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How to avoid common gift-giving ‘errors’

“At best, a poorly chosen gift will irritate the recipient, and at worst, it may drive the giver and recipient apart,” write the authors of a new paper.

That urge to buy something that would make the moment of gift giving exciting rather than to think about how often the gift would be used and enjoyed in the future is one that many people have when shopping for others.

I recently went shopping with my daughter to buy a Christmas gift (from me) for my 4-year-old grandson. I picked out a set of magnetic blocks to add to a set he already has — a toy he enjoys and plays with often.

But then my eye caught a particularly large, ferocious dinosaur with a movable mouth. Wow. That would really light up his face, I thought.

“Maybe I should get him a dinosaur instead,” I said to my daughter.

“He’d like either of them,” she said. “But although he’d be more excited about the dinosaur when he unwraps it, he’d play with the blocks a lot more.”

A common error

That urge I had while in the toy store — to buy something that would make the moment of gift giving exciting rather than to think about how often the gift would be used and enjoyed in the future — is one that many people have when shopping for others.

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But it’s an urge that also leads to one of the most common errors that people make when selecting gifts, according to a paper published last week in the journal Current Direction in Psychological Science.

 “The biggest mistake that people make is that they end up thinking about gift giving as a gift giver, instead of from the point of view of a recipient,” said Elanor Williams, a co-author of the paper and a social psychologist at Indiana University, in a released statement. “They often end up neglecting important things for the recipient, including their preferences.”

“The recipient obviously matters, but it’s a lot harder — for givers — to think about them than it is to think about yourself, and I think that’s where a lot of mistakes come from,” she added. “They get stuck in this role of being a giver and have a hard time getting out of it and thinking like the recipient does.”

Weakening relationships

I don’t want to make anyone more stressed out then they already are this holiday shopping season, but according to previous research discussed in the paper, giving “ill-chosen” gifts apparently has some “major consequences.”

“For instance, recipients become annoyed if a gift does not match their preferences, potentially weakening the relationship between giver and recipient,” Williams and her colleagues write.

“At best, a poorly chosen gift will irritate the recipient, and at worst, it may drive the giver and recipient apart,” they add.

Myths that lead to ‘errors’

After conducting an analysis of the existing research on the psychology of gift giving and gift receiving, Williams and her colleagues identified several myths that can lead to “errors” in gift giving. Here are their explanations of some of them:

  • Myth: Gifts should reflect their recipients.

Givers prefer to give gifts that are tailored to reflect the recipient, like a gift card to the recipient’s favorite store, whereas recipients prefer more versatile gifts, like a Visa gift card that can be used at any store. This may be because givers focus on recipients’ distinctive traits, whereas recipients are perhaps more aware of their numerous, diverse wants and needs. Givers also sometimes pass up gifts that are best in an absolute sense to instead select gifts reflecting a recipient’s unique traits. For instance, a Pittsburgh resident who loves the Pittsburgh Steelers but also likes the Buffalo Bills might receive a Bills jersey from his neighbor, who knowingly chooses it based not on the recipient’s strongest preference but on his unique (relative to other Pittsburgh residents) preference for the Bills. Giving unique gifts to individual recipients feels more thoughtful to the giver but ultimately can provide the recipients with inferior gifts.

  • Myth: Givers should surprise their recipients.

One mismatch occurs when givers predict recipients’ appreciation of explicitly requested (e.g., a gift on a gift registry) versus unrequested (e.g., a gift thought of by the giver) gifts. Givers think recipients appreciate both kinds of gifts equally; however, gift recipients are more appreciative of gifts they request, because they think such gifts are more thoughtful.

  • Myth: Gifts should be tangible. 

Givers typically opt for material gifts, like an iPad or a sweater, but recipients derive more happiness from experiential gifts, like tickets to a basketball game or a nice dinner out. Givers may opt for material gifts because they require less knowledge of the recipient. 

  • Myth: Givers should be generous.

Givers err in predicting how much recipients value the resources expended to obtain a gift. Givers believe the amount of thought they put into a gift plays a significant part in the recipient’s assessment of that gift, when the gift’s absolute quality matters more. Givers know how they chose a gift, but recipients need a “trigger” to consider the giver’s efforts. Givers and recipients also differ in the importance they place on a gift’s price. Givers think that more expensive gifts seem more thoughtful; recipients do not.

  • Myth: Gifts should symbolize the recipient’s relationship with the giver.

Gift givers overestimate how much recipients, especially more distant friends, appreciate socially responsible gifts. Givers believe that gifts like donations to charities on behalf of the recipient will be more highly appreciated than they are because givers focus too heavily on the idea that the charitable gift symbolizes commitment to their relationship, especially for friends they do not yet know well. Though the notion of signaling commitment to a relationship certainly involves both givers and recipients, givers incorrectly believe that recipients prioritize a gift’s potential to reflect or even strengthen their relationship with the giver, when they actually prefer gifts they can personally use and enjoy.

Making wiser choices

So, in summary, how can givers choose better gifts this holiday season?

 “The obvious answer,” Williams and her colleagues conclude, “is that givers should choose gifts based on how valuable they will be to the recipient throughout his or her ownership of the gift, rather than how good a gift will seem when the recipient opens it.”

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Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I didn’t buy that huge dinosaur for my grandson. I stuck with the magnetic blocks. But I’m thinking of going back to the store to buy a smaller (but still scary) dinosaur to stick on top of the wrapped present.

I’d still like to see that added bit of excitement on his face when I hand him the gift.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the paper on the website for Current Direction in Psychological Science, but the full paper is behind a paywall. The journal is published by the Association for Psychological Science.