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What Makes a Great Gift?

A reflection on the holiday gift-giving season of 2016

All the research in the world on trends and fashions will never allow us to get it quite right. On the surface, it seems so obvious: if you want to get someone the perfect gift, the best way to do so is to ask them what they actually want or need. However, for some reason, our culture has developed a norm where asking a loved one what he or she wants as a gift is considered taboo. Somehow doing so is thought to be unromantic and uninspired. After all, if you have to ask, you probably don’t know the person getting the gift as well as you should, right? Not quite. A litany of research in psychology has shown that people are not nearly as talented at knowing the preferences of others as they think they are (e.g. Hsee and Weber 1997). So is it fair to expect that we can perfectly know what someone else might want without asking them? Probably not. However, by failing to ask, we have doomed ourselves to making what my colleagues and I have found to be the most common error in gift giving.

In a recent paper, Eleanor Williams, Julian Givi and I (2016) reviewed about 20 papers that documented errors in gift giving and found a common theme: givers try to put a smile on the faces of recipients right at the moment of the gift exchange, but recipients don’t really care about this. Instead, recipients care about how useful a gift is when they actually possess and use it. Unfortunately for all of us givers, we hold a belief that to put a smile on a recipients face, we need to somehow surprise them (Gino and Flynn 2011). But it is exactly those surprises that result in unwanted gifts. Yes, a bride and groom may be quite surprised and thrilled (for the moment) when they open the unrequested embroidered designer napkin set, but it is likely to sit in a drawer for decades without providing any value to the couple. In contrast, that iPad they asked for on their registry, while expected, is something the couple will use daily and get plenty of joy from for years. Somehow, we have been tricked into thinking that the best gift isn’t one that is actually wanted, but rather one that is somehow unusual and “special.” Unfortunately, that just isn’t what the research says is true.

To follow up on this idea, I conducted a very simple survey earlier this week asking about 130 participants to reflect on the best gifts they gave and the best gifts they received this past holiday season. Though most gifts (62%) were unrequested, when people thought of the best gift they received, 42% said that the best gift was requested. In contrast, only 32% of those who gave gifts, gave a requested gift. In other words, givers were about 10%-points less likely to give requested gifts than they should have. Interestingly, for the 58% of respondents who said that the best gift they got was unrequested, the vast majority (~80%) never provided their requests to anyone. In other words, had those individuals told their friends what they wanted, I suspect that even more would say that the best gift they got was one that was requested.

So what are we to do with this? The simple answer is: in 2017, make sure to ask what your friends want and tell your friends what you want! Of course, this advice is a bit simplistic. Just because the research tells us to ask, doesn’t mean that doing so feels right or is easy. In that case, here are two more suggestions. First, you could ask someone else to do the asking for you. That way, you not only get to give a gift that is actually wanted, but get to look as though you were more thoughtful in doing so. Second, if that doesn’t work for you, think of other ways to surprise your friends and loved ones, while still giving them what they want. For instance, my wife and I have a shared google doc that lists all the things we’d love to receive as gifts. The catch is that we seldom tell each other when those gifts will be purchased and gifted. In doing so, we still get to keep that element of surprise, but always get each other gifts that are wanted and well received.

Finally, when thinking about gift giving more generally, it is important to consider why we give gifts in the first place. There are, in fact, a number of reasons for gift giving. The most obvious is to please the recipient. However, for many of us, gift giving is a far more self-focused enterprise. We give so that we can look good doing so. The reason we give a surprising, but unwanted, gift is because we think that it will make us look like thoughtful people. After all, if you get lucky and get the perfect gift, you really do look great doing so. The challenge, is that we seldom get that lucky. If, instead, we really focused on the recipient, as I believe we should, surprises would be far less prevalent, and far less underwhelming. Instead, we would take the time to find out what our friends and loved ones actually want and give those items as gifts. If we really care about those closest to us, next time, we’ll be sure to ask them what they want.

This blog post is based, in part, on a paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science; Galak, Jeff, Julian Givi & Elanor F. Williams (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(6), 380-385


Hsee, C. K., & Weber, E. U. (1997). A fundamental prediction error: Self–others discrepancies in risk preference. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 126(1), 45.

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(6), 380-385.

Gino, F., & Flynn, F. J. (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(5), 915-922.

About the Author
Jeff Galak Ph.D.

Jeff Galak, Ph.D., is an associate professor of marketing at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, studying human psychology and consumer behavior.

Jeff Galak
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