Gift Psychology: Gift Giving Gets Complicated Fast

I have stumbled into a deep, deep hole my friends. What I thought was a fun dive into the aspects of gift giving, has turned out to be quite the serious topic. And it’s all tied under the umbrella of “the psychology of gifting”.

Acknowledging the human factors behind gift giving and receiving is a topic unto itself. Giving expresses emotions and defines relationships. There can be different motives and goals, and even hidden agendas that hide behind the gift giving gesture. The receiving end holds its own delicate dance to unravel and contemplate.

Not going to lie, I did feel a little icky after uncovering my research. I’m not totally ignorant here. After all, this website is aptly named “Gift Giving Sucks” – today, I’m going to tell you exactly why it fits.

Mortal kombat, Japanese geisha and Ninja.
The challenge of finding the perfect gift is real!

Gift giving (and receiving) gets complicated fast. This message is not about great gift ideas – it’s about key fundamental considerations that make your gift selection better: the emotional, strategic, signaling, and social aspects. When these are taken into account, than you can solve your gift problem: giving the right gift.

There are two aspects of gift giving: the psychological and the basic 101 gift giving skills, practical side. If you want to become better at gifting, get familiar with both of them.

Table of Contents

Gift Giving Stress: Big Emotions

The stress entailed with gift giving has always been a concern to me. It’s the foremost psychology factor that I believe overshadows all the other ones. When brainstorming for this article, I had no challenge coming up with a long list of stress triggers:

Giving Gifts Stress

  • Will I screw the gift up (gift failure)? Is it not thoughtful enough?
  • Does the gift reflect poorly on me (my gift ability or cleverness, my income level)
  • Will I miscommunicate my intentions (friend vs romantic relationship)?
  • Will I be judged based on the gift (value, choice, hidden meaning)
  • Will the gift be opened in front of other people – will they judge me?
  • Am I committing a cultural faux pas? Am I missing social cues?
  • Am I giving correctly based on etiquette? Does my formal relationship with the recipient dictate that I do not gift to them?
  • Am I matching the right gift to the right occasion?

In truth, gift giving stress plays a large part into why people hate to give gifts.

Woman struggling with the stress if she made the right gift choice.
Struggling with the gift choice.

Receiving Gifts Stress

  • What if I don’t like the gift?
  • Am I worthy enough for the gift?
  • Does this mean that I have to reciprocate?
  • What if I can’t afford to reciprocate?
  • If I accept the gift, will I send the wrong message?
  • Are there “strings” tied to the gift if I accept it, do they want a favor in return, do they want to influence what I do? Is someone trying to bribe or manipulate me, is there a hidden agenda?
  • Will interacting with the person be cause for discomfort (narcissist, ex-spouse or boyfriend, etc.)?
In this episode of the Big Bang Theory, the pressure of gift reciprocity stresses Sheldon out.

Sorry to tell you this, folks. For some of you, your gift will never be enough in the eyes of some people. You can’t please everyone, and it might just be your cue to move out of a relationship (sorry, this doesn’t work with family!).

Obviously, there is a lot riding on the success of giving a good gift. It can mean a good first impression (when a boyfriend meets the girlfriend’s parents for the first time). A thoughtful gift is a nod that you understand the recipient’s likes, needs, and desires. You have been an active listener and observed well. If you can do that, you can secure a gift that is unique and individual to the recipient.

Woman hitting boyfriend over the head with a heart-shaped box on Valentine's Day.
Receiving a gift can be stressful if the recipient feels it isn’t right.

Thank You Brain! The Good Side of Giving and Receiving Gifts

Have you ever heard of the brain releasing happy endorphin chemicals when you do nice things for others? There is also that personal high someone gets when they have given just the right gift for someone. For the crafters and makers out there, don’t tell me you don’t get a high when you whip up a very clever gift basket that receives “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience. That is the high of personal satisfaction at work.

I am definitely in that last category. Giving a gift is a form of expression for me. Even though I make every effort to pick out a gift that is perfect for the recipient, my own creativity creeps in. My tastes and preferences come into play when choosing a gift.

The act of giving, according to the Cleveland Clinic, results in an actual physiological response, all thanks to serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Giving, helping, volunteering all:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increase self esteem
  • Reduce feelings of depression
Happy mother receiving a gift from her daughter.
Gift giving can be all sunshine and daisies if it hits the mark and the recipient loves it (or at least appreciates the effort and thought that went into it!)

