Why You Feel Guilty When Receiving Gifts

When the holiday season comes around everyone loves to surprise each other with giving gifts, however, receiving gifts is a completely different story. For some strange reason, receiving gifts has a tendency to manifest guilt, also known as ‘Gift Guilt’. Why is this is the case? It does not make any sense from a logical standpoint because gift giving and receiving is expected for the holidays. Everyone knows it’s coming but holiday goers, without question still have guilt. There are a few unexpected psychological triggers that make this unfortunate part of holiday season cumbersome. Fortunately, once you understand the different triggers, you will feel a lot more relaxed during the holiday season and be able to curb the guilt.

Adam’s Equity Theory

Equity theory focuses on determining whether the distribution of resources is fair to both relational partners” Guerrero, Laura K; Peter A. Andersen & Walid A. Afifi. (2014). Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, 4th Edition. Essentially, this theory stems from a mental mechanism that pertains to maintaining an equilibrium in different circumstances. It can apply to romantic relationships, management, or even recruitment. Each situation has a different level of fairness. For relationships, does the other person give as much as they receive in the relationship? For management, does each employee have the same level of opportunity and privileges? And for recruitment, is each candidate tested in a fair way.


When it comes to gift giving, people often worry about the gift they are giving is equal to the perceived value of the gift that they are receiving. Concerns arise such as: What do you do if the gift cost differs? What do you do if someone does not like the gift that you gave them? Or the best, what if I receive a gift I don’t like?  Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee each person’s gift will be equal in perceived value to maintain Adam’s Theory. In that case then, anxiety can arise from this inevitably unknown.


Moving forward, it will best be to accept that there will always be this gap and just put your best foot forward when exchanging gifts. You cannot control someone’s reaction, but you can control the effort you put towards gift giving.

Expectancy Theory

“Expectancy theory of motivation: an individual will behave or act in a certain way because they are motivated to select a specific behavior over other behaviors due to what they expect the result of that selected behavior.” Oliver, R. (August, 1974). Expectancy Theory Predictions of Salesmen’s Performance. Journal of Marketing Research 11, 243-253. In other words, you do something expecting a certain result behavior. For gift giving, you exercise a behavior of gift giving in an expectation that the receipt will enjoy the gift. The unknown here, is the receipt emotional response. If they don’t like the gift they still need to act like they do. Hiding the emotional response and putting one forward that you expect the other person would like. Hence, there is a large anticipation period that people have to worry about.


In this case, make sure that you recognize you cannot control the other person’s response, but you can control the effort you put into gift giving, just like Adam’s Equity Theory.While these may seem trivial, both of these theories relate to many business problems that arises in management and all sort of kinds of business areas. So just like gift giving, knowing your theory is key.


Jeff Butler

Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.


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