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Will You Give the Perfect Gift This Christmas?

The psychology of giving and receiving gifts.....

This season many of us will spend a good deal of money in pursuit of the perfect Christmas present for friends and loved ones. The total cost of Christmas gifting has been estimated at 3-4% of people’s total annual income. So it’s worth knowing how to get it right.

In his book Scroogenomics Waldfogel claims that most people buy gifts that recipients would not choose to buy themselves. Consequently, recipients value the gifts at less than market price. This discrepancy between the true cost of a gift and the value attributed to it by a recipient he called ‘‘the deadweight loss of Christmas”.

But there’s more than just a financial cost to the failed gift. There’s also the cost of the damage that the wrong gift, one inappropriately chosen or undervalued, can do to a relationship.

So how do we get it right and choose gifts that will both justify the cost and add value to the relationship?

And, given that most people hide their true feelings when receiving a gift, how will we know if they really like it?

Research into the psychology of gift exchange by Professor Karen Pine, co-founder of Do Something Different, revealed a number of facts about failed festive gifts.

For example, in her UK survey:

  • 89% of women and 79% of men pretended to like a gift they hated
  • Half of all people had received at least one gift they hated the previous Christmas
  • Half of all people have lied to a loved one about a gift, pretending to like it

Pretence is, of course, born out of social-desirability, a strategy adopted to protect the giver’s feelings. Since humans engage in gift exchange in order to preserve social bonds, the wrong gift threatens to weaken or damage the emotional tie. No wonder then that many people experience feelings of anxiety when giving or receiving a gift. For example, in Pine’s survey:

  • 1 in 4 people said that giving a gift made them feel anxious
  • 1 in 5 people said receiving a gift made them feel anxious
  • Men experienced more anxiety than women, whether giving or receiving gifts.

Consequently people adopt behaviours aimed at hiding their true feelings when they receive a gift. Although only 12% of Pine’s respondents said they would tell the person directly that they disliked a gift, men were significantly more likely to do this than women. However Pine’s research showed that true feelings do leak out, in the non-verbal communication between the recipient and the giver of a gift.


  • People make more eye contact with the giver if they truly like the gift. If they dislike it they will avoid engaging in too much eye contact with the giver for fear of revealing how they really feel.
  • People produce a fake smile using only the mouth (not the eye) muscles when pretending to like a gift. It is hard to produce a genuine smile when feeling negative.
  • People will overtly display a gift they like. They will try it on, interact with it, show it off to others. On the other hand they will rewrap, put away or cover a disliked gift as quickly as possible.

So how can we avoid making the recipients of our offerings squirm on Christmas Day? There are three ‘rules’ about gift exchange when it comes to choosing the right present for that special person.

They are:

1. Appropriateness

A gift has an expressive value that indicates the depth of the relationship. Therefore a gift must be of an appropriate value and level of intimacy. It shouldn’t violate relationship boundaries by being too intimate or too extravagant for the current status of the relationship.

2. Empathy

A positive gift should be imbued with shared meaning, show understanding of need and signal a connection in the relationship. Failed gifts are often empty of meaning and show lack of understanding.

3. Effort

A successful gift will have required some effort on the part of the giver. Gifts low on substance and sentiment send out the wrong message. The best gift reveals an element of ‘giver’s sacrifice’, indicating that the giver thought the receiver worthy of some effort.

Habits can also underlie a lot of gift-giving behaviour. Although reciprocity is a strong component of the gift-exchange process, it can easily become habitual. With many people it reaches a point where they are giving gifts to people they hardly have little contact with, purely out of habit. Sometimes the relationship dwindles away but the gift-giving habit continues. In the spirit of Do Something Different it is healthier to renegotiate those habits now. Agree to stop exchanging gifts from now on. Simply saying to the other party ‘Shall we drop the presents from this year?’ may elicit a sigh of relief all round. If the relationship is really important, then do something different - put more effort into spending time with the person, instead of spending money on a gift that they may have to pretend to like!

I hope that the gifts you choose, and receive, this year will be sure to please.

More from Ben C. Fletcher D.Phil., Oxon
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