. 2
( 7)



Patterns of Giving and Receiving

Gifts may re¬‚ect unfriendliness in at least two ¬nal ways. First,
the gold watch presented at retirement is normally more repre-
sentative of a feeling of good riddance than of recognition for
achievement; it is indeed a gilded “pink slip.” Lastly, psychoan-
alytic theories of symbolism suggest that death wishes may be
expressed in such gift objects as electric trains, satin blankets,
ships, and other vehicles which take “long journeys.” Inasmuch
as such theories are valid, the popularity of electric trains as
Christmas gifts has enormous implications.
(Barry Schwartz 1996 [1967]: 75)

When giving something to another person, our intentions are often not
entirely unsel¬sh. We expect that our gift will be reciprocated by a suit-
able return gift; otherwise we have the feeling that there is something
wrong with our relationship to the recipient of our gift. Anthropolo-
gists like Malinowski, Mauss, and L´ vi-Strauss investigated the impact of
moral obligation for the creation of social bonds and a shared culture in
non-Western societies and showed that mutual gift giving is an impor-
tant mechanism behind social cohesion and solidarity. The focus of this
chapter is on some fundamental social patterns underlying gift giving in
Western societies and on some of the main social-psychological aspects
of giving.
From within the discipline of psychology not much empirical research
on gift giving has been done, although recently this tendency seems to

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

shift (Otnes and Beltramini 1996). As concerns theory, the main sources
of inspiration are still found in the classical anthropological and soci-
ological literature on gift exchange. Although the theme of the gift has
great psychological signi¬cance “ it is related to human identity and to a
multitude of positive as well as negative motives, emotions, and feelings “
psychologists have largely ignored the subject. Exceptions include Barry
Schwartz (1967), who has studied gift giving from the perspective of “bad
gifts,” or gifts that have unfriendly intentions. Offensive or embarrassing
gifts may cause psychological harm and seriously threaten social ties.
Gifts tell something about the identity of both the giver and the receiver.
Gifts mirror ourselves, but they re¬‚ect the identity of the recipient as well
because the gift symbolizes the way we perceive the recipient. In the act of
gift giving the giver pays respect to the person of the recipient and af¬rms
his personal identity. To the recipient the gift symbolizes that he or she
is recognized as a person having a special value to the giver. Feelings of
moral obligation and gratitude on the part of the recipient will be the
result, making him offer a return gift.
After a discussion of some empirical research results on giving and
receiving in some Western societies, this chapter explores the main psy-
chological functions of gift giving. Then the psychological motives that
may underlie gift giving are connected to the four basic meanings of gifts
as distinguished in Chapter 1. If we want to understand the meaning of the
gift for the disruption as well as the formation of social ties, we should also
pay attention to the less positive side of gift giving. Because social ties and
feelings of solidarity can be undermined as well as created by gift giving,
the chapter considers those offensive and embarrassing gifts reported by
the respondents of our study on gift giving in the Netherlands.

The Gift: Empirical Research

Although there is almost no psychological research into gift giving, the re-
lated disciplines of sociology and social psychology offer some interesting

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

research results. In general the principle of reciprocity is assumed to be
the rule in gift giving (Gouldner 1973a), but this principle does not apply
to certain types of gifts, such as organ or blood donation. If at all, in
these cases reciprocity is experienced in a very indirect and abstract way.
Reciprocity is, as it were, delayed: if, at some future time, we might come
to need blood or organs ourselves, we hope that other people will be as
willing to give as we were.
In one of the ¬rst empirical studies into gift giving in Western society
the sociologist Titmuss (1970) compared blood donation in Britain with
that in the United States. Almost all British donors appeared to donate
blood voluntarily, while at that time (toward the end of the 1960s) blood
donation in the United States occurred mainly on a commercial basis. The
corollary of this difference was that American donors had predominantly
a low education, were unemployed in most cases, and belonged to ethnic
minorities. In contrast, the British donors were a better representation
of the population at large. In the United States receiving blood proved to
be related to social class: the higher the social class, the more blood one
received. So, the poorer part of the population gave their blood to their
more wealthy compatriots. In view of the higher mortality and morbidity
of the lower social strata, one would have expected the reverse. Appar-
ently, class-related factors like better access to and bene¬t from health care
of the higher social classes play a role here. Finally, Titmuss™s study shows
that the risk of contaminated blood (at the time mainly hepatitis B, as the
AIDS era had not yet started) was substantially higher in the American,
commercial way of organizing blood donation than in the British
A second empirical study into gift giving has been conducted in
America by the sociologist Caplow (1982a, 1982b). He interviewed 110
adults in “Middletown” on Christmas gifts. One of his main ¬ndings
was a powerful gender effect: women proved to be very active as givers
in terms of thinking about what to give and then buying and wrapping
gifts. Alone or together with their husbands they gave 84% of all gifts,

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

while receiving 61%. Men gave only 16%. Of all gifts 4% went from men
to men, against 17% of gifts from women to women. Men gave the more
expensive gifts, but there was no signi¬cant difference in the ¬nancial
value of the gifts received by men and women. There was also an effect of
age: the majority of gifts goes to the younger generation. In his theoretical
interpretation Caplow stresses that we are particularly inclined to give to
others when we are not yet completely convinced of their good intentions
toward us.
Caplow (1984) also examined the unwritten rules regulating gift giving.
For instance, there are rules concerning the emotional value of gifts within
different types of relationships; the marriage relationship counts as most
valued, followed by parent-child relationships, and so forth. In intimate
relationships a different type of gift is given than in more businesslike
relationships: an envelope containing money is not appropriate for one™s
partner, whereas money gifts are acceptable when given to colleagues.
Particular occasions ask for particular categories of gifts: at funerals you
are supposed to bring ¬‚owers rather than cake or champagne. The rules
surrounding gift giving are complex. Most often things run smoothly, but
sometimes we make mistakes, for instance, giving a wrong-sized garment.
As Caplow observes, “Women are particularly resentful of oversized items
that seem to say the giver perceives them as ˜fat™” (Caplow 1984: 1314; see
also Shurmer 1971).
The Canadian sociologist Cheal (1986, 1988) has studied the practice
and meanings of gift giving and criticizes the dominant theoretical ap-
proach of gift giving within the sociological discipline: exchange theory
(Emerson 1902 [1844]; Blau 1964). Exchange theorists assume that people
give to other people exclusively because they expect a direct or indirect rec-
ompense. Cheal, however, conceives of gifts as a symbolic means to estab-
lish or maintain social ties. Gift giving is not merely the exchange of more
or less useful objects but also, and predominantly, a process of “emo-
tion management,” to use Arlie Hochschild™s term (1979), concerned with
the emotional aspects of social relationships. Characteristic of a gift is its

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

redundancy, according to Cheal. Giving a gift is not strictly “necessary.”
Unlike the political economy, where the redistribution of necessary re-
sources and pro¬t making are the ruling principles, the gift economy is
not ruled by the iron law of necessity. The unexpected gift in particular
illustrates its redundancy. Upon receiving such a gift, we are inclined
to respond with: “Oh, you shouldn™t have!” indicating that the gift was
not strictly necessary. In his own empirical research Cheal combined
qualitative interviews among 80 adults with a large-scale survey among
573 adults in the Canadian city of Winnipeg in which he focused on
Christmas and wedding gifts. Gift giving again appeared highly gendered.
Inspired by Goffman, Cheal writes how men, by means of their gifts,
may reinforce existing power differences: “In particular, he described
˜the courtesy system™ through which men convey the belief that women
are precious, ornamental and fragile. Rituals of this sort have a place in
the social construction of female dependence” (Cheal 1987: 152).
In Winnipeg, as in “Middletown,” women appeared to do the largest
part of the “gift work.” Cheal attributes this ¬nding to women™s traditional
responsibilities for maintaining social contacts. This would mean that
women™s larger share in gift giving is explained by the traditional gender
roles and the gendered division of labor and care outside and within
the home. In Chapter 4, this explanation, together with a number of
alternative explanations for women™s generosity in gift giving, is reviewed
in more detail. Cheal™s research data show that women were not only the
greatest givers but the largest group of recipients as well. More than half
of all gifts recorded in this research went to women; it is likely, says Cheal,
that many of the gifts with joint male and female receivers were also given
to women. Between spouses there often existed an asymmetric pattern:
men gave more expensive gifts than women did, even when both partners
earned comparable incomes. According to Cheal, this may be interpreted
as a form of symbolic control of men over women.
In our own research into gift giving in the Netherlands we examined
giving as well as receiving (Komter and Schuyt 1993a). Before I review

