Far from being selfless gestures, giving gifts creates a personal debt

Not such a selfless gesture.
Not such a selfless gesture.
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It would be nice to believe that gifts are genuine tokens of affection, given without any expectation of recompense. (Indeed, Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “gift” as something “voluntarily transferred” and “without compensation.”) But if you’ve ever had the niggling sense that something other than selflessness drives the presents you dutifully exchange with friends and family, then sociology has your back.

Day 16 of Quartz’s 25 Days of Exchange
Image: Jordan Coelho for Quartz

Dimitri Mortelmans, sociology professor at Antwerp University in Belgium, explains that there is far more to gifting than meets the eye. “Gift-giving is one of the ancient early topics in sociology,” he says. “There’s a whole world behind gift-giving that goes very close to the basics of living together.” Gift giving, after all, is a physical symbol of a personal relationship and an expression of social ties that bring individuals together.

Far from being voluntary, the 20th century French sociologist Marcel Mauss argues that presents are tied up with strict obligations. “To refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality,” he wrote in his 1925 essay “The Gift.” A present is a token of a relationship and a wish to continue that relationship and so, in rejecting a gift, the offer of extended friendship is also rebuffed.

Mortelmans explains that we only give presents to those we wish to have a relationship with (not simply romantic relationships, but any kind). A gift is then symbolic of the perceived value of that relationship and, to prevent any strain or awkwardness, gifts must be repaid in some way. This means that giving a gift inevitably creates debt. “There’s a debt-balance that people keep, silently, with each other, within their relationships,” he adds.

Each person must repay the gift in a roughly equal way; to give too little shows that you undervalue the relationship, but to give too much can cause embarrassment. “If you give an extraordinarily expensive gift, you also create an extraordinary imbalance. In the long term, something will go wrong with that relationship,” says Mortelmans.

This gift exchange can be summarized by the Latin phrase: Do Ut des: “I give because I expect you to give something back.”

We see such attitudes among families and friends, where each person gives out presents worth roughly the same price. This behavior is particularly obvious in the more pressured stakes of a new romantic relationship, where buying an overly lavish present (or a particularly stingy one) could send the wrong signal and cause upset.

American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that gift-giving reciprocity is determined by “distributive justice” in his 1967 essay, “The Social Psychology of the Gift.” He explains that “a gift giver will experience discomfort if reciprocity fails to occur,” but will be equally discomforted if they’re given perfect reciprocity—for example, if you give someone a gift and they insist on repaying you the exact cost of the present in cash. And so every gift affects the balance of relationship debt, without ever canceling it out.

“[The balance of debt] must never be brought into equilibrium, for a perfect level of distributive justice is typical of the economic rather than the social exchange relationship,” wrote Schwartz. “The continuing balance of debt—now in favor of one member, now in favor of the other—insures that the relationship between the two continue, for gratitude will always constitute a part of the bond linking them.”

Marcel Fournier, sociology professor at Montreal University, says that Mauss’ work serves as the foundation for sociological work on gifts, and his ideas are still widely believed today. However, some theorists dispute smaller points, like whether or not debt from gifts is the same within the family as outside. Two French writers argue that (link in French), within the family, there is no debt creation from gift-giving. Others believe that while a parent’s gift to a child doesn’t create a debt, it can be a different form of control. “The gift becomes something to steer the behavior of the child. If a child is bad in geography, then you could give a land map,” says Mortelmans.

A gift doesn’t necessarily have to be exchanged for another gift. “You don’t need to repay the things given to you in a material way. You can also be nice or perform some other kind of behavior,” says Mortelmans. So for example, someone who can’t afford to buy a gift in return might be especially affectionate or helpful.

Altruism, where people give charitably with no expectation of return, is an entirely different category of giving. But when it comes to exchanging presents with friends, Mortelmans says that act of giving inevitably creates a debt. “This is also the principle of bribery,” he adds. “Why do people get bribes? Because they receive something and they cannot give back so they need to compensate with other services being corrupt.”

Gift giving may not share the same negative intentions as bribery but, ultimately, both acts are equally selfish.