Weekends spent wandering the malls, hours upon hours spent clicking through websites… the start and end of the holiday season is typically marked by the searching, buying, and ultimately receiving of gifts, gifts, and more gifts… gifts for family members, friends, and of course, romantic partners.

Social obligations aside, where does gift giving fit into the landscape of a romantic relationship, be it sparkling and new or rich with history?

In other words, why do romantic partners give each other gifts? 

Some scholars have argued that reciprocity, or the give-and-take that characterizes exchange theories, lies at the heart of all gift giving (Sherry, 1983). Such a perspective suggests that people are motivated to buy gifts for their significant others because they either anticipate receiving something in return or because they already received something valuable and feel indebted.

Models of economic exchange, which view gifts as bargaining chips, and models of social exchange, which emphasize a gift’s symbolic value, both do a good job explaining some of what we need to know about gift giving in romantic relationships (Belk & Coon, 1993).

How do ideas of economic exchange explain gift giving?
The model of economic exchange, for example, is best illustrated in the early stages of dating. Early on in relationships, men may give gifts in order to create a debt that they would like to see repaid through sexual favors, or at minimum, women generally perceive over-the-top expensive gifts as attempts at such bargaining (Belk & Coon, 1993).

Are you surprised that men, more than women, give gifts as strategic courtship maneuvers?

Relative to women, men more often give gifts to display their wealth, create a good impression, seduce, show affection, and communicate long-term interest. Men often think women have the same gift giving motives as they do (which they don’t), but women seem largely aware that men are a bit more strategic in their gift giving (Saad & Gill, 2003).

Thus the primary challenge for goal-driven men is to be strategic in your gift giving, but not so much so that it is obvious to the gift recipient. It takes great care to walk the line between giving too much (which might scare a potential partner away) and giving too little, which may put the breaks on the relationship momentum.

Is gift-giving better understood as a social exchange?
Rather than bargaining chips, some gifts are valued because they are rich with personal meaning, which lies at the heart of the social exchange theory of gift giving. A hand-made jewelry box, a first-edition copy of a favorite book, a t-shirt from a concert you attended together… all of these gifts might be valued not for their monetary cost, but because they remind a significant other of a shared memory or an inside joke.

Gifts that represent the giver or symbolize the relationship are ripe for communicating commitment, though gifts need not be inherently personal to signal devotion and attachment (Belk & Coon, 1993). In other words, don’t rule out the occasional unexpected shiny necklace or new tech gadget … in the minds of recipients, such gifts often hold their own among sentimental gifts.  

Maybe gift giving is really about unselfish love...
Ultimately, exchange theories fail to fully account for gift giving in romantic relationships.  Indeed, romantic partners, especially long-term partners, tend to reject exchange theories and instead (here’s the Christmas spirit!) report that they give gifts out of unselfish love (Belk & Coon, 1993).

Rather than a calculated or rational decision, this perspective suggests that gift giving is an altruistic expression of adoration or tenderness. It might involve self-sacrifice for the benefit of the recipient or be designed specifically to make the recipient feel special. Recipients tend to take great delight in these kinds of gifts, which focus on the recipient, are an extension of the giver, or are uniquely personal (Durgee & Sego, 2001). Gift givers too gain through the experience of giving a thoughtful gift.  When givers invest carefully thought, effort, and energy into procuring a gift, they tend to feel closer to their romantic partners (Zhang & Epley, 2012). 

All of this suggests that musing thoughtfully about your partner and your relationship is worth your time when trying to solve the gift-giving dilemma. Careful though: don’t prioritize thoughtfulness over a wished-for gift; such attention is misdirected because people tend to appreciate desired gifts more than unrequested, albeit thoughtful, gifts (Gino & Flynn, 2011).

 

References

Belk, R. W., & Coon, G. S. (1993). Gift giving as agapic love: An alternative to the exchange paradigm based on dating experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 393-417.

Durgee, J. F., & Sego, T. (2001). Gift-giving as a metaphor for understanding new products that delight. Advances in Consumer Research, 28, 64-69.

Gino, F., & Flynn, F. J. (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 915-922.

Saad, G., & Gill, T. (2003). An evolutionary psychology perspective on gift giving among young adults. Psychology & Marketing, 20, 765-784.

Sherry Jr, J. F. (1983). Gift giving in anthropological perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10(2), 157-68.

Zhang, Y., & Epley, N. (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When “it's the thought that counts” in gift exchanges. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 667-681. 

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