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

the methodology of this research, some remarks about the de¬nition of
a “gift” are in order. What exactly is to be considered as a gift? Using
the respondents™ own de¬nition of what they experience as gifts is ap-
parently a good approach. However, this would imply another type of
research than we had in mind. Because we were mainly interested in the
sociological patterns of gift giving and in the psychological motives un-
derlying these patterns, and not primarily in the subjective de¬nitions of
“gifts” as opposed to “nongifts,” we distinguished several giving objects
or giving activities, material as well as nonmaterial: presents, monetary
gifts, hospitality (inviting people to dinner or letting them stay in one™s
house). Our idea was that, in spite of obvious differences between them,
practices such as ritual or spontaneous gift giving, offering help or care,
or hospitality to other persons have one very essential aspect in common:
all these gifts are imbued by the subjective experience of being given out
of free will and are not being dictated by any economic rule such as fair
exchange or barter. Although this experience may in many instances boil
down to an illusion because in the long run most acts of gift exchange do
seem to ¬t within a cycle of reciprocal exchange (Bourdieu 1990 [1980]),
its subjective validity is not undermined by this fact: most people do
honestly believe that they are acting freely and voluntarily when giving
gifts to other persons. Moreover, although many gifts in fact can take
on an economic aspect (care or help can be bought and sold, presents
can be stripped of any personal meaning and become merely a matter of
value, such as book tokens, coupons, and money gifts), many people, at
least when they have some material resources and enough time at their
disposal, seem to prefer the personalized form of gift giving “ giving as a
means to express personal feelings toward other people “ above the econ-
omized form. A possible de¬nition of gift giving, then, goes as follows.
Although gift giving in most cases objectively conforms to the principle of
reciprocity, subjectively it is felt to be an essentially noneconomic, spon-
taneous, and altruistic activity, meant to communicate personal feelings
instead of being an exchange transaction.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

Our main and very simple research question was: who gives what to
whom, and why? A series of questions, derived from this main question,
was posed as to the several kinds of gifts we had distinguished “ for ex-
ample, Did you give or receive any gift during the last month? To or from
whom did you give or receive this gift? What was the occasion? How did
you feel about giving or receiving this gift? A questionnaire with mostly
precoded and some open questions that was sent to 3,000 households
from all over the country was returned by 513 respondents, aged between
twenty and seventy (a response rate of 17%). The sample was drawn at
random from the Register of Addresses of the Dutch Postal and Telegraph
Service. On most relevant criteria (gender, age, education, religion, and
marital status) our sample appeared to be a reasonable re¬‚ection of the
general Dutch population. However, no pretensions of complete repre-
sentativeness can be upheld because of the rather low response rate, which
is not uncommon with this research procedure. In addition to the ques-
tionnaire, 99 respondents from Amsterdam or its near surroundings were
interviewed extensively. The same set of questions as in the questionnaire
was posed, but more probing was done on subjective feelings surround-
ing gift giving and on psychological motives to give. Here too, as many
women as men participated, but there was a slight overrepresentation of
the higher educational levels and incomes. Interviews were recorded and
transcribed verbatim. Research data were analyzed quantitatively as well
as qualitatively.
In the questionnaire and interview, the ¬rst question was, Have you
given or received any . . . during . . .? For presents and dinners the pe-
riod meant here was the preceding month, in our case September 1992;
for money gifts, hospitality, and care or help, the period comprised the
preceding nine months. More than three-quarters of our respondents
appeared to have given some of these gifts, and more than half of the re-
spondents report having received one or more of these gifts from others
(see Table 2.1).

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

table 2.1. Have You Given or Received
Any Gift during the Preceding Month
(presents and dinner) or the Preceding
Nine Months (money, stay, care)?
(%; N = 513)

Given Received
Presents 86 64
Money 84 53
Dinner 70 58
Stay 65 41
Care/help 65 55

Source: Komter and Schuyt (1993b).

A strong relationship appeared to exist between giving and receiving.
Those who gave most, were also the greatest recipients. Apparently, doing
well has its reward. Not only in Malinowski™s and Mauss™s non-Western
cultures but also in our own society the principle of reciprocity is the
underlying rule of gift giving. It is, however, striking that everybody feels
they give more than they receive. If we assume that this result re¬‚ects a
factual truth and not some perceptual bias, the most plausible explanation
is that an important category of gift recipients, children, is not included
in the sample. But other interpretations are possible too, for example,
the role of memory. Perhaps people have a greater consciousness of what
they have given themselves than of what they have received from others.
Furthermore, there might be a perceptional bias: because one wants to
leave a generous impression of oneself to the interviewer, one is inclined
to exaggerate one™s own liberality. Or, inversely, one™s discontent about
what one has received from others leads to underestimating it. Perhaps
people make unconscious or conscious comparisons between their own
resources and those of others, which might explain their experience of
discontent. Yet another interpretation might be that some forms of giving
are not recognized as such by their recipients; for example, some types

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

table 2.2. Have You Given or Received
Presents, according to Gender,
Education, and Age? (%; N = 513)

Given Received
Male 84 55
Female 90 75
Low 80 50
Middle 87 67
High 91 71
20“34 88 70
35“49 90 65
50“ 81 58

Source: Komter and Schuyt (1993b).

of received care may be overlooked, because they are so “normal.” A
¬nal explanation might be what Pahl has called “the general concern of
people not to appear too dependent on others” (1984: 250). His ¬nding
that people claim to do more for others than they receive in return seems
to correspond with our results concerning the experienced imbalance
between giving and receiving.
Certain categories of respondents appeared to be greater givers than
others, as is shown in Table 2.2. This ¬nding applies to all kinds of
gifts, material as well as nonmaterial (for more details, see Komter
1996b). Women, the more highly educated, and younger people give
more presents; the same categories give also more hospitality and more
care and help. How can these patterns be explained? As we have seen,
a possible explanation for women™s greater gift giving is that think-
ing about, buying, wrapping, and giving gifts traditionally belong to
women™s tasks and responsibilities within the home (Cheal 1988). Also,
women are more likely than men to develop sets of reciprocal respon-
sibilities with kin (Finch and Mason 1993). As said before, a more

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

elaborate theoretical discussion of women™s liberality is postponed to
Chapter 4.
The greater gift giving of the more highly educated might not only
relate to their greater ¬nancial resources but also to their often less tra-
ditional and less stabilized relational patterns, compared with less edu-
cated people. Contrary to what is often thought, and to what has been
found in earlier research (Bott 1957), the social networks of the more
highly educated people and those higher in the social hierarchy are often
more numerous and more extensive compared with the networks of the
lesser educated (Young and Willmott 1973; Douglas and Isherwood 1979).
Within these extended networks, gift exchange probably serves to stabi-
lize and sustain social relationships. The same reasoning may explain why
younger people give more than elderly people: because patterns of rela-
tionships are not yet stabilized, any change brings new ¬‚ows of material
and nonmaterial gifts.

