BY MID-NOVEMBER store windows are bedecked with seasonal decorations of all kinds. The message is clear: the annual gift hunt has begun. In the ensuing weeks, increasing numbers of shoppers will seek the perfect items for loved ones, not to mention a little something for friends, colleagues and distant cousins.

For many people, giving is the high point of celebrations such as Christmas and Hanukkah, even though most of us hate the purchasing and wrapping hassle. So why do we persist? Social scientists say we depend on such tokens to cement new relationships and to maintain existing ones. A gift, in essence, demonstrates how much a relationship is worth and how much we are prepared to “sacrifice” for it.

Vicious Circle

Cultures around the world have vastly different gift-giving customs. But all are based on the same formula: receiving and reciprocating. Such traditions are an integral part of our relationships with family members and peers, evidenced in how central they are to occasions such as birthdays, weddings, and religious holidays and ceremonies. The primary purpose of our gift-giving systems is to affirm, or cut, social ties. An offering expresses our feelings succinctly, and yet we do not have to lay all our cards on the table or get into long personal discussions.

Frequently, however, we feel stressed by the gesture of giving. Psychologists and ethnologists theorize that the pressure does not stem from the nerve-racking search for the right object but rather from the exchange itself, which is a social act. Anxiety arises because of the perception and expectation that each gift, regardless of how voluntary or unnecessary, must be responded to at some point. Indeed, that expectation is again conferred with every new presentation, readily creating a vicious circle that can be difficult to escape—except, perhaps, at the cost of the relationship.

In some cases, a person may withdraw from the cycle, perhaps disappointed in us because we did not make a reciprocating effort to acknowledge his or her friendship or love. It can be equally uncomfortable to accept something with the knowledge that we cannot possibly give anything equivalent in return. If we allow ourselves to be in someone’s “debt” instead of turning down the gift with a polite “No, thank you,” giving can be wielded as an instrument of power.

As apparent as these observations seem, many people do not freely admit how much the value of a gift influences them. The two of us discovered this tendency during a recent study of adults. Our subjects admitted only reluctantly that they dig deeper into their pockets the closer their relationship is to a particular individual. The level of generosity can serve as a measuring rod.

This metric is particularly true around the year-end holidays, the quintessential celebrations of love and family. People perform a kind of calculus to match the value of their relationships with the value of the gifts they purchase. In the process they have to reevaluate their friendships and rank them—an emotional stressor by any measure.

Family members, friends, romantic partners—decisions must be made, and everyone is on the alert. The choice we make for a friend or partner will demonstrate whether we feel connected or whether the relationship is of lesser importance to us.

Proof in a Purchase

The act of receiving can be even harder for many people. One reason is that there is little time to compose an appropriate response. The mere thought that we did not buy a gift of at least the same value can make us so anxious that we can barely stand it. We want so much to be seen as fair and respected gift givers.

Even though the price really should not make any difference, as soon as the wrapping is off many people take out their mental calculators. This behavior exposes the paradoxical nature of presents in our society: gifts, by definition, should not require reciprocity, but they end up being a medium of trade. By determining a value, we bring into question the fundamental nature of giving.

Small wonder, then, that so many people feel ambivalent about accepting money in particular. The individuals who participated in our study indicated that only parents should give cash to their children or grandparents to their grandchildren. Many felt it is inappropriate to send greenbacks as a birthday gift for the child of an acquaintance.

But why should coins and bills make us so uncomfortable? Presumably, because money so powerfully contradicts the notion of pricelessness. The idea that a gift has an exalted worth is the reason most people do not just spend gift money they receive on household expenses. They would much rather use the cash to purchase something special for themselves, because that object makes visible their connection to the giver.

On the other hand, if there is a dramatic breakup of a relationship, we may have little trouble relegating old keepsakes to the attic or even tossing them out with the trash. At the symbolic level we are signaling that the departed person no longer takes up space in our emotional lives—that what is past is irrevocably finished.

In this regard, gifts represent permanence. Long after we get a present, it typically means more to us than do other objects, even if we find it useless or tasteless. Would we toss out that kitschy, shell-encrusted statuette that Uncle Tommy brought us all the way from Hawaii? Of course not. That is why it is sitting on the mantle! The same goes for jewelry that may not exactly be our taste—we wear it anyway, at least when we know that the giver is likely to see it. The last thing we would want to do is rob a loved one of the feeling that his or her selection gave us pleasure.

The main lesson from all this is that we should not underestimate the significance of gifts. Many people are irritated by inappropriate offerings and may even feel insulted. We should therefore give careful thought to our giving, at any time of year but particularly during the holiday season, because the act forms one basis for our social connections—even though it has nothing to do with the holidays’ true meanings.