5 Gift-Giving Dilemmas Answered with Science

Giving a gift always seems like both an art and a science. As I write this, Christmas is looming, and I’ve almost finished by shopping. I’ve been giving gifts for years, but it’s strange how it never seems to get any easier. Each year, it’s a new creative challenge to give a gift that will be appreciated (and one that I want to give!)

christmasiconpromoThe more perceptive among you will realize that this challenge includes a lot of psychology–the psychology of gift-giving. First, there are the thoughts and feelings of the gift giver and then there are the thoughts and feelings of the gift receiver, and then what the giver thinks the receiver is thinking, and then when the receiver opens the gift, it’s what that person thinks the giver what thinking…it’s all very complicated.

Social psychology to the rescue! Although “gift giving” has yet to occupy full chapters in introductory textbooks, there’s been some research on the topic in recent years. Some of the early work looked at the gift shopping process itself to understand who does it and who likes it. One study, for example, found that women are more involved in Christmas gift shopping than men are (although men who hold more egalitarian values tend to be more involved than more “traditional” men).

But I was interested in what psychological science has to say about gift-giving strategy. So, behold! Answers to your burning gift-giving questions, based on social science data!

(Or watch this video based on some of this post.)

1. What Should the Gift Say About Me?

psychology of gift-givingIn general, you can think of two strategies for buying that “perfect gift.” The first strategy is to be “recipient-focused,” which means you look for a gift that reflects the qualities of the person who will receive it. For example, if I buy a book by my friend’s favorite author (even if I don’t personally like it), it would be a recipient-focused gift.

The second strategy is to be “giver-focused,” which means you look for a gift that reflects who you are. So if I buy my favorite book for a friend because I want to share something of myself with him, that’s a giver-focused gift.

In a series of studies, published this year, researchers found that people overwhelmingly think they prefer recipient-focused gifts. Most of the time, those are the kinds of gifts we buy for people, and those are the kinds of gifts we think we’d most like from other people.

Their studies revealed a surprising pattern, though. Even though people thought they preferred recipient-focused gifts, it was actually giver-focused gifts that brought people closer. It seems as though there’s greater meaning in a giver-focused gift. So the next time you’re gift shopping, try to find something that lets you share something of yourself with the person to whom you’re giving a gift.

 2. How Much Should I Spend?

In short—don’t worry about it too much. This is one of those times when gift givers get wrapped in something that gift receivers don’t actually care about. In one set of studies, researchers found that when people were considering what gift they should get for another person, they believed that the other person would appreciate the expensive gifts more than the inexpensive ones.

In reality, when you look at the gift recipient’s actual appreciation for the gifts, the price wasn’t a factor. Appreciation didn’t depend on the sticker price.

So although there are practical concerns to consider, the price shouldn’t be the guiding force behind your gift decisions. If you pick a more expensive gift, don’t do it just because it costs more—do it because you think that’s the gift the other person will appreciate.

3. Should I Just Ask What They Want?

Sure, some of the fun in giving gifts is trying to come up with the perfect gift and surprising the other person with it. I know I often hesitate to accept people’s wishlists because I want all the glory of coming up with a great gift…but is that really the best strategy?

Researchpsychology of gift-giving shows that people appreciate a gift more when it’s something they explicitly asked for than when it’s something they didn’t ask for. This is one case of gift givers and receivers not being on the same page. Givers assume that people will like requested and unrequested gifts about equally. Receivers, on the other hand, show a clear preference for getting gifts that they asked for directly. So, when it’s time to buy a gift, check in to see what the other person actually wants first.

Bonus Tip! If you are a gift receiver (maybe it’s your birthday), how can you subtly convince people to get you something you ask for instead of leaving it up to them? Well, one of the studies in this paper reveals one trick: just ask for one thing.

Results of the study showed that if someone gives us a list of things he or she would like, we fall into the same false belief that they would be just as happy with something that’s not on the list. But if someone gives us one thing that he or she would like, we’re more accurate in realizing that the person would probably like getting that one thing better than something else we come up with on our own.

4. What Happens if I Pick a Bad Gift?

Okay, this might not actually help with your gifting decisions, but it’s an interesting effect of gift-giving. As you might have assumed, the gift you give to someone says something subtle about the connection you share with the other person. Of course we all stand strong behind the saying “It’s the thought that counts!” but there’s still value in making sure the other person likes their gift.

Research by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues found that people who receive good gifts end up seeing themselves as more similar to the gift-giver. In other words, if I get you a great gift, you’ll end up assuming that we have more in common with each other than if I had gotten you a terrible gift. That is, however, if you’re a man.

Interestingly, this good gift = similarly effect only happened for male recipients. In one study, when men thought that their romantic partners had gotten them a bad gift, they started to think they weren’t as similar to one another, which ultimately made the doubt the relationship’s longevity.

Take this as you will, but it may be worth knowing what your gifts might signal to other people!

5. Is it Okay to Re-Gift Something?

Among the various unwritten social rules, this one ranks up there with double-dipping. If you get a gift from someone, is it okay to turn around a give it to someone else as a gift? Even as I write it, it seems so morally reprehensible! While I can’t act as your personal conscience, I can tell you what some recent research has found.

psychology of gift-givingIt’s another classic giver-receiver asymmetry. In general, the research has shown that as recipients of a gift, we feel way more guilty about re-gifting something than the people who gave us the gift in the first place. In other words, if I gave you an Amazon gift card for Christmas, I would be pretty ok with you giving it to someone else as a gift, but you would probably think you’re betraying me.

Over a bunch of studies, this pattern played out. It seems that when people give a gift, they’re saying, “you get to use this however you want,” but when we receive a gift, we instead feel like it’s still tied to the giver.

So go forth and re-gift! No need to feel overly guilty about it. Of course, if it’s a hand-knit sweater, you might think twice[1]  Mostly because you never know what people’s sizes are these days, am I right!?, but in general, know that it’s not the same moral transgression as you think it is


Looking for a gift to give someone? Any of my online psychology courses can be given as digital gifts using the Udemy online education website. Just click on any of my courses and choose “Give as a Gift.” Lifetime access to video lectures and exercises? Sounds like a good gift to me!


Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   Mostly because you never know what people’s sizes are these days, am I right!?

4 thoughts on “5 Gift-Giving Dilemmas Answered with Science

  1. My Mother -in -law gave my daughter a couple dozen Madame Alexander dolls when she was very young. My daughter played with them and when she outgrew them we stored them in a box for years. Now that she’s an adult she’s been selling the dolls online to help fund a trip. Her grandmother is livid and can’t believe she didn’t give the dolls back instead of selling them. This seems ridiculous to us and yet we can’t make her understand. What’s going on with her?

  2. Although research might indicate the giver cares less about regifting, you put the recipient in the position to feel guilt. In my opinion, I would not want to subject the recipient to psychological suffering? As the author states, make the gift say something special about you or the recipient and eliminate the guilty feelings altogether.

    p.s., I conducted an informal, non-scientific, study on regifting. Five of the five first customers to walk into my store were asked how they feel about their gifts being regifted. Their reactions ranged from mild displeasure to avoid at all cost. I’m not convinced givers care less about regifting as the research suggests.

  3. Good post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I
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