The psychology of gift giving

“It’s the thought that counts” is a phrase we often hear during the gift-giving season.

In fact, the thinking process behind the act of giving and receiving gifts is a compelling subject for psychologists and marketing professionals.

Their evidence-based research can help to diffuse holiday shopping stress, made more challenging by the uncertainty of the pandemic.

We give to impress

In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants were asked to imagine giving or receiving a restaurant gift certificate from either an upscale dining establishment located an hours’ drive away, or from a less expensive spot closer to home.

The results revealed that folks preferred to give the pricey restaurant gift card. Those on the receiving end would rather get the more convenient option.

But a sensible choice doesn’t mean that a gift can’t be creative.

Consider the experience of Tyler Harris, a San Diego teacher of digital media arts, who remembered the time he got it right.

Harris wanted to buy the perfect Christmas gift for his socially active mother.

She had moved to Florida, into a new home with a swimming pool equipped with waterfall features and a hot tub.

“She’s all about her pool,” Harris said. “I’m not good at giving gifts but I came up with the idea of getting her a pool float of some kind. Then I looked at options. At first, I got a rainbow but I canceled the order. It was too small and it only had four cup holders. I needed a giant, rideable thing.”

Harris shopped for the “most ridiculous and extravagant pool float” he could find. He finally ordered a gigantic, inflatable dragon, decorated with stars. It couldn’t be delivered until a few days after Christmas. So before Dec. 25, he sent his mother a bag of jelly candies shaped like sea creatures with a message that said they were food for her actual gift. And it was going to be large.

“She freaked out because she thought I was going to give her a live animal,” Harris said. “When it came in the mail, this giant, shiny, inflatable dragon — she loved it.”

Gift-giving gone bad

The holiday film “Four Christmases” is a comedy that is all about misguided giving. In one segment, a son tries to impress his cranky father by replacing his TV antenna with a satellite dish — and falls off the roof trying to install it.

It illustrates how our biases can corrupt the act of giving. Studies show that an egocentric bias, or thinking that someone will like what you like, results in a less-than-desirable outcome.

Sometimes gifts are given with strings attached, or worse, they are meant to insult.

Sometimes gifts are given with strings attached, or worse, they are meant to insult.

Angela Townsend is a North County legal professional who often works 10-hour days, leaving no time for meal preparation.

She recalled when her ex-mother-in-law gave her a vegetable peeler for Christmas.

“I threw it out,” Townsend said. “A woman’s destiny is not in the kitchen. I was offended, and furthermore, I hate cooking.”

Sarah Newman, the managing editor of PsychCentral, writes, “True altruism means unselfish devotion to others’ welfare.”

Newman suggests that we be mindful of what we accept from others and to ”make sure it doesn’t conflict with living your truth.”

Consider the options

Denver psychologist and Harvard University graduate Susan Heitler suggests a two-point method for giving gifts.

First, clarify underlying concerns, such as affordability and equality. If there are multiple grandchildren, for example, it’s a good idea to consider experiences the group might enjoy, like a trip to a museum rather than individual material gifts.

Then, do some exploring and consider what would match the recipient’s interests and personality.

Do tell

A 2011 report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology revealed that gift recipients most appreciate getting gifts they specifically request.

Also, they are more likely to get a gift they desire if it’s one option.

The report stated that wish lists give too many options and gift-givers lean toward buying a present of their own choosing.

A meaningful gift can cost a little or a lot but ideally, it will strengthen a relationship.

A meaningful gift can cost a little or a lot but ideally, it will strengthen a relationship.

The best sort of gift will say “I care about who you are,” not “This is who I want you to be.”

Or “I know what you like” rather than “Here is what I think you should have.”

During the season of giving, those are the thoughts that really count.

Manna is a freelance writer.

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