The psychology of gift-giving

Got yourself in a tizz buying Christmas presents this year? There are some handy tricks science can teach you to avoid gift-related stress!
22 December 2015

Interview with 

Connie Orbach, The Naked Scientists


Gift giving can be a stressful part of the holidays, and psychologists have found Presentthat gift givers and receivers can interpret present choices very differently. So how do you avoid present pitfalls this season? Connie Orbach has been investigating what psychology research suggests we should do this Christmas, as she explained to Chris Smith, having just received a "present" of some baking foil...

Connie - I've got to say, it wouldn't have been my first choice, though I am sure it will come in handy.  It's a very useful gift and I think that's one of the things about gift giving is there's lots of social norms and, I think, pretty much everyone out there knows that you probably shouldn't get someone kitchen foil for Christmas because, for some reason, it's just not acceptable, it's too every day for a gift.  But there's also just generally, I imagine, everyone's been feeling it this Christmas, a lot of anxiety around gift giving.  It's quite stressful, and we spend a lot of time trying to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we're buying it for and, actually, it turns out mainly failing.

Chris - So what you're saying is people are not intrinsically good gift givers?  Is that your point?

Connie - I think it's a bit of both.  Basically everyone is a gift giver. Well, most people I hope are both gift givers and gift receivers but the thing is that you're in quite a different situation if you're the giver to when you are the receiver, and we're really not very, very good at putting ourselves in both shoes.  So, when we're receiving a gift we tend to like to tell people what we want, and they like it when they give us what we want.  But when we're giving someone a gift, we ask them what they want and then we think you know what would be much more exciting if I got them a surprise. And then we think that actually is probably a much better gift because I spent a lot more time,  you know, I thought about it, I wasn't just told, I went out and put the time and the effort in to get them a surprise, and then the person getting the gift goes - well you weren't listening, clearly, because I asked for something and you just didn't give it to me and is actually quite disappointed.  We do it time and time again, even though when we're in the position of receiving that gift, we will have the same kind of like - you don't even know me at all, you didn't listen, you weren't thinking.   I do it all the time.  My mum is particularly good at telling me exactly what she wants for Christmas and I often just completely ignore her and get her something else.

Chris - Go off-piste, quite literally.

Connie - Yes.

Chris - Would you like to hear what the Sunday Times suggests?   They say there are five rules of giving - this is in the Sunday Times from last week.  They said "choose a gift that reflects your true self.  Givers and receivers feel closer if the present reflects the giver."  That was their number one piece of advice.  Their second piece of advice, "don't add a little extra when you give someone an expensive gift."  American researchers have recently shown, in a series of experiments, that if you buy someone something decent, like a £200 coffee maker, don't add a free £5 get you some free coffee with this gift voucher on the side because, as they say, bundled gifts subconsciously end up with average the values.  So in other words, when you see the gift and you see something posh, expensive and something cheap to go with, your brain settles on an average between the two and judges the gift to be worth about that.  So don't devalue the posh car by chucking in, you know, a free valet with it because that's not going to buy you much cred.  It also says "don't spend too much early on in the relationship and don't spend too little later" - it adds that cautiously.  It says "young unattached men often view giving gifts as fiscal foreplay."  I've never thought of it quite like that. "If you give something too pricey" it says, "it could be regarded as a sexual bribe."  And also it says "don't give presents that could be a hint, because that could cause offence.  Don't give people deodorant ofr Christmas because of what the message might be saying."

Chris - So basically, what you're saying, Connie, is that the best thing to do is tell someone what you want.

Connie - And get it, yes.  I mean what we've got today, so Mike got £5 and actually there's also a lot bundled up in; we see gifts as having their intrinsic value - the quality of the gift.  There's also a symbolic and so money is a really interesting one because when you're giving the gift, there's very little symbolic value in money - that's £5, I didn't do anything else, or put any time into it, its £5, but what they find with money is that actually people really like getting money.  There's no thought in it, it doesn't matter and a lot of the time that's the thing.  When we talk about' it's the thought that counts' it turns out that actually, the thought counts only to the giver, not to the receiver. And the receiver usually won't spend much time thinking about how much thought went into it all, unless they've given obvious hint.  So, Peter over here, got a nice handmade piece.  He's been told to think about all the thought in that piece, therefore, it's a good present.

Chris - So be very grateful Peter.  That's an extremely valuable work of art.

Connie - And equally, if a present like mine for instance is a terrible present - kitchen foil...

Chris - You know a lot of thought went into that.  Do you mind?

Connie - Well, I was about to say, I've been given the cue that's there's no thought gone into that.  So, again, I've been cued to think about the giver and what went into that, and I'm quite annoyed, personally.  But most of the time, with a normal present, non-handmade or not really bad, you're not cued and people actually don't tend to put much time into thinking about it. Whereas the person on the other end has put so much time into it.  And so I guess the main message here is that you don't really need to put that much time into a gift giving, just get people what they want and everyone will be happy, and we'll have a much easier Christmas.


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