Christmas is a time to show how much we care about each other. For some however, it's important to exercise power.

The social gift system is suitable for psychopaths according to researcher

Consider this before accepting an expensive gift.

Very few believe that Christmas would be more enjoyable without presents, according to a report on Christmas gift trends from 2012 (link in Norwegian) by the National Institute for Consumer Research.

But in some cases you should think twice before giving or accepting a gift.

Not all good

Jan Ketil Arnulf has a doctorate in psychology and works as a professor at BI Norwegian Business School. He has done research on personalities.

Although many give gifts with great joy, gifts can also be used to manipulate or exercise control, Arnulf points out.

“Everyone is familiar with the feeling of receiving a sweater that you are forced to wear because you got it from someone in the family,” Arnulf says to

Social anthropologist and researcher Runar Døving has no doubt that gifts can be used to control and manipulate.

“Yes, of course they can. The social gift system is, after all, suitable for psychopaths,” Døving states.

Crazy aunties, bindings, and awkward atmospheres

“If you have a crazy relative who showers you with big gifts, you feel inferior. Even though you know you shouldn't feel inferior,” Døving says.

Maybe you want nothing to do with this person at all. In such cases, gifts can complicate the situation.

“People often try to hold on to people through gifts. The sociological system facilitates madness, absolutely,” Døving says.

In this sense, gifts are not an unequivocal good.

“It is clear that giving gifts can be tricky. There are power relations there,” Døving says.

If it's not relatives, it could be someone else. Sometimes the gift-giving ritual can simply get a little weird.

“Gifts can lead to strange interactions between people,” Jan Ketil Arnulf says.

Because gifts should, ideally, be a nice thing. But it doesn't always work that way, Arnulf says.

Then the atmosphere can quickly become awkward.

“Say you go on a date with a man and have a nice evening. If he then gives you a monetary gift at the end, you may end up feeling like a prostitute,” Arnulf says.

It is absolutely essential that the gift exchange is voluntary, he argues.

“For gifts to be positive, there must be equality and freedom in the relationship between those who give and receive gifts,” Arnulf says.

He believes that if you give something, or bind yourself to something by accepting a gift, the fun stops.


According to gift theory, giving gifts is about two things: Firstly, we use gifts to confirm relationships – to show someone that you are still good friends, close family or lovers. Secondly, we use gifts to establish relationships – to show someone that you want to become friends, lovers or develop an even better relationship.

“We use gifts to confirm or establish some kind of contact. That's how it has always been. Earlier, they brought gifts when they met the chief of a neighbouring tribe. It was to confirm or establish ties,” Svenn Torgersen, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oslo, says.

To put it simply, we can think of gifts as a reminder that you still love someone or a way to extend a hand to someone you want to have a close relationship with.

But what if that person doesn't want a close relationship with you? Or what if you don't have the opportunity to give back as much as you receive?

What actually happens then?

No gift is free

“I usually ask my students: ‘How long do you have to stand next to a guy who has bought you a drink?’,” Runar Døving says.

If you have accepted the drink, you cannot just leave. Legally, you can, but as a rule you have to stand and talk to the guy for a certain amount of time, Døving explains.

“If you are invited to dinner, how much does it take before you have to sleep with him? It is difficult to accept a gift without it becoming a contract,” Døving says.

By accepting a gift, you also accept a debt which you must repay at a later date.

“When you accept, you get an indirect debt. You feel that you have to give something back,” he says.

Gifts should be mutual

“That reciprocity can be asymmetrical, as between children and parents. Parents give a lot and get nothing directly in return, but they get love from, and power over their children,” Døving says.

Some will say that it isn’t a gift if something is expected in return. Is that wrong?

“It's quite clear that this is wrong,” Døving says.

According to the professor, there is no doubt that we expect to get something in return for a gift we give.

“There is no such thing as a free gift,” he says. “Gifts are binding. There is nothing to wonder about here. There are no free gifts.”

Mafia dynamics

“Gifts can be used both to control people and to put people in a debt of gratitude,” Jan Ketil Arnulf says.

This happens to a lesser or greater extent.

“Parents might say: ‘you're going to get a coat from me that you have to wear’ or ‘I’m going to get you something really expensive, but then I expect you to stand up for me next year’,” Arnulf says.

Runar Døving takes it a step further.

“All gifts are domination techniques,” Døving says.

A good example of this is the mafia system, he believes.

“Don gives all the time, and the debt you accumulate is your life. You receive your whole life, until you are needed, and then the commitment is total,” he says.

When you have asymmetric relationships – where only one person has the finances to give a lot – the person with poorer finances can feel that they are in ever greater debt.

“So not accepting anything is, of course, to be free, but then you don't have any friends either,” Døving says.

Should be an expression of creativity and hospitality

In many cultures where people are less transparent, you have to bring gifts almost everywhere you go, Arnulf says. They give away gifts all the time to signal that they are willing to commit to the relationship.

“It's not like this in Norway. When you give a gift here, it has meaning,” he says.

People in Norway who enjoy giving gifts, feel very free, and they like to nurture relationships by giving gifts. They like to make people feel seen, Arnulf argues.

“In many ways, gifts are a symbol of hospitality and creativity in our society,” he says.


Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik.

Read the Norwegian version of this article on

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