How to win the holidays: Four rules for giving better gifts

Elanor Williams, associate professor of marketing in the Olin Business School


Giving gifts can be difficult, expensive and stressful. Receiving gifts can be disappointing and frustrating. As a social psychologist who studies marketing in general and gift-giving in particular, I’ve seen both the joys and the distresses of gift giving firsthand. The pressures involved can be so intense that I’ve even found that about 70% of American adults have at least one relationship in which they’ve intentionally stopped exchanging gifts at all.

Part of the challenge is that giver and recipient have different priorities and different points of view. Research by Jeff Galak, Julian Givi and myself has found that givers think a lot about selecting, purchasing, wrapping and presenting a gift, while recipients think a lot about unwrapping, storing, using… and potentially discarding it. Clearly, reactions to the same gift can be quite different.

But there’s no need to give up on giving gifts. Here are four suggestions for choosing gifts that are more likely to bring joy rather than stress into a recipient’s holiday season — and that will be appreciated long after the wrapping paper has been torn off.

Give them something they want

Givers often think that a home run gift is one that they came up with themselves, maybe even something that the recipient doesn’t even know herself that she wants. That’s a great philosophy when it works, but it means that givers run the risk of getting something the recipient didn’t know they wanted because the recipient doesn’t actually want it at all.

Research by Francesca Gino and Francis J. Flynn suggests that although givers think that their gift ideas will be just as appealing to recipients as the recipients’ own ideas, recipients much prefer to get gifts that they initially requested. A shortcut to a satisfied recipient is simply to ask what they want — and then get that gift for them.

Give them something they need

Giving someone a gift feels like a chance to give them a little bit of fun. Recipients often agree. But recipients also sometimes want or need things that are a little unfun — razors, carrot peelers, socks, and so on. My ongoing research with Emily Rosenzweig suggests that givers frequently fail to appreciate how much recipients actually like getting useful gifts. Even the very best gifts in recipients’ eyes are more likely to have useful features than givers anticipate.

Useful gifts also serve as better reminders of the person who gave them than fun gifts themselves, prompting grateful thoughts from recipients each time they get used. They may not be as exciting to unwrap as fun gifts, but useful gifts do have a place in recipients’ hearts and homes and thus in their stockings, and givers would be wise to consider them (especially when recipients request them—see the previous point).

Give them something they don’t need to keep

A frequent complaint from gift recipients is that poorly chosen gifts (and sometimes even well-chosen ones) quickly become clutter. A simple way to declutter gift exchanges is to move away from giving things to be kept and move toward giving things to be experienced or consumed.

Givers may feel like they need to hand over a wrapped object in a gift exchange, but according to research by Joseph K. Goodman and Sarah Lim, recipients are often much happier receiving something to be lived through rather than opened up — things like concerts, dinners out, vacations, and the like.

If givers would still like to be able to hand something over to be unwrapped, consumable gifts — boxes of chocolates, batches of cookies, bottles of wine — can serve the same purpose, giving recipients something to enjoy for the moment rather than something to shove in a closet for years.

Give them something to remember you by

Givers often hesitate to give plainly sentimental gifts. It can feel like a big risk to lay your feelings bare. But a clear exception to the “give experiences” rule is that recipients do appreciate gifts that are meant to serve as reminders of a special person, place, or event — and they appreciate them more, and for far longer, than givers expect.

Indeed, ongoing research by myself and Julian Givi indicates that a sentimental gift, meant to symbolize the bond between giver and recipient, can strengthen the relationship and lead the recipient to feel closer to the giver. Giving a gift that plainly says how the giver feels about the recipient sends a message that a recipient is always happy to hear.

Exchanging gifts doesn’t have to be painful. By nudging givers to focus more on not just the giving of a gift, but the having of a gift, these four suggestions can help make the holidays more enjoyable, regardless of which side of a gift exchange you’re on.


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