The psychology of gift giving – how to buy great gifts

 In Insights, Life decisions, People decisions, Realizer Blog

Do you like gift giving? Are you any good at it?

With Valentine’s Day not far off, and Christmas a recent memory,  I want to explore the psychology of gifting. And how can we make better gift-buying decisions?

Gift giving statue

Do you like my gift?

What’s the problem?

It’s a friend’s birthday. Panic sets in as you need to buy a present and nothing comes to mind. Despite the literally millions of gifts which you could get your hands on, your mind is blank when you reach for a bit of inspiration.

Worse still, although you know them well, and you know they are into wine, golf and Woody Allen movies – you’ve got them those kind of presents before and you know everyone else will be getting those kind of presents.

You’re essentially forked between crap presents and repeat presents. Or are you?

The psychology of gift giving

There are several ways our own brains, and social rules, mislead us about gifts.

First, research shows that, on average, people don’t like surprises. Proper scientific study has revealed that when we ask them what they want and then give them it, we are rated as more considerate and thoughtful than giving them an unsolicited gift.

Further to this, cash is often seen as the best gift.

And, believe it or not, one good gift (say worth $100) on its own is received more positively than the same good gift accompanied by a second small gift (worth say $10). In this scenario our brain does a strange thing and actually averages them out, feeling like we’ve received a $55 gift. This is called the Presenter’s Paradox. A striking parallel of this is within sentencing. People who were given a $750 fine and 2 hours of community service were happier with their sentence than equivalent people given just the $750 fine. Go figure.

This effect also carries over to the present day (pardon the pun) explosion of gifts to kids. When kids receive multiple gifts they get a kind of choice paralysis and enjoy all of them less. Many of our kids’ gifts, as we all know, get ignored.

Lastly, it turns out that people who are really generous and good at buying gifts….well people dislike you for being too generous!

So…how to be a better gift giver?

First of all don’t stress. Gift giving can be stressful and ruin the experience for you, but it can be enjoyable if you have a strategy and a bit of time on your side!

Your first option as above is to give cash, wrapped in a really nice card.

And your second option is to ask them for a list of what they want and go get one of them. Easy and proven to work (see above).

If you’re really not comfortable with those two then here are some tips to make life easier.

First up, set some kind of goal or criteria – for example, you may decide your goal is to get them something that they want but wouldn’t normally to splurge on themselves.

Then, get researching. Grab a piece of paper and write out everything you know they like or value, perhaps in a mental map or spider diagram. Writing it down prevents you going round in circles and you will think of more parts of their “gift map” to explore.

Second of all, don’t write off wine just because you once before bought them a bottle of wine. Get into your map and write down all the aspects of wine, and it’s perfectly ok to get them another wine gift.

Fourth, increase your options. Chip in with someone else and brainstorm. Or mentally walk around your local shopping centre to come up with ideas. Try to think of both physical presents and also experiences.

Fifth, just buy one gift, don’t dilute with multiple gifts.

And last, it’s perfectly ok to buy gifts in bulk. If you see something really nice, buy 3 or 4 or 12 of them. You can waste oodles of time buying unique gifts for everyone.

A final word of warning

Once you’ve got the gift, it isn’t over yet. You have to navigate the opening of the gift and the excruciating moment when you’re trying to work out if they really like it or not.

Men in particular find receiving gifts really hard. It brings up all sorts of struggles and uncertainty about obligations (can I say I don’t like it? Can I take it back? Do I have to get them an equal present?). So be easy on any men you give gifts to.

I hope this helps you make good gift decisions this year – with less stress, more speed, and better results.

Written by Rob Pyne. Hat tip to Simon Baty and also for getting me thinking about this.