The Neuroscience Of Holiday Gifts
Published on: November 29 2023

The winter holiday season has longstanding traditions of gift-giving across different cultures. At the risk of overanalysing such an emotional activity, it does offer a fascinating lens through which we can explore some cognitive science principles that have direct implications for neuromarketing and consumer research.

Winter holiday gift-giving, such as at Christmas time, takes on special significance in the northern hemisphere, where decreased daylight can adversely impact mood. During the dark, cold days of winter, stress and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) rise. SAD is linked to low serotonin levels resulting from less sunlight exposure. It may be that celebrations, cheerful decorations and gift exchanges help alleviate these issues by increasing social interaction and eliciting feelings of wellbeing and group membership.

The Joy of Giving and Receiving: A Neurological Perspective

The simple act of exchanging gifts during midwinter holidays triggers activation in specific areas of the brain, most notably the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the striatum, which signal feelings of pleasure and reward[1]. This response is quite similar to that elicited by other rewarding experiences, highlighting the deep-rooted emotional significance of gift-giving in our psychological makeup. Interesting studies have also shown that the giver experiences greater happiness from purchasing gifts for others than from treating themselves[2]. 

Oxytocin: The Bonding Hormone in Gift Exchange

The act of giving is more than just a social nicety; it is actually a powerful catalyst for emotional bonding. Oxytocin, often affectionately dubbed the 'love hormone', plays a pivotal role here. This hormone gets released during positive social interactions, such as when we thoughtfully give or receive gifts, thereby strengthening feelings of connection and warmth[3]. This neurochemical response underscores the importance of gift-giving in fostering social bonds, a key aspect that is often strategically leveraged in marketing campaigns during the holiday season.

Reciprocity and Its Psychological Underpinnings

The psychology of reciprocity is yet another intriguing facet of gift-giving. The societal expectation to reciprocate gifts can lead to a self-perpetuating cyclical pattern of gift exchanges, driven by a blend of social norms and emotional responses[4]. This element of reciprocity is not just a cultural phenomenon; it is deeply ingrained in our psychological makeup, exerting a subtle but powerful influence on consumer behavior during the holidays and beyond.

Perceived Value and Emotional Impact

Interestingly, the emotional impact of a gift can often transcend its monetary value. Thoughtful gifts that are perceived as personalized or that involve significant effort can elicit much stronger emotional responses than more expensive but less thoughtful purchases[5]. This finding is particularly relevant for marketers and advertisers, as it highlights the supreme importance of personalization and perceived effort in product offerings, branding strategies, and advertising campaigns.

The Power of Surprise

The element of surprise in gift-giving is another factor that should not be underestimated. Numerous neurological studies have conclusively shown that unexpected rewards can activate the brain's pleasure centers much more intensely than anticipated ones[6]. This insight can be particularly useful for marketers in crafting clever advertising campaigns and promotional strategies that capitalize on the powerful element of surprise.

Emotional Connection Through Experiential Gifts

Experiential gifts, such as shared activities or events, can lead to stronger interpersonal relationships and emotional connections compared to material gifts. A study by Caprariello and Reis (2013) found that these types of gifts create shared memories and experiences, thereby fostering a deeper bond between the giver and recipient[7]. This insight is particularly relevant for brands offering experiential products or services.

Emotional Attachment and Memories

Gifts often acquire deep sentimental value over time, becoming cherished mementos that can evoke powerful and poignant memories long after they are received[8]. This emotional attachment can even influence future consumer choices, as individuals seek to recreate the warm, positive feelings associated with beloved gifts from the past. Savvy marketers can leverage this insight by designing products and crafting experiences that resonate on an emotional level and create lasting impact.

Digital Gift-Giving

In our increasingly digital world, the emergence of virtual gifts represents both opportunities and challenges. While digital gifts certainly offer convenience and a vast array of options, their emotional impact compared to traditional physical gifts is still a topic of ongoing research[9]. As online shopping continues its meteoric rise in popularity, deeply understanding the nuances between digital and physical gift-giving will only become more crucial for marketers seeking to thrive.

In conclusion, the tradition of gift-giving, a central part of festive holidays, provides profound and multifaceted insights into human emotion and behavior. For those of us in the world of neuromarketing, these insights are more than just intellectually fascinating; they offer immensely useful guideposts. These findings help us craft marketing strategies that resonate powerfully on an emotional level, ensuring our messaging is not just viewed but felt meaningfully by consumers. As the gift-giving season approaches, let's remember the truly tremendous power of a well-chosen gift — not just as a token of care or affection, but as a window into the endlessly complex landscape of human emotion and decision-making.


1.Izuma, K., Saito, D. N., and Sadato, N. (2008). Processing of the incentive for social approval in the ventral striatum during charitable donation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(4), 621-631.

2.Dunn, E.W., Aknin, L.B., & Norton, M.I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.

3.Barraza, J. A., and Zak, P. J. (2009). Empathy toward strangers triggers oxytocin release and subsequent generosity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1167(1), 182-189.

4.Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25(2), 161-178.

5.Rucker, D. D., Galinsky, A. D., and Magee, J. C. (2012). The agentic-communal model of advantage and disadvantage: How inequality produces similarities in the psychology of power and the psychology of underprivilege. Research in Organizational Behavior, 32, 29-56.

6.Bunzeck, N., and Düzel, E. (2006). Absolute coding of stimulus novelty in the human substantia nigra/VTA. Neuron, 51(3), 369-379.

7.Caprariello, P. A. and Reis, H. T. (2013). To do, to have, or to share? Valuing experiences over material possessions depends on the involvement of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(2), 199.

8.Mick, D. G., and DeMoss, M. (1990). Self-gifts: Phenomenological insights from four contexts. Journal of Consumer Research, 17(3), 322-332.

9.Tuten, T. L., and Solomon, M. R. (2015). Social Media Marketing. Sage.