Christmas: The Truth Behind Gift-Giving

A key part of Christmas, especially as a child, is giving and receiving gifts. On the surface, this can all seem very lovely and fluffy. But there is a darker side to gift-giving and receiving, one that is pretty Scrooge-like.

There are three main problems with gift-giving: its inefficiency, its uselessness, and its hidden agenda.

The Inefficiency of the Gift

In 1993, Joel Waldfogel wrote a paper titled ‘The Deadweight Loss of Christmas’, as published in The American Economic Review. For it, he conducted two surveys of Yale University students:

1)      How much students would pay for the gifts they receive from family and friends.

2)      How much these gifts actually cost.

He then calculated the difference between the actual price for the gifts and the price that the recipients said they’d be willing to pay. He called the difference between these figures ‘deadweight loss.’ Part of Waldfogel’s conclusion was that friends and family paid an average of $438 for the recipients’ total gifts, but the 86 recipients surveyed were willing to pay only $313. Consequently, $125 went unappreciated by recipients.

This demonstrates that a lot of gift-giving is massively ‘inefficient’, not least underappreciated. So, next time you spend hours and hours looking for the perfect gift for your friend, just remember how much of that effort will go unnoticed!

The Uselessness of the Gift

Go to your wardrobe and find something you’ve never worn. Chances are, that was a gift. Go to your bookshelf and find a book you’ve never read. Chances are, that was a gift. Go to your cupboard and find something you’ve never used. Chances are, that was a gift.

Professor Francesca Gino from Harvard Business School had a similar finding. She found that gift givers overestimate how much their gift will go appreciated. In fact, gift-givers often prefer to give unrequested gifts because they thing the receiver will appreciate the ‘extra thought.’ But, in reality, the recipient just wanted what they had initially asked for, and never actually use the random, ‘extra thought’ gift they were given. Yet the cycle continues, as the same recipients of unwanted gifts then pass them on to other unlucky recipients. I think this is true for most of us – we all have that present cupboard full of previously unwanted gifts!

The Hidden Agenda of the Gift

Marcel Mauss’ ‘An Essay on the Gift: the Form and Reason of Exchange in Archaic Societies’ also sheds light on the truths of gift-giving. Once we receive a gift, we are now obliged to reciprocate. The whole charade of gift-giving involves a three-stage process: give the gift, receive the gift, and reciprocate the gift. Reciprocation is the most important part, which demonstrates the hidden agenda of the gift-giver.

Have you ever heard of the phrase, ‘as cold as charity?’ Well, this phrase has some truth if we consider Marcel Mauss’ perspective! Those who receive charity cannot immediately reciprocate. As a result, they are in a sort of social debt – obviously not a very nice feeling. Gift-giving does not seem as selfless, after all.

There’s another hidden agenda, also highlighted by Marcel Mauss. For the Maori, gift-giving provides prestige to the giver. Again, we get the sense of an imbalance in the social scales.

So, as you’re buying your gifts in preparation for Christmas, consider the darker truths behind these seemingly kind acts. Not all gifts are what they seem to be.

Please Note: These points do not express my own views about gift-giving, and do not completely reflect the views of the above academics, whose arguments I have used only in part.


Gino, Francesca and Francis Flynn (2011) Give Them What they Want: The Benefits of Explicitness in Gift Exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 915-922.

Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. (New York: W.W. Norton. 1990

Waldfogel, Joel. “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” The American Economic Review, vol. 83, no. 5, 1993, pp. 1328–1336. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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