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Gifts and the 'Warm Glow' Effect

person Chine McDonald
5 min

I love giving presents, don’t you?

If you’re anything like me you can’t wait to see the look on your relatives’ faces when they open the gift that you have picked for them on Christmas Day. You may even be far more excited about this than the prospect of opening your own presents. If you’re nodding along, then you’re one of the good guys. We selfless gift-givers are all about other people. We are the poster children for the Christian virtue of charity, right?


Because according to some top anthropologists and sociologists, we could be the most selfish of the lot because our gift-giving is in fact motivated by self-interest.

Today, I gave a Christmas present to a woman who works at the shop that I get my lunch from every day. It evoked in me what economists have called the 'warm glow effect' as the look on her face at the unexpected gift truly warmed the cockles of my heart and I have been beaming ever since.

I’d like to think that the joy that this evoked is purely down to the delight in seeing another’s happiness – the contentment which arises in giving a free gift. But, according to Marcel Mauss, there is no such thing. In his 1923 work The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, the French sociologist argues that gifts always give rise to reciprocal exchange. If someone gives you something, you’re required to give something back. Because giving a gift is in effect giving part of yourself, forming a social bond with another, which they are required to reciprocate in order to maintain their own honour and status.

Eighteenth century moral philosopher Adam Smith said: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

So my gift to ‘shop lady’ and my Christmas presents to my loved ones are in essence good because, as Smith says, I’m deriving nothing from them, right? Wrong again, if you believe Immanuel Kant who says that the fact that I’m feeling good about giving these presents is in fact not so good. For an action to be moral, he says, you must perform it out of duty alone and not because you get anything from it – whether that’s a material gain or that ‘warm glow’ feeling.

20th century philosopher Jacques Derrida has four tips for how to make sure your prezzies are in fact ‘free gifts’ and therefore moral and good. Just make sure there is no element of reciprocity involved, he says. Oh, and make sure the person you’re giving the gift to does not recognise it as a gift or himself as the recipient of the gift. And make sure you don’t recognise it as a gift either – and make sure it in no way resembles a gift. Bah humbug.

But before you chuck away your wrapping paper and tell the children they won’t be receiving any presents this year because there is no way that mummy and daddy can follow Uncle Jacques’ criteria, let’s take a look at the prime example of gift-giving which quite frankly trumps all of these party-pooping philosophers.

At Christmas, we celebrate the hope that we find in God Himself coming to earth as a baby – a gift to mankind which ultimately ends in our underserved salvation when he dies on the cross. We don’t deserve it. We have not earned it. And there’s absolutely no way we can pay it back.

“Freely you have received,” we hear in Matthew 10:8. Our salvation is a free gift. It’s often the objection that people have to Christianity – they don’t believe that anything in this life can be free. They feel that to receive salvation means that they will be lumbered with the obligation to reciprocate the gift – an impossible feat.

Is Jesus’ death on the cross only good because he didn’t derive any pleasure from it? No. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that it is “for the joy set before him” that Jesus endured the cross. And should we Christians only give if we can truly say we derive nothing from it? No. For as John Piper writes in Desiring God:
'Not only is disinterested morality (doing good ‘for its own sake’) impossible; it is undesirable. A good person in Scripture is not the person who dislikes doing good but toughs it out for the sake of duty. A good person loves kindness (Micah 6:8) and delights in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2), and the will of the Lord (Psalm 40:8). But how shall such a person do an act of kindness disinterestedly? The better the person, the more joy in obedience.'

Maybe the “warm glow effect” isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe there’s something intrinsically good in giving and feeling good about giving, and that’s the way God intended it. For as Acts 20:35 says: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Happy Christmas. May you delight in the gifts you give and receive; and find joy in the free gift of God becoming man - Immanuel.

This article was first published in ‘thinktheology.co.uk’.