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When it comes to giving, we’re all familiar with that pleasant expression: ‘It’s the thought that counts’. But is it actually? Recent scientific research has been studying charitable and gift-giving behaviours and surprisingly the findings aren’t necessarily what you would imagine.
Believe it or not, gift-giving is no limited to humans. For example, the male spider will wrap his prey up into silk parcels: distracting his lady into mating. The male kingfisher will continuously catch and present fish to the female kingfisher before mating. Finally, our close relative the chimpanzee give gifts of food to their mates, to increase their chance of mating later in life.
Neurological research suggests we are hard-wired to get pleasure from giving. There are several areas of the brain that are related to reward. For example, the prefrontal cortex is crucial in planning and decision making, moderating social behaviour. The Nucleus Accumbens is activated when people experience pleasure.
A famous study (Moll et al., 2006) saw participants deciding whether to receive money or donate that money to charity. The mesolimbic pathway showed some activity when receiving money for themselves, however when giving money to a charity this activation was much higher.
Outcome: Charitable gift-giving activates certain brain areas.
Many studies have been conducted about what people actually want. Gift givers want something desirable, not necessarily on the wish-list and thought money would be less appreciated than a random gift, whereas gift-receivers want something practical and convenient from a wish-list - or money!
Outcome: Give people what they ask for, and make it practical!
Another study showed that when smaller, cheaper gifts were given alongside the bigger and more expensive gift, the perceived value of the gift increased.
Outcome: Less is more!
Giving gifts makes us happy! It is altruistic and helps maintain and improve relationships with other people.
“Gift giving is a social, cultural and economic experience; a material and social communication exchange that’s instrumental in maintaining social relationships and expressing feelings”. - Mayet & Pine, 2010