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Why do we give at Christmas?

Christmas is a time for giving. This often extends beyond friends and family to charity donations. Many charities run specific Christmas appeals and there is evidence more people give at Christmas, compared to during the rest of the year.

Why is this? Research from psychology and neuroscience suggests certain factors which increase motivations to give may be particularly powerful during the festive period.

It’s been over a decade since a team of neuroscientists first looked at brain activity using an fMRI scanner while people made decisions whether or not to give to charity. In that study and others done since, a key finding is that giving to charity activates the regions of the brain involved in processing rewards. For example, the same regions are active during donating as during receiving money, eating nice food and taking addictive drugs. This finding is interpreted as the neural basis of the warm fuzzy feeling or “warm glow” people get from giving.

photo-1513639725746-c5d3e861f32aThere are a number of possible explanations for this warm glow which will be explored in more detail below. Regardless of why it feels good to give, a behaviour which leads to this reward-related brain activity is more likely to be repeated.

Giving to friends and family at Christmas may give us a taste of how it feels to spend money to do something nice for someone else. In some cases, people may consciously recognise this positive feeling and decide to give more widely, including a charity donation. It is also possible to be swayed by the learning that giving feels good without explicitly recognising it. Making a decision on whether or not to donate is likely to involve lots of factors we are not completely aware of, including our experiences of previous generosity.

One explanation for why it feels good to give is the social approval associated with helping others. Doing things which society values is particularly important to humans and has been associated with reward-related brain activity in studies on a number of behaviours, including giving. This means we may be more likely to give if there is an opportunity to tell other people about our donation, even if this only includes friends or family.

Christmas may provide such opportunities to give in a way which others are aware of, for example asking for or giving a donation as a present.

Some charities have been quick to make the most of this idea, offering specific items as gifts which someone buys in the form of a donation. Perhaps the best-known example is the Oxfam Unwrapped range which offers supporters the option to donate items, such as a goat, to someone in need and receive a card for a friend or family member telling them about the gift. As well as being a fun and quirky way to give, the focus on a specific item encourages giving through identifying a concrete impact that the gift will have.

Studies on the psychology of giving suggest that people prefer to donate when they have an idea of exactly what their money can achieve. This is similar in some ways to the preference to buy gifts for people we know, rather than give money, as it’s easier to imagine their enjoyment of an object than cash.

Imagining the positive impact of a donated item will be particularly powerful if it is something that the supporter can relate to. Giving is often linked with empathy and empathy can be increased  for issues we have personal experience of. For example, I have never experienced needing to own an animal to provide food for my family, but I have felt huge appreciation for a hot drink on a freezing cold day. In many countries, Christmas is associated with cold weather which may particularly encourage giving associated with helping people that this is a difficult time for.

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Food and drink are likely to be especially prominent at Christmas, a time of overindulgence. This tradition to “eat, drink and be merry” could lead to feelings of guilt for those who cannot take part and prompt giving to provide food for people in need.

Research in social psychology suggests that actions in one area of moral behaviour can affect decisions about other morally-charged actions. The theory of moral self-licensing suggests that making a moral decision such as giving to charity leaves the donor in moral “credit” which may lead to being less moral at the next opportunity. Perhaps this could also work the other way round with guilt about overindulging at Christmas creating feelings of moral “debt” which a donation to charity could cancel out.

A common reason for not donating to charities when asked is a lack of spare money. Indulging in more expensive food and drink during the festive period may challenge the idea that a donation is unaffordable. Research in economics suggests that people mentally compartmentalise their finances and donations may be seen as an additional, rather than a necessary, expense.

Accessing this additional money compartment to spend on Christmas food, drink and presents may also promote giving. However, research suggests that in the UK extra spending on alcohol in December is approximately 17 times higher than extra donations.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned and probably others, giving at Christmas has become an established tradition for many people. This in itself is likely to promote future giving through it being a habit and a social norm. Habitual behaviours are defined by their regularity which means less thought goes into deciding whether or not to repeat the behaviour. In the case of Christmas donations, a person or family may give a set amount every year to the same charity just because that is what they “always do”.

Social norms are described as injunctive when they refer to behaviours which other people see as desirable, as mentioned above. Descriptive social norms refer to behaviours which other people are doing, such as the perception that everyone gives something at Christmas. This can also be a powerful motivator for behaviour as people do not like to be left out. Donating as a descriptive social norm may change the way we think about it from feeling like we need a reason to give to feeling like we would need a reason not to give.

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In research on other moral decisions, this change to thinking “why not?” rather than “why should I?” has been shown to increase chances of making the moral choice.

Social norms of both kinds are particularly powerful at determining behaviour when they are relevant to your group or identity. If you identify yourself as a generous person this feels incompatible with not giving when everyone else is, because our identity is often relative to other people.

A key element of Christmas is, of course, the Christian nature of the holiday. For those that identify as Christian, this will make the teachings of the religion, including generosity and giving, particularly prominent. The norm of giving within religious groups will promote donating as people are especially likely to join in with behaviours common to a group they belong to or people they feel similar to.

For those who do not identify as Christian, Christmas may still be a time when identity becomes more prominent than at other times of the year. The end of the year is often a time for reflection and many people will be thinking about their goals and resolutions for the following year. Desirable behaviours such as giving may be more likely at such times. Similar to the change from “why give?” to “why not give?”, the pressure of the end of the year and specific Christmas appeals may switch people from thinking “why give now?” to prioritising giving and ensuring a donation is made before the new year.

The decision of whether or not to give to charity always involves integrating lots of different factors. We can see this in the brain as areas which process empathy, social pressure, learning and guilt send inputs to the region thought to calculate the value of competing options to make a decision.

Research in psychology, economics and neuroscience has identified a range of factors which promote giving and some of these are likely to be particularly prominent at Christmas. The combination of donations with a specific impact, increased empathy for some causes, guilt, social factors and experiencing the warm glow of giving are all likely to play a role in the generosity associated with Christmas.


Editor’s Note: The warm glow of Christmas giving has deep roots, deeper than most of us thought. Have a merry Christmas and happy Holidays!photo-1510545973694-c3190af89c24

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    • Jo Cutler

      Thank you for commenting Abhishek and Pari – I completely agree that we should give all year round and most people do. I just think it’s interesting that at different times of the year we might be motivated to give for different reasons or to different causes but they are all deserving and important.


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