Psychology lecturer Daniel Farrelly investigates the psychological processes involved in gift giving and how it benefits us from an evolutionary perspective.

It’s that time of year when people start getting excited by the prospects of hunting through the shops on the high street, or through endless internet sites, searching for all those perfect gifts for loved ones. Well, some get excited, others amongst us hate it and dread this prospect every Christmas time. So that begs the question, why do we do it?

A black and white image of Charles Darwin

To understand this annual ritual, it’s first important to understand more about us as a species. Humans are a very social species, and our success in living and working with each other has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. As a result, humans benefit far more by cooperating with one another than by only caring about themselves.

This is something that Charles Darwin struggled to explain, as his theory of natural selection suggests that we should only be interested in our own survival (which is why people believe sayings like “survival of the fittest”).

So what has the fact we are a very social and cooperative species have to do with giving presents at Christmas? Well, this is all to do with how we get on so well with each other. In the 1970’s a scientist called Robert Trivers came up with the theory of reciprocal altruism, which can explain how individuals can be more successful helping each other rather than just themselves.

Trivers states that we often incur the cost of helping another individual, because we know that that individual will return the favour to us at a later date when we really need it. As a result, both individuals in the long run will be more successful.

Take, for example, Person A gets a text from Person B to say that their car has broken down and they can’t get into college for an important exam. Person A makes a short detour, which is only a small cost, to pick Person B up and take her to college, which is a huge benefit to them. Now fast forward six months, and now Person A’s car has broken down on the morning of a job interview. Now she texts Person B, who picks her up and takes her to her interview. Now, both Person A and Person B are much better off in the long run to have been in this reciprocal arrangement (i.e. both incurred only minor costs but gratefully received huge benefits) than if they had both not been helpful.

The evolution of man against a bright sky

It is this principle of reciprocal altruism (‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’) that explains lots of the positive relationships we have with friends and others.

Alturism is also something that we continually engage with as part of these relationships, and one small part of that is the giving and receiving of gifts at special occasions like Christmas – it reinforces the reciprocal relationship between individuals that will hopefully continue for the next year, and beyond.

But it’s not just friends that we give gifts to, in fact the main recipients of our gifts are our family members. Again, the origins of our motivation to be nice to our family members is to be found in our evolutionary history. As with all other species on the planet, humans are especially helpful to family members as we share a number of genes with them. This means that if we help them then they are more likely to survive and eventually pass on these genes that we share with them. In other words, we are looking after our own genetic interests by helping relatives, and this is the basis of what William Hamilton called kin selection. 

A close-up of Santa's hands holding a pile of wrapped presents

Based on this, Hamilton came up with a rule which shows that the more closely related we are to another kin member, the more likely we are to help them, as we share more genes with close relatives (e.g. siblings) than we do with more distant relatives (e.g. cousins). This very same principle can be applied to giving gifts at Christmas, and you can see that most often the biggest and best presents you receive are from your relatives, and also from your closest relatives. So, think back to when you were much younger, and you may recall that the biggest, most expensive gifts came from your parents and grandparents, rather than your second cousin Janet.

Well, I actually would agree, the real motivation behind gift-giving is the positivity it creates in us and others, and that is very important to remember. However, it’s important to realise that it is precisely these psychological feelings we have when we share gifts with loved ones that are the result of millions of years of our evolution. In other words, we give gifts because it makes us feel good, but it also makes us more successful in evolutionary terms.

Daniel Farrelly is a Senior Lecturer on the Psychology BSC (Hons) at the University of Worcester which offers Evolution and Human Behaviour as a module option for second year students.

Watch Daniel's talk on this subject