There are many social norms that dictate gift-giving, including when, how and what to give as gifts.
Interestingly, these norms don’t seem to be about making sure that recipients get the gifts they want. What makes for a good or bad gift often differs in the eyes of givers and recipients.
In fact, behavioral science research shows that gifts that may seem “taboo” to givers might actually be better appreciated by recipients than they might think.
Taboo #1: giving money
Givers often worry that giving cash or gift cards might be seen as impersonal, thoughtless or crass. Yet research we have done with Robyn LeBoeuf of Washington University in St Louis shows that recipients prefer these more versatile gifts more than givers think they do.
We find that givers underestimate how much recipients like seemingly impersonal monetary gifts, mistakenly thinking that they’ll prefer a traditional gift to a gift card, for instance, or a gift card to cash, when the opposite is true. And, contrary to givers’ expectations, recipients think that these less personal gifts are more thoughtful, too.
Why don’t givers realize this? We find that givers tend to focus on recipients’ enduring traits and tastes and choose gifts that are tailored to those characteristics, and recipients are more likely to focus on their varying wants and needs and prefer gifts that give them the freedom to get whatever they currently need or desire most.
Prompting givers to shift their focus from what recipients are like to what they would like makes them more likely to choose the versatile gifts that recipients prefer.
Taboo #2: giving a practical gift
A classic sitcom plotline involves the gift-giving gaffe, with a prime example being the husband who buys his wife a vacuum cleaner or something else practical when the occasion seems to call for something more sentimental.
These blundering husbands might not be as wrong as you’d think, though: research suggests that practical gifts are actually better-liked by recipients than givers expect. For instance, research by Ernest Baskin of Saint Joseph’s University and colleagues demonstrates that givers tend to focus on how desirable a gift is, when recipients might prefer they think a little more about how easy that gift is to use.
A gift certificate to the best restaurant in the state might not be so great a gift if it takes three hours to get there; your recipient might think that a gift certificate to a less noteworthy but closer restaurant is actually a better gift.
In fact, even gifts that aren’t much fun at all, like the fabled vacuum cleaner, can make for great gifts in recipients’ eyes. Work that Williams has done with Emily Rosenzweig of Tulane University shows that recipients have a stronger preference for useful rather than fun gifts than givers expect them to have.
We find that the best gifts people have received are much more useful than the best gifts they think they have given, and they want givers to put less emphasis on the fun features of a gift and more emphasis on its useful features than they themselves would when picking out a gift to give to someone else.
Taboo #3: giving an ‘uncreative’ gift
Givers often feel pressure to think of creative gifts that demonstrate how much thought they put into the gift and how well they know the recipient.
This means that, even when they are given explicit instructions on what to purchase, givers frequently ignore recipients’ wish lists or gift registries and instead try to come up with ideas for gifts by themselves. Givers think that their unsolicited gift ideas will be appreciated just as much as the ideas on wish lists and registries, but recipients would rather have the gifts they requested.
Another implication of this is that givers often pass up gifts they know would be better-liked in favor of getting different gifts for each person they give a gift to, according to research by Steffel and LeBoeuf. Givers feel like they are being more thoughtful by getting something unique and creative for each person on their shopping list, but recipients would rather have what’s on the top of their wish list, especially if they are unlikely to compare gifts.
We find that encouraging givers to consider what recipients would choose for themselves before choosing a gift makes them more likely to go ahead and get the same better-liked gift for more than one recipient.
Taboo #4: giving a gift that can’t be unwrapped
The very idea of exchanging gifts suggests to people that they need to give something that can be tied up with a pretty bow and then unwrapped, but, in fact, some of the best gifts aren’t things at all.
A wealth of research has shown that money is often better spent on experiences than on material goods, and this seems to be true for gifts as well as personal purchases.
Joseph Goodman of Washington University in St Louis and Sarah Lim of Seoul National University have found that givers think that material items that can be physically exchanged and unwrapped make for better gifts, when gifts that are experiences actually make recipients happier.
Experiential gifts have benefits beyond simply boosting their recipients’ enjoyment, as well. Cindy Chan of the University of Toronto and Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania have shown that receiving an experiential gift prompts stronger emotional reactions in recipients, and this makes them feel closer to the person who gave them the gift. In other words, opt for the swing dance lessons over the sweater – it will make the recipient happier, and bring the two of you closer together, to boot.
If you still can’t think of a gift…
Gift-giving, especially around the holidays, can be a stressful process for both giver and recipient. An understanding of which gift-giving norms are misguided can perhaps relieve some of this stress and lead to better gifts and happier recipients (and givers, too).
But even if givers ignore this advice, there is hope: one last taboo to bust is the taboo on regifting. According Gabrielle Adams of the London Business School and colleagues, givers aren’t as bothered by regifting as recipients think.
Even if what you get is not what you want, you can pass it along to someone else, and hope that next time, the norms will work in your favor.