Psychological Functions of Giving

The ¬rst psychological function of the gift is to create a moral tie between
giver and recipient. Gifts make people feel morally bound to one another
because of the mutual expectations and obligations to return the gift that
arise as a consequence. Gifts can perform this moral function because
they are “tie signs,” in Goffman™s terms. Almost anything can serve as a
gift, from expensive objects bought in fancy shops to a freshly cut ¬‚ower
or a small shell found on the beach. Gifts are endlessly variable resources
that help us to express our feelings toward other people and, particularly,
to inform them about the nature of the bond we have in mind.
A second psychological function of gift giving relates to the disclosure,
af¬rmation, or denial of identities of giver as well as recipient. As Schwartz
(1967) has argued, gifts are disclosing identities in a double way. On the
one hand, they reveal how we perceive the recipient, and how we evaluate
his or her taste, preferences, and needs. On the other hand, our gifts

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

disclose something of our own identity, our own feelings toward the
recipient: our own being, personal taste, cultural values, and ¬nancial
resources. The gift is, as it were, a “looking-glass-self,” to use Charles
Cooley™s concept: acting like a mirror, the gift re¬‚ects ourselves in the
picture we have formed of the recipient.
Both personal and social identities have their impact on the mutual
expectations that arise through gift giving. For instance, social identities
like age and gender often determine the type of gift that is given. Many gifts
are gendered, with women™s gifts including perfume, lingerie, or jewelry,
and men™s gifts including socks, neckties, or cuff links. Different types
of gifts for adults and children exist. In many gifts, however, the mark
of personal identity is more important than that of social identity. The
closer the relationship, the less one has to resort to the supra-individual
characteristics of the recipient, such as gender and age. By disclosing part
of our personal identity in our gift, we express our special feelings for
the recipient. We are somehow what we give. In giving something to
another person, we give something of ourselves, our own being (Mauss
1990 [1923]). Thanks to the enormous variety of possible gifts, we are able
to choose exactly that gift we think will cause the recipient the greatest
possible pleasure. A gift thus demonstrates our recognition, acceptance,
and estimation of the recipient. In our gift, particularly chosen for this
person, we show not only our investment in terms of money and time but
also, and more important, our emotional involvement with this particular
person, including his or her idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. This gift
con¬rms the identity and self-esteem of the recipient.
A respondent from our research told us, for instance, what it meant
to her to be invited for dinner: “I feel this is so important. And I think
it™s the same for other people. It™s a way of showing, eh, mutual respect.
That you are interested in what other people feel and think.” Another
respondent, who is a vegetarian, said: “Some people have tried so hard to
be creative in their cooking a vegetarian meal. I appreciate that so much.
Apparently they like me, then.” To indicate the feelings of self-esteem or

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

self-respect caused by receiving a gift, some authors have used the concept
of “honor” (Mauss 1990 [1923]; Bourdieu 1990 [1980]). A respondent told
us that she always felt somewhat “honored” when she receives something
from another person, because it shows that this person has spent some of
his time thinking about her and actually obtaining something she would
really like as a present. On being a giver herself, she told us: “I always
hope that they will feel honored as well, not because it™s me, but because
somebody has thought about you a lot. It also expresses something like:
you are worth it, that I do this for you.”
A gift, then, can be regarded as recognition of the other as a person and
as a sign of honor, respect, and appreciation. But, as becomes apparent in
the next two sections, the reverse is also possible: through gift giving we
may hurt another person by offending his or her personal identity and
self-esteem. The psychological consequences of such a gift may be far-
reaching and even result in the discontinuation of the relationship. The
gift is a psychological vehicle that may threaten or undermine identities.
Why are we doing this? What motives are underlying our gifts?

Motives to Give

It is not so much the content of the gift but its spirit that counts. Not
the object itself, but the motives and feelings of the giver determine its
impact on the recipient. The value of a gift is predominantly measured
according to the personal investment that has been put into it, and not
so much according to its monetary costs. Self-made presents to which
much personal attention, effort, and time are spent ¬gure among the most
valued gifts. One cherishes the gift of a piece of jewelry that belonged to
an ancestor, not so much because of its economic value but because of
the memory it embodies. The small shell from the beach that lovers give
to one another represents minimum economic but maximum symbolic
value. In that particular shell all the love of the world resides. The material
aspect of a gift is subordinate to the motives of the giver.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

What psychological motivations are involved in gift giving? In what
follows, an attempt is made to categorize motives. Where possible, illus-
trations from the Dutch study on gift giving are used. These illustrations
are drawn mainly from the ¬eld of care and help because these motives
were most clearly crystallized and more easily expressed than was the case
with the other giving activities (psychological motives to give are often
largely unconscious).

Positive Feeling

A ¬rst and most common category of motives expresses friendship, love,
gratitude, respect, loyalty, or solidarity. These gifts have as their main
purpose to communicate our positive feelings to the recipient. Some of
the motives reported by our respondents are strongly other-directed and
altruistic: one wants to contribute to another person™s well-being without
thinking about a return service; one helps or cares because one feels a
general moral obligation to do so. The most important moral criterion
in people™s considerations concerning their gift giving is related to need:
one gives because the other needs it, without expecting any return in
the ¬rst place. One example involves a female respondent who helps
her demented mother with her ¬nances: “Yes, you should do that as a
daughter, I think. You don™t receive in return so much anymore, but that
is not important.” And: “I am a human being, so I have to help a fellow
human. That™s how it is.”
However, even such gifts may (consciously or unconsciously) have
a strategic aim. For instance, gifts may express our desire to forgive,
to repair some wrong in the past, to ease our conscience, to ¬‚atter, to
attract attention, or to maintain our presence in someone™s life. Giving to
charity is another example of bene¬ting another person while at the same
time relieving our own conscience. The latter example clearly shows that
contributing to another person™s welfare may serve one™s own self-interest
at the same time.

Patterns of Giving and Receiving


A second and again very common class of motives relates to insecurity “
for instance, about the status of the relationship. By means of giving
a gift one may hope to reduce the uncertainty. As Caplow argues, the
majority of gifts are given in order to ascertain and fortify relationships
that are deemed important but have not yet been stabilized. In the same
vein, religious offerings may be regarded as attempts to reduce insecurity.
By means of offerings, humans express their gratitude toward the deity,
thereby reducing their insecurity about the hereafter and increasing their
hopes to obtain grace. Related to the insecurity motive but of a different
intensity and background is the motive of anxiety. We may give because
we are afraid to lose a cherished relationship, or as an attempt to ward
off a potential danger. Or we can give to show a potential or real enemy
that we have good intentions and want no harm.

Power and Prestige

Gifts may also be inspired by a need for power and prestige or by consid-
erations related to reputation and fame (Bailey 1971). By means of giving a
gift we are putting ourselves in a morally superior position; we may cause
the recipient to feel indebted, sometimes to such an extent that we even
claim some rights on the basis of our gift giving. In many non-Western
cultures gift giving was inspired by rivalry: givers try to surpass one an-
other in generosity, thereby asserting their power. The more one gives,
the more prestige, power, and honor one is accredited with. The most
extreme example of this is the earlier mentioned potlatch (see Chapter 1).
Offering exquisite banquets, giving expensive bouquets of ¬‚owers, or or-
ganizing fancy parties “ these are all modern examples of potlatch where
the recipient is, as it were, stunned by the gift. Giving an overly gen-
erous gift that cannot be reciprocated properly is humiliating. Giving
gifts may serve to dominate and to make others dependent upon our

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

benevolence and our willingness to share valuables and resources with

Reciprocity, Equality

A fourth large category of motives is related to psychological expectations
of reciprocity and equality. The underlying idea is that favors have to be
reciprocated with equivalent value: I will give you something, because I
expect that you will return my gift in due time or when necessary (for
instance, in the case of help). Most of the reported motives are of this
mixed type: there is a propensity to give, but before doing so an inner
calculus is made about the respective participants™ position on the “debt-
balance” (Schwartz 1967). Feelings of being morally obliged to return a
gift and not purely altruistic motives are the main psychological impetus
to reciprocal giving. A deeply felt need to render a service to another
person is lacking here; equality is the moral criterion: “I looked after
their children by way of compensation: my brother-in-law helped me
with my doctoral thesis. More of a compensation than a real joy, yes.”
Another respondent went doing odd jobs for friends, although he did
not like it in the least: “It is stupid work. I did my own home not so long
ago, and I still am heartily sick of it. But those are the things friends are
expected to do for each other, mutually.”


A ¬fth class of motives is based on implicit or explicit self-interest, either
taking the shape of promoting one™s own interests or by disadvantaging
or harming the recipient. A range of possibilities is present here: gifts that
serve to ¬‚atter, propitiate, corrupt, blackmail, or bribe. The entire world
of sponsoring but also segments of political and professional life feed on
this idea. Many gifts in the sphere of public life hardly cover up the self-
interest that motivated them “ for instance, the pharmaceutical industry

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

offering golf weekends to physicians and their partners, concluded by
a light scienti¬c program on the advantages of certain pharmaceutical
products. Particularly, the larger business gifts are close to a bribe. Money
gifts may be used for all kinds of dubitable aims: as hush or redemption
money, or as a means to obtain certain societal or political gains. Although
gift giving has earlier been de¬ned as a voluntary and spontaneous act,
some gifts are not allowed to be given freely, as is shown by the fact that
gifts to political parties have been forbidden by the law in many countries.
Our respondents sometimes make a sharp calculus about the debt
balance between give and take: does the other person not pro¬t too much
from my gift giving? Does what I receive from others measure up to what
I gave myself? Personal costs and gains are the main motives here. Giving,
in this case, is based on a kind of market model, in which personal costs
and bene¬ts form the dominant considerations. One male respondent
who felt that his neighbors had asked him too often to perform all kinds of
small jobs for them, said: “At one moment I felt that I was taken advantage
of; well, then it is the end, for me. It™s different when it is coming from
both sides, but here, there is only one party who does all the giving. Well,
then I am ¬nished with it.” And another one says: “It is nice playing open-
handed Gerald always, but there has to be some return at some time.” Or:
“Others help me too, yes. Otherwise I would not do it, I think. I am not
going to make a fool of myself.”

