3 Mistakes We Make as Gift Givers and How to Correct Them

Research shows we don't give the gifts we actually want to receive. Here's why.

Posted Dec 15, 2017

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All of us have given and received hundreds, if not thousands, of gifts. So why is it that as gift givers we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again? Because the gifts we want to give are not the same as the gifts we want to receive. In an effort to make gift giving a little less stressful and more pleasurable, here are three gift-giving mistakes we make due to our giver-centric focus and how to correct them.

1. It’s NOT the thought that counts.

There is a mismatch in our preferences for giving and receiving gifts. When we are acting as gift givers, we believe that a thoughtful, surprising gift is the best kind. Many people spend hours and hours searching online and in stores for the perfect gifts that their family members didn’t even know they needed, hoping to elicit a squeal of joy when the surprises get revealed. We think that this is the perfect gift to give, but it’s not. Why? Because when we are the gift recipients, we really just want to receive a gift we like. We have done all the thinking about which item would make us happy and put it on our wish list. We know that opening a box with that much-desired item will make us happy, even if it isn’t a surprise. This disconnect between our goals as a gift giver and as a gift receiver causes much strain and disappointment come gift-opening time. 

Of course, there are some people who value sentimentality over a product. My mom is one of those people. Her top item on her wishlist would be "something sentimental." So for her, the thought DOES count in as much as she loves receiving homemade, time-intensive, thoughtful gifts like photo albums or written letters. But I don't really see these research findings as contrary to her preference for sentimentality; My mom does put a wish list together for us and I know she enjoys receiving the scarf she put on that list more than a not-quite-right scarf we spent hours hunting down for her based on what we thought she'd want. 

The bottom line: Save yourself some time and stress and know that picking a gift from someone's Amazon wish-list doesn’t make you a bad gift giver. Most likely it will make you a great gift giver because you are giving the person exactly what they want. And if you went off-road this season when buying your presents, try to temper your expectations for how happy the recipient will be when receiving a gift that resulted from out-of-the-box thinking.

2. More is not always better.

Every year people spend more than they should on gifts, operating under the assumption that costlier gifts are better. Especially around the Christmas holidays, people spend more money on gifts than the recipients would be willing to spend buying it for themselves, believing that the expensive gift will be greatly appreciated. Research suggests otherwise. While people believe that more expensive gifts will garner more appreciation because bigger, nicer gifts are seen as a more thoughtful gesture, there is evidence that when people receive a gift the price doesn’t actually factor into how appreciative they are. For example, in one study, people who imagined giving an iPod as a gift (this was back in 2009) thought the recipient would be more appreciative than those who imagined giving a CD (again, 2009). However, people who imagined receiving the iPod were no more appreciative than those who imagined receiving the CD. And research on people’s feelings in response to actual gifts (even ones as expensive as an engagement ring) shows the same pattern of misperception.

A few caveats to note about this research - this work didn't look at repeated gift-giving, such as giving a present to a family member who receives gifts from you every year. The cost of the gift may play a bigger role if you usually give very nice gifts and suddenly one year spend much less on it (or the reverse). People develop expectations, and expectations impact gratitude. Expectations can play a role even with a one time gift. If your partner expects a certain type of engagement ring and you give them something worth much less or much more, than the value might matter. 

The bottom line: When making a choice about what gift to give, don’t fall into the trap of believing that spending more will necessarily make the gift mean more, and definitely don’t spend more on an item than it is worth (worth is determined by how much the gift recipient values it, not it's price tag).

3. Give for the long term.

When we pick out gifts to give, we tend to think about the moment of reveal and try to pick a gift that will “wow” the recipient and provide immense immediate enjoyment. When we are receiving gifts, however, we are more focused on the long-term and think about the practical utility of the gift. When asked what types of gifts they would want to receive, people tend to prefer gifts with practical value. That fancy new toy with little use is fun to open but will end up gathering dust in a corner before long, while new sets of work pants seem relatively boring to the giver but will be worn and appreciated every single day.

One way this mismatch in giving and receiving gifts hurts us is that we are less likely to give experiential gifts, like theater tickets or a gift certificate to a restaurant, because they provide a less immediate reward. However, in the long run, these experiential gifts can be more rewarding.

The bottom line: When picking out a gift, don’t just imagine the recipient’s enjoyment in the moments right after they open the gift; imagine how much enjoyment and use they will get from the gift over the long term. It's OK to give the gift of an experience that provides no immediate benefit but will be very enjoyable down the road. If you want the satisfaction of seeing them enjoy the gift, ask them to send a picture to you when they cash in on it!

Want it all? Give them the gift they want, and pair it with something small (remember, money doesn’t equal thoughtfulness!) and thoughtful from you. This thoughtful type of gift may have the biggest impact if it actually reflects who you are—research shows that while we think we want to give and receive gifts that reflect the gift recipient, we actually feel closer to people when they give us gifts that reflect the gift giver (themselves). If you are giving a gift that reflects who you are, just make it clear why you are giving it to them—tell them you are giving them your favorite book or jar of jam. This type of gift fosters closeness and connection.

More posts on gift-giving and enjoying the holidays:

References

Flynn, F. J., & Adams, G. S. (2009). Money can’t buy love: Asymmetric beliefs about gift price and feelings of appreciation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 404-409.

Aknin, L. B., & Human, L. J. (2015). Give a piece of you: Gifts that reflect givers promote closeness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 8-16.

Galak, J., Givi, J., & Williams, E. F. (2016). Why certain gifts are great to give but not to get: A framework for understanding errors in gift giving. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 380–385.