Gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The original gift givers, the Three Wise Men, probably weren't thinking ideally for a newborn baby.

Perhaps a bib, plenty of onesies and some shiny toys would have been more suitable.

But you can't really blame the biblical men. Gift buying is surprisingly complex and of really deep psychological importance to the relationships and interactions between humans, say academics.


Research shows that often the giver and their feeling of self-worth benefits more from the exchange than the receiver. Even before the age of 2, toddlers exhibit greater happiness when giving treats to others than receiving them themselves, according to research.

Gifts create connections and obligations between the parties and they symbolise what the recipient means to you, says Paul Ballantine, head of school at the University of Canterbury's business school.

That's why a box of chocolates don't always cut it. You are simply fulfilling the expectation of giving a gift but it is generic as opposed to being symbolic, says Ballantine, who has researched many aspects of gifting.

"It says, 'I have not needed to think about it but here is a gift anyway'."

If instead the extra effort you have gone to symbolises that you like, love and truly understand the person, what their interests are or their tastes or desires, cost takes a back seat. It truly is the thought that counts, he says.

Kiwis often don't know how to limit the gift giving in terms of cost or number of goods, says Ballantine. One of the few ways we can do this, is to set a dollar limit.

One of the big issues that arises in the discussion of gift giving is notion of reciprocity, says Ballantine. If you are given a gift worth $100, you often feel the need to give a gift of the same value.

The big risk is that you get the equation wrong. University of Auckland's Professor Ananish Chaudhuri cites an episode of television show The Big Bang Theory.


In the scene, Sheldon is worried about what he should buy Penny and purchases a range of gifts of different value that he will choose from once he has seen what she has bought him.

Penny's gift to him, a serviette that Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy had wiped his face on, turned out to be of far greater value than money could buy. Sheldon is so moved he brings out each of the gifts he has purchased and gives them all to her.

Sometimes the best gifts are often what's called "credence gifts". The value of these gifts shows up only after time, not immediately.

Chaudhuri cites the example of an electric razor he received from his wife as a gift. He had always shaved with a traditional razor and had never considered using an electric one. It was only when he started using the gift that he realised how much it improved his life.

"Credence gifts are gifts whose value you understand once you have started to use it," he says.

Gift-givers sometimes don't gauge appropriateness, says Ballantine. Buying a $1000 gift for a casual friend or colleague would be inappropriate. Or if you are in the early stages of a relationship with someone you may not be wise to buy expensive jewellery or a fancy ring.

Buying something of too little value could also go wrong if one party is left feeling that the gift shows the other person doesn't feel equally close.

An odd gift from a child is appropriate as it is from someone finding their way in life. Photo / 123RF
An odd gift from a child is appropriate as it is from someone finding their way in life. Photo / 123RF

When children give you an odd gift it's different, says Ballantine.

"Because it is from a child who is finding their way in the world it is appropriate."

The tradition of giving gifts is a pagan custom, thought to have started in ancient Rome with gift-giving during the Saturnalia holiday, a festival light leading to the winter solstice in December.

It continued as Christianity became widespread in Rome.

Around the year 336 AD, the date of December 25 appears to have become established as the day of Jesus's birth, and the tradition of gift-giving was tied to the story of the Wise Men giving gifts to baby Jesus.

It can also be traced back to the story of Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver, who slowly became a part of Christmas celebrations.

One of the reasons we can't give up giving and may splurge beyond our means come Christmas and other celebrations is that giving feels good.

"Certain types of gift giving are enjoyable," says Ballantine.

He cites how he always loved buying toys for his children and imagining what they would like.

The flip side of that is feeling that you are obligated to buy for people who are not close a present and reciprocity means that it must be of a certain value.

"It is a painful experience [but] is expected of you."

Photo / 123RF
Photo / 123RF

Some personality types feel the love more when it comes to giving. Altruistic givers are people in our society who get a sheer pleasure out of sharing their good fortune by giving to others, says Pushpa Wood, director of Massey University's financial education and research centre.

