That gift anxiety isn’t so crazy

Times Staff Writers

Anxiety is one thing. But scuttling around town feverishly in search of the perfect gift -- at the last minute, after weeks of paralysis and denial -- is something else. It’s what people do when they’re forced to define the most important relationships in their lives under deadline, psychologists say.

“When you’re buying a gift for someone who’s important, there’s considerable risk in making the wrong choice,” said David Mick, who studies consumer decision-making at the University of Virginia. “Spend too much money and you can be embarrassed, too little and you look cheap .... This is what has some people so worried.”

In a time of terror and war, it’s a stretch to call shopping treacherous. Nonetheless, psychologists say that high anxiety over holiday purchases reflects an acute appreciation for the power and function of gifts and their effect on social ties.

An ongoing survey of about 500 people in Japan, South Korea and the United States, conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon, has shown that choice of a personal gift makes two statements: “This is the kind of person I am” and “This is the kind of person I think you are.”

“These two are universal,” said psychologist Lynn Kahle, the lead investigator.


“Money certainly comes into it, and there are other factors, but mainly gift giving is a public statement of what you value in yourself and the other person.”

Consciously or not, the recipient weighs carefully the emotional and symbolic content of those statements, psychologists have found.

Anxiety is highest precisely in situations of gift exchange, such as Christmas or Hanukkah, when people are simultaneously showing their hands about each other and the relationship, said David Wooten, a University of Michigan researcher who has studied anxiety in gift giving over several years in about 200 people ages 20 to 60.

The classic example is a couple approaching a decision about marriage.

“For some women there’s a tremendous expectation of getting a ring this time of year,” said Elaine Rodino, a therapist in Santa Monica. “That can be the source of plenty of anxiety and misery, for both partners.”

Yet a single gift can alter the current of any romantic relationship that’s in transition. In the first bloom of romance, there’s tremendous pressure to define oneself with a gift: Should I get that new Kurt Cobain book, or would the new John Updike hardback look better?

“You also have people wondering what to buy based on how far or how fast the relationship is going,” said psychologist David Stewart, a professor of marketing at the USC School of Business. “Do you buy the sweater; or is it time for a necklace? If you get the necklace, you may be going too fast.”

When a relationship is important but secure, there’s far more safety in gift choice. People who’ve been married happily for years have already given each other dozens of nice presents. This poses a familiar puzzle -- what to get for the person who seems to have everything.

But it is nothing compared with the challenge of buying for a spouse or lover or boyfriend when the relationship is uncertain or difficult.

Cele Otnes, a business professor at the University of Illinois, was among the first to study recipients’ views of how gifts affect relationship.

The research, which was based upon the gift-giving experiences of 140 people, identified six outcomes for a gift and its impact on a relationship: It could strengthen it, reaffirm it as positive, have a negligible effect, validate it as negative, weaken or sever it.

Even a gag or bizarre gift -- the mounted singing fish; the Chia Pet -- can’t hurt a relationship, “if the relationship is strong and the recipient perceives the giver’s intentions to be good,” said Otnes, who co-wrote the study with two other professors. “On the other hand, if the relationship is weak, even the best gift can’t save it.”

Even a new Lexus with a global positioning system on the dashboard won’t bring back an embittered spouse, if he or she has decided it’s over.

The fear of souring a prized relationship with the “wrong” gift does not ease with advancing age, and presumably wisdom.

As part of its holiday Web page, the AARP posted guidelines for choosing appropriate gifts for grandchildren.

In addition to obvious recommendations such as checking with their parents for suggestions, the organization cautions: “Don’t feel pressured to buy gifts beyond your means because you don’t want to disappoint your grandchildren or be outdone by other grandparents.”

But don’t assume that pressure can be so easily wished away, either, psychologists say. Bonds with grandkids can be as vital and important as any later in life, and gift giving will require some thought.

It’s no surprise that many people resent the ever-growing obligations to less intimate recipients, which serve only as stressful distractions.

At Suzi Finer Artworks & Artware, a small gift shop in Beverly Hills, Donna Feinstein, the store’s shopping guide, has fielded her share of frantic customer requests for the right gift for the new person on their list.

Feinstein said she helped a desperate client who had already bought something for her child’s elementary school principal, assistant principal, teacher, office worker, librarian and school nurse choose yet one more gift for another school employee.

“The mother was horrified when she realized she hadn’t gotten anything for the music teacher,” said Feinstein.

“Of course,” Feinstein added, “I had a writer come in this week who asked me, ‘What do I get my therapist?’ ”