Is there such a thing as a selfless gift?



A very common belief regarding the exchange of gifts is that the gift giver often feels happier than the gift recipient. This principle underlines the selfless idea that it is better to give than to receive. From a psychological standpoint, altruistic acts towards others, with no expectations for something in return, results in an emotional lift that is perceived to have extrinsic benefits. According to Dr. Darlene Silvernail, psychology instructor at South University- West Palm Beach, the satisfaction obtained from observing the expression on a person’s face due to a gift that you’ve given to them far outweighs the satisfaction of the recipient of the gift. However, is gift giving truly an altruistic act? Or does it complicate social relationships between the giver and the recipient?

Devin A. Byrd, PH.D. associates professor in Behavioral Sciences at South University- Savannah, sees two possibilities behind the social interactions of gift giving. Byrd admits that a small portion of gift givers are truly giving without the expectation of something in return, known as generalized reciprocity in anthropological terms. However, the vast majority of gift givers have an alternative motive behind their presents, and expect something in return known as balanced reciprocity. It is believed that gift giving is a way for the giver to reduce guilt, and often implies a reciprocated act of kindness from the recipient. Byrd believes that we have, “an innate desire to receive when we give. No matter the gift, people want to receive.” From an anthropological perspective, regardless of if we have selfless intentions, our actions can create complex social functions that we may not have been intended. This ties in with the idea of rational choice theory, which suggests that people tend to behave in a manner that will maximize their own self-interest.  Gift giving applies this idea and can be used to better your own social status. In other words, the more you give, the better you look. Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern argues that our individual cultures lead to our motivation for gift giving, and that based on our society determines our expected outcome from giving a gift. Does this imply that where we come free determines our stance on reciprocity? What happens if a gift is so good that it cannot be repaid? All of these complications behind a gift beg the question, is there truly such a thing as a selfless gift? Or do we consciously or subconsciously expect something more from gift giving even if we “believe” we are being altruistic?

3 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as a selfless gift?”

  1. I think the idea of a selfless gift is complicated, but I had initially thought it was possible. But the point you made about the giver being happier than the receiver made me realize that there really is not a true selfless gift. I am a victim of this myself and had initially defended myself saying that the care package I was sending to my friend was completely selfless. I put together a fun little package with a lot of silly things and felt great about it, it made me happy to know I was doing something for her. But that is what makes the gift selfish. Even if it is in the smallest way, I still gained satisfaction, maybe even more than she did, just from knowing I was doing something good for someone else.


  2. I agree with what both this blogpost and Monica are saying in that there isn’t really such a thing as a selfless gift, but I honestly don’t see a problem with this. Yes, it may kind of put a damper on the idea of gift giving and other charity work because there’s the thought in the back of your mind saying that you’re not really being selfless, but who really cares? In giving gifts and doing other charity work you’re doing something nice, it makes others feel good. Volunteering is great for the community, and giving people gifts puts smiles on their faces. Even if it’s not one hundred percent selfless, it’s still an awesome thing. Getting joy out of it yourself is only a bonus, so I say, people shouldn’t worry about being a little selfish when giving gifts!


  3. I come from a culture that relies heavily on gift exchange and communal volunteering work. The concept of gift giving was and still is so embedded in the community to the extent that it is not seen as something you give to someone, rather as something you do to yourself. It is not an obligation, it is a common courtesy. One of the sayings that refer to the gift giving is ‘you give what you love and when you do something for others you are doing it for yourself’ (Loosely translated from my mother tongue). I know it still sounds selfish as it is not stripped of the idea of doing good for oneself. However, when an act, like gift-giving stops being self-centered and becomes more for the good of a community, it starts being selfless. It is difficult to express if you really do not experience it. It is not like you know, you go visit a friend and it is kinda socially agreed upon that you’d bring a bottle of wine. It is not either because the giver would be more fulfilled than the reciever because there are some people back home who would spend hours and hours ploughing for their neighbors. It is really energy draining and does not bring anything to volunteer in itself but it is good thing and valued as it more than often brings the community together. Maybe it is just another type of selfishness, shifting from an individual to a whole community.
    There are valid points made in previous comments and I think it is hardly possible to give without expecting anything in return (appreciation, a smile, or another gift in return), and also I think at some point it does not really matter after all the point is the intention of doing good for someone else. I don’t know but part of me still wants to believe that we can still do some good even if it does not benefit us.


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