It’s a truth universally acknowledged — and supported by social psychology research — that people like gifts. A gift doesn’t have to be something you buy, but to be a good gift it does need to check off a few boxes. What often gets in the way of the gift being great isn’t how much cash a person has — it’s the giver themselves.
That’s because givers and receivers often have different thoughts on what makes a gift valuable. In the 2016 study review “Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get,” researchers write that, while gifts are typically given with the best of intentions, there can be a mismatch between what givers and receivers are hoping to get out of the exchange. Givers typically hope someone will feel impressed or delighted when they see what they got. Receivers typically think about how the gift will affect their life in the future.
This study states that gift-givers typically want to wow the receiver with an unexpectant present — but surveys indicate that what people really want are a) things they’ve asked for and b) things they can use. In this case, “use” can take on a variety of meanings — an activity to attend or an item to enjoy at home — but what “use” doesn’t mean is being left with the feeling, What am I supposed to do with this?
Gabriele Paolacci, an associate professor at the Rotterdam School of Management who’s studied gift giving, tells me that it’s important to think less about impressing someone at the moment of exchange and more about the accumulated happiness that gift can bring over time. But he emphasizes that thinking about gift value in the long term doesn’t mean we should prioritize material, durable gifts. Experiences can bring a lot of happiness, too, and can be savored long after they’ve happened.
“Think concretely about what the recipient might enjoy owning or doing, and how they will think about it after a while,” Paolacci says. “We can be surprisingly selfish and myopic as givers — focusing on how we as givers will be looked at by the receiver when they receive the gift.”
It’s better, Paolacci says, to really focus in on who the receiver is. If you really can’t figure that out, then it’s okay to think about yourself — but in a different way. Paolacci’s research suggests people who receive gifts appreciate them even more if they also reflect the giver’s persona in some way.
" Even when quality is hard to evaluate, the receiver may trust that they’re receiving something good."
He says that in situations where you don’t know the receiver well enough, or you know you simply can’t get them the gift that would match them best, then looking at your own tastes is a good gift-giving strategy. We know more about the things we enjoy — so if, say, you love chocolate, you’ll end up getting a person some really good chocolate because that’s your thing.
“The receiver should appreciate the higher quality,” Paolacci says. “Even when quality is hard to evaluate, the receiver may trust that they’re receiving something good.”
And if the person really is a butthead about what you get them after you’ve taken the time and effort to choose something you think fits, maybe you shouldn’t be so concerned. Studies show that gifts can help strengthen relationships, but they can’t turn a bad relationship into a successful one. Ultimately, receivers have to appreciate the giver’s effort as well — an act that works as a nice bow atop an equal exchange.