maintaining certain bonds that benefit us. This goes further than a simple ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ approach. We are acknowledging the contribution that another has made to our success and wellbeing and showing that we want that to continue.

In terms of what we choose to give, it’s not about how much we spend. Studies suggest homemade gifts are often people’s favourites and gifting a favour, experience or activity also goes down well.

Looking out for our family

The main recipients of gifts are our family members. Again, the reasons for this can be found in evolutionary history. Just like all other species, humans are particularly helpful to family members as we share a number of genes with them.

By paying particular attention to the wellbeing of our family, we are assisting our genes in being passed on. This is also why we usually give more or bigger gifts to family members that are closer to us such as siblings and parents, as we are genetically linked closer to them then we are to our cousins, for example. This is referred to as ‘kin selection’.


Psychologist Dr Daniel Farrelly has a slightly more upbeat approach. He states that whilst all the above is true and gifting has its origins in evolutionary survival, the main motivation behind giving gifts is that it makes us, and others, feel good.

The positive feeling you get from giving and receiving gifts is itself a result of evolution, but we shouldn’t think of gifting as just a cold, calculated way to keep us alive for longer and help our genetic code.

Gifting makes us feel good. Really, that’s all the reason we should need.

Help over the holidays

The holiday period is, of course, not an experience of positivity and gifting for all of us. For those with more complex relationships with their family it can be quite a stressful time. Others can struggle with loneliness.

If you or someone you know is concerned about their mental health over Christmas, there are services out there that can help. Mind has compiled this useful list of resources including helplines and emergency responses. There’s no shame in wanting someone to talk to during the festive season and there are thousands of volunteers on hand that would love to help.

If you think you might benefit from therapy, there’s no need to wait until January. Talk to us about how you’re feeling and we’ll connect you to a therapist who is suited to your needs.

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