Christmas represents special moments that, throughout history, have brought people together - whether those are spending time with family or unwrapping thoughtful gifts from loved ones. But what is it that makes Christmas feel like Christmas?
Let’s unwrap this a little, with three key insights from behavioural science:
Christmas is a time of tradition – It’s a time of seeing family, catching up with friends, spending days in a familiar setting, eating familiar foods, and generally enjoying home comforts. For many of us, the argument over what to watch on TV is also a familiar feeling.
Regardless of what you (dis)agree to watch, there are a few things that most people look forward to watching at this time of year. One of those things is the annual John Lewis advert. Many await in eager anticipation to see what the cute characters and theme will be. So how did John Lewis become so synonymous with the warm, fuzzy feeling of Christmas and holiday time?
Known as the mere exposure effect, when people are repeatedly exposed to something, they eventually start liking it more because of its familiarity. This is because people feel a warm glow when they are in the presence of things that they are familiar with. In one study, famous psychologist Robert Zajonc found that the more participants were exposed to certain Chinese characters and made-up words, the more favourably they responded to them. Even though these words had no meaning to the participants, merely exposing them to the words multiple times was associated with greater liking, due to familiarity.
By being consistent with their advert structure and sentiment, John Lewis has built up people’s familiarity with their brand. As a result, not only do people start to like the brand more, but they also start to expect to see it during the holiday period, further strengthening the connection between Christmas and the brand.
2. Prosocial spending
Gift giving can be a way of communicating a thank you, an apology, a declaration of love, or just a kind gesture to say: ‘thinking of you’. Did you know that the mere act of giving to others is part of what makes us happy? Studies have shown that when people spend their money on other people, they feel significantly happier than when they spend it on themselves.
This explains why we feel such Christmas cheer when shopping for presents. In fact, studies show that even buying for your pets induces greater happiness than buying for yourself! Your dog does deserve a treat after all…
As well as Christmas shopping and all the other exciting festivities, Christmas can be a time of reflection for many people. From a young age, we’ve learned that Santa has a ‘nice’ list and a ‘naughty’ list. How nice have you been this year? Can you redeem your niceness quota for the year now?
People often tend to be more giving during the holiday period compared to the rest of the year. This adjustment in moral behaviour is known as guilty repair. Guilty repair occurs when people have been unfair in a particular situation, so their guilt about the situation motivates them to fix the problem or compensate for having been unfair. During Christmas, people often evaluate themselves and feel guilty for not having given enough during the year. So, it’s not surprising that we see charities’ Christmas appeals and heart-warming stories of people’s kindness at this special time of year.
ALDI has cleverly leveraged these sentiments of generosity and prosocial behaviour in their Christmas advert this year by teaming up with footballer Marcus Rashford and pledging to donate 1.8 million meals to families in need over the festive period.
3. Saintly Sinning
Somewhat contrary to the prosocial guilty repair phenomenon is the Christmassy-sounding notion of ‘saintly sinning’. This is another type of moral self-regulation which goes in the other direction, such that people who behave in a prosocial way permit themselves to be selfish because they’ve been good all year round.
In a study on moral regulation, psychologists found that when people’s positive qualities are emphasised, they are much less likely to donate to charity than when their negative qualities are emphasised. This is because when they feel like they have been good people, they feel licensed to act immorally. The insights from this study suggest that people often use Christmas as a way to rebalance their lives.
Have you been sensible all year? Well, now is the time you can finally give yourself permission to indulge in the food, festivities, and frivolities which you have been saving up for!
Tesco’s Christmas advert this year - “Nothing’s stopping us” - capitalises on the concept of saintly sinning and is about going all out and not letting anything stop you from doing what you want to do. Enjoy a fun-filled festive season regardless of the efforts it takes – you deserve it!
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, the holiday season can be a special time for anyone who wants to take part in the joys of togetherness and indulgence. The key to happiness at Christmas lies in both prosocial and individual behaviours- spending wisely can be a gift in itself.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1150952.
Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners: The paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological science, 20(4), 523-528. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02326.x.
Skatova, A., Spence, A., Leygue, C., & Ferguson, E. (2017). Guilty repair sustains cooperation, angry retaliation destroys it. Scientific reports, 7(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep46709.
White, M. W., Khan, N., Deren, J. S., Sim, J. J., & Majka, E. A. (2021). Give a dog a bone: Spending money on pets promotes happiness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.1897871
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2, pt.2), 1-27. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0025848.