Rules of Gift Giving, Updated

Last year I wrote a blog, “Give Me Your Self: Gifts are Liked More When They Match the Giver’s Characteristics“, that looked at some research findings related to successful gift giving. Turns out, the advice offered may have been completely wrong.

In that study, the authors noted that research has shown that consumers mispredict other people’s preferences, and as a result they choose gifts that systematically differ from the products and services that recipients would be interested in receiving. The researchers found that consumers consistently liked a gift more when this was meaningfully tied to the defining characteristics of the giver.

Well jut in time (well actually a little late) for this holiday shopping season, there is new research that looks into successful gift giving.

The title of this report is “Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get“, and was conducted by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University (yea, my alma mater!)

This research suggests that the primary cause of discrepancies between a gift giver and recipient when evaluating the quality of a gift is that givers primarily focus on the moment of exchange, whereas recipients primarily focus on how valuable a gift will be once owned.

The researchers note that prior research has indicated that while gifts are typically given with the best of intentions, there can be major consequences for giving ill-chosen gifts. For instance, recipients become annoyed if a gift does not match their preferences, potentially weakening the relationship between giver and recipient. At best, a poorly chosen gift will irritate the recipient, and at worst, it may drive the giver and recipient apart.

Givers and receivers have different perspectives on what makes a gift “valuable”: Givers interpret that to mean that the gift will make the recipient feel delighted, impressed, surprised, and/or touched when he or she receives and opens it, whereas recipients find value in factors that allow them to better utilize and enjoy a gift during their subsequent ownership of it. Therefore, givers will prize aspects of a gift that make it seem optimal when initially gifted (e.g., surprisingness, desirability), whereas recipients will appreciate aspects of a gift that make it better to own (e.g., usefulness, versatility).

The authors examined seven gift-giving rules and point out what the issue is with each one.

  • Rule one: givers believe that gifts should be desirable, while recipients would prefer that gifts be feasible.
  • Rule two: gifts should be enjoyed immediately; givers believe that lower quality, but complete gifts are preferred, but recipients prefer better quality gifts, even if they are incomplete. For example, a giver may believe that a fully paid blender would be preferable compared to a voucher of the same value towards a better blender. The recipient would prefer the voucher.
  • Rule three: givers believe that gifts should be tangible, something material. Recipients would prefer a gift that is an experience, such as tickets to a game or a dinner certificate.
  • Rule four: givers believe that their gifts should be unexpected, that they should surprise the recipient. Recipients prefer gifts that they have requested.
  • Rule five: givers believe that expensive and thoughtful gifts are prferrred, but from the recipient’s perspective, thoughtfulness and price are unimportant.
  • Rule six: givers believe that their gifts should reflect their recipients, and so look for specific and unique gifts, such as a ggift card to their favorite store. Recipients, on the other hand, prefer general gifts and gifts that reflect, such as a Visa gift card that can be used anywhere.
  • Rule seven: givers believe that the gift should reflect the giver-recipient relationship. For example, givers believe that gifts like donations to charities on behalf of the recipient will be more highly appreciated. However, socially responsible gifts provide the recipient with little ownership value, and thus recipients are less enthusiastic about them than traditional gifts.

The authors put together a nice table summarizing these rules, and looking at them from the perspectives of the giver and the recipient (click on table to make it larger):


So what’s the bottom line? What can a giver do to maximize the effectiveness of the gift exchange process?

The authors suggest that the simple answer 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. Givers should try to put themselves in their recipient’s shoes, which will help them consider how gifts might provide value to the recipient once the wrapping paper comes off.

These results seem almost contrary to the results from the research I reported on last year, which concluded that the best approach to gift giving was to give a gift that reflected something the giver liked. The current research is suggesting that the giver think about what the recipient wants.

Hmmmm…… that’s one of the problem with research, sometimes you get contradictory results.

I’d have to go with the results of the more recent research. It just seems intuitively clear that a giver should think about the recipient’s desires over their own when gift giving.

Maybe that’s why no one liked the juggling equipment and books on logic puzzles that I gave last year. I, on the other hand, loved them…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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