Hostility, Hate, Contempt

Finally, in addition to, or sometimes even combined with, the motive
of self-interest, motives related to hostility, hate, or contempt may in-
spire our gift giving. Gift giving as an intentional act of unfriendliness
is perhaps a less usual way of looking at the phenomenon but is not un-
common. The extent of the hostility may vary from relatively harmless
practical joke gifts, like the exploding cigar or the jack-in-the-box, to
gifts motivated by really deep-seated feelings of anger, hate, or disdain.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

We may give a gift to someone who has affronted us or treated us badly
in order to let this person sense how ignominious his action has been.
Aggression can be the underlying motive of a meager gift given to some-
body whom we used to bestow with abundant gifts in the past. Anna
Freud™s “altruistic surrender,” abundant giving to a person of whom one
is intensely jealous and whom one deeply hates for that reason, is another
example (A. Freud 1986 [1936]).

Fiske™s Four Models and the Motives to Give

The four models of human relationships outlined in Chapter 1 can clearly
be recognized in the psychological motives described here. However,
although the models correspond to some of the motives, the models
do not cover the motives entirely. The motives reveal more of people™s
motivations to give than the models do. This comes as no surprise be-
cause Fiske™s models are based mainly on sociological and anthropo-
logical material. The statements of our respondents, quoted in Chapter 1
as illustrations of the models, make clear that there are four ways in which
people may relate to gifts and, through these gifts, to other people: com-
munity, authority, equality, and market. The ¬rst category of motives
mentioned earlier, the positive affect, seems akin to the type of feelings
involved in community, the model that has disinterested concern and
commitment to other people “ often family and loved ones “ at its core.
However, the strategic aspects that may go with gifts apparently given out
of “pure love” “ the want for attention, the wish to make up for some
wrong or to soothe one™s conscience “ show that community may be too
super¬cial a way to describe what is going on in a social relationship based
on sympathy. Moreover, motives like insecurity or anxiety may very well
underlie gifts given within the mode of community: lovers giving abun-
dantly to one another, thereby trying to diminish their insecurity about
the status of their relationship, or children giving loyally to their parents
because they are afraid to lose their affection.

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

Motives arising from a need for power and prestige are in accordance
with the relational model of authority. But here, as well, the motives of in-
security and anxiety may accompany the power motive and complicate its
meaning. As Adorno™s famous research on the authoritarian personality
makes clear, insecurity and anxiety are often at the roots of authoritarian
ways of behaving (Adorno 1950). Expensive or abundant gifts given with
the aim to acquire a superior position over other people or to make them
dependent upon us may, at a deeper level, re¬‚ect the fundamental inse-
curity about the impact and ef¬cacy of the respective resources of giver
and recipient and, thereby, about the status of the relationship.
A very common type of motive in gifts is the self-evident giving “be-
cause it™s only normal,” the tit-for-tat re¬‚ected in the relational model
of equality. When a friend invites us to dinner, we bring ¬‚owers or wine;
she does the same, when dining with us, just because it is the normal
thing to do. The reported motives based on self-interest are correspond-
ing to the relational mode of the market. Self-interest may go together
with hostility and aggression, but this need not be the case. Gifts given
by the pharmaceutical industry to the physicians are motivated by self-
interest but are not expressing hostility. Hostility is an additional category
of offensive motives that may occur in any of the four relational modes,
thereby complicating their impact. Just as disappointed or frustrated love
(Fiske™s community) is susceptible to turning into aggression, so can rela-
tions normally characterized by authority or equality become perverted
by anger or vengeance.
In many fairy tales malevolent gifts play a prominent role, for in-
stance, Snow White™s poisoned apple. In the Introduction we have seen
that the German and Dutch word Gift, meaning poison, has its ety-
mological roots in the word “gift.” Some gifts are literally given with
the intention to sacri¬ce somebody™s life; think of the legendary poi-
soned cup. In the following section examples from our own research
(Komter and Schuyt 1993a) show how, behind the cheerfully colored
wrapping of the gift, intentions of the giver may be hidden which are

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

not in the least congruent with the recipient™s frame of mind toward the

Offensive and Embarrassing Gifts

Although the role of conscious intention in giving an offensive gift is
limited, gifts are often experienced as such by their recipients. Even if it
were one™s explicit intention to give an offensive gift, it is probably dif¬cult
to admit that to an interviewer. Here we are faced with a fundamental
dif¬culty that underlies any attempt to measure motives of this kind. It is
extremely dif¬cult, if not impossible, to capture the motives underlying
gift giving because the act of gift giving is in most cases barely re¬‚ected
upon. It is therefore not surprising that only a small minority of our
respondents “ 8% “ report that they have ever given an offensive gift;
10% have received an offensive gift at some time. When using a more
friendly term like being “embarrassed” by a gift, the pattern changes: 21%
of the respondents have given an embarrassing gift to another person,
and 31% say they had felt embarrassed by a received gift. On the basis
of our respondents™ stories about offending and embarrassing gifts, we
developed four categories of “bad gifts.”
First, some gifts are simply not appropriate: “An acquaintance gave
me after-shave, although I have been wearing a beard for twenty-¬ve
years”; “wine but I don™t drink alcohol”; “a couple of geese, although we
already have so many animals”; “jeans that were too small”; “a ridiculously
expensive vase from an amorous colleague.” Second, there are thoughtless
gifts, or gifts that are too easy, bought in haste, or already in the giver™s
possession and then passed on: “a nasty little ¬‚oral emblem for my farewell
after having been the president and vice-president of the company for
twenty-¬ve years”; “two ceramic cats “ supermarket rubbish “ while I am
a ceramic sculptor myself ”; “a 1992 calendar, received in August 1992.”
Third, some gifts are pedagogical in the sense that they point to another
person™s weaknesses, criticize him or her, or communicate a form of

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

uncalled-for advice. For example, one respondent reports that she has
given a scale to someone else as a Christmas present “in order to let him
weigh things out”; other pedagogical gifts are antiperspirants or shampoo
or soap, “as if I smell bad”; or advice books about “how to bring up your
dog” or about how to cope with alcohol addiction. Finally, there is the
category of trash and monstrosities: castoffs such as “a used teapot”; “a
bag with second hand clothes, which was ready for the trash can”; and
monstrosities like “a ¬shbone plate,” “a screaming-green ¬‚oorlamp from
my grandmother,” “a small net to cover plates, which was so cheap it fell
in pieces immediately.”
The many ways in which one may offend or embarrass other people
with one™s gifts are presumably re¬‚ected in the deeper meaning of the
adage that you “should not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Gift giving is
inherently risky, exactly because of its psychological function of disclosing
identities. Gift giving is a game with an uncertain outcome. One does not
bargain about gifts, and that is precisely what distinguishes gift exchange
from economic exchange.

