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The Biggest Mistake Gift Givers Make

We overrate the moment people open our gifts, and underestimate everything else.

Kamil Macniak/Shutterstock
Source: Kamil Macniak/Shutterstock

Just in time for the holidays, a trio of social scientists have reviewed decades of research on the psychology of giving and receiving gifts. The new study was published in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science by lead author Jeff Galak of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, along with co-authors Julian Givi and Elanor Williams.

The results show that there is one big mistake people make more often than any other when they are selecting gifts. This major misunderstanding results in at least seven mismatches between what gift givers think their recipients want and what the recipients really want. Those mismatches can be often be easily corrected, and then recipients don’t have to pretend to like their gifts—they will actually like them.

The mistake gift givers most often make is to focus too much on the moment when the recipient opens the gift. They want that wow factor. They want recipient to be surprised, dazzled, and impressed by the expense of the gift or by the giver’s apparent understanding of what makes the recipient unique.

The problem is that the recipients of gifts typically care about more than just the experience of opening the gift. Instead, recipients value gifts they can use and enjoy throughout the entire time that they own it.

Here are seven examples of the mismatch between what gift-givers think other people want and what other people really want:

  1. Gift-givers like to give material things like gadgets or cool clothes. It is fun for them to see the recipients open those gifts. But many recipients prefer gifts of experiences, such as a gift certificate to a restaurant or tickets to a game.
  2. Gift-givers like to select gifts that can be fully enjoyed immediately rather than gifts that unfold over time. But many recipients prefer the opposite. So, for example, givers prefer to give a smaller bouquet of flowers that are in full bloom over a bigger bouquet of buds. The flowers look more beautiful and more dramatic. But recipients often like to see their buds blooming over time—because they get to enjoy the gift for longer.
  3. Gift-givers think that the more thought they put into a gift, the more the recipient will appreciate it. They believe that their thoughtfulness will be evident to the recipient when that person opens the gift. But recipients can’t always tell how much thought went into a gift.
  4. Gift-givers like to surprise recipients with their own choice of a gift, even when the recipient has a registry. The givers think that the gifts they choose will be more surprising and seem more thoughtful. Recipients, though, often prefer the gifts they already selected and listed on their registry.
  5. Gift-givers think that more expensive gifts seem more thoughtful. Recipients don’t generally judge thoughtfulness by the price of the gift.
  6. Gift-givers like to select gifts that show how well they know the recipient. For example, they might buy a gift certificate to the recipient’s favorite store. Recipients, though, often prefer more versatile gifts, such as a gift card that can be used at any store.
  7. Gift-givers like to choose high-quality gifts that seem impressive, even if the gifts are not easy to use. Recipients often prefer gifts that are not a hassle to use or figure out, even if they are somewhat lower in quality.

To read about single life, the usual topic of this “Living Single” blog, check out this collection of blog posts and other articles, organized by topic.


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.

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