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Social and behavioural

What we’ve been getting wrong about choosing gifts

A study has shown that you and the recipient will likely feel closer to one another if you buy them a gift that says something about you, not them.

31 July 2015

By Christian Jarrett

Buying a gift can feel like a test. You want the gift to show how thoughtful you’ve been, and how you’ve taken the recipient’s interests and personality into account. Yet according to the authors of a new psychology paper, this isn’t the optimal approach. You and the recipient will likely feel closer to one another if you buy them a gift that says something about you, not them.

Lara Aknin and Lauren Human began by confirming their suspicions: hundreds of people surveyed online said that when buying gifts, they prefer to choose an item or experience that reflects the personality and interests of the person they are giving to. Similarly, people mostly said that they preferred receiving gifts that were tailored to their tastes and personality. Other survey participants were asked to recall recent gift-giving and receiving experiences, and in line with the findings for preferences, they said that, yes, they mostly gave and received gifts that were recipient-centric.

However, contrary to this received wisdom, Aknin and Human reasoned that giving a gift that reveals something of your own true self could be more effective at increasing relationship closeness because it’s an act of personal disclosure. We already know from past research that sharing intimacies with others – our private thoughts and feelings – is a powerful relationship catalyst. The researchers are suggesting that giving a gift that reveals something of your self can have a similar effect.

They put this to the test by recruiting 78 participants at a shopping mall before Mother’s Day. Half the participants agreed to buy a card for their mother that “reveals your true self”, the other half bought a card that “reveals your knowledge of the recipient”. After they’d bought the card, the participants who’d chosen one that reflected their true self said they felt closer to their mother than the control participants who did the conventional thing and bought a card that reflected their knowledge of their mother.

Next, the researchers recruited over a hundred students to choose a musical track on iTunes to give to a friend, relative or romantic partner. Half of them were instructed to choose a track that “reveals your true self”; the others did the conventional thing and chose a track that “reveals your knowledge of the recipient”. This time the choice strategy didn’t make any difference to how close the gift-givers felt to the recipient. But when the researchers contacted the recipients, those who received a track that revealed something of the giver’s interests and passions, said they felt closer to the giver, as compared to the control participants who’d received a track that was supposed to reveal something about themselves.

The researchers said their findings have practical implications. “… [P]eople may well be advised to offer more self-reflective gifts if building stronger social connections is the underlying goal,” they wrote. Further analysis showed that recipient-centric music tracks could be as effective as giver-centric tracks at promoting feelings of closeness, but this seemed partly to depend on the giver’s success at choosing an appropriate track.

This last detail may help explain the mismatch between folk wisdom and the findings of this study. There’s a cultural expectation and preference for giving recipient-centric gifts, but it’s often not easy to choose a gift that accurately reflects the recipient’s true self, and a mistaken choice can go awry if it signals how little you actually know the recipient, especially if you’re giving to a man.

You could try simply asking what the recipient would like, but if that’s not possible or appealing, these new results show the effectiveness of choosing a gift that reflects your own self. By doing so you are showing the courage to share a slice of yourself with the recipient. The researchers acknowledged that more research is needed to confirm the truth of this. In particular, be warned their data say nothing of the long-term effects of repeatedly giving giver-centric gifts! In fact, they warned that doing so could backfire “because it could signal self-obsession or narcissism!”

Further reading

Aknin, L., & Human, L. (2015). Give a piece of you: Gifts that reflect givers promote closeness Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 8-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.006