This is part of a series of articles by MBA students at California College of the Arts dMBA program. Follow along here.
By Gabriela Aschenberger
Why do you buy and give gifts?
There are two types of givers: those who do it as an obligation and those who do it through voluntary motives. Giving a gift is a universal way to show interest, appreciation, and gratitude. It helps strengthen bonds with others.
Think about the moments you bought a gift as an obligation. Holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s, and birthdays are some of them. It’s a mutual obligation that happens between families, friends and couples. What would happen if you didn’t give a gift on Valentine’s day? Your partner would probably think that there was something wrong with the relationship.
When you feel obligated to purchase a gift, the experience becomes negative instead of positive, because it puts freedom in jeopardy, eliciting psychological reactance.
On the other hand, voluntary motives exist, for example, when you pass in front of a store and see something that you know a friend will like, or buy something to cheer up a sick friend.
The purchasing process outcome may vary depending on whether the giver perceives the event as obligatory or voluntary. This may affect the choice of the gift, the price the person is willing to pay and the effort to find it.
Most of the time people give a gift expecting something back. Devin A. Byrd, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at South University-Savannah, says, “I imagine that there is a small subset of us who do give and expect nothing in return. You can tag that with those who give anonymously,” he says. “But, I think there is an innate desire to receive when we give. No matter the gift, people want to receive.”
Holiday and gift-giving
We are used to the habit of buying a gift for loved ones on holidays. But when did it start? Who created this relationship between holidays and gift-giving?
In ancient Roman times, gifts were voluntarily exchanged on the first day of the New Year. However, there was one year that the Roman Emperor Caligula wanted many gifts to open and declared to all that he would be receiving presents on New Year’s Day.
Gift-giving started to become a custom and was hard to change. Church leaders looked for a Christian justification for the practice, and they found it with the three Magic Kings who presented Jesus with gifts, and the idea that he was a gift from God to the world.
Holidays and gift-giving started to become synonymous. Holidays became more and more materialistic by the end of the nineteenth century. This relationship was highly encouraged by merchants who noticed the benefits for their business. For this reason, the real meaning of most of the holidays started to wither away. In fact, a 2005 survey showed that four out of five Americans regard the holidays as too materialistic, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption.
Holidays: The money-making machine
A strong holiday selling season often means the difference between a good and a bad year for a retailer.
The way stores take advantage on holidays doesn’t seem fair. In order to get people buying their products, the stores invest a lot in advertisement to appeal to consumers’ feelings. “Advertisers are very good at creating a culture of giving and being prepared for finding that right gift,” Byrd says. “There is a great expectation and buildup of what it will mean when a person receives it. Advertisers also know about the satisfaction of the deal — something that looks like an expensive gift but the person purchased it for a deal.”
People are more susceptible to shopping in these situations. Most of the time they feel forced or guilty, which makes them an easy target of superb advertisement.
As we see, we can’t deny that gift-giving in our society can be important to maintain relationships between families and friends. However, in regards to holidays, the focus should be on the meaning. It’s not the monetary value of a gift that matters. Something made by you, such as a letter, can have the same or even greater importance than an expensive, and not personal, gift.