The science behind giving

The science behind giving

This is the season of giving. We give gifts to family and friends. We treat employees to a get-together lunch or dinner. We donate raffle prizes to our suppliers’ year-end parties. We give food, money or material things to everyone we can think of and those who approach us.

Sometimes we are deliberate with what we give but most of the time we randomly give money or food to make the thought process simpler, because it is the act of giving that makes us feel good. These good feelings are reflected in our biology.


In a 2006 study cited by Greater Good Magazine, scientists at the National Institutes of Health “found that when people give to charities, it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect”. They also discovered that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the “helper’s high”.

The positive feeling engendered by gift-giving makes people less conscious of what exactly to give. In fact, research consistently shows that many individuals are poor gift givers, “often purchasing gifts that others would not choose to buy themselves” or “focusing on the wrong criterion when attempting to select a meaningful gift” as cited by Gino and Flynn in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Our choices on what to give are fraught with biases, dictated by our own perspectives.

These result in “re-gifting”, a common practice among people. This is supported by an American Express survey where a third of respondents said they “re-gifted” presents they received. Despite the significant amount of time, money, and effort we spend on giving, the gifts are often less appreciated than we might hope. We then reason that it’s the thought that counts.


How can we be good at gift-giving so that the recipient also feels good? It turns out, from Gino and Flynn’s research, that we’re better off giving exactly what the recipients want. They found that “people very much appreciate receiving gifts that they wished for, not only because it’s exactly what they wanted, but also because it shows thoughtfulness and responsiveness on the part of the giver”. This entails asking people directly or doing prior research about the recipients’ wants.

This applies not only to personal relationships but also to business and societal giving behaviors. Giving explicitly what employees and business partners want will lead to stronger work and business relationships, be a favorite dish, a small token that is desired, or even cash bonus. Of course, this should be within the bounds of legal and ethical standards.

It also applies to giving to people who are in need. Instead of giving old clothes or toys to beggars in the streets, why not give those to community centers who will consolidate all donations and let people choose what they want? Otherwise, food or money are generally the “wants” that are highly appreciated by those in need.

The author is the founder and CEO of Hungry Workhorse, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at