Why You're Bad at Giving Gifts

Ironically, we're awful gift-givers precisely because we spend too much time trying to be considerate.

Mike Segar / Reuters

The field of economics is not particularly known for its generosity, so an academic paper might not be the first place you turn to when choosing a gift for a friend or loved one.

Well, your loss. Or, more accurately, their loss, since it turns out that we're pretty reliably terrible gift-givers. The reason why, according to a a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, is that those of us giving gifts are too wrapped up in sentimentality to buy anything of much use for our loved ones.

Ironically, the study finds that we're awful gift-givers precisely because we spend too much time trying to be considerate. We imagine our friends opening a gift that is impressive, expensive, and sentimental. We imagine the look of delirious happiness and surprise on their faces ("You really know me! This was so thoughtful!") and the warmth we feel in return ("Yeah, I do! Yes, I thought a lot about it!"). But there's something that the most sentimental gift-givers tend to not think too much about: Whether the gift is practical in the first place.

In many ways, practicality seems like an enemy of great gift giving. Beautiful jewelry, lovely watches, perfect rugs, meticulously crafted kitchen hardware: These sort of things ostensibly make for great gifts because they communicate something beyond practicality. They communicate that the giver cares.

But do the recipients care? Often, no. "Gift receivers would be happier if givers gave them exactly what they requested rather than attempting to be 'thoughtful and considerate' by buying gifts they did not explicitly request” to surprise them, the researchers write. Their clever paper asks givers and recipients to rate gifts along two metrics: desirability (i.e.: the quality of a restaurant, the cost of a coffee maker, the visual complexness of the video game) and feasibility (i.e.: the proximity of that restaurant, the ease of the coffee maker, the learning curve of the video game). Across several experiments, they find that givers consistently give gifts based on desirability and recipients consistently favor gifts based on feasibility.
For example, given the choice between buying somebody a gift card at an expensive Italian restaurant that’s far away and buying a gift card to a well-rated restaurant that is nearby, givers consistently went for the luxury restaurant, while receivers in the study said they preferred the place closer to home. The same was true for coffee makers: Givers said they wanted to buy the most expensive; recipients said they just wanted the easiest to use.
Another experiment conducted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk asked participants to imagine a choice between a feasible software gift (a simple, straightforward photo-editing program) and a complicated but more advanced photo-editing program. In a control group, gift-givers made the classic mistake of splurging for the second, more complicated program, while the recipients were considerably more likely to say they wanted the simpler, more useful software. But in this experiment, there was a clever twist. Half the group was told to “first consider their own preference for the item.” By focusing on themselves—and coming to terms with the fact that they wouldn't have appreciated a complicated, expensive software program that they would have never figured out—they ironically came closer to giving the recipients what they wanted.
Still, we often buy gifts to be sentimental, and that's okay. The point of many gifts, such as jewelry or art, is precisely that they're not practical. Spending a lot of money on something that isn't merely useful is a way of saying: I like you enough to buy you stuff that simply says, "I like you."
At the same time, when we buy gifts that we hope the recipients will use, we tend to think too much about sentimentality than utility. After a while, many gifts are just things. And if they're not useful, or practical, or convenient, then what exactly makes them a great gift.