Many of us recognize that familiar feeling of eagerly tearing open a carefully wrapped gift box only to reveal a terrible woolen sweater, a creepy figurine with vacant eyes or a set of crystal “knife rests” for the dinner table. But what makes for a good gift? The answer is very different, depending on whether you ask the gift giver or receiver. A study published this month in Current Directions in Psychological Science highlights the disconnect between the gifts we actually want and the ones we want to give, and offers some insights that may come in handy this holiday shopping season.
Psychologists have long known that we often struggle to predict other people’s preferences, and according to study co-author Elanor Williams, a marketing professor at Indiana University Bloomington, our egocentricity may be to blame. We tend to first focus on our own point of view, and then expand our thinking to consider the views of other people—a strategy that doesn’t always work. “That process is not supereasy,” she says.
Gift giving, of course, is all about taking someone else’s perspective as we try to anticipate what another person might want. A wealth of previous research has chronicled people’s various gift-giving mistakes and offered up dozens of different psychological explanations, which is where the work of Williams and co-author Jeff Galak, a marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University, comes in. “It seemed like there might be some sort of basic, underlying mechanism that drives all these errors,” Galak says, “And we wanted to understand what that was.”
The authors sifted through the literature of gift-giving and used common themes to develop a simple, unifying explanation for our gifting ineptitude: As gift givers, we tend to focus on the gift exchange itself, eagerly anticipating the warm feeling we get when we see the other person’s face light up with joy on opening our present. By contrast, gift receivers focus more on the gift itself: Is it useful? Is it wanted? Will it end up stashed in a closet until it can be returned or re-gifted?
Galak explains that this mismatch emerges not because we as gift givers do not think about the recipient’s point of view, but because we focus on the wrong time period. “[We’re] using the perspective of the moment of exchange,” he says, “As opposed to saying, what will it be like a week after I give this person the gift? Are they still going to be enjoying this?”
There are many ways that our obsession with the gift exchange can lead us astray. For example, we are inclined to pick fun gifts over useful ones, opting for a whimsical item that will make for an enjoyable reveal even though the recipient may not have much need for it in the long run. Williams describes a recent occasion when her parents gave her a five-pound serving plate made of salt, a gift she describes as “neat and extremely impractical.” “I thanked them profusely, and then I promptly returned it to the store and bought an electric teakettle,” she says, “Which is not an interesting gift, but it's something that I use basically every day—and every time I use it, I think of them.”
Our fixation on the “big reveal” can also push us to give a surprise gift rather than sticking to the list or simply asking the recipient for suggestions. “Gifts are meant to be surprises—we wrap them, have people open them,” Williams says. “But a surprise is kind of risky in that if the person doesn't know it’s coming, it might not be something that they really want.”
Gift expense is another place where we may miss the mark. We assume an expensive item is the most surefire way to impress whereas most gift recipients care less about being dazzled in the moment and more about getting something they can use or enjoy afterward. Galak encountered this situation when he received a $250 Hermés baby bib after his daughter was born. “In reality we would have much preferred something like a 10-pack of cheap baby bibs from Kmart that we could actually use,” he says.
Most of us do want to give good gifts, however—we just tend to get sidetracked along the way. So how can we improve? Williams suggests focusing less on our role in the gift exchange, and more on the person’s ownership of the gift afterward. “In some ways you have to give up a little bit of your vanity,” she says, “and be okay with giving a gift that might not feel like a good gift but actually is, in that it matches the person's preferences.”
Galak says the best strategy may be to simply ask people what they want. “There's a misconception that the best-received gifts are the ones that are unexpected, but that's just not true,” he explains. “The best-received gifts are the ones that best match what the recipient actually desires.”
Research on gift giving may feel a little frivolous, but as Williams points out, gift giving is something we do all the time. Galak adds that it plays an important social role—giving gifts can help us ingratiate ourselves with others and strengthen social bonds. There is also a more practical reason to up our gift-giving game—every holiday season, we shell out hundreds of billions of dollars on presents. “If we’re doing that,” Galak says, “We might as well get it right.”