Psychology of Gift Giving : Why Do We Do It?

Reasons Why We Give Gifts

We’re not exactly sure who originally coined the phrase, “it is better to give than receive,” as it’s found in various forms written in cuneiform in the ancient world, dating well before our civilization.  Modern historians believe it developed in the Orient where it still continues today.  But in the Occident, or Western way – why do we do it?  Major studies have undergone reasons being positive psychologically, and it’s not limited to birthdays or anniversaries.  In fact, psychiatric therapists’ often attribute gift giving into a positive emotional experience for the person who gives. 

We know that we experience a sense of enjoyment when we see someone enjoying a gift.   Our motivations are often to be selfless, and a thank you or acknowledge of a gift naturally releases dopamine in the brain, making us content and happy.  Knowing this, and knowing that we give gifts by tradition on family centered occasions, holidays, weddings and our own cultural traditions, is there a time when we shouldn’t give gifts?

Ethics of Gift Giving in the Business Setting

One of the struggles of human nature is acknowledgement to another person or group of persons.  In many cases, it’s usually acceptable – to send a gift to a co-worker for thanking them for helping you on a project is a good illustration.  It’s also acceptable and even encouraged to do so on a co-worker, boss or employee’s birthday or a celebrated holiday; Administrative Professionals day & Boss’s Day for example. 

But there are times when it can be considered harassment and can be used against you in a court of law, even when maybe that’s not your intention.  Additionally, certain positions are at greater risk of legal exposure for taking gifts in the Occidental (Western) world.  For instance, debates are ongoing in the US and Western nations whether it’s okay for a physician to receive a gift from a patient, and in some professions, accepting gifts can also be considered bribery.

While there isn’t a standard, it’s largely incumbent upon the recipient to acknowledge and return your gift if they are not allowed to professionally accept it, such as the case of a public official.  The same standard holds true generally of harassment; if you hear “no,” or the recipient declines your gift, acknowledge them and don’t try to send a different gift or otherwise work around the situation. 

If you are thinking of sending flowers and you aren’t sure if the situation is called for, ask your local florist!  They have encountered nearly every situation, who continue to study the ethics and will know the local laws and customs well.  Birthday flower arrangements for any co-worker are almost always ok, unless you’ve heard from your Human Resources department or your supervisor that they are not. 

Gifts are Enjoyed More When It’s Not a Holiday

For the western world, the essence of a good gift is at heart it’s intention.  In other words, why did you give the gift?  If it is a cultural ritual or celebration, such as Christmas to Christian families, experts say that the gifts received aren’t enjoyed nearly as much as when they are given on other occasions.  But that’s good news!  Sending a simple and appropriate thank you gift like great seats at a basketball game, congratulations flowers for a new born baby, or even a simple postcard saying “I’m thinking of you” will certainly brighten up their day and be well enjoyed. 

The trend of gift cards prove this; since it’s truly the thought that counts, gift cards are reportedly least enjoyed gift.  If you are thinking a gift card for convenience, perhaps think a little more creatively.  Sometimes the hardest people to buy for are the easiest.  Here’s a scenario: your elderly mom may never like a new sweater or a fresh candle, and she’ll have no use for the gift card unless she makes an effort to use it.  But if she buys groceries – and everyone nearly does. So buy her something that she could use that’s a step-above the normal product that she’d buy for herself. 

For example, if she’s used to buying herself store-brand coffee, pick up a bag of coffee from your favorite coffee shop instead.  Or, since she’s likely to always buy soap – take a look on for a handmade equivalent. 

Bottom Line: It Really Is the Thought That Counts…. Or Time.

We give because it makes us feel good, and in many cases, it’s a great acknowledgement to someone in our lives who deserved to be recognized.  The recipient will know how much time you’ve spent into their gift and will acknowledge it (and be thankful for it!)  If you spend the time to think through your gift, it’ll be received warningly so, and your time you spend on the gift in the end is the most endearing to the recipient, not it’s cost.