"'I am happy to share with others.' That is true giving. You give in a silent, quiet way and don't expect anything in return."

On the opposite end of the personality scale is the person who gives looking for feedback to bolster his or her self-esteem.

"That is feeding my ego," says Wood.

Giving can also bring us down if we feel we have got it wrong, says Ballantine. Givers typically look for signs that they have done something right when giving.

So many Kiwis live such an abundant life compared to previous generations that it makes it near impossible to buy for them.

Charities such as Oxfam have popularised the concept of giving to a family in a struggling country on behalf of someone else. They could be things like goats, hens, clean water or solar lights.

"This can crash and burn," says Ballantine.

"You are assuming the other person is charitably minded and won't take offence because you have imposed a decision on them that they might not agree with."

What if that person wants or expects an actual gift for themselves? Your gift may not line up with their values, says Ballantine. Or they may disagree with the charity you have chosen for them.

The gift of money or vouchers is sometimes viewed with disdain in some quarters.

Photo / 123RF
Photo / 123RF

It can signify a lack of thoughtfulness, says Chaudhuri. Although research suggests that people who are not as close to the recipient might be better off giving money, rather than chancing it with a gift, he adds.

Cash is fungible, meaning it can be used for purposes other than intended.

"If I give my wife cash she may not use it for what I want her to use it for," says Chaudhuri.

"She might buy something for the children."

At least with a gift voucher for a manicure she is likely to use it on herself, he adds. That is providing she doesn't re-gift the voucher, turning it into spendable cash because she hasn't shelled out to buy a gift.

Ballantine argues that vouchers shouldn't have the bad rap they do. "You are giving someone the flexibility to get exactly what they want."

The issue of sustainability is starting to influence giftgivers into giving cash and vouchers, says Ballantine.

It means creating less waste if the giver isn't 100 per cent sure the receiver will use the item given. And it avoids the non-recyclable wrapping paper ending up in landfill.

There are many underlying economic implications of gift giving. Chaudhuri has a particular academic interest in the "deadweight loss" of giving. The theory is that the economic loss of the person buying the gift is greater than the economic gain of the receiver.

Giving makes us feel good. Photo / 123RF
Giving makes us feel good. Photo / 123RF

An experiment involved asking recipients to value the gift they had received. The researchers found that a gift that cost $400 may have only been valued at $300 by the recipient, representing an economic loss.

Joel Waldfogel, the father of the deadweight loss theory asks in his book Scroogenomics if we should give up the madness of gift giving entirely to avoid the "orgy of wealth destruction". His argument is that by reprioritising our gift-giving habits we can reclaim the true spirit of Christmas.

The concept of self-gifting has flourished in wealthy western societies. Come Christmas we start to buy ourselves more.

People self-gift for a number of reasons, says Ballantine, including that you've reached certain goals for the year and feel you can spoil yourself.

Or, because you've been through a stressful time and are saying to yourself "well done, I have made it. I am doing something nice for me".

Wood adds a third category of self-gifters who see it as making up for depriving themselves during the year.

"This is the time you can also justify buying for myself as well as everybody else. Especially if you are on your own."

How not to be sucked in by Christmas

• Be aware of societal expectations. Are you buying because that's what's expected of you or you want to buy?

• Choose a dollar figure for each person then put thought into how to get the best value from that money. Invest time and thought into choosing the gifts.

• Avoid sales. The aim of sales is to convince you to buy something you wouldn't otherwise need. Buy what you plan only.

• Communicate with those you're expected to give gifts to. Set price limits or limits on the number of gifts.

• Beware that Boxing Day Sales is hype and the sales are no better than others during the year. There is almost always a better deal around the corner.

• Once you've ticked off each gift don't be tempted to buy more.

• For next Christmas, budget a small amount each week and create a budget around the total.