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The Psychology of Gift Giving: 3 Lessons

Research demystifies what types of gifts those closest to you will cherish.

With the holidays upon us, the season of gift-giving is officially underway. Gift giving is at once an ancient and ubiquitous practice and believed to build and nurture social bonds. Thus, selecting an appropriate gift for close relations is no casual task. Thankfully, psychological research can help in better informing and illuminating your choices.

Here are three research-based findings you might find useful as you search for the perfect gift:

1. Give the gift of experience.

The saying goes that it’s the thought that counts, but research shows that some gifts strengthen relationships more than others. Take a study in which participants were recruited together with a friend, with one person being assigned to be a gift giver and the other a recipient. Gift givers were given $15 and instructed to buy either an experiential gift or material gift for their friend. Experiential gifts included a pass to a barre class and movie tickets, while material gifts included a shirt, a poster, and a wine aerator.

Meanwhile, recipients were asked to rate how strong their relationship was with their friends. They were then told that they were going to receive a gift from their friend within three days, along with a link to a survey for them to describe the gift—and were once again instructed to rate the strength of their relationship with their friend. The results revealed that experiential gifts boosted the strength of recipients’ relationships with their gift-giving friends significantly more than material gifts.

2. Give a gift that reflects who you are.

It may seem counterintuitive, but research has found that gifts that reflect who the giver is increase closeness between the giver and receiver. Investigators conducted six studies in which they examined how “giver-centric” and “recipient-centric” gifts were perceived and made people feel.

For example, in one experiment, participants were asked to browse the iTunes library, choose a song, and send it as a gift to the receiver by email. Participants in the giver-centric gift condition were instructed to pick a song that “reveals your true self. That is, please select a song that reveals your true character, interests, or passions.”

By contrast, participants in the recipient-centric gift condition were asked to choose a song that “reveals your knowledge of the recipient. That is, please select a song that reveals your knowledge of the recipient's character, interests, or passions.” Afterward, recipients rated their feelings of closeness to the giver, how much they liked and enjoyed their gift, and how well the gift captured the recipient’s preferences.

The results were striking. When asked, participants reported overwhelmingly that they prefer giving and receiving a gift that reflects the recipient—but in actuality, giving a gift that reflects the giver's “true self” made givers and receivers feel closer to each other.

3. Give a sentimental gift.

When an object is emotionally-laden with associations to those who are close to us, it is said to have sentimental value. But how are such gifts received? Consider research that studied giving a sentimental gift vs. a gift that matched the recipient’s preferences.

Across three experiments, researchers studied participants' gift-giving beliefs. For example, friend pairs read vignettes that involved giving a preference-matching gift (i.e., a framed, 20-inch by 30-inch, high-quality photograph of the friend’s favorite musician) or a sentimental gift (i.e., framing a relatively low-quality photograph of them and their friend on an occasion in which they had fun together). The investigators also put romantic couples in the roles of gift-givers and receivers, had them write down the recipient's favorite store, and then select one of six sentimentally valuable items they believed the recipient would like the most. Then, the giver had to decide between giving their romantic partner either a $25 gift card to their favorite store (this was the preference-matching gift) or the item selected earlier (this was the sentimentally valuable gift).

Recipients were then asked about their feelings about the gifts. The overall findings were eye-opening: Givers do not give sentimentally valuable gifts as frequently as recipients would like, and this is likely because givers are unsure about whether recipients will like gifts that have sentimental value.

The writer Vera Nazarian has said that gift-giving is a "true art." However, the findings of these studies suggest it's a science, too.

Facebook image: RossHelen/Shutterstock


Cindy Chan and Cassie Mogilner (2014) ,"Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Relationships Than Material Gifts", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 42, eds. June Cotte and Stacy Wood, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 101-105.

Lara Aknin and Lauren Human. Give a piece of you: Gifts that reflect givers promote closeness Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 8-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.006.

J Givi, J Galak. (2017). Sentimental value and gift giving: Givers' fears of getting it wrong prevents them from getting it right. Journal of Consumer Psychology 27 (4), 473-479.

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