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A Behavioral Scientist’s Guide to Gift-Giving

Giving the right gift is difficult, in part because givers and receivers don’t necessarily agree on what “right” means. Research out of YCCI and new developments in the behavioral science of gift-giving shed light on the source of this disagreement.

With the holiday gifting season in full swing, consumers are spending less than they have in years past. The idea of gifting the “wrong” thing looms large when every dollar is spent judiciously.

This year, YCCI has compiled five tips informed by behavioral science on how to pick the perfect gift. 

Tip #1:  Givers approach gifting differently from the recipient. 

In part, the challenge of gifting the right gift results from an interesting disjunction between those who are giving and those who are receiving—an area explored in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “Gift givers imagine the receiver using the gift when they are choosing it,” write the article’s four authors, Ernest Baskin and Nathan Novemsky from Yale, Cheryl J. Wakslak from University of Southern California, and Yaacov Trope from New York University. “Since the giver is imagining the gift in another person’s hands, their psychological distance from the gift will be relatively high.” Those receiving the gift, meanwhile, focus on their own consumption, and are therefore psychologically close to the gift.

This difference in psychological proximity creates a peculiar asymmetry: those with high psychological distance (givers) tend to think abstractly and focus on the attractiveness of the gift, ignoring the convenience or ease of use; those who are closer (receivers) think more concretely and take convenience and ease of use into account. In short, while givers may opt for something fancier or more aesthetically pleasing, receivers may prefer a simple, functional item. The result of their study: givers prefer to give attractive gifts while receivers prefer more feasible gifts. This disparity was consistent across many different circumstances, and even surfaced in real-life field experiments. In the cases outside the lab, receivers thought that a functional, rather than fancy, pen showed the giver cared about them more; it also made them happier. This same principle applies to all kinds of gifts. For example, giving a gift certificate to the best restaurant in town may be less appreciated than one for a good restaurant that is much easier to secure a reservation for.

Tip #2:  It’s common to try to show how close we are to a recipient through a gift, but this can often dissuade us from picking a great gift.

Often these mispredictions occur as gift givers are trying to focus on two goals. The first is relationship strengthening, which includes signaling closeness to the recipients and the second is satisfying the recipient’s preferences. On some occasions, these goals might be at odds, such that the giver ultimately prioritizes one motive over the other. For instance, a 2011 study published by Francesca Gino from Harvard and Francis J. Flynn from Stanford, suggests that gift givers often go out of their way to avoid practical gifts in order to signal closeness. In close relationships, gift givers will go so far as to avoid explicitly requested gifts, hoping instead to surprise the recipient with a gift that conveys thoughtfulness and understanding. In short: when relationship signaling is prioritized as a goal for the giver, there is a strong desire to predict rather than use or request information from the recipient about their preferences, leading to disappointing gifting exchanges. So, give the gift they say they want rather than the one you think shows how much you know them!

Tip #3:  Material gifts can be a way to help us extend enjoyment over time.  

Another more recent study elucidates a specific pitfall for gift givers, comparing giver and receiver attitudes to experiential gifts (e.g., a cooking class) versus material gifts (e.g., an instant pot). This 2018 study from Joseph K. Goodman from The Ohio State University and Sarah Lim from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that gift givers are more likely to give experiential gifts to socially-close recipients than socially-distant recipients. This is because experiences are perceived as more unique than material goods. Consumers want to send the appropriate relational message of closeness and show that they know their close-recipient's preferences, thus they chose to gift experiential gifts.

Even as minimalism has gained in popularity, and many recipients may be asking for experiential gifts over material gifts, there are still advantages to material gifts, especially those that stick around for a while. A 2016 study by Joseph Goodman, and Selin A. Malkoc from The Ohio State University, and Brittney Stephenson from Montana State University, finds that material gifts are ultimately better received over time because they are a physical reminder of the gift experience. In any given experience, we know that there are moments when we “snap the shudder” and capture a memory, often at a perceived peak or end of the experience. If you are considering giving an experiential gift, consider giving the recipient a material gift at the end of the experience, which can serve as a reminder of the experience to make the enjoyment last.

Tip #4:  Ask yourself, “What would I want?”

These studies suggest that deprioritizing relationship signaling and considering recipient preferences can contribute to overall better gifting. Baskin et al. suggest another tactic to ameliorate this disparity in gift valuation between the giver and the receiver. Their study demonstrates that the incongruity between the two positions nearly disappeared when givers were asked which of two gifts they would personally prefer. This question brought them psychologically ‘closer’ to the gift - ‘Which would I want?’ rather than ‘Which would the receiver want?’ - and made them choose gifts that were better received.

Tip #5:  Choose Function Over Form

“On a practical level,” they note, “our research also suggests strategies for those who are marketing objects whose competitive advantage relates to feasibility.” Marketers of utilitarian, rather than luxury, products might encourage gift givers to imagine themselves using the gift. By bringing givers mentally close to the gift, they could boost sales—a boon not just for the firm, but also for the receivers of the gift, whose default tendency is to prefer function over form. “Overall, weighing feasibility aspects more when choosing gifts may help givers to give gifts that are more highly appreciated,” write the authors, “avoiding a common pitfall in the social-exchange process.”