What makes a good gift?

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From Christmas and Hanukkah to Valentine�s Day, from birthdays to wedding anniversaries, giving gifts is an ancient and important human ritual, central to building social connections and fostering interpersonal closeness with friends and loved ones.

Unfortunately, giving a meaningful gift is tricky, and while we tend to assume that putting more effort or money into a gift makes it more significant, studies show that recipients generally don�t notice or care how much thought or money went into it[1].

So if one of the goals of giving a gift is to foster feelings of closeness between you and the other person, what gifts are most effective in achieving this end?

People often give personalized gifts to show they truly care. They choose gifts they think are uniquely appropriate for the recipient, signaling that they really understand the recipient�s personality, tastes, and preferences. But a new study suggests that this approach often backfires.

One problem is that when you think about someone you love and ask yourself what kind of gift they might like, you tend to focus on the person�s stable traits, rather than their continually changing needs and desires, leading to overly specific gifts that are less likely to be appreciated, the study found.

If your father really loves margaritas, for instance, you might decide to give him a margarita blender to show how well you know him, when in fact he�d be happier with a multipurpose blender he could also use for smoothies.

�Givers tend to focus on what recipients are like rather than what they would like. This can lead them to gravitate toward gifts that are personalized but not very versatile,� says Mary Steffel, one of the researchers who conducted the study. Rather than focusing on the traits that make someone unique, she suggests, think more about what they�d like�which may have nothing to do with what makes them different from other people or why you love them[2].

Even then, a second study suggests that trying to predict what another person will like is itself a tricky proposition. Personalized gifts can foster closeness, but only when the recipient feels like the gift accurately reflects their true self. As it turns out, this is a rare feat, suggesting that the whole idea of focusing on the recipient in the first place may be the wrong approach for most people.

A recipient-centric gift is one in which you choose the gift by considering the recipient. If you give someone a book by Haruki Murakami knowing he�s their favorite author, that�s a recipient-centric gift. If, on the other hand, you give them a volume of Rilke poems and tell them the book changed your life and shaped the person you�ve become, that�s a giver-centric gift, something you want to share with them since it�s so meaningful to you.

In addition to making the selection process easier and faster, giving a self-reflective gift makes the recipient feel like you�ve shared something of yourself. Self-disclosure is rewarding for both the discloser and the recipient, increasing reciprocal liking and intimacy. In other words, we like people we disclose to, and people who disclose to us.

People overwhelmingly believe recipient-centric gifts are preferred. But contrary to popular belief, this study found, it�s actually giver-centric gifts that do a better job of bringing people together and making them feel close[3].


1. Zhang, Y., & Epley, N. (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: when “it’s the thought that counts” in gift exchanges. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 667�681.
2. Steffel, M., Williams, E.F., & LeBoeuf, R.A. (2015). Overly specific gift giving: Givers choose personalized but less-versatile and less-preferred gifts. Advances in Consumer Research Volume, 43, 229-233
3. Aknin, L.B., & Human, L.J. (2015). Give a piece of you: Gifts that reflect givers promote closeness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 8�16.