• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

The evolutionary explanation for gift-giving

Exchanging gifts is partly about survival of the species, but it can be a strain.

How did Santa treat you? Ten dollars and a generic Christmas card from an elderly relative? Home-made kombucha or sauerkraut from the hipster adult nieces or nephews? Gardening or kitchen tools from the spouse? Socks or T-shirts from the girlfriend’s parents? The stereotypes – and they’re accurate, to an extent – go on.

According to hardcore evolutionists, we bestow gifts because of “reciprocal altruism” – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, even if it’s an IOU for a future back-scratch. Indeed, the altruism experts have taken all of the fun out of being nice by pointing out that there really isn’t such a thing as a truly altruistic act – we always get something out of kindness to others. But what about anonymous donation, you might ask? We’ll come back to that.

In theory, your family are the people you should be able to count on regardless of whether you give them a gift, but it’s interesting that they’re typically the recipients of the best prezzies and have the highest expectations. In this case, it’s a subtly different adaptive argument: goodies for close relatives don’t just help the receiver, but they also ensure the family is more likely to survive or attract favour from others because of all the resources it boasts.

The reality is we always get something out of giving. It might be argued that, at the deepest and least-conscious level, even an anonymous donation is helping the species survive. That’s really playing the long game, and sounds pretty weak to boot.

But here’s a question: has making an anonymous donation ever left you grumpy? The odds are good that, just as you smile inwardly when your child gets the deck of cards they’ve been obsessing over for months, you feel a glow after your act of generosity. The warm fuzzies are not only the reward but also the reinforcer for future niceness. Sadly, nothing is ever truly selfless.

A much less theorised about or studied side of gift-giving is the how and why of choosing particular gifts for particular people. Granny gives all the grandkids a tenner for two reasons: it’s hard to keep up with what young folk are into these days and money is flexible in its application; and the costs associated with gift identification and procurement outweigh the benefits. Kids are well trained to smile and say “thanks” regardless of whether they wanted $10 or the on-special $9 NERF N-Strike toy gun.

Indeed, the cost of gift-giving mounts up. Sure, there’s the monetary outlay, or the time cost (seven to 30 days, apparently) to brew that kombucha. But there’s also a psychological cost. Who doesn’t agonise over finding just the right gift? This is part of why long-time partners give each other practical, domestically oriented gifts – it’s hard to come up with the perfect surprise year after year.

I’m speculating, because I don’t think anyone’s ever studied this, but some of us find gift-giving particularly torturous, and I wonder if it has something to do with empathy or theory of mind.

Theory of mind is our understanding of what is happening in other people’s heads. If you’re the sort of person who thinks (and worries) a lot about what others are thinking – “Gee, thanks, yet another novelty mug” – then Christmas is a nerve-racking occasion.

The good news, if this is you, is that Christmas comes but once a year. For now, you can go back to counting your tenners and socks. Thanks, Granny.

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.