The Debt Balance: Source of Relational Risks

One important effect of the gift is that it serves to recognize the value of the
recipient as a person. But gift giving is at the same time a very risky activity,
precisely because identity is so crucially involved. One potential risk is
that the recipient does not share the feelings we want to express in our
gift. Our well-intentioned gift may cause disappointment, disapproval,
irritation, or embarrassment in the recipient. With our gift we may have
forced ourselves too much upon the recipient. We sometimes project
our own feelings onto the other person: a gift out of compassion toward
another person may, in the end, re¬‚ect our own self-pity; a great love for
us supposedly felt by another person may be reduced to our own feelings
of love for him or her. We may misjudge the taste or the needs of the
recipient, or the nature of our relationship to the other person, causing

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

him or her to reject the gift. This is an extremely painful event, as the
rejection of the gift may not only re¬‚ect that we had a wrong image of
the recipient but also, and more seriously, imply a rejection of our own
personal identity and being by the recipient.
Gifts re¬‚ect, con¬rm, disturb, or injure identities. The motives used in
this interactional process range from love and sympathy, to insecurity and
anxiety, to power and prestige, to self-interest and overt hostility. Gifts
may be conciliatory as well as estranging and distancing; they may be
saving as well as sacri¬cing lives. This enormous psychological potential
of the gift has been largely ignored so far. In order to prevent gifts from
becoming perverted, it is extremely important to keep the subtle balance
between giver and recipient intact. Giver and recipient ¬nd themselves
involved in a debt balance with respect to one another. This balance should
neither be in complete equilibrium nor disintegrate into disequilibrium.
Giver and receiver should be in an alternatively asymmetrical position on
this balance, each party properly reciprocating the gift received, thereby
preserving the equilibrium. The extent of asymmetry can only be held in
control by the speci¬c type of feelings usually evoked by a gift: gratitude.
Not being able to feel proper gratitude, exaggerating or underplaying
one™s own gratitude, not acknowledging gratitude in the recipient, under-
or overestimating his or her gratitude: all of these imperfections can
severely disturb the debt balance and generate great relational risks.

Three insights can be derived from the current chapter that are important
in view of the theoretical model that is developed in the course of this
book and speci¬ed in Chapter 9. A ¬rst building stone for our argument is
the reciprocity principle for which empirical support has been presented
in this chapter. The reciprocity of giving and receiving is a crucial element
in our model of solidarity. A second aspect concerns the insight that gifts
re¬‚ect identities. Gift exchange is based on the mutual recognition by
givers and recipients of each others™ identity. Without that recognition it

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

would be impossible to render meaning to gifts themselves; for gifts reveal
both the identity of the giver and his perception of the recipient™s identity.
Finally, the commonly accepted idea that gifts have merely positive con-
sequences for social relationships is disproved in this chapter. Negative
aspects and consequences are also connected to solidarity, in the sense
that some people are excluded from the community whereas others are
included, although sometimes at the cost of their own autonomy.


The Anatomy of Gratitude

Gratitude and resentment, therefore, are the sentiments which
most immediately and directly prompt to reward and to punish.
To us, therefore, he must appear to deserve reward, who appears
to be the proper and approved object of gratitude; and he to
deserve punishment, who appears to be that of resentment.
(Adam Smith 2002 [1759]: 81)

In our commonsense thinking about gratitude, we are inclined to think
of it as a warm and nice feeling directed toward someone who has been
benevolent to us. The de¬nitions of gratitude given in dictionaries con-
¬rm this perspective. Although I think that this view contains an im-
portant element of truth, it disregards a more fundamental meaning
of gratitude. Beneath these warm feelings resides an imperative force, a
force that compels us to return the bene¬t we have received. Gratitude
has a clearly speci¬ed action tendency connected to it, as Adam Smith
had already noticed and as is also stipulated by contemporary emotion
theorists (Lazarus and Lazarus 1994). This duty to return led the social
psychologist Barry Schwartz (1967) to speak of the “gratitude imperative.”
Why aren™t we allowed to look a gift horse in the mouth? Because that
would be a sign of ingratitude and of indifference toward the giver, and
that is simply disastrous. In Japan the recipient of a gift is not allowed
to unwrap it in the presence of the giver. To Western eyes this may seem

The Anatomy of Gratitude

an exotic habit, but on closer inspection it contains a very important
message about gratitude: by keeping the gift wrapped, the recipient™s
possible disappointment about the gift and its giver “ showing itself in a
lack of gratitude “ remains hidden. Perhaps this is the Japanese version
of our gift horse.
Why is a lack of gratitude felt as something to be avoided by all means?
Because gift exchange and the attendant feelings of gratitude serve to
con¬rm and maintain social ties. Gratitude is part of the chain of reci-
procity and, as such, it has “survival value”: it is sustaining a cycle of
gift and countergift and is thereby essential in creating social cohesion
and community. Gratitude is the oil that keeps the engine of the human
“service economy” going, to use Frans de Waal™s term (1996).
But gratitude is not merely a moral coercion; it is also a moral virtue.
Gratitude as a virtue is an important aspect of character: the capacity
to experience as well as express feelings of being thankful. The fact that
somebody may be seen as a grateful person indicates that gratitude is a
personality asset, a talent or even a gift that permeates all the social rela-
tionships in which this person is involved. Lacking this virtue results in
ingratitude, which seems to be an enduring personality characteristic as
well. People who are regarded as ungrateful incur the risk of becoming
isolated and estranged because of their inability to contribute to the essen-
tial symbolic nourishment on which human relationships are fed “ that is,
the mutual exchange of gifts connecting people by the bonds of gratitude.
The linguistic meanings of the word “grateful” are revealing. In English
as well as Dutch, “grateful” has a wider range of meanings than the literal
one of being grateful to somebody for having received something. The
¬rst meaning becomes clear if we speak of a “grateful shade” where the
word is synonymous with salutary or pleasant. In “grateful soil” the word
means fertile, able to produce abundance without much outside help. In
Dutch we speak of a “grateful task” or a “grateful subject,” indicating that
the task or subject promises its own reward without much extra effort
(gratitude itself seems to be this kind of subject!).

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

I refrain here from trying to give a full-blown de¬nition of gratitude,
because de¬nitions of such multilayered and complex phenomena are
bound to be inadequate. What I can do, however, is sketch the contours
of an “anatomy of gratitude,” in an effort to delineate some of its most
prominent aspects and meanings. I approach the subject from various
angles, starting with the very thing that is given away. Anthropological
perspectives on the “spirit of the gift” wanting to be returned to the
original donor are the focus here. Next I consider the recipient of the gift
and analyze gratitude from a psychological point of view, as a personality
characteristic. How do people develop the capacity to be grateful and
express gratitude toward others? Then, from a sociological point of view,
I focus on the mutual relationship between the recipient and the giver
and the social and cultural impact of gratitude. Reciprocity appears to
be the underlying principle behind gift exchange, with the connected
feelings of gratitude functioning as the moral cement of human society
and culture as such. Without gratitude there would be no social continuity
as it fosters and maintains the network of social ties in which we are

The Spirit of the Gift

Let us ¬rst examine some of the most seminal insights on gifts and grati-
tude formulated by anthropologists. According to them, one of the main
characteristics of gifts is that they should be given and reciprocated. A
gift that cannot “move” loses its gift properties. A very clear example
is the Kula, the ceremonial exchange of gifts by the inhabitants of the
Trobriand Islands near New Guinea. Malinowski, who lived among them
during the First World War, describes this ritual in detail in Argonauts of
the Western Paci¬c (1950 [1922]). The Kula is a form of exchange on the
part of the communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form
a closed circuit. Along this route, articles of two kinds constantly travel
in opposite directions. Long necklaces of red shell move in a clockwise

The Anatomy of Gratitude

direction, whereas bracelets of white shell move in a counterclockwise
direction. After some time, these articles meet articles of the other class
on their way and are exchanged for them. It takes between two and ten
years for each article in the Kula to make a full round of the islands. This
practice shows that it is not the articles that count but the exchange itself,
the principle of give-and-take, as Malinowski terms it. The important
thing is that the Kula gifts are kept in motion. If a man keeps a gift too
long, he develops a bad reputation. Somebody who owns something is
expected to share it, to pass it on. Among the Trobriand Islanders, to
possess is to give, as Malinowski says.
Another example of a gift cycle can be found in Mauss (1990 [1923]). In
his essay on the gift he describes the habits and traditions of the Maori,
the native tribes in New Zealand. The Maori have a word, hau, which
means spirit, in particular the spirit of the gift. Returning from the forest
where they have killed birds, the hunters of these tribes give a part of their
game to the priests, who cook the birds at a sacred ¬re. After they have
eaten some of them, the priests have an offering ceremony in which they
return the hau, in the form of a part of the birds, to the forest where it
is supposed to produce a new abundance of birds to be killed by the
hunters again. As occurs in the Kula, there is a cycle of gift giving: the
forest gives its richness to the hunters, the hunters give it to the priests,
and the priests return it to the forest. The ceremony performed by the
priests is called “nourishing hau,” feeding the spirit, a literal form of
feedback. The spirit of the gift is only kept alive by returning it to where
it comes from. By placing the gift back in the forest, the priests treat the
birds as a gift of nature.
The key idea of Maori law is that the thing given or received is not
inactive. After a thing has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses
something of him, hau. Through hau, the giver has a hold over the re-
cipient because, as Mauss writes, “it is the hau that wishes to return to its
birthplace, to the sanctuary of the forest and the clan, and to the owner.”
The spirit of the gift remains attached to the chain of bene¬ciaries until

