The Social Psychology of Christmas: interview with UniSR-Social.Lab

Christmas, especially in Western society, seems to be incredibly anticipated: already several weeks before December 25th, streets, shop windows and shopping centers are adorned with lights and decorations, advertisements dispense purchasing advice, and the time of the gift rush is approaching more and more inexorable. According to social psychology, how do we perceive this atmosphere? And how do we react to these pressures? We asked Dr. Simona Sciara, a former student at the Psychology Degree Course of our University and Official Member of the UniSR-Social.Lab, the research laboratory in Social Psychology of the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, and to Prof. Giuseppe Pantaleo, Full Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the Laboratory.

ONE GIFT, MANY SOCIAL FUNCTIONS

Prof. Pantaleo introduces: “From the social psychology point of view, the gift helps several functions: it allows to establish social bonds, to maintain them, to reinforce them, or even to crack them in case of a not properly appropriate gift. Sometimes, for example, an expensive gift made to a person who cannot afford to reciprocate can also create inconvenient situations”.

Although it may seem paradoxical, those who receive a gift in these situations – Dr. Sciara points out – are not always happy to receive it, because the gift can create psychological dependence, especially when social norms impose having to reciprocate. The positive aspect of the holiday is accompanied by a growing frenzy due to pressing deadlines, the custom of having to give gifts, also worrying that they are commensurate with what we believe to be others’ expectations”.

Photo credit: ShutterStock
Photo credit: ShutterStock

THE REACTANCE PHENOMENON

With the progressive growth of these social “impositions”, we tend to react by showing psychological reactance. Prof. Pantaleo explains: “Borrowing a term of the engineering lexicon (reactance is an electrical phenomenon), in 1966 Jack Brehm1,2,3 stated that a person is motivated to free himself from social obligations and impositions when he perceives as limited his freedom to choose how to behave. The Christmas rush, the obligation to be good, buy gifts, participate in family gatherings and so on, could therefore be self-perceived as forms of constraint and limitation of our freedom, to which we will try, more or less consciously, to react and resist”.

The main limitation is having to correspond to other people expectations. “Expectations arise from the set of social norms that guide us, channel us, direct us, are socially built and shared. However, they inevitably impose a “code of behavior” that limits the freedom of individual choice” Dr. Sciara adds. “I cannot give a shoddy gift, because I would disappoint the expectation of those in front of me, and so I will necessarily be forced to make a gift that meets certain standards. It is a normal phenomenon that can happen to each of us”.

Photo credit: ShutterStock
Photo credit: ShutterStock

“WHEN ARE YOU GRADUATING””: CHRISTMAS TIME, EVALUATION PERIOD

Dr. Sciara explains: “During cyclical events, such as Christmas, people tend to make a sort of analysis of their lives”. Pressed by the uncomfortable questions that typically come from indiscreet family members (“Have you finished your university exams?” “Did you graduate?” “Do you already have a job?” “When are you getting married?”), we are forced to compare the “ideal self”, what we want to achieve, with the “real self”, what we have actually achieved. “Since the “ideal self” is an “ideal” social product by definition, we will always notice a discrepancy between what we would like to be and what we are, and from this evaluation we will come out punctually defeated; we will feel that we have not achieved our goals, as shown by years of research conducted under the guidance of the theory of objective self-awareness of Wicklund and Duval4. As a reaction, we will be pushed to compensate for the feeling of “lack” towards ourselves through the use of symbols: if I fear to be considered a loser, I will tend to make an expensive or important gift, which possibly redeems me in my eyes, and in the eyes of others”.

Photo credit: ShutterStock
Photo credit: ShutterStock

THE TIPS FOR THE PERFECT GIFT: THE ROLE OF MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES

What are the tips from social psychology to make a spot-on gift?

Prof. Pantaleo replies: “To make a good gift it is essential to grasp the other person’s point of view. In UniSR-Social.Lab we deal, among other things, with studying the dynamics of emotional and motivational processes in interpersonal relationships, also from the point of view of the theory of multiple perspectives (Wicklund & Pantaleo5). When the cognitive and emotional systems interact appropriately, we have the clarity to take into consideration what the other person might like, to assume his perspective (“multiple” because everyone has his own point of view).

Photo credit: ShutterStock
Photo credit: ShutterStock

However, this lucidity is the first to fail in the presence of pressing commitments and stressful situations, for example with the approaching deadlines and Christmas expectations: there is a tension such that some of the so-called “higher” cognitive functions, like for example the ability to take on the other’s perspective, quickly begins to malfunction. What is the risk of making gifts under pressure? The pressure generates a cognitive-motivational conflict, which can push us to buy inappropriate gifts, as not supported by the ability to take “multiple perspectives”, but by the rigid belief that such gifts will have to be a pleasure since, from our own egocentric perspective, it could not be otherwise”.

So what is the answer?

The best gifts, the brightest and most spot-on, come more frequently to mind when you are away from anniversaries (Christmas, birthdays, etc.), because it is precisely in those moments that we feel less pressure to make the gift” Dr. Sciara concludes. “The suggestion is to keep our eyes open: if we find something that brings us back to that person, that makes us exclaim “He/she would like it!”, let’s buy it and keep it aside until the moment of delivery. Having had ample opportunity to put ourselves in his/her shoes, in all probability, that will be the right gift”.

  1. Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York, NY: Academic Press.
  2. Miron, A.M., & Brehm J. W. (2006). Reactance Theory – 40 Years Later. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 37, 9-18. doi:10.1186/1479-5876-8-25
  3. Sittenthaler, S. et al. (2015). New Directions in Reactance Research. org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000221
  4. Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self awareness. Oxford, England: Academic Press.
  5. Pantaleo, G., & Wicklund, R. A. (2000). Multiple perspectives: Social performance beyond the single criterion. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 31(4), 231-242. doi.org/10.1024//0044-3514.31.4.231

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