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?