Why Do We Buy Gifts



Disclaimer: I have a strong sense that may I come across as a bit of a grinch/scrooge in this post or at least a totally ungrateful git at least :). Please let me assure you that I am immensely grateful for any gifts I receive and this is not a rant about getting “rubbish presents” but simply a discussion on the psychology and motives that we have for buying our loved ones gifts!


Have you ever received a Birthday or Christmas present¬†that you don’t you really want? I’m sure you have. The queues at customer services on boxing day attest to this (so I hear anyway :)). It was my birthday last Thursday and it really got me thinking about this because, although I employed my gift system¬†and asked for a¬†few bits and bobs I really “needed”, I was also thinking I would really like to ask everyone not to get me anything this year as none of it was particularly essential. However for one reason or another, the day crept up on me so I didn’t get time to inform everyone, but¬†ultimately I probably¬†just wussied out on doing it. I did however go a fraction of the way by asking for no new clothes and for some second hand books, which threw up some interesting results. I guess it¬†turned out to be a mini experiment on the psychology of buying gifts. But anyway before we see the¬†results of that let’s have a quick look at…


A brief history of gift giving

Giving of gifts is so ingrained into our society because way back in the day, before money was even invented, this is how the economy worked. We know this because in small tribes of people discovered on tiny Pacific islands or in the Amazon rainforest a gift economy still reigns supreme. Joe the fisherman gives Bill the pottery maker some fish one day, this is mentally noted and at some point in the future Bill will make sure the debt is repaid by giving Joe a pot, some vegetables he has grown, or maybe his daughters hand in marriage, a fair swap in anyone’s book :). This worked well in small communities where everyone knows everyone else’s name*, but as soon as populations grew over a few hundred, a different accounting system was needed. Some cultures developed writing to keep track of things, while others such as the Incas¬†used other mnemonics, who used knots tied in small pieces of rope.**

*It was always a surprise to me to see people paying with cash rather than free psychiatry sessions or mail delivery services at¬†The “Cheers” Bar¬†for this very reason.

**I am currently reading Guns, Germs and Steel which is why I’m coming across like I just ate an¬†Encyclopaedia¬†and am vommiting up the contents into this post. There is¬†some really interesting facts in this book though so I would highly recommend!


Why do we give gifts?

The legacy of that early gift economy is a strong one and it remains to this day as we clearly are all still nuts about buying each other gifts. In the modern World, we generally buy gifts on a special occasion to try to make someone feel happy, and more often than not because they have bought, or you know they will buy, a reciprocal gift to give to you at the appropriate time of year. However what if the thing that would make that person happy was something that you did not think would make a good gift, was unconventional for some reason (e.g. second hand), was a donation to charity, or even weirder, you asked them not to buy anything at all not to get a gift? These things are frowned upon and make people feel uncomfortable for several reasons:

  • They are¬†unconventional
  • The may go¬†against “tradition”
  • The people know that you are going to give them something back so they’d feel bad not getting you something or giving you something they think is a poor gift (Only true unless you specifically tell them you are not going to get them something!)
  • They don’t want to feel like a grinch or appear tight
  • They think you are being¬†a grinch (or¬†“a miserable git!”)


Experiment One: Don’t buy me X

I specifically asked for no new clothes this year as I have far too many already and guess what, I got a new shirt. This is not to appear ungrateful, I really did love the shirt (see last point of list above and disclaimer above). But it does beg the question, why did that person buy me that gift going against my specific wishes? Do they really think I don’t know my own mind enough to know what goods and services that I want? We’ve all bought a present that secretly we would have liked ourselves, and I know some people are hard to buy for (I think I may be one of those) but I think this really goes to show how deeply this trait of conforming to both tradition and to main stream society’s views on things go.

Everyone likes clothes therefore TFS must secretly like clothes and is just saying to not buy him any to appear… I don’t know… aloof, stoic… cool even?

I’ll be honest and say I can’t make many conclusions on this line of thinking apart from what I’ve already said: The power of tradition and of consumer culture is strong. Stronger in certain cases than our friends and loved ones specific opinions and wishes it would seem.


Experiment Two: Buying second hand gifts

This gift buying¬†behaviour extends even further when it comes¬†down to buying second hand stuff. Apparently, second hand gifts are no good as gifts (unless they are of that type, antiques, maybe vinyl records, really old books, etc…). This is borne out by my experience with buying gifts myself, as I’ve never bought a Christmas or Birthday gift second hand from memory, although I don’t recall anyone actually asking me specifically for something to be secondhand either. I would like to think that if they did, I would respect their wishes.

As mentioned, I did actually ask specifically for a couple of items second hand (books) and instead I got brand spanking new ones. Similar conclusions can be drawn to experiment one, the mainstream view is that people would not like a secondhand present therefore I did not get one despite my explicit wishes that that was what I wanted. I’m not even sure where this view originally stemmed from but I get the feeling it would have been from advertising campaigns and more subtle messages in the media when new items started to become manufactured in large quantities, at the behest of the companies making such items of course. Consumer culture yet again trumps the views and opinions of the individual.


A losing battle?

Am I “fighting” a losing battle here? Are these notions too strong? Or maybe I just didn’t make my wishes clear enough?

There is a very good chance it is the latter, so at Christmas I am going to try again. As I mentioned at the start of the post the birthday crept up on me and so I was mentally unprepared and had no real strategy on how to approach anything and ended up just taking the easy route and asking for stuff. It’s hard for Christmas to creep up on you, so I will make sure I am more prepared next time, and I eagerly await the results of round 2 of this experiment! It is as much an experiment on my own resolve than on the outcomes of what I ask for because the thought of asking people to buy me nothing fills me with dread. I know that sounds¬†pretty pathetic but I know the reactions people will give me and I don’t want it to result in any arguments and resulting bad blood. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised, who knows! ūüôā


Have you got any experience or tips on “asking for nothing”? ¬†What were the reactions you got and how did you phrase the initial proposal? What about second hand gifts, giving or receiving? Would love¬†to hear some other views and stories as usual! ūüôā