Saturday, February 13, 2016
I think that the day after Valentine’s Day is actually the best. After all, chocolate is 50 percent off. However, using the holiday as an excuse to delve into the myriad of studies that attempt to explain the complexity of human attraction and relationships is pretty fun. Last year I examined moves, specifically some fly dance moves and rather cheesy pick-up lines. Today, I think I’ll explore gift giving.
In the field of animal behavior, gift giving (or nuptial gifts) is practically its own subdiscipline, particularly in insects. These gifts are typically food items (but sometimes are inedible tokens) presented from the male to the female during courtship. They may be to show the female that he is worth her time, show how healthy the he is, how good a provider he can be, or simply to keep her distracted from eating him during the actual mating (except in those cases of specialized body parts or “suicidal food transfers”…now that is the ultimate sacrifice for your bae!). The gift giving behavior, especially if it involves an extreme sacrifice on the part of the male, can only arise if the giver has some net fitness benefit. He must be able to increase his paternity share (particularly in polyandrous mating systems) and/or boost the female’s fecundity, thereby increasing the number of offspring.
Humans are not insects. Obviously. But gift giving, and many of its underlying behavioral mechanisms, is still very important to our mating system. I’ve already mentioned chocolate that, while offering little nutritive value, sure does make us ladies happy. As you know, these are not the only gifts given on Valentine’s Day. An interesting paper by Rugimbana et al., published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior in 2003, examines the role of gift giving on Valentine’s Day. The authors point out right up front that if you think about this “holiday,” you might notice that it is rather small in scale compared to the high rollers (i.e., Christmas). However, it is unique in that it has become almost ritualistic in its symbolic gift giving. So much so that it has become over-commercialized and now causes increased anxiety and pressure to those who involve themselves in it. The study looks at the role of social power exchanges as the basis for gift giving on Valentine’s Day, specifically in young men. To assess this, they interviewed male participants aged 18-25, asking about their attitudes towards Valentine’s Day, perceptions of female expectations and various types of gifts, and the appropriateness of various types of gifts to the length of a relationship.
This study found that for young men “the overwhelming motive for [giving] gifts on Valentine’s Day was obligation.” The men thought that gift giving was necessary when in a relationship simply because their significant other was expecting it. How romantic. This obligatory gift giving was thought essential early on in a relationship, especially if they wanted to avoid a conflict. The phrases “all hell would break loose” and “I hope…I’d still have a girlfriend” were used. However, only 25 percent of men replied that they expected something in return for the Valentine’s Day present. That sounds a bit harsh. But not so fast. When the researchers broke things down by their altruistic value, or lack of, some interesting patterns emerged. For example, when men were asked “if you were to buy lingerie for your partner, would it be for you, or for her?,” 90 percent said that it would be for themselves. Shocker on that one, I know. That isn’t to say that altruistic answers weren’t given (e.g., “you don’t need a day to say I love you”), just that it is difficult to separate from self-interest (e.g., “if you do it right, you’ll be glad”).
The authors were able to boil Valentine’s Day gift giving down to three motives: 1) obligation, 2) self-interest, and 3) altruism. Importantly, these motives existed in combination and a “social power exchange” was present. In other words, giving rewards the giver. All of this sounds rather callous and almost Machiavellian. Ladies, we sound rather demanding…I mean, “all hell will break loose” over one day and one gift? Wow. And guys, while turning an obligation into a reward is rather cunning and evolutionarily arguable, it is also sort of cliché at this point. Perhaps both sexes should consider the gift giving rules of other holidays like Christmas. Just a thought.
Rugimbana, R., Donahay, B., Neal, C., & Polonsky, M. (2003). The role of social power relations in gift giving on Valentine's Day Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 3 (1), 63-73 DOI: 10.1002/cb.122
(image via Valentines Day Pictures)