Science Busts Common Gift-Giving Myths

This holiday season, are you thinking about gifting a loved one a vacuum cleaner or gym membership but worry it’ll come across as unromantic at best, rude at worst? Researchers think your worries might be misplaced. Maybe.

Jeff Galak, an associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, Julian Givi, a doctoral candidate in marketing at at the university, and Elanor F. Williams, an assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University Bloomington, reviewed academic literature on gift-giving from social psychology, consumer research and other fields of study. The team identified a common reason people often stink at gift giving. And, they recommended ways we can give better gifts.

gift-giving myths pbs rewireWhen the gifts we choose flop, it’s often because there’s a difference between our focus and that of our recipients, the team points out in this review. As givers, we’re focused on the moment of exchange. We give gifts we think will bring our recipients happiness and pleasure, but recipients usually want gifts that are useful, Givi said. That’s because recipients focus on how they can enjoy gifts over time, how much value the gift will provide them, according to Givi.

When we’re giving gifts, there are rules we tend to follow–often unconsciously, the team said. Read on to find out the misguided reasons people buy bad gifts and how to avoid it.

1. We sometimes give flashy gifts in an effort to make the gift seem more desirable. Yet when we’re receiving gifts, practicality is king. This means if you’re choosing between giving someone a beautiful painting they could hang on their wall or a vacuum cleaner you know they desperately need, you might be safer going with the vacuum. (Just don’t be a jerk and buy it as a hint that they need to clean their apartment more often.)

gift-giving myths pbs rewire2. We tend to want to give tangible gifts that can be enjoyed right away, so we buy material items. Recipients often prefer experiential gifts though, such as concert tickets. Many gifts fall on a continuum between material and experiential, rather than strictly being one or the other, Givi said. For example, while a box of chocolates is a material gift, it’s also a very experiential one, he said.

3. As givers, we’d rather buy a lower quality gift that we can pay for outright than give our recipients money towards a similar but higher quality gift. After all, we want to give gifts that can be enjoyed right away. In a study, people were given the option of giving a pair of $5 headphones as a gift or $5 towards an $8 pair of headphones, according to Givi. They preferred to give the $5 headphones. It turns out, when people were asked which they’d rather receive, they went with the $5 toward the more expensive pair.

gift-giving myths pbs rewire4. Surprising recipients with unexpected gifts doesn’t always go well. You managed to swipe your little nephew’s wish list for Santa but now you’re thinking about getting him a surprise? You’re more likely to hear squeals of joy if you buy him that video game he asked for, even if you’re hoping that if you buy him rollerblades, he might go outside for a change.

5. Many of us are generous with our time or money when choosing a gift. We invest extra effort into shopping for people we care about, thinking they’ll pick up on this effort and it will add to the value of our gifts. However, research says this often doesn’t happen like we would expect.

Givers (think) thoughtfulness always matters, but it only seems to matter in one instance,” Givi said. “The thought only counts for recipients when they receive bad gifts.”

Even with bad gifts, recipients only notice the effort put into choosing the gift if there’s a “trigger,” which Givi said is “any sort of thing that could signal effort.” If we give someone a gift they don’t like but they know we made it by hand, for instance, they might appreciate our effort.

6. We try to give gifts that are special and unique, but the people we’re giving them to generally prefer something more general and versatile. This idea is the result of a study in which people could give a gift card to a person’s favorite store or a Visa gift card, Givi said. The result? People would rather give a gift card to the recipient’s favorite store, but they’d rather receive the Visa gift card.

gift-giving myths pbs rewire7. Rethink donating to charity in someone’s name. In a study, people could choose to donate to a random charity in a person’s name, Givi said. People didn’t value the idea of a charity receiving a donation in their name, however. Even though these gifts might make recipients feel warm and fuzzy initially, after the gift exchange recipients can’t really use or enjoy them.

To begin giving better gifts, start by choosing something that will provide your recipient with “happiness, enjoyment and utility,” Givi said. “Think about what you would want” and remember “the ownership component is what recipients prize the most,” he said. That might even mean giving your friend or loved one a gym membership, if you know they’re trying to exercise more.

And if you’re giving a gift that is likely to be great when it’s opened but quickly lose appeal? Don’t. If you’re tempted to give such a gift, Givi said you should ask yourself who you’re hoping the gift will benefit: you or the recipient.

Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]