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The psychology of gift giving (and receiving): some last-minute advice

It can be good for a relationship to give someone a gift that says something about you rather than about them.

Still have some last-minute gifts to buy this holiday season? Are you struggling for ideas?

In a recent podcast for the British Psychological Society (BPS), psychologist and science writer Christian Jarrett interviewed several people who have researched different aspects of the psychology of gift giving. He wanted to find out if their findings could “help us navigate the somewhat tricky business of giving and receiving presents.”

What he uncovered may surprise you. Here are two highlights:

  • It can be good for a relationship to give someone a gift that says something about you rather than about them.

That finding comes from a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In one of the study’s experiments, more than 100 students were asked to choose a musical track on iTunes to give to a friend, relative or romantic partner. Half were instructed to choose a track that “reveals your knowledge of the recipient.” The rest were told to make a selection that “reveals your true self.”

Which type was the biggest hit with the recipient?

“When we contacted … those who had received the song, they reported feeling closer to the giver when getting a song that actually reflected the giver rather than themselves,” says Lara Aknin, a co-author of the study and a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, in the BPS podcast.

That finding runs counter to conventional wisdom. Why?

“Point one is that we could get it wrong when trying to give a gift that we think reflects the other person,” says Aknin. “But the flip side is that we might actually feel closer when we give gifts that reflect ourselves because essentially you can think of it as offering a piece of yourself to the recipient, kind of sharing your interests and passions. We know from past research that acts like this of self-disclosure can bring people closer together and can just, in and of itself, make the person who’s sharing things about themselves feel good.”

But, warns Aknin, don’t overdo it. Her study’s findings come with an important caveat: The experiments involved a one-time gift exchange.

“It could perhaps come to backfire in the long term if you are constantly giving gifts that reflect you,” she says. “It might show a non-interest in other people, and could just, unfortunately, signal a sense of narcissism. 

  • Consider how close you are to someone before giving that person a socially responsible gift.

The reception you get for giving a socially responsible gift, such as a donation to a charity in the recipient’s name, will depend on the closeness of your relationship to the recipient, according to research by Lisa Cavanaugh, a consumer psychologist at the University of Southern California.

For a study that appeared earlier this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Cavanaugh and her colleagues conducted three separate experiments in which socially responsible gifts were exchanged among people who knew each other at various levels of closeness.

The experiments revealed that if the recipient perceived the gift giver to be someone close to them, they were more likely to appreciate the socially responsible gift. But if that person was not a close friend — just someone they saw often — they tended to view the gift less favorably.

Bottom line: Think twice before giving a socially responsible gift.

“Definitely consider your relationship closeness,” Cavanaugh tells Jarrett in the BPS podcast. “If this is a person who you know very well and who you are very close with, there is a much greater likelihood that you are going to hit the mark and choose something that they like. But also they are probably going to be more forgiving because of that social closeness. They’ll be more likely to think, ‘Oh, they must have been thinking of me when they chose this gift.’”

“We tend to be more favorable in interpreting other’s behavior when we are close to them because we are motivated to do so,” she adds. “But when we’re distant from someone, that motivation isn’t as likely to occur and we may not be as good at taking the perspective of that gift recipient.”

You can listen to the BPS podcast for more psychology-driven insights about gift giving (and receiving).

But hurry. You have only two more shopping days left.

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