The Psychology of Gift Giving...

Gift giving can be a simple joy or a source of stress. We want to give gifts that bring happiness to the recipient, but we know they can fall flat or end up being returned, discarded or re-gifted. When we laugh at Johnny Carson’s quip about there being only one fruitcake in the world that just keeps getting re-gifted, it is because we too have both received and given our share of duds.

The challenge behind giving is that it really is hard for us to step into the shoes of another and think like him or her. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely says, “We are all partial prisoners of our own preferences and have a hard time seeing the world from a different perspective.”

According to Ariely, there are different kinds of gifts – and things easily can go awry. There are gifts that are straight economic exchanges, and there are gifts that attempt to strengthen social connection (not too big or too personal, but appropriate). Then there also are “paternalistic” gifts -- when we give recipients the music we like, the books we think they should read, and the things we think will improve them (“uh, thanks for that weight loss program and those yoga classes – not”). And there are the gifts we would like to have ourselves but feel too guilty getting (“you shouldn’t have. . . I didn’t even know I was dying for that golf club membership”).

Research has shown that givers and recipients often aren’t on the same page:

  • Givers think recipients prefer an expensive gift to an inexpensive one, but there is no relationship between the cost of the gift and how much it is liked or appreciated.
  • Recipients typically assign a value lower than retail price to the gifts they receive.
  • Recipients appreciate getting a gift they asked for more than one they didn’t ask for, but givers like giving an unrequested gift.
  • Givers think money is less preferred than other gifts, but recipients often appreciate it more than other requested gifts.
  • Gender differences also come into play: Men prefer practical gifts and focus on cost, while women focus on emotional significance. Women tend to accept gifts readily, while men are more likely to feel an obligation to the giver.

All gifts carry implicit messaging about the value we place on a relationship and the way we view a recipient – and that can convey warmth and strengthen ties. But gifts also can inadvertently force an identity onto a recipient that is uncomfortable. That’s why certain kinds of gifts, like clothing, are fraught with risk. They can say a little too much about someone’s age, style, or appearance.

But let’s not get too obsessed about all the things that can go wrong. Instead, we should focus on the truly wonderful thing about gift giving: That we give because we enjoy giving and are wired to be generous.

Here is what one study from 2006 found: When test participants were offered the opportunity to receive up to $128 all for themselves, or choose to donate part of that sum to charity, all the participants chose to donate – a healthy average of 40% of the sum. What’s more, there was evidence people got pleasure from both giving and receiving. Brain scans showed that neural activity picked up, as expected, when participants received the gift of money. But there was even greater neural stimulation – and in more parts of the brain -- when people donated. 

So the truism about it being better to give than receive rings true. And so does that other truism about it being the thought that counts. A review of the studies on gift giving shows that the meaning of gifts comes not from their monetary value but from the time and calculation that goes into them. When we make the leap to try to think like another person, and we succeed in showing that we understand what makes him or her singularly unique, perhaps that is the greatest gift of all.