Here’s how to give a good gift, according to science

Research from psychology, behavior and decision-making reveals gift-giving tips and mistakes

gifts wrapped in holiday paper

Giving great holiday gifts is hard. But scientists have uncovered some helpful tips, such as having the courage to give something sentimental or forfeiting that “aha” moment when the present is unwrapped in favor of something that provides longer lasting joy.


‘Tis the season of giving. ‘Tis also the season of returning.

American consumers are projected to spend roughly $960 billion this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation. But retailers expect returns to account for almost 20 percent of those sales.

That return frenzy arises, at least in part, because people tend to make a lot of mistakes when giving presents, says Julian Givi, a marketing expert and psychologist who has been studying gifting practices, and when they go awry, for roughly a decade.

When Givi went into this line of research, he assumed that gift givers were simply motivated by a desire to please recipients. Not so much, he quickly discovered. Instead, people often give gifts that satisfy their own desires — for uniqueness, societal approval or as a gag — rather than the desires of recipients, says Givi, of West Virginia University in Morgantown.

In other words, people would be a whole lot better at giving gifts if they could just get their own egos out of the way. Givi and colleagues reviewed research into all things gift giving in the July Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Giving good gifts may not seem like a research-worthy topic. But positive gift exchanges can help businesses struggling to deal with the sheer volume of returns, as well as cement social relationships. Perhaps most importantly, giving better gifts could take pressure off the environment. By one estimate, in 2020, some 2.6 million tons of returned products in the United States wound up in a landfill. 

Science News spoke to Givi about research on gift giving — and how that translates to advice to help last-minute shoppers avoid common gifting pitfalls this holiday season. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SN: Your review touches on the many ways that gift givers go astray due to social norms. Can you provide some examples?

Givi: There’s probably hundreds of norms in gift giving. Generally, givers tend to overweigh the importance of these given norms. For example, we would never want to give a used thing. But for recipients, if this used thing is what they want to receive, that’s fine.  

Another example is gift wrapping. Say we have $50 to spend. We could either spend $40 on the gift and $10 on the gift wrapping or we could spend $50 on the gift and nothing on gift wrapping. We tend to go with the nicer wrapping. Recipients would rather have $10 put into the gift. But the norm out there says wrap and present your gift nicely.

Or consider partial gifts. For example, you go to a wedding registry. You see that the couple requested eight dinner plates. Each dinner plate is $25. You can give them $100 worth of dinner plates but you are only giving them four out of the eight things. As givers we don’t like giving gifts that aren’t complete. But recipients don’t mind as much as we think.

SN: One seeming success story in people overriding norms involves experiential gifts. Can you explain?

Givi: There are a few different papers on this topic. One shows that we don’t give experiential gifts as often as recipients want. Another shows that the majority of the time people give material gifts, but experiences actually make people happier than material gifts. That’s a finding throughout the consumer world. It’s called the experiential advantage. A third finding is that experiential gifts bring recipients closer to givers than to material items.

I think this is a rare instance in which academics and society have converged. The academic side is saying experiences are really valued as gifts at the same time as a societal push in recent years against materialism.

SN: You wrote in an article in The Conversation about how givers should resist the urge to give a novelty item like a chocolate fondue fountain. Why?

Givi: This falls under temporal focus. Gift givers tend to focus on that “aha” moment, the moment when the ribbons and bow come off. Recipients focus more on long-term utility. Research shows that people are misguided on how much surprise is important. Recipients actually like things that they request better.

The chocolate fondue fountain is an example that I think makes so much sense. Sure a person would go ‘Wow, a chocolate fondue fountain!’ But think about how often throughout the year they might use that. Whereas if somebody gave them a coffee maker, they’d be thrilled. 

SN: What are some of the gaps in this area of research?

Givi: The vast majority of these studies were also done in either the U.S. or maybe U.K. What I can say is that cultural norms trump my study findings.

For instance, we oftentimes give superficial gifts around the holidays. But what we find is that recipients actually prefer sentimental gifts more than what givers anticipate. Part of the reason this mismatch occurs is because superficial gifts are a pretty safe bet. I live in Pittsburgh, for example. If I give someone a Steelers jersey, I know that they are going to appreciate it to some extent. If I give someone a scrapbook for photographs of the two of us, it could be great or it could be weird.

But if in a culture if you are going to get ridiculed for giving a sentimental gift, then I would say don’t give a sentimental gift.

Another limitation on this body of work is that it’s focused on adults. It’s a lot easier to get [institutional review board] approval to do research on people who are 18 and older.

SN: What about times when you know the recipient wants that new, non-sentimental and non-experiential gift under the tree?

Givi: We are studying at the population level, or on average what gift givers should do versus not do. But there are individual differences. Even if on average this research is saying givers should go with the used thing, if the giver knows they are dealing with someone who would very much not appreciate used things, it’s certainly fine to go against what the research is telling you.

SN: How should gift givers handle picky or difficult recipients?

Givi: I don’t have an answer for you when it comes to very difficult people. My understanding of that research is that researchers have examined how givers behave when they are dealing with difficult recipients. But they don’t necessarily get the recipients’ perspective. It would probably be hard to get a bunch of difficult people to participate in a study.

But here’s something you could potentially do with a difficult recipient. One of my papers shows that it’s a lot easier to make people happy when you’re giving in the absence of a special occasion. What we find in the paper is you can spend $10 on a random Tuesday in March giving a person a gift versus $50 on Christmas for gifts, and that generates similar levels of happiness.

What you could do with difficult people is sprinkle gifts throughout the year.

More Stories from Science News on Psychology