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The Science of Gift Giving: 3 Lessons

How we give reveals more than we may realize.

Source: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

It's that time of year again: The season of giving. With pressure to please relatives and friends, and an onslaught of advertisements presenting us with endless options, how do we decide whom on our lists get what? The saying goes that it's the thought that counts, but research reveals that more goes into our gift-giving decisions than may be readily apparent.

Here are three surprising findings about how we decide what we'll give—and to whom:

1. Gifts reflect the strength of the relationship between the giver and the recipient.

Consider a study of gift giving among 50 graduate students in Norway: The findings revealed that participants invested more in gifts when the degree of relatedness was closer. All of the students in the sample gave gifts to parents, siblings, and children; the majority also gave to their grandparents. But only a third gave to some, but not all, of their genetically-related aunts and uncles, and while 20 percent of students gave to first cousins, none gave to second or third cousins. The finding lends support to kin selection theory, which maintains that blood relatives are more likely to help each other because it increases the chances of passing down genes to future generations. There was, however, an exception: Partners outranked all gift recipients. The authors state that this would be expected, given that the participants were in their prime reproductive years.

2. Firstborn children spend more on gifts to relatives than later-born children.

In the same study, participants who were firstborn children invested more in gifts for relatives than later-born peers. They gave more to parents, brothers (but not sisters), and grandparents than later-borns did. The investigators interpret this finding using work on birth order effects, which posits that firstborns identify more strongly with parents, grandparents, and authority figures. Identification with these figures influences the development of firstborns' personalities, which appears to be reflected in their gift-giving investments as adults.

3. Women spend more on gifts for friends than do men.

Studies show that women invest more in gifts for people in their extended social networks than men. What might explain this result? From an evolutionary perspective, it may be due to migrations from community to community, in which personal networks would have to be reconstructed time and again. Another evolutionary possibility that may account for this gender difference is that over history, social systems may have been more patrilocal—meaning that wives settled with their husband's families. This would have required women to invest more heavily in distantly-related people, which may be reflected in gift giving practices by modern women today.

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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of a forthcoming book on dating, mating, and relationships.

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