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The Surprising Science Behind Why We Give Bad Gifts

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It’s hard to imagine what it might feel like to wake up on Christmas morning and see a brand new Lexus or Audi parked in the driveway, tied up in a giant red bow. Screaming, of course, would be a natural reaction. But the closest most of us ever come to this scenario is watching it unfold in television commercials.

Those commercials capture the emotional moment when someone gives someone else a gift—in this case, a huge one. But the motivations of the gift giver and recipient aren’t always aligned—a disconnect that can often lead to some pretty bad presents.

New research from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business sheds some light on this very subject, revealing that giving a “bad” gift can often be the result of over-thinking the moment of exchange. Associate Professor of Marketing Jeff Galak and PhD student Julian Givi—both at Tepper—together with Associate Professor Elanor Williams at Kelley recently published “Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give But Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving.” The good news is that it’s just in time to prevent potential gift-giving gaffes.  

“We studied many existing frameworks from research in this area, trying to find a common ground between them. What we found was that the giver wants to ‘wow’ the recipient and give a gift that can be enjoyed immediately, in the moment, while the recipient is more interested in a gift that provides value over time,” writes Galak. “We are seeing a mismatch between the thought processes and motivations of gift givers and recipients. Put another way, there may be times when the vacuum cleaner, a gift that is unlikely to wow most recipients when they open it on Christmas Day, really ought to be at the top of the shopping list as it will be well used and liked for a long time.”

Focusing too much on the “wow” response can lead gift givers astray, but there are also several other factors that can contribute to bad gifts, according to Galak, Williams and Givi. Among them:

  • “Giving unrequested gifts in an effort to surprise the recipient, when, in fact, they are likely hoping for a gift from a pre-constructed list or registry.”
  • “Focusing on tangible, material gifts, which are likely to be immediately well received, when, in fact, experiential gifts, such as theater tickets or a massage, would result in more enjoyment later on.”
  • “Or giving socially responsible gifts, such as donations to a charity in the recipient’s name, which seem special at the moment of gift exchange, but provide almost no value to recipients down the road.”

“We exchange gifts with the people we care about, in part, in an effort to make them happy and strengthen our relationships with them,” Galak continues. “By considering how valuable gifts might be over the course of the recipient’s ownership of them, rather than how much of a smile it might put on recipients’ faces when they are opened, we can meet these goals and provide useful, well-received gifts.”

The study was published in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science via the Association for Psychological Science.

Matthew Korman
Matthew Korman is a contributing author and editor for Clear Admit. Since graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism and political science, Matthew has worked with numerous academic institutions, in addition to roles as a music industry writer, promoter, and data analyst. His works have appeared in publications such as NPR and Sports Illustrated.