The Gift-Giving Mistake Not to Make

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The highest anxiety moment in the holiday season (outside of finding the one dead bulb in a 40-foot string of lights) must be the moment just before your loved ones unwrap their gifts. The ribbon comes untied, the paper falls to the floor—what will their expression be? Figuring out the right gift can be very difficult, and we can easily make mistakes.

Before picking a gift, we all ask ourselves two questions: How much to spend and what to get. While both questions are complex, the more complex one by far is what to get. We may not know the exact preferences of the other person (what he or she enjoys and does not enjoy); even if we know what kind of gift they would absolutely love, we might still not know the exact color, size, etc. With these risks, giving an ill-suited gift risks showing the other person exactly how little we really know them. And from there the path to a deteriorated relationship is short.

The risk of giving the wrong thing is why gift givers often end up giving consumables such as wine and chocolate, or non-committed gifts such gift cards. After all, these are unlikely to be the “wrong” gift for anyone. But there’s a catch: These safe gifts are not very “gifty” and are unlikely to strengthen our relationship with the recipient. In contrast, when we give jewelry, art, or furniture, we take a risk that the other person will not like the item and get stuck with a less-than-ideal gift. But these risky gifts are more “gifty” and, if they are successful, will achieve their goal of strengthening the social fabric between the person giving the gift and the person receiving it.

So how much risk do most give givers take—too little, too much, or just the right amount? To examine this question empirically, together with Loop Commerce, we asked about 5,000 gift givers to think about the last gift they gave, and about the same number of gift receivers to think about the last gift they got.

Not surprisingly, the majority of givers and receivers said the last gift they gave or received was a safe gift. Food and wine topped the list, with clothes, books and movies coming in next. Fewer givers went out on a limb to give more risky gifts, such as tickets to a play or concert, a piece of art, or jewelry.

But were they right in playing it safe? In short: They were not.

When we asked the gift givers to rate how much they expected recipients to enjoy the gift, and contrasted this with the actual level of enjoyment of the person getting the gift, we found three systematic biases:

  • First, gift receivers rated the gifts as more exciting than gift givers; in general, gift givers underestimated how much joy their gifts would bring.
  • Second, gift receivers preferred the riskier gift and wished that gift givers took more chances.
  • Finally, the underestimation of how much people would like the gifts was particularly large for risky gifts.

So while, in general, we don’t appreciate how much others will enjoy our gift, our underestimating is particularly pronounced for the more risky gifts.

Given humankind’s collective experience at gift giving, how could we get this process so fundamentally wrong? The reason is that we are uncomfortable with uncertain outcomes. We look at the range of gifts that we can give, imagine the worst possible reaction to a bad gift, and thus the safe gifts call out to us. In contrast, the person getting the gifts does not see the whole range of gifts we considered; they focus on the gift they actually got as token of our friendship.

So perhaps this holiday season we should put an extra effort into gift giving. Let’s throw caution to the wind, skip the wine, chocolates, and gift certificates and give real gifts. The biggest risk is being boring.

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of Predictably Irrational and, most recently, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. Kristen Berman is the founder of Irrational Labs, a non-for-profit that attempts to get people to behave irrationally, but in better ways.