Marcel Mauss and the psychology of gift-giving

Today we celebrate the birthday of Marcel Mauss (10 May 1872 – 10 Feb 1950), the French sociologist and anthropologist best known for his work on social exchange and gift-giving. His most famous book is ‘The Gift’ (1925).

Mauss had very interesting views about gifts and gift-giving that really makes you re-evaluate the whole custom of giving gifts. His main argument is that gifts are never free. History shows that gifts almost without exception give rise to reciprocal exchange, or at least the expectation thereof. So his basic research question became “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”.

This is a complex question with an equally complex answer, and according to Mauss it has to do with the fact that a gift engages the honour of both the giver and receiver. It becomes an almost spiritual artefact. The gift is irreversibly tied to the giver – in Mauss’ words, “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.”

The gift - a simple gesture resulting in complex interpersonal social bonds. (© All Rights Reserved)
The gift – a simple gesture resulting in complex interpersonal social bonds.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Because the gift is so tightly linked with the giver and receiver, the act of giving implies an important social bond, obligating the receiver to reciprocate with a return gift. Not acting on this obligation results in loss of honour and status, and in some cultures may even have detrimental spiritual implications – in Polynesian culture, for example, failure to reciprocate the gift-giving is said to result in a loss of one’s spiritual authority.

What is particularly fascinating in Mauss’ theories is the idea that, unlike something that changes ownership by getting bought and sold, a gift is forever bound to the giver. It never fully changes ownership – it is almost as though it is only given on loan, hence the difficulty of selling, or even giving away, something that was gifted. This also affects the need to reciprocate – by gifting something in return effectively repays the ‘gift-debt’. Now of course the returned gift is again irrevocably tied to the giver, and so a surprisingly strong social tie is created between two people who have exchanged gifts – they effectively own a piece of each other.

All this ‘baggage’ related to a gift really complicates the apparently simple act of giving a gift to someone, doesn’t it? In a way I feel Mauss’ theories over-complicate the whole gift-psychology, but when you think about it, it does really make sense. And while the responsibility to reciprocate feels like a negative concept, the idea of a strong social tie being created between gift-exchangers is quite nice, especially when you exchange gifts with loved ones. Perhaps the whole reason for exchanging gifts is to strengthen the bond between people.

So, next time you consider giving someone a gift, remember that you are entering into a significant social bond. But it’s not a bad thing – it’s exactly these social bonds that form the basis of our larger social cohesion. Gifts link you to others, weaves you into the social fabric of your community, and ties you to loved ones.

So don’t stop giving!

Individuality versus the ‘group mind’

Moving our focus to the social sciences, today we commemorate the birthday of social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (7 May 1841 – 13 Dec 1931). Le Bon is best known for his book, ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’ (1895, English translation 1896), a study of the psychological characteristics of crowds.

Le Bon’s explanation of crowd behaviour was based on two main propositions: (1) that people in a group adopt a ‘group mind’, and (2) that this group mind is irrational and emotional. He also held the opinion that the emotions and will of an individual can spread through a group like a virus, taking over the collective emotional state of the group.

In groups, according to Le Bon, the normal control mechanisms that regulate an individual (social norms, values, ethics), are broken down, allowing the group to act in ways that would have been unacceptable to any of the individuals within the group.

Groups and crowds often act in ways that are markedly different to how the members of the group would have acted individually. (© All Rights Reserved)
Groups and crowds often act in ways that are markedly different to how the members of the group would have acted individually.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Le Bon’s theories on crowd behaviour gained popularity in the early part of the 20th century, with people like Wilfred Trotter (‘Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War’) and Sigmund Freud (‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’) popularising and expanding various aspects of his work. As such, Gustave Le Bon is rightly considered one of the key figures in the theory of group psychology and group dynamics. Group dynamics has since found application in anthropology, political science, psychology, sociology, epidemiology, education, business, social work and communication studies.

Political theorists found Le Bon’s theories particularly fascinating. It is said that Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ exploited the group propaganda techniques first proposed by Le Bon. Benito Mussolini was also a keen student of his work, as was Theodore Rooseveld. Edward Bernays, in his book ‘Propaganda’, considered the manipulation of the ‘group mind’ through media and advertising, to be a major feature of democracy.

I find the idea of the ‘group mind’, and how it can override the individuals within a group, fascinating, and frankly more than a little scary. While intergroup dynamics can have constructive application in things like team sports and certain work settings, I am just too much of an outsider to feel comfortable being absorbed into a group mind. At the same time I know I am being manipulated daily into group thinking through advertising etc – quite a scary thought.

Perhaps today is a good time to remind ourselves about the dynamics of the group, to re-evaluate the pros and cons of being a team player, and to critically assess how individual will can be superseded by the group mind. And perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look critically at our surroundings, to try and avoid becoming so caught up in the crowd that we lose our unique individuality.