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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 29-Jan-09


Thursday 29-January-09

Gifts, guys and gals

Gifts and gift-giving is a significant ritual in many cultures, and has been studied in detail by anthropologists. In practice it is often a tool for social cohesion, for example in ritual gift exchange on special days such as Christmas (where gifts are exchanged at the same time) and birthdays (where exchange is offset in time). By giving and exchanging gifts we demonstrate care for one another and build social capital.

Gift-giving is also a minefield, and the wrong gifts can upset and insult. Spend too little and you may be seen as a miser who does not care, and you may well upset the balance of gift exchange. If you give me a smaller gift than I expected, does that mean you don't care? Does it mean times are tight for you? Should I now spend less on you? Do you have to give personalized gifts to show the effort put into the gesture?

Some interesting research by Elizabeth Dunn and her colleague shows how we judge others based on what they buy us. In particular if they buy us something we like, then we conclude they understand us -- or if they don't know us that well, we conclude they must have similar tastes and hence be worthy of our approval.

Interestingly, Dunn's research showed that between romantic partners men were more judgemental than women, implying that women need to be extra-careful in gift-buying for their men. Why is this? Dunn noted that it was consistent with the tendency of women taking on the role of relationship guardian, and hence being more forgiving and avoiding relationship threats.

I also wondered whether women have lower expectations about men's empathetic abilities and see their poor presents as just another example of male insensitivity (and so do not take the gaffe personally). Maybe men's view of themselves as providers makes them more appreciative of women's gifts. Most likely it's a combination, but whatever it is, it's both interesting and instructive!


Elizabeth W. Dunn, Jeff Huntsinger, Janetta Lun, Stacey Sinclair (2008). The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gifts Influence Relationships. Social Cognition, 26 (4), 469-481

Your comments

Competition destroys civilizations. If human beings knew how to cooperate for the right reasons, wouldn't the earth be a much better place?

-- Arnold K

In my family, when we got sick of receiving the wrong sort of socks or the same "mathoms" each year, we agreed to stop giving presents to anyone over 18 years of age unless actually present on a birthday. (My wife thought of this idea, as well as many other good ones.) This has reduced the irritation of pointless and unwanted gifts considerably.

However, when I tried to extend this concept to some friends from Thailand, I had no success at all. The best compromise I could reach was to exchange modest gifts at Christmas, birthdays and (for those who observed it) Easter, while ignoring many other opportunities (including Valentine's Day, which appears to have gone completely berserk) with great relief. Their method of negotiation was simple and effective: they donated, whether I did or not. I folded. Such is life...

-- Gordon C

Dave replies:
Cultural effects can be surprisingly powerful. I was in a conversation this week where the idea of 'servant leadership' was described as being vigorously opposed in the Indonesian military. With a history that includes being actual servants to others, the notion of being a servant of any kind probably does a good impression of a lead baloon.

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