We may use giving gifts as a free pass to be selfish in relationships

June 2, 2021
Many people believe giving a gift means they should get something in return. (Unsplash/Goran Ivos)

Many people believe giving a gift means they should get something in return. (Unsplash/Goran Ivos)

Although it's widely assumed that giving gifts strengthens relationships with friends, family and romantic partners, a new set of studies suggests that there's a darker side to generous acts: People may act more selfishly after giving someone else a present. 

The paper, published May 18 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, is more than 10 years in the making and is based on three experiments involving hundreds of participants. The findings illuminate a phenomenon in which people often believe that giving a gift means they should get something in return — and not getting anything back is perceived as an inequity, said Evan Polman, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the study's lead author. 

"There's work on the idea called moral licensing — that when people do nice things, then they ironically do less-than-nice things because sometimes people think of their moral behaviors like a bank account," he told The Academic Times. "When they have acquired sufficient credentials, then they can actually spend those credentials, which means they might do things that are less than moral."  

Giving a gift is potentially an example of a moral behavior that can fill one's metaphorical bank account, he said. The researchers did not examine the role of culture in the paper, but Polman said that moral licensing has been shown to be a global phenomenon and that it's reasonable to assume that the selfish gift-giving effect is, too. 

Of course, people often behave in unselfish ways after giving someone a present, and gift-giving isn't 100% predictive of a person acting less nicely toward their loved ones.   

But Polman believes existing research on gift-giving is disconnected from the actual experience of giving gifts, which can be stressful and hit-and-miss in terms of giving people a present they actually want. 

"If you look at the literature, researchers kind of think that gift-giving is like a relationship panacea — that, should there be a gift, only positive things will happen," he said. "But gift-giving is sometimes frustrating and failure-laden; people often don't give the right kinds of gifts. The anecdotal evidence suggests gift-giving is complex, hard and not always positive." 

The first experiment found that gift-givers have slightly different definitions of what constitutes inappropriate behavior in the context of romantic relationships. A total of 626 participants were told to imagine they had a romantic partner and split into two groups — gift-givers and nongivers — and asked to rate how much they would consider potentially morally dubious behavior, such as sending a flirtatious text message to someone who wasn't their partner, to be "cheating."  

"When people were giving gifts, they did not believe that, should they personally engage in these behaviors, that they should be considered as problematic as the control participants did," said Polman. "So, they were giving themselves a free pass, or reassessing their own potentially negative behaviors, to be less than negative." 

In the second experiment, 606 participants were either asked to imagine that they were giving a gift to a friend or not told to imagine such a scenario. Both groups were instructed to write a message to their friend to break plans they had previously made. The researchers found that participants in the gift-giving group wrote less polite messages than participants in the control condition. 

But the researchers realized it may be difficult to generalize from lab-based experiments that may not genuinely resemble how people give gifts in the real world. So, for their third experiment, they conducted a field study involving 268 pairs of actual friends.

In the control condition, one person per pair received $10 to spend on themselves. In the gift-giving condition, one person per pair received $10 to spend on their friend. Seven days later, they were asked questions about whether they would act in ways that favored themselves or their friend. 

"For example, if you were caught speeding with your friend, do you split the ticket, or would you pay more or less of the ticket? We found that when people bought gifts for their friends, they were less willing to pay as much of the ticket, compared to people who hadn't bought gifts for their friends," Polman said. 

"We had a couple of other scenarios, too, where you can essentially choose an option that benefits you over your friend, or the option that benefits your friend over you. In each case, we found that gift-givers chose the selfish option that benefits them, at their friend's expense," he added.

The researchers also considered secondary data from AshleyMadison.com, a dating service directed at people who are already in committed relationships. Looking at a 10-year period between 2004 and 2015, they found that traffic to the website surged in February — a month in which people often buy gifts for their partners for Valentine's Day — potentially supporting the theory that gift-giving encourages selfish behavior. 

"That's real-life behavior that isn't happening inside a lab," he said. "We know traffic is going up in February to a significant extent, which is consistent with our experiments' findings that, should people give gifts, they are more selfish with their partners. That could include believing it's more OK and more acceptable to use this website that mostly encourages cheating on their partners." 

The findings are limited in that the researchers did not account for how established the relationships were between gift-givers and receivers. Polman speculated that the findings would apply more to older, well-established relationships rather than relatively new ones, in which selfish behavior would be more likely to fray a tentative bond. 

What can gift-givers do to avoid acting selfishly toward the people in their lives? Self-gifting is one option. Polman suggests buying something small for oneself when shopping for others — especially for other people's birthdays, which are one-sided events — thereby reducing the moral licensing effect that comes with giving gifts. 

"I think gift-giving still does strengthen relationships; you can imagine what it would be like in a relationship where someone refuses to give gifts; that seems like it would be worse than giving gifts and behaving a little bit selfishly," he said. "What this study shows is that there's something very complicated about giving gifts." 

The study, "Are people more selfish after giving gifts?", published May 18 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, was authored by Evan Polman, University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Zoe Y. Lu, Tulane University. 

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