The giving of gifts is purportedly about charity and thoughtfulness, but, in reality, its far more complex than that. 



Christmas holidays are a time of celebration, relaxation, and gift-giving. Well, it should be relaxing, but the reality for many is that choosing gifts can make it a time of stress and anxiety, and the wrong gift can actually do more harm than good

Read on for research-based advice on how to select the perfect gift.


The objective of a gift

To begin, consider this: why do we give gifts?

Research into the psychology of gift-giving suggests there are two goals to consider when giving someone a gift: to make the recipient happy and to strengthen the relationship between the giver and the recipient. 

To satisfy the first goal, you need to give a gift that the recipient desires. For the second, the gift needs to be thoughtful. The quickest and most accurate way to determine a desired gift is to ask the prospective recipient what they want. However, this decreases the thoughtfulness of the gift—you can see the conundrum here.

Frankly, there’s little way around this. If you know the recipient well enough, you should be able to come up with a gift that is both thoughtful and desired provided you have enough time to think. If you don’t, your best course of action would be to ask the recipient what they want. It might be the easy way out, but you can be sure you’re satisfying at least one of the objectives of gift-giving. 

In any case, being aware of the objectives of gift-giving will likely help you select a better gift. 


Don’t over-estimate your gift-giving ability

Research shows that people tend to overestimate their ability to discern what a recipient will like, and so what gifts will lead to a strengthening of the relationship.

A study conducted in 2011 asked respondents to think back to either their own wedding or a wedding to which they were a guest. Gift recipients were asked to rate how appreciative they were of gifts both listed and unlisted on the gift registry. Guests were asked to estimate how well they thought their gifts were received.

Gift recipients strongly preferred the gifts they listed on their registry. However, gift-givers tended to incorrectly assume their unsolicited gifts (i.e. gifts not listed on the registry) would be considered more thoughtful and considerate by their intended recipients.

Once again, if you know what someone wants, getting it for them is your best course of action.



What if you don’t know what someone wants? Well, everyone wants cash, don’t they? After all, the recipient can then go buy what they want.

More than likely, your gift of cash will be considered unthoughtful; it requires no effort and seems to put a dollar value on the relationship.

If you must give cash, spice it up a bit. In Chinese culture, cash is given in a red envelope to de-commodify the money by enveloping it as a symbol of good luck. Consider delivering it through origami or in another way that personalises it. This will show at least some degree of thoughtfulness.

The closest alternative to cash is the gift card. Gift cards are believed to be slightly more thoughtful, but should only be turned to as a last resort.


The best gift of all

If you haven’t been tipped off on exactly what the recipient wants and you want a wrapped present underneath the Christmas tree, go for something practical with a personalised touch.

However, gift-giving psychology research suggests that if your goal is to strengthen your relationship with the recipient, give them an experience. 

2016 study asked people to give a friend either a “material” (e.g. clothing) or “experiential” (e.g. movie tickets) gift valued at $15. Recipients of the experiential gifts showed a stronger improvement in relationship strength compared to the recipients of the material gifts.

The most precious gift of all, however, is quality time. In a 2002 study involving 117 people, more happiness was reported from family and religious experiences compared to events where spending money and receiving gifts were the focus.

This Christmas opt to spend time with those closest to you and really get to know them. You’ll be gifting them quality time, and come next Christmas, you might know them well enough to know exactly what gift you should get each other. 




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