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

they give back from their own property, “their goods, or from their labour
or trading, by way of feasts, festivals and presents, the equivalent or some-
thing of even greater value.” The legal tie in Maori law, a tie occurring
through things, is “one between souls, because the thing itself possesses
a soul, is of the soul. Hence it follows that to make a gift of something
to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself ” (1990 [1923]:
12). Therefore, the recipient of the gift “must give back to another person
what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance, because to
accept something from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual
essence, of his soul. To retain that thing would be dangerous and mortal.”
The reason for this is that things do not only come from persons morally
but also physically and spiritually. Gifts exert a magical or religious hold
over people. The thing given is invested with life and “seeks to return
to . . . its ˜place of origin™” (13).
Several scholars of authority have criticized Mauss for his spiritual
interpretation of the hau. Firth (1929), for example, prefers secular to
spiritual explanations. According to him the fear of punishment or social
sanctions is the real reason to ful¬ll one™s obligation to return a gift. These
sanctions can include a threat to the continuity of economic relations
or to the maintenance of prestige and power. Another anthropologist,
Sahlins (1972), offers an alternative explanation, which is secular as well.
Returning to the original text of the Maori legend, he discovered an
interesting aspect that Mauss had neglected in his rendering of the story.
The participation of a third party in the cycle of gift exchange is crucial
to Sahlins™s conception of hau: for a gift to bring increase, it is necessary
that a third party causes this increase. In the Maori legend, after having
received the birds taken by the hunters, the priests offer some of them
to the Mauri “ a sacred stone acting as a shrine “ which can then cause
the birds to abound. According to Sahlins, the term “pro¬t” would have
been a better translation of hau than Mauss™s “spirit.” Sahlins conceives
of hau as the “increase power” of the goods of the forest. The ceremonial
offering of birds by the priests restores the fertility of the forest. In Sahlins™s

The Anatomy of Gratitude

words, “the hau of a good is its yield, just as the hau of a forest is its
productiveness” (1972: 160).
More recently, the French anthropologist Maurice Godelier (1999)
reevaluates the various interpretations of hau. Godelier interprets the
game the hunters give to the priests as an “offering of thanksgiving in the
hope that the forest and the priests will continue acting on behalf of
the hunters” (1999: 52). According to him, the essential idea in hau is that
the original donor retains his rights over the object he has given regard-
less of the number of times it changes hands. Here he is paying tribute
to the work of the late Annette Weiner (1992), who analyzed the Kula
ceremonials from the perspective of “keeping-while-giving.” She stated
that certain categories of objects, in particular sacred objects, are given
and kept at the same time because their ownership is inalienable in the
end. Objects may circulate, and every person who receives them becomes
a donor in turn. But only the original donor has the ultimate rights over
the object because his ownership is inalienable; the other donors merely
enjoy alienable and temporary rights of possession and use, which they
transfer when they pass on the object. Following Godelier™s view, it is not
so much the spirit or the soul of the gift that makes it want to return to
its original owner, or its pro¬t or yield, but rather the owner™s inalienable
rights over the object, which are known, felt, and respected by the other
donors. Godelier makes an interesting shift here from explaining the re-
turn of gifts on the grounds of properties of the object itself to attributing
the cause to characteristics of the recipient, namely his original rights: he
replaces the animistic and spiritual interpretation with a psychological
and personal one.
However interesting Godelier™s interpretation in terms of the ¬rst
donor™s rights may be, the spiritual explanation cannot so easily be dis-
missed. In many other tribal communities, there are examples of things
that are thought to possess a spirit, to be animated or alive, to have a will
of their own, to wish to return to where they originally come from. An
animistic way of experiencing things often originates in situations where

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

natural fertility and growth are felt to be important. Lewis Hyde (1983
[1979]) describes a practice among American Indian tribes who depend
on the ocean for their primary sustenance, especially the salmon that
annually enter their rivers. The salmon are believed to dwell in a huge
lodge beneath the sea and to have a human form when they are at home.
Only once a year they change their bodies into ¬sh bodies, swim to the
mouths of the rivers, and sacri¬ce themselves to their land brothers as
food for the winter. The ¬rst salmon in the rivers is welcomed with an
elaborate ceremony. The ¬sh is caught, placed on an altar, and laid out
before the group with its head pointing inland to encourage the rest of
the salmon to continue swimming upstream. According to Hyde,

the ¬rst ¬sh was treated as if it were a high-ranking chief making a visit from
a neighbouring tribe. The priest sprinkled its body with eagle down or red
ochre and made a formal speech of welcome, mentioning . . . how much the
tribe had hoped the run would continue and be bountiful. The celebrants
then sang the songs that welcome an honoured guest. After the ceremony the
priest gave everyone present a piece of the ¬sh to eat. Finally . . . the bones of
the ¬rst salmon were returned to the sea. The belief was that salmon bones
placed back into the water would reassemble once they had washed out to
sea; the ¬sh would then revive, return to its home, and revert to its human
form. . . . If they were not, the salmon would be offended and might not
return the following year with their gift of winter food. (1983 [1979]: 26“27)

This beautiful Indian story, demonstrating the idea that gifts of nature
can only bear fruit if people show them gratitude in a proper way, clearly
illustrates the action tendency of gratitude. The view that natural wealth
should be treated as a gift is as old as the Old Testament, where the ¬rst
fruits of the earth are perceived as belonging to God. The fertility of the
earth is a gift from God, and in order to continue it, its fruits should
be returned to him (Hyde 1983 [1979]). Perhaps this religious origin of
gratitude also has an ecological aspect. Throughout history, people have
had some sense that it is wrong to usurp the wealth offered by nature.
Traditionally it has been a common practice among European farmers

The Anatomy of Gratitude

to let their ¬elds rest after they had intensively cultivated them for some
time. It is dif¬cult to separate the religious awe felt by humans for the
abundance of the earth from their feeling that they should not exhaust
its resources.
Hyde describes another interesting category of gifts where gratitude
can be seen at work, namely gifts given at funerals. Gratitude apparently
not only binds the living to nature and to one another; it also connects the
living to the dead. Gifts given at someone™s death are part of a general class
of “threshold gifts” that mark the passage from one state into another.
By means of these gifts, the transformation from one identity to another
is facilitated. Often some attributes pertaining to the life of the deceased
(human or animal) are inserted into the cof¬n: pharaohs are buried with
their most valuable treasures and jewelry, and children are accompanied
by their most cherished toys on their journey to another state. Many
people believe that corpses should be buried with gifts intended to help
the soul on its journey. If the dead are not properly laid to rest, they will
walk ceaselessly on earth, according to some folk beliefs. Gifts not only
help transform the identity of the once living being into the now dead
one; they also express our gratitude to the deceased, to the fact that we
knew them and enjoyed the privilege of being in their company for a
certain period of time.
Hyde speaks of gratitude as a “labour undertaken by the soul” to effect
the transformation after a gift is received. “Between the time a gift comes
to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. . . . Passing the gift
along is the act of gratitude that ¬nishes the labour” (1983 [1979]: 47). In
this ¬nal act, the true acceptance of the original gift is accomplished. The
spirit of the gift has been kept intact by giving ourselves away: our ties with
people who are or were dear to us have been renewed and strengthened.
How people react to natural abundance and how they create and main-
tain mutual bonds by exchanging gifts can be interpreted in terms of the
concept of gratitude. Malinowski™s principle of give-and-take seems to
be based on an underlying feeling of indebtedness to the giver, which

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

we are now inclined to call gratitude. Gifts returned to nature because
nature “expects” us to do so and gifts “wanting to return” to where the
original giver lives both seem to indicate an inner feeling of obligation
to the outside world, which is projected onto that world. That sense of
obligation can only be resolved by means of an act of gratitude. Also the
story about the “spirit of the gift” can be regarded as a metaphor of grati-
tude. The difference with our modern conception is that gratitude is not
thought of as an internal feeling or emotion but as an external force that
compels the recipient to reciprocate. Perhaps this conception of gratitude
derives its compelling force exactly from the fact that it is externalized
and objecti¬ed: acting in the spirit of gratitude is felt as a generally en-
dorsed obligation that you cannot afford to shirk on the penalty of social
disapproval and exclusion.

