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The Psychology of Gift Giving

The Psychology of Gift Giving

Giving gifts can reveal how people think about others, what they value and enjoy and how they build and maintain relationships.

Researchers are exploring several different aspects of gift-giving and receiving, such as how givers choose gifts, how gifts are used by recipients, and how gifts impact the relationship between givers and receivers.

This all will be explored during a symposium, “The Psychology of Gift Giving and Receiving,” during the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Convention in Long Beach, Calif., slated for Feb. 26-28, 2015.

Presenters will include researchers Andong Cheng, Meg Meloy and Evan Polman, who surveyed 7,466 Black Friday shoppers in 2013. The shoppers reported that 39 percent of the items they purchased were for individuals they considered “picky.”

Cheng and her colleagues confirmed that shoppers are less motivated, and likely to employ effort-reducing strategies when choosing gifts for people they believe to be picky. Gift givers are more likely to give gift cards, or forgo a gift altogether for a picky recipient, according to the study’s findings.

According to their research, however, there is an upside to being picky: Shoppers are more likely to purchase an item the picky recipient specifically requests. The study, “Picking Gifts for Picky People: Strategies and Outcomes,” found that less picky people have a higher chance of receiving items they don’t want, while picky recipients more often get what they want.

Also presenting at the symposia will be Chelsea Helion and Thomas Gilovich, whose study, “Mental Accounting and Gift Card Spending” looks at how people perceive and spend gift cards.

Gift cards, it seems, hit a sweet spot; they have the flexibility of cash, but are given and meant to be spent as gifts.

“While gift cards technically could be used to buy mundane things like textbooks or paper towels, we find that this feels like a misuse of the card,” Helion said. “When paying with a gift card, people forgo buying everyday items in favor of buying indulgent items.”

The researchers found that when individuals receive a gift card, they are more likely to purchase hedonic items — luxury items that are meant to bring pleasure. When individuals are given a gift card instead of cash, they feel a justification to buy something that’s out of the ordinary, according to the researchers.

“We find that this is because individuals experience less guilt when paying with a gift card, compared to credit cards or cash,” Helion said.

Also presenting at the symposia will be Mary Steffel, Elanor Williams and Robyn LeBoeuf, whose new research has found that gift-givers tend to choose gifts that are personalized to the recipient, but are less versatile than what the recipient would like to receive.

This mismatch arises because givers tend to focus on recipients’ stable traits rather than recipients’ multiple, varying wants and needs, according to the researchers.

“Givers tend to focus on what recipients are like rather than what they would like,” Steffel said. “This can lead them to gravitate toward gifts that are personalized but not very versatile.”

The tendency for givers to choose overly specific gifts may contribute to gift nonuse, according to the researchers’ study, “Giver-Recipient Discrepancies Contribute to Gift Card Non-Redemption.”

“Recipients take longer to redeem gift cards that can only be used at a particular retailer or that come with a suggestion for how they should be used than gift cards that can be used anywhere,” Steffel explained. “Givers fail to anticipate this and favor specific over general gift cards.”

To give a gift that is more likely to match a recipient’s preferences, the researchers recommend that givers focus more on what the recipient would like, rather than focusing on their unique traits.

Lastly, people frequently struggle with what kinds of gifts to give, leading to an overwhelming number of top 10 gift lists and online guides that aim to improve your relationship with the receiver. Researchers Cindy Chan and Cassie Mogilner will offer some guidance in their presentation, “Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Relationships Than Material Gifts.”

“To make your friend, spouse, or family member feel closer to you, give an experience,” Chan said.

Experiments examining actual and hypothetical gift exchanges in real-life relationships reveal that experiential gifts produce greater improvements in relationships than material gifts, regardless of whether the gift is consumed together, the researchers discovered.

According to Chan and Mogilner’s research, the relationship improvements that recipients derive from experiential gifts stem from the emotion that is evoked when the gifts are consumed, not when the gifts are received.

Giving experiential gifts is identified as a highly effective form of prosocial spending, and can have a greater impact on improving the relationship between the giver and receiver, the researchers conclude.

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology

Sharing a gift photo by shutterstock.

The Psychology of Gift Giving

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). The Psychology of Gift Giving. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 22 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.