Is it better to give than receive? Our expert explains the science behind holiday gift giving

Is it better to give than receive? Our expert explains the science behind holiday gift giving

December 21, 20211 min read

It's the holiday season -- full of merriment and cheer and gift giving. But why do we give gifts? And why is it a ritual that cuts across cultures on just about every continent on Earth?

UConn professor Dimitris Xygalatas, an expert in human rituals, details the social science behind the centuries old tradition of exchanging gifts in a new essay for The Conversation:

From the shells exchanged by Pacific islanders to the toys and sweaters placed under Christmas trees, sharing has always been at the center of many ritual traditions. This is fundamentally different from other forms of material exchange, like trade or barter.

For the Massim, exchanging a shell necklace for a shell armband is not the same as trading yam for fish, just as giving a birthday present is not the same as handing a cashier money to purchase groceries.

This speaks to a more general rule of ceremonial actions: they are not what they appear to be. Unlike ordinary behaviors, ritual actions are nonutilitarian. It is this very lack of obvious utility that makes them special.

Professor Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut who specializes in some of the things that make us human, including ritual, sports, music, cooperation, and the interaction between cognition and culture.

He is available to speak with media, answering all your holiday ritual questions. Click on his icon to arrange an interview today.

Connect with:
  • Dimitris  Xygalatas, Ph.D.
    Dimitris Xygalatas, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Anthropology

    Dr. Xygalatas' research focuses on ritual, sports, bonding, and the things that make us human.

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