Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Does Regifting Have to Be a Bad Thing?

Why is there a stigma surrounding regifting?

The holiday season is upon us, and many people are spending time, effort, and money to find gifts for friends, family, and co-workers.  At the same time, if you look around your house, there are probably a few gifts you have gotten in the past that are still sitting unused in their original packaging.  Some of these (like the Shake Weight) probably deserve to gather dust.  But others are perfectly good gifts, they just don’t fit your lifestyle.  For those, it would be great to find those gifts a new home.

But, if you pass that gift on to someone else, you have become a regifter.  And giving a gift that you once received just feels wrong.

What causes this sense that regifting is the wrong thing to do?  This issue was explored in a fun paper in the October, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Gabrielle Adams, Francis Flynn, and Michael Norton. 

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The Science of Gift-Giving

The nuanced exchange of holiday gift-giving.

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They suggest that when a giver gives a gift to someone, the giver is focused on the gift up to the point that they actually give the gift.  Afterward, they are less focused on the gift.  The recipient of the gift, though, remains focused on the gift even after they have it.  As a result, recipients overestimate how much a giver will be offended if they pass along a gift to someone else.

In one study, for example, they asked people a hypothetical question.  They told some people to imagine they had just given a gift card to someone else.  Then, they find out that their gift has either been given to someone else or has been thrown away.  They were asked how offended they would be.  People were far less offended if the gift card they gave was given to someone else than if it was thrown away.

A second group was told to imagine that they received a gift card that they either regifted or threw away.  They were asked how offended they thought the giver would be if they found out what happened.  This group felt the giver would be equally offended to find out that the gift had been regifted or thrown away. 

So, recipients of a gift card are far more concerned about the taboo of regifting than givers are.

Is it possible to make recipients feel that regifting is more acceptable? 

In another study, participants were asked to bring a real gift they had received from someone else to the lab.  Some participants were simply asked if they wanted to send that gift to someone else.  If they said yes, then the experimenter wrapped the gift and shipped it to someone else.  Only 9% of participants agreed to regift in this situation.  Another group was told that it was National Regifting Day.  In this group, 30% decided to regift what they brought to the lab.  This finding suggests that knowing it is socially acceptable to regift makes people more likely to do it. 

A follow-up study to this one found that recipients also feel that the giver would be less offended if they found out that their gift had been regifted on National Regifting Day than if they found out it had been regifted without knowing about a holiday that celebrates regifting. 

Generally speaking, then, givers are far less offended by having one of their gifts regiven than recipients believe they will be.  So, the taboo about regifting is driven far more by the concerns of the receiver of the gift than by the initial giver.

Of course, there is a limit to this effect.  Many gifts are given without a huge amount of thought.  A gift card reflects the broad interests of the recipient, but it is not a deeply personal gift.  Many birthday gifts are selected quickly.  Sometimes, though, the giver has put a lot of time and effort into picking something personal.  Despite this time and effort, a giver might blow it and get something the recipient does not actually like.  In those cases, a giver might feel bad to find out that their effort was not appreciated. 

In those cases, I am curious how you would handle it.  Please leave some comments with your thoughts about regifting of something that you think was selected personally for you.

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Check out my book Smart Thinking (Perigee).  It is a gift you can give that is certain not to be regifted…

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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