Gifts do a wonderful job of triggering joy, to both the giver and receiver. There is anticipation (such as a gift exchange) for both sides: the brain’s reward center sends us all those lovely chemicals that surge through us with feelings of pleasure.

Our mind is at work, again, when we receive an especially memorable gift. The positive emotions linked to it can have us re-living the happy moment we received or gave the gift for years to come. We think positively back on the experience, and the person we shared the gift moment with.

Let us not forget about charitable gift giving. Donating money and giving with a generous spirit can be just as beneficial to the donor as the recipient.

So if you’re confused why someone seems to be a “gift giving fanatic” it might be because they really enjoy the nice feeling gained from giving a gift.

A family sharing a gift opening moment.
A family sharing a gift opening moment.

The Positive Social Impacts of Giving

As we have seen, gift giving is good for us mentally, but socially, too. Not only do we experience a feeling of well-being when giving a gift, it strengthens our relationship with the recipient. Consider a lifetime of exchanges with the special person in your life.

Gift giving can strengthen our bond with each other and deepen our sense of connection by promoting trust. If we’ve done it right, we can successfully let the other person know what our feelings/affections are about them. That success can be deeply fulfilling and satisfying.

Gift Are a Communication Tool

A gift can say, “I care” “I think you’re cool” “sorry for your loss” “I want to get to know you better” “you’re special to me” or just “thank you, it really meant a lot what you did for me”. Gifts can be a tangible symbol of appreciation and help us maintain relationships.

Everyone loves a warm and fuzzy interaction, but gifts can communicate red flags. The type of gift given or lack of a gift can communicate that someone doesn’t care about you, has ulterior motives, the giver is inherently selfish or greedy (or narcissistic in nature).

In contrast, “love bombing” gifts can be a setup for disguising ill-intent (a term associated with narcissists). Listen to your gut when a gift doesn’t feel right.

A woman surprised by a gift rpresented by her friend.
Gifts can say “I love you” or “Can we be more than friends?”

Gift Objectives and Strategies

In the personal world of gift giving, giving a gift is an opportunity to enhance the recipient’s perception of us, raising our image in their eyes.

Just like the personal world of gifting, corporate gifts can be given with the same strategy in mind. In the case of clients or employee gifting, the company wants to create a positive impression. Studies have shown that as humans, we can’t help but feel tickled pink when someone gives us a gift.

Give a gift to a client = strengthen your relationship with them. A gift of gratitude will keep them coming back and have them speaking highly to others regarding your company.

Gifts/rewards can even improve employee morale, boost cooperation and teamwork, and increase job performance. What leader out there wouldn’t see this as a good move?

When done right, giving gifts with an objective can open doors and humanize us with our target audience. Even something simple, such as giving a gift ahead of a first-time meeting, can be the psychological edge that you’re looking for to make a memorable impression.

Professionals with hands in the center of picture, representing teamwork.
Corporate gift giving with the intention of boosting employee moral and fostering teamwork.

Gift Giving and Mental Health

I’ve hinted througout this article of some of the not-so-pleasant sides of gift giving. The other aspects worth mentioning are related issues that can be gifting related.

I’m talking about budget problems, exibiting lack of control while shopping, shopping addiction, overspending and overshopping stemming from other root issues, and feelings of fear and anxiety in shopping and in the culture of gift giving.

From the receiver’s end, they have the mental stress of accepting gifts that they don’t want. Families quarrel over gift exchanges that are out of control, and look for ways to stop the gift giving.

The Gift Wrap Up

I can push products in front of you all day long, but I don’t want to do that. I want to promote mindful purchases that do what gifts are supposed to do: communicate the recipient is important to them.

I’m here to help smooth out the gift journey coming from a place of empathy and love. Hope to see you there!


Renee Cavvy
Renee Cavvy

Renee brings over 30 years of gift giving experience to holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, workplace and faith events. Every life moment is cause for celebration or those times in life when we need the "the gift of support". Her mission: Let's all be better in appreciating one another, put an end to meaningless gifts that clutter our lives, and give from a place of love and kindness. This midwest mom (and grandma) offers novel and creative ideas to do gift giving better!