Why you're so stressed out about finding the perfect Valentine's Day gift

Valentine's Day gift

When people receive gifts, they're inclined often to want to reciprocate, which could cause stress when they can't always reciprocate, says psychology researcher Diego Guevara Beltran.

It's February, and we've likely all seen them: store shelves stacked with chocolates, cards, stuffed animals and more – all sold in pink and red packaging adorned with hearts.

Valentine's Day must be nigh.

With all of this, for many, comes the unrelenting pressure to give the perfect gift, be it sentimental, such as a fancy dinner date, or material, such as a necklace.

The stress associated with selecting and giving gifts is not exclusive to Valentine's Day. Based on the American Psychological Association's 2023 holiday stress survey, 40% of U.S. adults reported being stressed over finding the right gifts for friends and families for a range of holidays.

Diego Guevara Beltran

Diego Guevara Beltran

Diego Guevara Beltran, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona Department of Psychology, in the College of Science, studies factors affecting empathy and well-being, and the ways in which people come together in times of need. In this Q&A, Guevara Beltran talks about the idea behind gift giving, the stress involved in selecting the most appropriate gift, and the benefits that gift giving has for the giver and the receiver.

Q: How did the act of gift giving evolve? What are some possible reasons for it?

A: Evolutionarily, there could be several functions of gift giving, why it evolved and persisted. Very early on in human evolution, gifting food was about pooling risks. People who shared food were more calorically secure than those who did not share. However, gifting food can also be for mating or building a strong reputation, both of which can help people build larger and stronger support networks.

The so-called "show-off" hypothesis predicts that people want to show that they have the abilities to gift something very rewarding. A classic example would be large game hunting: Somebody who is sickly or just not as skillful might not be able to get the largest game available. The person who is skillful (and lucky) enough to capture a large animal and share the spoils widely often received reputational benefits such as status conferrals, which ultimately might help such individuals attract more or higher-quality mates.

Gift giving is also about building relationships. The Maasai herders in East Africa develop relationships called Osotua – meaning "umbilical cord" – where they call upon their Osotua partners during times of need such as a drought or when their cattle get sick. Osotua relationships develop through gift giving, which starts in childhood. Over time, the cost of the gifts increases, eventually solidifying the relationship. After several iterations of gift giving, both individuals decide whether or not to initiate an Osotua relationship. If both parties agree, the partnership is solidified through ritual, and hence becomes extremely difficult to break. So, pooling risks, building relationships and mating are different possible functions of gift giving.

Q: How does stress emerge while giving gifts? Can you talk about its dynamics?

A: In romantic relationships and non-romantic connections such as friendships – and this applies to non-human animals, too – there is something called a biological market. Here, people must compete to get the best potential partners, which not only depends on the type of people in the market – specifically, the number of available partners and the people's abilities – but also a person's abilities and willingness to display desirable traits. There could be some stress involved in narrowing down the best potential partners, but also in how much one can afford to display desirable attributes.

This could be materialistic in terms of the riches or non-fungible resources like kindness, creativity, intelligence, charisma and humor. There is probably some stress involved about the fact that you are competing with other people and that your potential partner is going to be engaging in social comparison. For example, people might experience jealousy, a highly distressing emotion, at the prospect of a romantic rival.  This can also happen if one's best friend is giving too much of their time to some other friend.

Q: Does social pressure add to the stress involved in gift giving?

A: Social pressure definitely creates some stress to the gift giver. People with higher status can do conspicuous spending with the resources that they have. Conspicuous spending signals that one has access to wealth, which is typically desirable at the societal level. Take a classic example from evolutionary psychology research: If there are two men of equal attractiveness, the one with more resources is just always found more attractive.

Not everyone will be able to afford expensive gifts. That's when traits like intelligence, creativity and charm could play a role. Doing something like a very laborious date shows your partner how much you're willing to invest in them even if you don't have fungible resources. These are two different ways in which people can achieve the same outcome, with different types of resources.

Q: Does this stress affect the person who receives the gifts?

A: There is a general principle of reciprocity when it comes to gift giving. When people receive something, they're inclined often to want to reciprocate, which could cause stress especially when they can't always reciprocate. This could sometimes lead to shame, which is a highly distressing experience, causing some people to want to avoid receiving gifts. So, sometimes by giving somebody something that you know they can't repay, you might be enforcing your higher status on them.

Q: What are some benefits that gift giving offers?

A: Speaking about the positive side of gift giving, it can create reciprocal chains of investment – a way of showing somebody that you care for their well-being, and that they care for yours. Within that framing, that's how relationships form and develop. You typically go from smaller gestures to larger gestures. Starting with a very large gesture may be a red flag. For example, if a random person offers their car the first time they meet you, that would be weird, and you may think they want something from you. So, genuine investments like gifts escalate over time, and this kind of back and forth of investments leads to gratitude, relationship closeness, and a sense of interdependence where people are no longer keeping track of what they get or what they receive but focus on each other's well-being.

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