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The Psychology of Gift Giving

Anne Arundel Community College professor Matt Patton explains why we feel the way we do about presents.

Exchanging gifts is a major part of celebrating the holiday season, but it can also be the source of major stress.

Annapolis Patch spoke with Matt Patton, an Annapolis resident and psychology professor at Anne Arundel Community College, about the social science behind gift giving.

It's the thought that counts

An expensive gadget like an iPad or new cellphone may make a person jump for joy on Christmas morning, but Patton said that high wears off quick.

What was the best gift you gave this holiday season? What made it great? Tell us in comments.

Everyone has an emotional baseline or "set point." While we can feel happier or sadder in the short-term, Patton said most people return to their baseline within a few weeks.

"In that sense, we are very resilient," Patton said. "Things that move that set point are having a socially connected life filled with people you care about."

What makes a gift matter to us psychologically is what it tells us about how the gift giver sees and values our relationship.

For example, Patton said, "If you took a strictly economic view of gift-giving, you wouldn't expect it to matter whether you got something as a gift or won the same thing in a raffle."

A gift that took time and effort tells us that the gift giver cares for us, and that can create lasting positive impacts.

"It can be some simple trinket that's part of an inside joke," Patton said. "It really is, in that sense, the thought that counts."

It doesn't have to be perfect

When a person decides what present to buy, Patton said they generally fall into one of two thought process: satisficing or maximizing.

Satisficers evaluate an array of products and pick one based on whether it meets a few core criteria or an acceptable threshold. In contrast, a maximizers mindset is to get the absolute best thing that's available.

"That type of perfectionism leads to a lot of stress," Patton said. "We gain very little by trying to improve on a good gift. It's such a small difference in terms of the impact."

He pointed out that the ritual of gift giving can actually have more psychological benefit for us than any one specific gift.

"Behaviors that signal trust and reinforce a social bond generally cause the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of well-being," Patton said.

So, don't sweat it.

It's better to give than to receive

It's cliché, but Patton said when we give gifts, people actually improve their own psychological health.

"Gift-giving often benefits the giver more than the receiver," Patton said.

A 2006 study by the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke backs up Patton's claim, according to Science Central.

Jordan Grafman, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section, asked volunteers to play a computer game for cash rewards while he watched their brain activity.

When a player won a prize, his program offered them the option of donating that money to charity. Grafman found that the reward centers of people's brains showed significantly more activity when they donated the money than when they won it.

In the end, Patton said what makes a gift special is the person that gives it, and in the end, that's probably the point of the holiday season.

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