To gift or not to gift, that is the question. Even though Valentine’s Day is all about love, no one can deny that gifts can make or break the holiday.
“Gifts hold symbolic value, [and] gift-giving sends signals of trust and creates [a] feeling of reciprocity,” said Prof. Kaitlin Woolley, marketing.
Unfortunately, with so much pressure placed on getting that perfect present, people often feel obligated to buy more expensive items.
Woolley explained this obligation by citing Thorstein Veblen’s research on conspicuous consumption, a theory which states that buying a loved one a showy or expensive item can be used as a way to enhance one’s prestige in the eyes of not only the loved one, but by others as well.
Yet other biological factors also play into how humans buy gifts.
Gift-giving can also be seen through the lens of evolutionary psychology, where flashy and showy presents are often seen as a sign of affection, according to Woolley.
A study conducted in 2003 by Canadian researchers showed that gift-giving evolved as a tactical move for maintaining personal relationships. The most expensive presents are often purchased for romantic partners, followed by family and close friends.
The motivation behind these interpersonal relationships include reproductive fitness for romantic partners, non-reproductive fitness for family and reciprocity for close friends.
Societal conventions tend to influence gifting behavior as well.
“If there is a [societal] norm in place that people who like one another exchange presents on Valentine’s Day, whether or not it’s true, violating that norm can feel wrong,” Woolley said. “Social norms play a huge role in gift giving and exchange, and operate best when people know that most other people comply.”
With gift options ranging from greeting cards, flowers, candy and expensive jewelry to dinners and trips, the Valentine’s Day market is a highly lucrative business. For 2020, spending on Valentine’s Day is projected to total $27.4 billion — up by 32 percent from the record-breaking $20.7 billion in 2019, according to the National Retail Federation.
As a result, companies with a vested interest in the Valentine’s Day industry have a huge hand in shaping societal norms. Many brands have even curated Valentine’s Day gift guides to further perpetuate the norm of buying and spending.
Diamond engagement rings, for example, became popular when diamond company De Beers Group launched a series of advertisements with the slogan “A Diamond is Forever.” De Beers was able to rake in huge profits by creating an emotional link for their target audience between diamonds and eternal love.
“You’ll see a lot of brands try to connect to viewers through higher order needs like the need to feel connection, affiliation and love,” Woolley said. “Some of these guides are not necessarily about buying something for a loved one, but also about treating yourself on Valentine’s Day and buying things for yourself.”
Simply giving a loved one a gift does not entirely convey the depth of one’s affection. Woolley compared this to getting a $25 shovel versus a $10 bouquet of your favorite flowers as a Valentine’s Day gift. While the shovel costs more money, the flowers are more personal.
“While buying gifts, [we] must also consider the message the gift sends and not just the money spent,” Woolley said.