Psychology of Gift Giving

Gift Giving

The holiday season is always coined as, “the time for giving”. We want to give people what they want, we want to help others, and we tend to feel pretty good about it, right? Research has shown that when we give gifts to others, our level of happiness, tends to increase. However, gift giving can be hard. We may not want to just buy the person another gift card this year, we want to get them something we believe they will really like. Maybe we find out from someone else what is it they do want, or maybe we go out and pick out something on our own we think they would like. This search for the “perfect gift” becomes even harder when our choices increase; but, maybe we can be a little more ready this year with new research that has come out in the psychology field!

Gift Giving To Others

An interesting study was published on how people feel about gifts they receive. Gino & Flynn (2011) examined how people felt after receiving Wedding Gifts, Birthday Gifts, Gift Lists, and giving of cash. When comparing these different groups and situations, the researchers analyzed how person buying the gift thought the recipient would appreciate it and enjoy it. They also looked at how gift recipients did actually appreciate gifts given to them, whether requested or not.

What they found was when someone gives a gift to others, they expect that whether the item was specifically requested or not did not matter, the participants assumed that each gift type was equally appreciated. When examining the thoughts of those who had received gifts, they found that gifts which were specifically requested were significantly more appreciated than those which had not been requested. When examining gifts of cash, gift givers were more likely to hold the belief that the recipient would prefer a physical gift, as opposed to cash. The study found that again, consistent with other results, the recipient, when requesting cash, would in fact prefer cash over a specific gift.

Buying for ourselves: Oh, the choices!

As explained in a recent article by Why We Reason author, Sam McNearney, our decisions become more difficult when we have more options. He explains an experiment, where people at a tasting counter were given the chance to taste one of six jams, versus a second study where participants were given the choice to taste one of twenty-four jams. They found that participants were about 1/3 more likely to buy one of the jams when given only a choice of 6, than those who tasted the 24. Sam adds…

Jonathan Haidt summarizes the implications of both studies best: “the more choices there are, the more you expect to find a perfect fit; yet, at the same time, the larger the array, the less likely it becomes that you picked the best item. You leave the store less confident in your choice, more likely to feel regret, and more likely to think about the options you didn’t choose.”

It would make sense then, that whether buying for yourself, or guessing for someone else, with all the choices that exist these days between tablets, cell phones, computers, etc… it can be very difficult to decide on, and be happy with a purchase choice when so many options exist.

In Sum…

When buy gifts for others this year, you may try asking the other person what it is they would like. Chances are they will appreciate it more, and may like that you taking the effort to ask them personally instead of guessing. If shopping for yourself, researching exactly what it is you want before you go may help narrow down the choices before you arrive at the store. Do you prefer gifts you request? What has worked out in the past with you in regards to giving and receiving gifts in the past – whether it be for the holidays, birthdays, etc.

Works Cited

Gino, F., & Flynn, F. J. (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology47(5), 915-922.

McNearney, S. (2011, Nov 25). [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

Psychology of Gift Giving
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