The 4 Biggest Gift-Giving Mistakes, According to a Consumer Psychologist
Updated: Jul 30
A good gift can elicit a surge of happiness and gratitude in the recipient. It also feels great to give, with psychologists finding that the joy of giving a gift is more pronounced than the pleasure of receiving one.
Unfortunately, there are times when you receive a gift and you have to force a smile and fake your gratitude.
I’m a consumer psychologist who specializes in gift-giving research – in particular, gift-giving mistakes.
Here are four of the most common ones.
If only little Gregory got a gift card … Philipp Nemenz/The Image Bank via Getty Images
1. Prioritizing the big reveal
One way givers can err is by focusing too much on the moment the recipient will open the gift.
A chocolate fondue fountain might meet these criteria – it’s quirky and sure to elicit curiosity and smiles from onlookers.
However, when people receive a gift, they care less about the moment the bow comes off, and instead think about the weeks and months ahead.
How often would a chocolate fondue fountain realistically be used?
Compare that to a new coffee maker, which could see action every day. Sure, it isn’t a novelty – and probably won’t elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” on Christmas Day – but the recipient will be quite happy to have it on hand when their alarm rings each morning.
2. Unique and new are overrated
Another factor that can lead givers to go wrong involves unwritten rules for what constitutes good gift-giving practices.
Givers often focus on these rules more than they should. For example, they may avoid giving the same gift to someone in back-to-back years because this goes against the norm of giving a unique gift each year. Givers also often refrain from giving used products as gifts because this violates the unspoken rule that a gift should be brand new.
In contrast, recipients are quite open to gifts that violate these norms.
If someone loves a certain type of wine, they’re more than happy to receive it in subsequent years. And if one digital camera is lightly used but possesses several innovative features, while another is new but has fewer features, people are happy to receive the used one.
3. Being risk-averse
Givers can make missteps when they avoid gifts that they see as too risky. Consider sentimental gifts, like a scrapbook or a nostalgic memento.
Givers, however, tend to shy away from sentimental gifts because they see them risky – sure, they could be a home run, but they could also whiff. Doubts can creep into shoppers’ heads as they consider sentimental gifts: What if it comes across as sappy? What if the recipient thinks I’m being cheap?
And so people tend to opt for safer, superficial gifts that they assume will be at least somewhat well-liked. Or, to continue with the baseball analogy, givers are happy to take the sure single.
As another example, consider material goods versus experiences.
When giving gifts, people often opt for tangible objects over experiences because material goods are on the safer side – almost everyone could use a new appliance or a new shirt. Experiences are trickier; they require a bit more of an understanding of who the recipient truly is – not everyone loves going to see the symphony.
Sometimes it’s better to go with Boston Red Sox tickets over a pair of socks.Philipp Nemenz/The Image Bank via Getty Images
4. Does the thought really count?
Givers can also err by wanting their gift to appear especially thoughtful.
Of course, recipients appreciate thoughtfulness – but not when it comes at the expense of receiving something that’s actually useful.
This plays out when givers are shopping for multiple people. They’ll often choose unique gifts for each recipient, rather than give the same gift to everyone, because a distinct gift for each person will make them feel as though they put more time and effort into gift selection. People do this even if they realize that some recipients will be receiving less desirable gifts.
You’ll also see this happen with gift cards. Givers often choose specific gift cards – to a particular clothing store or restaurant, for example – that reflect the interests or tastes of the recipient.
But recipients are more open to gift cards that give them more flexibility and freedom – think an Amazon or Visa gift card. That way, they can decide whether to splurge on a new sweater, dine out at their favorite restaurant – or do both.