Why do people give Christmas presents? The answer might shock you

If only Santa knew

Published on 21 December 2018

Why do we give presents? Because we care or because it makes us feel good? As we prepare to celebrate Christmas Dr Helen Driscoll, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, takes a look at the reasons behind gift giving

“At this time of year, many of us are frantically buying Christmas gifts. The more organised of us may even be wrapping them. Christmas in the 21st century is much exploited by business in capitalist economies. A lot of Christmas gift-buying seems to occur as a result of pressure from the consumerist trappings of the society in which we live, and it can lose meaning. However, there are good psychological reasons why we are inclined to give gifts to our partners, family and friends.

Giving gifts to people who are important to us is a signal to them that we care about them and are investing in the relationship. Sometimes gifts do signal a willingness to invest financially, but often gifts have more emotional significance.

Take the significance of a gift in one of the nation’s most beloved Christmas films, Love Actually. Alan Rickman’s character Harry buys an expensive and beautiful necklace for the younger woman he is on the verge of having an affair with. His wife Karen - played by Emma Thompson - finds the necklace and believes it is for her. But the truth becomes apparent when she opens her present and it is a Joni Mitchell CD.

In one of the most emotional scenes in the film, she privately breaks down in tears. When she confronts Harry with what she knows, she asks him what he thinks she should do: “Would you wait around to find out if it's just a necklace, or if it's sex and a necklace, or if, worst of all, it's a necklace and love? Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?”

That poignant scene in Love Actually highlights the significance that gifts can have. Was it just a gift for a colleague with no deep meaning? Did it mean that Harry was showing appreciation for a sexual relationship? Or did it signify love? Gifts can serve all of these purposes and sometimes we have to work out what exactly a gift does signify.

Gifts are often an important part of courtship. There are many examples of this in the animal kingdom. Male penguins often present their preferred female with a pebble. In some species of fly, the male presents the female with a food gift encased in a sack, which she eats while he mates with her. However, in some species of dance fly, the males have evolved to give the females empty sacks – she busies herself opening it and finds a worthless nuptial offering! The male is still able to mate with her whilst she makes this disappointing discovery. 

In humans, typically a lot of significance is attached to the value of gifts given by men to female partners. This is because women typically look for men who are willing and able to invest in them and their offspring. Women have been biologically more constrained in how many children they could have due to pregnancy and lactation. This means that women evolved to invest in the quality of offspring rather than quantity, and therefore they were attracted to long term partners who were willing and able to help with this.

Gifts from men often indicate investment potential. For example, in the early stages of a relationship, men often buy flowers. In a new relationship with a partner he knows little about, a man giving an expensive gift such as jewellery takes a risk in that his new partner may desire him for the gift alone, and then move on. Flowers remove that risk – they have no real value because they wilt and die. But they still enable a man to indicate ability and willingness to invest, especially if they are expensive flowers.  

Later in a relationship, gifts which have more tangible value are often given. Engagement rings are perhaps the best example of this. It has been suggested that men should spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring. In one sense, this seems like puzzling consumer behaviour because engagement rings can cost thousands of pounds, but they are simply pretty ornaments with no obvious purpose. The engagement ring however is tangible evidence that a man is willing and able to invest in his partner, before she makes a commitment to him. Gifts of expensive jewellery at Christmas send similar signals to a partner.

At Christmas we perhaps spend more time and money on gifts for children than anyone else. Our children are our reproductive future and we have evolved to invest in them – time, love and resources – to ensure their wellbeing. Our desire to give gifts to our children at Christmas is a product of this. However, consumerism with clever advertising and marketing plays on and exploits this desire. Parents also feel pressure to compete with other parents, perhaps feeling that if they buy their children less they are bad parents. This can lead to runaway consumerism at Christmas. 

At Christmas we also buy gifts for our friends. Humans are a social species whose success has always depended on forming mutually beneficial social relationships. Friendship is key to this, but like any relationship, friendship requires nurturance. Christmas gifts are one way in which we show our friends what they mean to us. Friendships are not typically based on resource investment however – they are more likely to benefit us in terms of giving time and emotional connection. For a friend, a gift is typically more likely to be appreciated if it shows thought and care. A well thought out gift is an opportunity to show that you really understand a friend and what they like, and to show that you value them.

Gift-giving can be a very effective way to develop and nurture relationships, with friends and family. Although there are evolved reasons why partners and children may desire expensive gifts, this has been exploited in modern consumer societies, leading to runaway consumerism. Expensive gifts can be wonderful and well received, but however much they cost, showing thought and care is the key.”