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The Psychology of Giving and Receiving Gifts

This is my favorite time of the year, partly due to the fact that I really enjoy giving gifts to friends and family. A great deal of thought goes into that process, as I typically begin thinking about Christmas gifts at the end of the summer. I want each present to reflect the caring I have for the gift recipient.

When my oldest daughter turned eighteen, I wanted her graduation gift to be extraordinarily special. She’s someone who never wanted or needed many things, so she was a bit of challenge. Finally, I came up with the perfect gift —a story. This wouldn’t be a book purchased at Amazon, but rather something that only I could give her. I spent months writing a 100 page essay about her life, describing in great detail key events in our family. Anyone could give her a cell phone or computer, but only I could share my feelings on her early childhood, my divorce, her many accomplishments, and my dreams for her life.

I have a few sacred rules about gift giving. Don’t give money or gift cards. They are impersonal and reflect a victory of expediency over caring. Avoid buying people what they say they want. I’ve always thought a gift would reflect more caring if I could come up with something that was not on a person’s wish list.

In preparation for this article, I’ve been reading research on the Psychology of giving and receiving gifts, and I’ve come to a painful conclusion—everything I believed about gift giving is scientifically wrong!

According to the experts, people actually prefer to receive a gift card rather than another type of present. This gives recipients the flexibility to buy what they really want rather than discard some useless item my mom used to refer to as “dust-collectors.” Giving money may make gift-givers like me feel uncomfortable, but it resulted in higher levels of satisfaction among recipients.

I can understand and eventually accept that perspective, but what about avoiding items on people’s preference lists? Again, the experts say that my approach is mistaken. Researchers at two somewhat reputable universities, Harvard and Stanford, have conducted a series of experiments looking at that issue. In several different types of studies, gift-recipients clearly rated their strong preference for gift-givers to simply give them what they wanted rather than any surprise item.

I’m now in a real quandary. Should my actions be guided by scientific facts or personal feelings? What about all of the effort I spend thinking about what would be meaningful gifts to my family? Is gift-giving really as simple just buying people what they say they want?

For now I’m just going to dismiss this research as “incomplete,” and continue to give long essays as gifts, search stores for something unusual, and enjoy the time I spend thinking about the very special people in my life.

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