If your gift choices seem to disappoint, psychology may explain why


So, you fancy yourself a really good giver of gifts, don’t you?

You think really hard about your prospective gift recipient’s style and taste. You go for something that really says, “I get you!” Choose a gift from someone’s gift registry? Nah, you say: I can do better than that.

Sometimes you even spend a little more than you should on that special something. It’s worth it, you figure: My giftee is going to be bowled over by this.

Well, get ready, my gifting friend: Psychological science is about to untie your bow, big-time.


In the spirit of holiday giving, the latest issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science has decided to clue us in to the chasm that too often exists between your thought process in choosing a gift and the value and pleasure your recipient will get from that gift.

In the psychological literature, this phenomenon is known as “miscalibrated gift choice.” It has its roots in “giver-recipient discrepancy.” And it’s the cause of untold cases of post-holiday dysphoria (or, if you will, disappointment).

It turns out that after the torn wrapping paper has been trashed and the smiles of good cheer have faded, the recipient of your gift is not actually reliving the magic moment in which he or she opened your gift and felt that warm glow of being understood that you were going for. Far more often than he or she would probably admit, your giftee is gazing on your token of esteem and affection and asking ruefully, “What the Hell am I gonna do with this?”

Or maybe just, “Why?”

“People exchange gifts to strengthen their relationships and make each other happy,” write Jeff Galak and Julian Givi of Carnegie Mellon University’s social and decision science program and social psychologist Elanor F. Williams of Indiana University.

“But [they] do not always manage to meet those goals,” they added.

In a nutshell, the problem is this:

You, the giver, think one thing: you make a value judgment on a prospective gift that reflects your objectives (“see how thoughtful I am and how well I know you, am I not the best and most generous spouse/friend/sibling/progeny/coworker ever?); and your timeframe is limited (basically, to the “oh-my-God-I-love-it-so-much-you-shouldn’t-have!” moment.)

Your spouse/friend/sibling/parent/coworker, however, has a different perspective. He or she will have this gift until it breaks, wears out or can be furtively given away. That makes his or her frame of judgment longer and, actually, far more utilitarian than you, the gifter, may have anticipated.

“Givers overly value recipients’ affective reactions,” write the authors (and yes, they offer footnotes to published studies to undergird such claims). Recipients, meanwhile, are thinking about gift ownership, they add.

“Though the notion of signaling commitment to a relationship certainly involves both givers and recipients, givers incorrectly believe that recipients prioritize a gift’s potential to reflect or even strengthen their relationship with the giver,” write the authors, “when they actually prefer gifts they can personally use and enjoy.”


How, then, can givers choose better gifts?

“The obvious answer is that givers should choose gifts based on how valuable they will be to the recipient throughout his or her ownership of the gift, rather than how good a gift will seem when the recipient opens it,” the authors write.

So, that framed piece of art that reminded you of her love for Paris? Well…maybe not. That broken antique clock that just looks like it belongs in Mom’s curio cabinet? Um, no. Those wind chimes you found in your best friend’s absolutely favorite color? Please don’t.

But that vacuum cleaner or that flashlight set you rejected as, well, not thoughtful enough? If your recipient likes a clean house, or walks his dog after dark, those might be gifts for which you will be credited over and over again. Maybe you rejected those movie tickets or that credit card that can be used anywhere as too impersonal. But when your giftee sees a long-awaited film on you, or gets to put your gift card toward something he’s had his eye on, your status as a great gift-giver will get a real boost.

Now, being psychologists, Galak, Givi and Williams must allow for the possibility that you’re a malevolent jerk and consciously intended, with your gift choice, to frustrate and disappoint.

“This recommendation is most likely to help if givers are unaware of their misplaced focus,” they write. But for those with the best of intentions who have been tripped up by an inaccurate assessment of the gift-giving dynamic, the authors have some simple advice: “Perhaps advising givers to put themselves in their recipient’s shoes will help them consider how gifts might provide value to the recipient once the wrapping paper comes off.”

I’m afraid my own self-image as an ace gift-giver has been seriously punctured. But I still aspire to have that reputation, and now I know better.


For that useful gift, I say thank you. You shouldn’t have.

Follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


Feathered baby dinosaur tail found trapped in amber

On average, people born in the U.S. in 2015 will live 36.5 days fewer than those born in 2014

Ancient eclipse records show that days on Earth are getting just a little longer