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Show Me the Money: The Psychology of Gift-Giving


Show Me the Money: The Psychology of Gift-Giving

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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning

At this gift-giving time of year, many of us—if we’re honest—will admit that we’re particularly happy to see the kind of slim envelope that suggests we are about to receive a gift card to a favorite store (or just straight-up cash).

According to a 2019 survey by Mint, 61% of Americans want cash or a gift card as a gift. It’s unfortunate, then, that only 19% of Americans want to give cash, with another 21% willing to spring for a cash-lite gift card. Do the math: there is a 21% gap between what Americans want to receive and what we want to give.

The closer you look, the more mysterious this gap looks. In a 2022 survey, Snappy reported that 64% of Americans say they need help with gift-giving, particularly with finding the right gift for recipients. As someone who lies right in that divide—eager to receive, but reluctant to give cash (and no, I’m not among the 8% of Americans who prefer a charitable donation made in my name)—I wondered why we exchange gifts at all? If people know they want cash and they have no confidence in their ability to choose a better alternative for those they love, why don’t we just give cash?

The problem, as sociologists point out, is that gifts are a system of relationship-building that lies beyond the regular capitalistic system of economic exchange. Giving money is awkward because, while a gift is meant to be used and enjoyed (which money can be, par excellence), it is also supposed to indicate caring for another human being. And for most people, “caring” is unfortunately defined by the giver’s ability to choose the perfect gift.

One problem with giving cash is that I worry it may reveal that I have no idea what my sister-in-law of 20 years actually likes. Gifts reveal something about the quality of the giver’s relationship with the recipient, and cash can seem like a clear admission of failure.

Of course, non-cash gifts can also reveal a lack of care. In “Unpacking the Psychology of Gift-Giving”, Kate Murphy tells the story of a woman who received diamond earrings from her boyfriend of three years. The problem? He hadn’t noticed that her ears weren’t pierced.

The status of gifts as exchanges that both create and illustrate relationships is what makes them the focus of attention for anthropologists and sociologists. In their influential book, The World of the Gift (translated by Donald Winkler), Jacques Godbout and Alain Caillé write, “the system of the gift is not first and foremost an economic system, but the social system concerned with personal relations.”

Gifts are awkward on both ends: the choice of a gift reveals something about the giver’s knowledge of the recipient, but what the recipient does with the gift also matters. Godbout and Caillé share an anecdote about a woman who was disgusted to discover, when visiting mutual friends, that her ex-boyfriend had sold a gift she had given him. Similarly, my mother informed me that it was wrong of me discreetly to give away in June the purse my six-year-old had picked out for me at a rummage sale the Christmas before. The recipient’s reaction to the gift evidently also says something about the quality and meaning of a relationship.

Because money is used in the service of symbolism, gifts can send complex meanings. Godbout and Caillé tell the story of a couple who hosted a dinner party. When their guests arrived with an excessively expensive gift, two bottles of excellent wine, the couple speculated that the other couple didn’t intend to reciprocate with a dinner invite. That speculation proved true. Too expensive a gift may indicate a desire to strengthen a relationship—but it may also indicate a guilty conscience on the part of the gift-giver.

When, according to sociologists, is it acceptable to give cash? Cash can be given from someone of a higher status to someone of a lower status, such as a parent or grandparent to a child, but not from a child to a parent or grandparent. A cash gift is a frank admission of economic support, but it’s socially acceptable for older family members to support younger ones. Cash can be given from someone who receives a service, such as a homeowner, to someone who gives that service, such as a trash collector. Here, no closer social relationship is expected, but that doesn’t mean the money is primarily utilitarian. It’s a form of social recognition: the giver acknowledges the value of the service-provider in their life.

Because of the importance of gift-giving in building social connections at a time when Americans feel more isolated than ever, even I might be discomforted by the increasing shift towards cash. Recent research shows that the trend toward giving cash rather than gifts has accelerated in the past three years. In the October 2022 MassMutual Consumer Spending and Saving Index, 61% of Americans said they planned to give cash or gift cards—up from 40% in the Mint survey conducted just three years earlier. And 81% said they want to get cash or gift cards—up from 61% in 2019. These figures show that Americans increasingly want to replace the social bonding of gift-giving with a purely cash nexus.

When writing her introduction to the most famous anthropological work on gifts, The Gift (1925) by Marcel Mauss, Mary Douglas summed up Mauss’ sociological insight on gift-giving: “A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.” Increasingly, American society is willing to embrace that contradiction.

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