When we blow the budget on Christmas presents, we tell ourselves that we're just being very generous. But that's not true - it's just a lie we tell ourselves in order to hide the real reasons for our overspending.
There are five reasons why we spend too much on presents - buried deep in our psychology - and none of them are particularly nice.
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We use Christmas as a way to feel better about our relationships with people, according to Devin A. Byrd, Chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at South University, Savannah. Apparently if we work too hard and don't see our family as much as we'd like, we tend to lavish them with gifts in an unconscious effort to demonstrate what all this hard work is for. Similarly, if we haven't visited far-flung friends and family, we are apt to overspend in order to make it up to them. Clearly this isn't a sensible solution. We need to deal with the guilt either by remedying whatever we feel guilty about, or forgiving ourselves for the fact we can't do everything.
Barry Schwartz, author of The Social Psychology of the Gift, argues that we want the gifts we give to leave the recipient (and everyone else who is watching) with a positive impression of us. When someone buys a lavish gift, it isn't purely out of kindness, it's also because they want to be seen as someone who gives expensive gifts - and they want the status associated with both wealth and generosity.
Given that the generosity of our gift giving will affect our status, we're not just driven by pride - and the desire for more status - but also by fear. We are worried that giving something too small (or smaller than the gift they give us) will damage our status, and as a result, we over-spend.
Schwartz points out that gift giving is traditionally reciprocated, so we know the more gifts we give, the more we will receive. If we have an enormous pile of presents, we feel we are loved by many, and in order to get an enormous pile of presents, we have to give an enormous pile of presents - which is an expensive business
Shopping can easily become a compulsive activity. The raised heart rate, the adrenaline, and the endorphins keep so many people coming back for another hit, long after they have run out of cash. At other times of the year, we may be able to keep a lid on our spending - feeling too guilty to indulge too often. At Christmas we have an excuse - it's for someone else - so we can dress up the thrill of shopping as generosity and kindness instead of hedonism bordering on addiction.