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Three Questions

How to Give Better Gifts

Do your loved ones want their presents to be expensive or thoughtful? Do they want to be surprised or to get items from their wish lists? We asked Professor Nathan Novemsky, a psychologist and expert in consumer behavior, to explain some of the common mistakes that gift-givers make.

Illustration of a gift

What do people get wrong when they are buying gifts?

When buying gifts, people get a number of things wrong, and most of them could be improved by taking a minute to really get into the shoes of the person you are buying for.

For example, people focus too much on the attractiveness of the gift and not enough on the ease or convenience of using the gift. If you are choosing whether to buy someone a gift certificate to the best restaurant in town or just a good restaurant that is easier to get a reservation for, a gift giver might focus on how good the restaurant is and ignore the ease of actually using the certificate, while the recipient cares about both.

If the gift giver takes a moment to imagine themselves receiving the gift they are considering, they might take the recipient’s perspective and realize that ease of use matters too, not just the attractiveness of the gift.

How much does the monetary value of a gift matter?

Monetary value of the gift is something that is very salient to a gift giver because they pay for the gift. Again, this is a case of a disconnect between the way givers view gifts and the way recipients view gifts. Since the recipient is not buying the gift, they tend to be less focused on the cost of the gift. After all, they are not there when it is paid for. As a result, givers tend to focus too much on the monetary value compared to recipients.

“Getting a very rare or difficult-to-procure gift is generally overweighted by the gift giver; the recipient will be much less focused on the process of obtaining the gift than the giver is.”

This is actually similar to other aspects of obtaining the gift that may be more important for the gift giver than for the recipient. For example, how difficult a gift is to obtain is again something the giver is thinking about but out of sight and out of mind for many recipients. As a result, getting a very rare or difficult-to-procure gift is generally overweighted by the gift giver; the recipient will be much less focused on the process of obtaining the gift than the giver is.

As with ease of use, cost and difficulty of procurement can both be brought more in line with how much recipients’ value them by the giver taking a few moments to put themselves in the recipients’ shoes and imagining how it would be to receive the various gifts they are considering.

Are the same kinds of gifts satisfying for gift givers and gift recipients?

If you want to get a gift that will be satisfying to both the giver and the receiver, consider gifts that can be used together. For example, if a gift causes the giver and receiver to spend time together or share an activity, that can contribute more to the relationship—a goal many gift givers have when giving a gift—than gifts that are given, then forgotten about.

Another type of gift that might help strengthen the bond between givers and receiver is gifts that allow the receiver to share a story of using the gift with the gift giver, such as experiences (watch out for those that are difficult to actually get around to), or gifts that cause the recipient to do something they would not otherwise do (but still is something they actually don’t find too difficult to actually get around to doing).

One last word on giving gifts that receivers like: worry less about surprising them with something they did not ask for that shows the giver’s creativity or knowledge of the recipient, and be more willing to give them what they actually ask for or say they like. Again, since recipients are less focused on the process of obtaining or choosing the gift, they are less appreciative of the creativity or thought that went into choosing a gift. They are more appreciative of getting something they actually want and will use.

Department: Three Questions