Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

To Regift or Not to Regift, That Is the Question

Rethinking the rules on regifting?

I admit it: I’m a chronic regifter. 

There are few things in life that give me more pleasure than finding a new home for an item that’s just taking up space in my house.  So one of my kids gets a birthday present she already has?  She may see disappointment, but I see opportunity.

What’s that, honey, you already have one of those? I’m so sorry. Why don’t you pass it over to Daddy. Oh, and sweetie, keep the plastic wrap on there.

Regifting rules.  (In fact, literally so—yes, there are actual websites devoted to the rules of regifting, efforts to spell out the social norms governing acceptable and unacceptable practices in this area.) Why am I fan? For one, there’s the environmental/sustainability aspect to it. Also, it’s doubly productive: I can clear up the clutter in my living room plus save a trip to the toy store to buy a $20 gift for a kid we barely know.

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OK, so I’m also a cheapskate. There’s that too.

However, as much as I enjoy the regifting process, I’m fully aware that not everyone shares this sentiment. As far more conscientious people, such as my wife, have noted, the whole idea behind giving a gift is to demonstrate to the recipient that you’re thinking of them, not just to cross another item off the to-do list. 

She makes a reasonable point. But did I mention that I’m saving 20 bucks here?

Clearly, though, the psychology of the regift is more complicated than my unfettered enthusiasm above would indicate. And as is often the case with such matters of human nature, few have articulated the complexity better than Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David:

So there’s a sitcom take on the psychology of regifting, but does behavioral science have anything to say on the matter? Thanks to a just-published article in this month’s Psychological Science, the answer is yes.

In a series of studies, researchers from London Business School, Stanford School of Business, and Harvard Business School examined the perceptual processes that lead to societal taboos regarding regifting. Their findings indicate that, indeed, the practice is frowned upon in certain quarters, but perhaps not as much as you suspect.

Specifically, they found that receivers—those individuals asked to imagine themselves being given a gift—report viewing regifting as offensive. In fact, when asked whether it would be worse for them to throw the gift in the trash or to regift it, receivers rate the two actions as equally problematic. They assume that the gift giver will be just as upset to learn that the item has been destroyed as they would be to learn that it was given to a third party.

But the research also indicated that these fears are unfounded, or at least, exaggerated.  Because when you ask givers about this very scenario—how offensive would it be if someone regifted their gift versus if someone threw it away—they’re much less upset about the regifting.

Similar findings emerged when the researchers looked at actual behavior. In this study, participants came to the lab along with two friends. The participant then selected one of three available items to gift wrap and present to one friend, who was then given the opportunity to regift the item to the third friend.

As the authors describe it, these studies reveal an asymmetry how givers and receivers react to regifting. And it’s driven by another asymmetry in how they think about entitlement: givers think that the act of gift-giving passes on to receivers the right to do with the item what they please; receivers, on the other hand, worry that the gift-giver still retains some say in how the gift gets used.

So in the great regifting debate, empirical data can be found to support both sides. Yes, there is a taboo against regifiting—like Elaine Benes, original gift-givers might be offended to learn that their present has been recycled (not to mention yet another complication unexamined by these studies, namely how the second receiver of a regift feels upon learning the history of the item). But this taboo isn’t as strong as we assume it to be.

As for me, I’m sticking with the regifting, especially when it can be done without anyone knowing that it's happening. It’s satisfying in much the same way that I find eating leftovers for lunch—what could be more productive than clearing out space in the fridge and saving the effort of packing a new meal? Of course, I’m the only one in my family who feels this way, so I more or less hold a Tupperware monopoly at my house. If the same holds true for regifting, so be it.

 

(For more amusing life lessons from the science of Seinfeld, click here)

Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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