'Tis Better to Give?
A gifting expert explains the stressful matter of selecting—and receiving—a present.
By Sam Scott
According to Gallup, the average American expects to spend $770 on Christmas gifts this year. That’s a lot of dough considering much of it will be blown on expensive gifts the recipients don’t appreciate.
According to Francis Flynn, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and co-author of several studies on gifting, gift givers tend to put more significance on price tags than gift recipients do—just one element complicating the theoretically simple task of buying a present.
Stanford talked to Flynn as the holiday shopping season got underway.
What about gift giving evokes your academic curiosity?
I'm fascinated by how a pro-social act like gift giving can sometimes go awry. Despite the best of intentions, we often give gifts that are not appreciated, [with] a hefty price tag and much time spent searching for the perfect gift. I'd like to help people understand how to make their gift-giving experiences better, so that they find the giving process fun rather than frustrating.
Your research suggests people buy expensive gifts assuming they’ll be more appreciated. But most recipients don’t actually feel greater thanks for costly presents. Does this mean I have scientific validation to be a cheapskate this Christmas?
In our research, givers assumed that recipients would appreciate more expensive gifts more highly than less expensive gifts because spending more money—in the giver's eyes—was considered to be more thoughtful and considerate. As it turned out, gift recipients did not appreciate [the] expensive gifts more because they did not find more expensive gifts to be more thoughtful and considerate. The upshot is this—find a gift that the other person will find thoughtful and considerate, but don't assume that you can judge this by the price tag.
This confusion persists even though most of us have as much history receiving gifts as giving them. Our own experience tells us expensive gifts aren’t necessarily any more satisfying, yet we keep on giving them. Why?
This is the puzzle that keeps me interested in gift giving. We should learn how to give better gifts from our own past experience as gift recipients, but we don't seem to do this. I think this is partly because of our egocentric focus, which shapes our experience in giving and receiving gifts. For example, a gift giver knows what gifts they thought about buying but chose not to, whereas the gift recipient is not aware of this part of the gift selection process. Further, the gift giver likely considers gifts they have enjoyed in the past when thinking of potential gift ideas, but this might not be representative of the gift-recipient’s tastes.
Another struggle is whether to buy something the person has requested or to search out something original. What have you found?
If someone has requested a specific gift, it’s best to listen to them rather than ignore their request. For example, brides and grooms appreciate the gifts that were purchased off their wedding registry more than the gifts that were not on the registry, but gift givers who care deeply about getting the bride and groom a gift that they will appreciate will usually get a gift that is not on the registry. To be clear, this doesn't mean that you should request gifts from other people, it just means that if someone requests a specific gift from you, it probably makes sense to listen to their request.
One hazard of gift receiving is getting stuck with something we don’t want, which brings up the touchy topic of regifting.
According to our studies, [givers] are not nearly as offended by regifting as many of us assume. Gift recipients thought that regifting [their unwanted present] was as bad as throwing [it] in the garbage, while gift givers clearly saw the trashing of their presents as significantly more offensive than giving them away. This asymmetry between gift givers and gift recipients held across several studies ranging from a hypothetical scenario involving the regifting of a gift card to an actual regifting exercise conducted in a laboratory experiment.
So does your research allow you to happily regift? Or is the taboo harder to shake from the heart than the head?
Like anyone else, I find it hard to shake the influence of the taboo. But that said, I have regifted. In particular, when our kids were little, we used to get lots of duplicate presents at their birthday parties and we often "recycled" that duplicate gift at a subsequent birthday party. If any of my sons' classmates and their parents are reading this, I hope you are not offended.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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Data is from the past two weeks.