Giving is ingrained in human culture. When living in stronger collectivist societies, humans often sought to give (and take) in exchange for physical or emotional resources - power, friendship and security. In modern life, gift-giving serves as a demonstration of appreciation, love and respect. On the darker side, gift-giving can also represent and uphold status quo and power.
How we have come to accept gift-giving as mainstream practice allows insight into perhaps one of the most fascinating human behaviours. At the core of gift-giving lies the drive to belong, as it always has. Even though gift-giving has changed throughout time, by tapping deeper into why it remains important, this practice can inform us of what we value today.
Deep down, gift-giving is motivated by the drive to build and strengthen relationships. Driven by altruism, choosing a gift and passing it on triggers dopamine release for both the giver and the receiver. Dopamine interacts strongly with memory centres in the brain, and as a consequence, gift-giving and gift-receiving creates and solidifies personal impressions - good or bad. The formation of human relation is observable through this process. The impact of social processes of acceptance and rejection are very much at play. Gifting has the capacity to breach boundaries between the ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ - the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’, within relationships and communities, as well as to remain within them. This means that giving good gifts is important; hence, choosing a gift drives humans to seek acceptance by employing empathetic thinking.
While the driver of gift-giving may be to preserve or attain social belonging, it can also motivate us to be more empathetic and considerate beings. The capacity to choose with meaning, intention, and care is even more so pronounced by the modern culture of consumerism. What is the value of a commodity gift in today’s fast-moving consumer markets? Advertising and media commodify giving - making gift-giving accessible and easy. On the other hand, certain commodities are more scarce than others, making them difficult to obtain. Perhaps through choosing a more scarce item to gift, one could indicate deeper care or respect, simply through the virtue of going through significant effort to obtain the gift. Consequently, the sheer volume of things on the market allows us to explore intentional and meaningful gift-giving. That could be either by tapping into scarce resources, or by fully diverging from consumables by gifting sentimentally - a handwritten letter, a self-painted picture, or a DIY creation.
What’s unique about modern gift-giving is the multitude of meanings in a gift. The value of the given something reflects unique choices that are founded in the nuances of social relation. Through this process, we not only seek to belong but also experience gratitude, creativity and empathy.