As Christmas approaches, and we’re bombarded with online and offline content about buying gifts for one another, it’s easy to become cynical about the consumerist nature of the holiday season. Gift-giving can quickly feel like a stressful, expensive obligation rather than a generous action. So why do we do it?
Looking at the concept of 'altruism' from a psychological approach, we can determine how to best respond to the pressures of the holiday season. By definition, ALTRUIS’ involves behaving in a selfless way and benefitting others at one’s own expense. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, you might be surprised that altruism persists within both human and animal behaviour since altruistic beings lose resources with no apparent benefit for themselves.
Altruism seems to oppose the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’. In other words, the animals behaving less altruistically would have a higher chance of reproducing and passing on their genes than the animals that behave more altruistically. Some researchers explain this phenomenon by claiming that ‘pure’ altruism is rare, and much of what we believe is altruism is ultimately a 'self-serving action' which is very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology. For instance, when we act altruistically towards relatives who share a proportion of our genes, it is beneficial to us because in essence we are promoting the reproduction of our own genes. Since this is ultimately a self-serving action, it may not be considered to be true altruism.
Another way in which we could say altruism is ‘impure’ is when altruistic acts involve an expectation of reciprocity. Most forms of altruism, or gifting, have a reciprocal expectation. If a person shares their snacks with another person, they expect that person will share their snack with them next time they’re hungry. Or, if someone gives a friend an expensive gift for their birthday, they expect to receive one in return on their special day. This can promote reproductive fitness through providing an insurance policy in case of future need – but it also risks that the future expectation of reciprocity will not be met. For example, when a significant other fails to buy a gift of equal value, we tend to get upset.
In many cases where individual efforts fall short, we as social beings come together to cooperate and work together to achieve a goal – an act which we could define as reciprocal altruism that results in group-wide benefits for all members. But when some members in a group fail to contribute fairly, it can result in altruistic punishment.
Altruism is also used as a signal for one’s intentions or to establish a reputation of power and competence, drawing the allegiance of less powerful individuals. The person with more power or money ‘shows off’ by being generous, if you will.
Finally, people behave altruistically to gain or maintain membership in an in-group, in which case the act of altruism can help to establish a common group identity. By showing your kind-hearted nature, you’re ‘buying’ your way into a group, essentially. Although each of these examples involve impure altruism and an ultimately self-serving behaviour, they also benefit our social relationships with others, as well as the ability to develop trusting networks. As can be seen in the neuroscientific research into altruism, evolution has carefully attuned our brains to relate to others and develop complex expectations regarding others’ emotions and motivations.
The Selfless-ish Brain
When we look towards the brain, the capacity of humans to understand and represent others’ thoughts, ideas, emotions and desires may act as a motivational drive in eliciting altruistic behaviour. Humans are able to perceive others’ actions as self-generated and goal-orientated, which may in turn form the basis for altruism to emerge.
The tendency of exhibiting altruistic behaviour often runs parallel with our own thoughts or emotions. Although the neuroscience of altruism is far from complete, evidence indicates that altruism involves the long-distance interplay between brain regions. When we act altruistically, the medial prefrontal cortex is involved in social cognition. This enables us to retrieve, store (temporarily), process and evaluate information from others. Additionally, the posterior superior temporal cortex emphasises the perception of agency, meaning the awareness of one another's beliefs, ideas and actions.
In other words, when we perceive others’ ideas or actions, and integrate this information in higher order processing, this may in part lead toward acting altruistically.
The Act of Giving
People who frequently engage in altruistic behaviour tend to have better mental and physical health (a global phenomenon). The more we exert in promoting social relationships corresponds to greater happiness levels, regardless of our culture or our country’s wealth index.
This is even true when we act altruistically towards people who we have no intention of forming a relationship with. Of course, people often behave altruistically for social desirability reasons, but there is also strong evidence that altruism is highly related to empathy and regard for others. Prosocial behaviour is often used to strengthen a relationship rather than to solely promote reciprocal action. Even if altruism is performed for selfish reasons, there's an abundance of positive outcomes that it can bring about for the recipient and giver alike.
So when we give gifts to one another for the holidays, how does all of this apply? It may be a custom that over generations has been hijacked by consumer culture, but let’s remember the feelings behind giving someone special a gift.
Perhaps some of our motivation stems from abiding by social expectations, but these expectations are rooted in a common desire to strengthen relationships and express our affection for one another.
Taking a step back and focusing on these things during this season can shift our perspective from one of 'checking the boxes’ on our to-do list, to a time to celebrate the people around us. Whether you're spending time deciding on the most meaningful gift for someone or making an effort to be fully present with family and friends, the holiday season is a time to reconnect with the people in our lives and enjoy the benefits of giving, sharing, and receiving.
Leah Palmer is a member of the VINAYA Lab specialising in psychology with an interest in how psychological research and technology can be integrated to promote wellbeing. She enjoys reading, cooking, and travel.
Tarek Akkawi is a member of the VINAYA Lab with an interest in neuroscience, looking into what brain regions are behind major human themes (e.g. stress, happiness) and their relationship with technology.