The Recipient of the Gift

From a psychological point of view gratitude may be considered a virtue,
a personality characteristic, or asset. It is something one has to learn, and
some people are better equipped to learn it than others. Learning to say
thank you, to share, and to return is an important part in the education
of children. What are the preconditions for developing a capacity to
be grateful? In her essay “Envy and gratitude” (1987b [1957]), Melanie
Klein considers gratitude from a psychoanalytic point of view. She holds
that envy is the most powerful factor in disturbing feelings of love and
gratitude at their root, because it originates in the earliest relation of a
child to its mother. This relationship has a fundamental importance for
the individual™s whole further emotional life, according to Klein. The
quality of the mother™s earliest breast contact with the child and, more
symbolically, of her capacity to represent to the child a “good object” with
which it can identify is of great importance for laying the foundations
for hope, trust, and belief in goodness. Any deprivation in this respect,
not only the breast™s literal failure to provide enough milk but also “ and

The Anatomy of Gratitude

more important “ the mother™s withholding of emotional nourishment,
may cause the child to develop a serious emotional impairment in the
form of hate, envy, jealousy, or greed.
The most signi¬cant consequence of this emotional impairment is that
the child is deprived of the opportunity to experience enjoyment as a re-
sult of being satis¬ed by the good object. Envy tends to become such
a persistent characteristic because it spoils the capacity for enjoyment;
enjoyment gives rise to gratitude, and only gratitude can mitigate de-
structive impulses like envy and greed. Only children who have been able
to develop a deep-rooted relationship with a good maternal object can
build up a strong and permanent capacity for love and gratitude, which
can withstand temporary states of envy and hatred. In Melanie Klein™s
words, “One major derivative of the capacity for love is the feeling of
gratitude. Gratitude is essential in building up the relation to the good
object and underlies also the appreciation of goodness in others and in
oneself. Gratitude is rooted in the emotions and attitudes that arise in
the earliest stage of infancy, when for the baby the mother is the one and
only object” (1987 [1957]: 187).
Just as Freud describes the infant™s bliss in being suckled as the proto-
type of sexual grati¬cation, Klein considers these experiences as consti-
tutive for all later happiness. The full grati¬cation of the maternal breast
brings about the experience of having received a unique gift from the
loved object, a gift that the child wants to keep. This ¬rst gift is the basis
of gratitude. The gratitude of being satis¬ed enables a child to accept and
assimilate to the loved primal object, not only as a source of food but also
as a whole person. This is the ¬rst sign of basic trust in other people. The
more regular the grati¬cation and the more fully it is accepted, the more
often the child will experience enjoyment, gratitude, and the wish to re-
turn pleasure in its wake. This recurrent experience plays an important
role in the capacity to return goodness. Here we can see how gratitude and
generosity become connected. Only inner wealth makes one able to share
gifts with others. As Klein says, “if this gratitude is deeply felt it includes

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

the wish to return goodness received and is thus the basis of generosity.
There is always a close connection between being able to accept and to
give, and both are part of the relation to the good object” (1987 [1963]:
The idea of a relation between the absence of shortages in motherly
dedication and the capacity to enjoy the ¬rst gifts a child receives from
its caretaker (whether it be milk, warmth, or closeness) sounds highly
probable. Also the hypothesis that one should ¬rst develop a capacity
to enjoy the good things one receives from others before being able to
experience gratitude seems reasonable enough. Finally, the connection
between gratitude and generosity, the idea that the capacity to receive
and be grateful fosters the desire to return goodness seems theoretically
plausible. The principle of reciprocity that is demonstrated in so many of
the anthropologists™ accounts apparently applies at the level of the earliest
interactions between mother and child as well. A lack of basic love and
care “ the ¬rst gift “ leads to a failing capacity to enjoy, which in turn
impairs the capacity to be grateful and to return the gift. As in all gift
relationships, the bond is only kept intact if gifts are returned properly.
Both the mother and the child may fail in this respect. In that case the
negative side of the principle of reciprocity may come to apply. The less
the mother is capable of giving the best of her being to the child, the less
responsive and grateful the child will become. An ever more disturbed
relationship may develop if the child does not give in return, causing the
mother to become less responsive as well. Just as the gift of gratitude paves
the way for new gifts to be given, a lack of gratitude evokes a diminishing
propensity in others to give return gifts.
It is clear that there are substantial individual differences in the capacity
to experience and express gratitude. Some people are much more able
to express genuine gratitude and be generous without compromise than
others. Gratitude is a personal virtue that is neither self-evident nor
equally distributed among all human beings. Not only do individuals
differ in their capacity to be grateful; there are also culturally varying

The Anatomy of Gratitude

expressions of gratitude, as the example of Japan mentioned at the
beginning of this chapter made clear. Nevertheless there seem to be
culture-independent functions of gratitude.

Gratitude, Reciprocity, and Culture

Gratitude: The Moral Memory of Mankind

A sociological view on gratitude stresses the interpersonal relationships
and social interactions in which gratitude takes shape. Gratitude is al-
ways embedded in a relationship between two parties. The capacity to
be grateful and generous develops within the context of a social relation-
ship. The primary function of gift giving “ creating social ties “ is clearly
demonstrated in the interaction between mother and child: the bond is
only kept alive and intact if there is some degree of positive reciprocity.
Gratitude plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining social re-
lations. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the sociologist Georg
Simmel wrote his beautiful essay “Faithfulness and gratitude,” one of the
few texts to address the subject of gratitude directly. He called gratitude
“the moral memory of mankind” (1950 [1908]: 388). By mutual giving,
people become tied to each other by a web of feelings of gratitude. Grat-
itude is the motive that moves us to give in return and thus creates the
reciprocity of service and counterservice. Although it has psychological
feelings at its base, its main function is social, according to Simmel. Grat-
itude functions within the chain of reciprocity. Gift exchange and the
concomitant feelings of gratitude are at the basis of a system of mutual
obligations among people and, as such, function as the moral cement of
human society and culture. Simmel also refers to the role of gratitude
in fostering the continuity of social life. Gratitude connects people with
what has gone on before and gives them the continuity of interactional
life. He conducts a mental experiment by imagining what would hap-
pen if every grateful action based on bene¬ts received in the past were

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

suddenly eliminated: society would de¬nitely break apart. Gratitude not
only creates and smooths interpersonal relationships; it also ful¬lls im-
portant cohesive functions for society and culture as such.
The social nature of the principle of reciprocity is very clearly illus-
trated in the fascinating animal research data collected by Frans de Waal
and his co-workers (1996). After having offered ample illustrations of
chimpanzees sharing and exchanging food, de Waal asks the crucial ques-
tion why. In his experiments, he observed chimpanzees when they see a
caretaker arrive with bundles of blackberry, sweet gum, beech, and tulip
branches. Characteristically, a general pandemonium ensues: wild ex-
citement, hooting, embracing, kissing, and friendly body contact, which
he calls a “celebration.” De Waal considers it a sign that indicates the
transition to a mode of interaction characterized by friendliness and
reciprocity. Celebration eliminates social tensions and thus creates a set-
ting for a relaxed sharing of the food. Perhaps the chimpanzees™ basic
feeling of delight preceding the sharing of food can be compared with the
joy of children receiving the good object from their mother, as described
by Melanie Klein. Perhaps celebration and joy are preconditions of the
harmonious being together in which the ¬rst acts of reciprocity can take
place. De Waal™s results clearly demonstrate that celebration is followed
by a pattern of reciprocal giving and receiving: those who share with oth-
ers will also receive from others, and those who are poor givers will be
poor recipients as well. Apparently, animals have the mental capacity to
keep track of what they have given and received and apply this capacity
whenever it is appropriate (de Waal 1996).
A sociological pattern of reciprocity is exactly what we found in our
study on gift giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt 1993). Al-
though certain categories of respondents appeared to be greater givers
than others “ women, younger people, better-educated people “ reci-
procity was the rule among all the categories in about the same degree.
The principle of reciprocity not only applied to material but also to non-
material gifts, as we have seen in chapter 2 (Table 2.1).

