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For Gift Giving, Research Shows It's the Thought That Counts

illustration of woman receiving gifts

Bailey Mariner / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Gift givers often mistake value over thoughtfulness as being most appreciated by gift recipients.
  • Research shows that gift givers overestimate how much a recipient’s liking of their gift increases or decreases when it compares favorably or unfavorably to other gifts.
  • Sharing the story behind a gift and not comparing your gift to others can make gift buying less stressful.

Finding the right gift can be stressful, especially when the receiver will be opening gifts from others, such as at birthdays, winter holidays, graduations, retirement parties, and bridal and baby showers.

“A lot of times, we tend to give things that will make for a great time when the bow comes off, but what people actually want to receive, if you ask them, are things that are not great in the moment, but great down the line, from a long-term perspective,” Julian Givi, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at West Virginia University, tells Verywell.

Givi led research that examined 12 studies about gift-giving. Researchers discovered that gift givers overestimate how much a recipient’s liking of their gift increases or decreases when it compares favorably or unfavorably to other gifts.

This is driven by the giver’s incorrect assumption that recipients appreciate the value of a gift over its thoughtfulness.

Julian Givi, PhD

When you are receiving something, you’re not too worried about how the gift compares in cost to other gifts because you are focused on the idea and thought. You’ll like it despite what others give you.

— Julian Givi, PhD

“When you are receiving something, you’re not too worried about how the gift compares in cost to other gifts because you are focused on the idea and thought. You’ll like it despite what others give you,” says Givi.

Mistaking Cost for Value

Givi points out that all people involved in gift-giving and receiving focus on thoughtfulness, but will incorrectly believe that others focus on relative gift value. Because of this misconception, when givers know beforehand that others will be giving gifts at the same occasion, they are more likely to spend more money upgrading their gifts, or skip the gift-giving occasion.

For example, if a gift giver plans to give a $25 gift card, but knows someone will give a $50 gift card, they are more likely to one up, as opposed to knowing someone will give only a $5 gift card.

Givi says this happens for two reasons.

“First is that in relation to the $50 gift card, I think my $25 gift isn’t going to be liked much, so as a giver, I’m going to want to make the person happy and upping it might do the job. Second, I don’t want to look bad. Basically, it could be a negative experience for you if you don’t like it and a negative experience for me because I might look embarrassed, and that might not make for a good time for everyone,” explains Givi.

Kathleen Vohs, PhD, chair in marketing at the University of Minnesota, adds that gift value is easily understood and comparable.

“Meaning that we grasp whether one gift was costlier than another…so if you want to choose a gift that’s not likely to make the receiver unhappy, choosing an expensive one is safe,” Vohs says.

By contrast, she says thoughtfulness is vague.

“[A] gift considered to be rather unthoughtful to one person wouldn’t be considered the same for another, so gift givers may not be very sure what it means to buy a gift for thoughtfulness,” says Vohs.

Because what the gift giver thinks is a thoughtful gift may not be perceived that way to the receiver, she says the risk of choosing the wrong gift is higher, especially when compared to buying for price.

Since gift givers are often gift recipients at some point, can’t they just tap into their gift receiving side?

Givi says it’s not that easy.

“When in one role, it is not easy to take a step back and think, ‘What would it be like if I were in the other role?’ We just aren't hard-wired to do so, much like we don't take the time to think about the other person's perspective when in an argument or a negotiation,” he says.

However, Givi’s research shows that when givers are forced to think of themselves as a gift recipient when buying a gift, they often make better choices.

Vohs, agrees, noting that it’s challenging to really know what someone else thinks or wants.

Kathleen Vohs, PhD

As a gift giver, I could choose a gift that would be thoughtful if I were receiving it, but that may not be what the other person would think is thoughtful.

— Kathleen Vohs, PhD

"I may think it was very thoughtful to have my romantic partner make me a card, whereas if I did that for my partner, they may have preferred that we have a unique experience together," she says. "Meaning, as a gift giver, I could choose a gift that would be thoughtful if I were receiving it, but that may not be what the other person would think is thoughtful."

Tips for Buying a Gift

To take the stress out of gift giving, consider the following:

Forget About the Unveiling

Rather than envisioning the moment when the recipient opens your gift, Givi says think about the days, weeks, months, and years ahead in which they will think about using the gift.

“That could be practical, useful, sentimental, something that might grow with time, such as if a family has a baby, rather than giving them infant clothes, it would be more useful to give them older clothes that will fit when the child is say 2 to 4 years old,” he says.

Share the Story Behind Your Gift

To take the focus off the cost of a gift, Vohs suggests conveying how much you tried to find the right gift, without bragging.

“That way, even if choosing a gift that doesn’t, on the surface, come off as very thoughtful, the receiver can get a sense of the effort and intention behind it,” she says.

Don’t Compare Your Gift to Others'

Buy the gift you think is best suited, and don’t worry about how it will compare to what other people give.

“[Also], don’t adjust your spending level based on this concern, as recipients' liking of gifts does not depend on comparisons,” says Givi.

Put Yourself in the Receiver’s Shoes

As hard as it can be, Vohs says imagine how you feel and think when receiving gifts.

“The more that you can be happy and grateful when you are receiving a gift, the more you may realize that, in general, people are going to be fine with whatever you get them,” she says.

Consider Monetary Gifts

While givers often avoid giving monetary gifts, Givi says recipients are open to receiving them.

“That fits the idea of exchange versus ownership. As a giver, giving someone $20 dollars seems like a lame birthday present, but as a recipient it might be more useful to me than a shirt down the road; I can buy whatever I want,” he says.

Gift Out of the Blue

While we often give gifts on holidays and birthdays, we rarely give people gifts unexpectedly.

“If you give me something on my birthday, I may be a little sensitive to what the gift is. If you give me something on a Tuesday, I’ll love it no matter what,” says Givi. “These gifts are well received. They make the person feel thought about and cared for.”

What This Means For You

The stress of gift giving can turn to joy when you realize that gift recipients appreciate the thoughtfulness of a gift over its value.

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    importance of relative gift value
    . Journal of Business Research.
    2021. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2020.10.009