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The science of gift-giving

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
The science of gift-giving
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A few research papers into how we go wrong when buying gifts for others.

The mistake of overindividuation

When shopping for multiple people, you tend to get different things for different people (because it seems impersonal to get everyone the same thing) and as a result, tend to buy worse ("less preferred") gifts.

You can imagine, I don't know, you're at a design market and you want to buy vases for three friends. One of the designs is much nicer than the others – but you probably won't buy three of the same vase. You'll buy the really nice one and two worse ones, in order to 'individuate'. Consider getting people the same thing, if you reckon it's good!

Overindividuation in Gift Giving: Shopping for Multiple Recipients Leads Givers to Choose Unique but Less Preferred Gifts

Givers focus on the moment of exchange; recipients focus on the gift's ongoing use in their life

This is a paper into the reason for bad gifts (or rather 'mismatched' gifts between the giver and recipient). So it's not saying all givers do this – it's saying this is why mismatches happen.

When a giver chooses a highly desirable gift, he or she is hoping that the recipient will be dazzled upon opening it. In contrast, recipients care greatly about their ability to use or enjoy the gift and prefer more feasible or useful gifts. In other words, givers choose desirable but not feasible gifts because they seem likely to be more appreciated during the gift exchange. However, the recipient is likely to be less satisfied in the end with a gift whose value is hard to extract.

This is also why givers tend to give material gifts (which can be 'appreciated' in the moment of exchange) even though recipients prefer experiential gifts (which might look bland, like a card). Givers prefer to give unasked-for gifts (surprises!) but recipients see asked-for gifts as having lasting value and utility.

Wanting to give something that reflects the specific and unique interests of the recipient –

Givers prefer to give gifts that are tailored to reflect the recipient, like a gift card to the recipient’s favorite store, whereas recipients prefer more versatile gifts, like a Visa gift card that can be used at any store. This may be because givers focus on recipients’ distinctive traits, whereas recipients are perhaps more aware of their numerous, diverse wants and needs.

^ Also (my commentary only, not the paper), the more something is a specific interest of mine, the more I have specific and exacting standards of what I want in that category. I think the most ill-fitting gifts are often well-intentioned ones from people who know you have a special interest but don't share that special interest.

Recipients would generally prefer a down payment on a higher-quality item (an "incomplete" gift) than a low-quality, complete item. (That moment of exchange vs. usage in life).

Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving

Give people what they want, not what you want them to want

I'm being overly generous with that subheading – it's a solid principle, but this paper is specifically about how people feel when confronted with the option of giving a gift that goes against their own ethics or comfort.

Your gift, but my attitude: gift-givers’ aversion to attitude-inconsistent gifts

But I reckon it's silly. There's a lot of potential gifts out there. You don't have to give people guns or nangs or fetish gear or, I don't know, a beef jerky advent calendar, if you're not comfortable with those things, just because they'd probably like them. They can buy their own nangs. Get them a gift card. It's fine.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #161 – subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox!

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