The Anatomy of Gratitude

Gratitude, Power, Dependence

Thus far, I have spoken about gratitude only as a positive emotion and a
social force bringing about community and cohesion. However, gratitude
is not always the positive and unproblematic phenomenon we would like
it to be but may be complicated by issues of power and dependence. For
instance, the principle of reciprocity can be disturbed if returns are not
equivalent. One party may not have enough resources to meet the other™s
expectations of what counts as proper returns. Power may be involved in
reciprocity, causing asymmetry, with one party feeling it should give, or
being actually obliged to give, much more than the other. In such cases,
gratitude looks different than in situations dominated by more or less
symmetrical reciprocity.
The sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1973a) was the ¬rst to elaborate upon
the role of power in situations of asymmetrical reciprocity. The respective
levels of the resources of giver and recipient should be taken into account,
as well as the needs of the recipient and the freedom the giver has either
to give or not. Giving may be compelled by other people or by strong
normative expectations to do so, thus restricting the spontaneity and
voluntariness of the gift giving. This probably affects the way gratitude
is experienced. Unfortunately Gouldner, like most of his sociological
and anthropological colleagues, does not elaborate upon that particular
As is often the case with really fundamental issues, literature offers some
interesting insights that are notoriously absent in the social science ¬eld.
The Russian writer and poet Marina Tsvetajeva, who wrote most of her
work just after the Russian Revolution in 1917, has a very uncommon but
enlightening view on the vicissitudes of gratitude. She deeply mistrusted
the Bolshevik rulers and their oppressive political tactics. This distrust
was reciprocal. The Bolshevik regarded Tsvetajeva as a hostile element and
obstructed publication of her work, necessitating her to live with her two
small children in one icy room at her parents™ house. Poverty and hunger

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

made her dependent on alms offered to her by friends and acquaintances
from time to time. In this type of situation, gratitude looks quite different
from what we are used to. What feelings toward the giver does a poor
person have on receiving a loaf of bread, and what kind of expectations
does the giver have? In analyzing this example, taken literally from her
own life, Tsvetajeva claims that the actors here are not a real giver and a
real recipient, each with their own person re¬‚ected in their actions, but
merely a giving hand and a receiving stomach. When a stomach receives
bread, this has nothing to do with the personal being of either the giver
or the recipient. It is merely two pieces of ¬‚esh that are involved in the
act of exchange, and it would be absurd for one piece of ¬‚esh to demand
gratitude from the other. Gratitude, in that case, would degenerate into
paid love, prostitution, and be an outright offense to the giver as well as
the recipient.
As Tsvetajeva says, only souls can be grateful, “but only because of other
souls. Thank you for your existence. Everything else is offense” (2000:
201). Ultimately only silent gratitude, gratitude not expressed in words
or acts, is acceptable because the mere expression of gratitude already
implies some reproach or humiliation for the giver: he has something
the recipient does not have, a painful confrontation between having and
not-having. The best solution is to give, to receive, and then rapidly to
forget about it, so as to preclude any feelings of gratitude at all: to give and
withdraw, to receive and withdraw, without any consequences. In such
an unequal power relationship, the moral obligation to express gratitude
is derogatory and an obstacle to the development of lasting ties.
In gift exchange, a subtle balance of dependence and independence
is involved, causing power and control to be deeply ingrained. Schwartz
called this the balance of debt, as we saw in Chapter 2. Depending on
the personal biography and speci¬c psychological makeup, people react
differently to this balance of debt. Some have great dif¬culty receiving
help or material goods from others, because they cannot deal with feel-
ings of gratitude or being indebted to another person. The balance of

The Anatomy of Gratitude

debt may be disturbed in several ways. One means to exercise power is
to keep another person indebted by way of overreciprocation. Another
offense is to return a gift too quickly. Giving immediately in return can be
interpreted as a sign of ingratitude. As Seneca stated, “a person who wants
to repay a gift too quickly with a gift in return is an unwilling debtor and
an ungrateful person” (quoted in Gouldner 1973a: 258, n. 46). A certain
period between the gift and the return gift is also needed, because the
resources to be able to return the gift properly have to be found and mobi-
lized. The reason why, according to Schwartz, the balance of debt should
never be brought into complete equilibrium connects to gratitude: “The
continuing balance of debt “ now in favour of one member, now in favour
of the other “ insures that the relationship between the two continues,
for gratitude will always constitute a part of the bond linking them”
(1967: 8).
Not only a disequilibrium on the debt balance but also rivalry may
disturb the “normal” development of feelings of gratitude, as is demon-
strated in the potlatch. Gift giving in this practice should not be confused
with acting on the grounds of a moral obligation to return gifts. What is
seemingly an act of gratitude is ultimately one of power and greed.
In the preceding sections, gratitude appears as a personal asset as well as
a moral virtue: a capacity one has to learn. Moreover, gratitude has been
analyzed as the moral basis of reciprocity. By acting as a moral obligation
to give in return, gratitude not only serves to reinforce bonds at the level
of social relationships, but is also a means for establishing social cohesion
and creating a shared culture. It is important, at this point, to emphasize
that indebtedness is not in any way contrary to gratitude but rather is its
moral core.

Gratitude Dissected

Five conclusions can be drawn at this point. First, a theory on gratitude
should integrate its psychological, moral, social, and cultural dimensions.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

Like “the gift” itself, gratitude proves to be a truly interdisciplinary sub-
ject. Views from anthropology, psychology, and sociology each highlight
different aspects and add different emphases. Second, gratitude is part of
a chain of reciprocity and has “survival value”: it is sustaining the reci-
procity of service and counterservice, and it is universal. Third, gratitude
is a response to a voluntary gift but is itself “imperative”: not showing
gratitude when it is appropriate leads to social disapproval and exclusion.
Fourth, gratitude derives its social importance and effectiveness from the
moral obligation implied in it. Fifth, gratitude can be a positive as well
as a negative force “ for instance, in a context of dependency and power
Where do the various re¬‚ections on gratitude presented in this chapter
bring us? Is it possible to formulate a tentative theory that integrates the
various insights and pays justice to the enormous richness of the theme
of gratitude? All of the views discussed have a strong and inescapable
force in common, one that compels recipients to give in return, and
it is this mysterious force that lies at the heart of gratitude. The force is
alternatively thought to reside in the given object, in nature, in the person
of the recipient, or in the social relationship existing between the giver and
the recipient. A theory on gratitude should offer us some understanding
of the speci¬c nature of this force. Let us, therefore, scrutinize more
closely the various layers that are embedded in the views outlined here.
The ¬rst layer of gratitude is a spiritual, religious, or magical one.
Related to this view is an ecological level, since in any case, the origin
of the force asking for restoration of the equilibrium is located outside
human beings, in nature or in spiritual essences. At a very fundamental
level of human existence, gratitude seems to be the symbolic way to make
people understand that they are part of nature, actors in natural cycles
of taking riches from the earth and giving back the appropriate returns.
Throughout history people have had some understanding that what na-
ture gives them is in¬‚uenced by what they give nature. The ecological idea
often takes on religious, spiritual, or magical connotations. Whether it is

The Anatomy of Gratitude

nature, hau, or God, the essential concept is gratitude, or the need to
restore some equilibrium. The notion of a cycle of gifts that have to be
kept in motion by passing them on or the idea of abundance returning
only if due respect is paid is indicative of the same basic idea that life can
only be safeguarded if we pass on what we have received. To come and
remain alive means to give away.
The moral and psychological aspects of gratitude constitute the second
layer. Gratitude can be conceived as a feeling of moral indebtedness as a
consequence of what has been received. We have seen that this feeling has
its roots in early childhood, where its ¬rst manifestation is the experience
of a child™s joy, comparable with the celebration of de Waal™s chimps. Joy
is the child™s reaction to the ¬rst gift of motherly care and love and paves
the way for gratitude. Although in later life the experience of gratitude
may vary according to the extent to which one is dependent on others for
the satisfaction of one™s needs, the talent for gratitude can be considered
an enduring personality trait and a moral virtue. Interestingly, the ability
to receive and be grateful seems intrinsically related to its counterpart,


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