Would you rather receive a vacuum cleaner or a pair of theater tickets this holiday? Which would you rather give? As we enter the season of gift-giving, a new study finds that gift givers and gift receivers tend to focus on different outcomes, often resulting in disappointment.
The findings show that gift givers tend to focus on the moment of exchange when selecting a gift, often hoping for that look of excitement on the recipient’s face, whereas gift receivers are more focused on the long-term use or practical attributes of the gift.
“We studied many existing frameworks from research in this area, trying to find a common ground between them. What we found was that the giver wants to ‘wow’ the recipient and give a gift that can be enjoyed immediately, in the moment, while the recipient is more interested in a gift that provides value over time,” said study leader Jeff Galak, Ph.D., at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business.
“We are seeing a mismatch between the thought processes and motivations of gift givers and recipients. Put another way, there may be times when the vacuum cleaner, a gift that is unlikely to wow most recipients when they open it on Christmas day, really ought to be at the top of the shopping list as it will be well used and liked for a long time.”
Galak conducted the study with co-authors Dr. Elanor Williams at Indiana University Kelley School of Business and Ph.D. student Julian Givi at Tepper School.
The researchers found that this differential focus on the moment of exchange and the desirability of the gift showed up in a number of different ways. For example, one common gift-giving error was giving unrequested gifts in an effort to surprise the recipient, when they are likely hoping for a gift from a pre-constructed list or registry.
Another potential error may occur when the giver is focused on tangible, material gifts, such as a new pair of shoes, when experiential gifts, such as theater tickets or a massage, would result in more enjoyment later on. Or vice versa, depending on the person.
Finally, giving socially responsible gifts, such as donations to a charity in the recipient’s name, may seem special at the moment of gift exchange but will provide almost no value to recipients down the road.
The researchers make recommendations for those hoping to choose better gifts, advising them to better empathize with gift recipients when thinking about gifts that would be both appreciated and useful.
“We exchange gifts with the people we care about, in part, in an effort to make them happy and strengthen our relationships with them,” Galak added. “By considering how valuable gifts might be over the course of the recipient’s ownership of them, rather than how much of a smile it might put on recipients’ faces when they are opened, we can meet these goals and provide useful, well-received gifts.”
The findings are published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.