Most of us have had the experience of opening yet another present of socks or hankies from a well-intentioned older relative. But even among friends, why is it that people giving presents so often get it wrong? Norwegian psychologists Karl Teigen, Marina Olsen and Odd Solas investigated.
They wondered whether people playing the role of giver overestimate the importance of exclusivity, not realising that the person they're giving to will appreciate quantity and practicality just as much, if not more. Their initial findings seemed to support this hypothesis. They asked hundreds of students to choose between gift alternatives (e.g. one expensive bottle of wine, or two cheap bottles), either from the perspective of a giver or a receiver. This showed that givers prefer to buy others gift vouchers, expensive wine and new dictionaries, whereas recipients said they'd prefer cash to vouchers, more (cheaper) wine, and larger, better second-hand books.
However, this difference all seemed to come down to whether we evaluate things in isolation, or in comparison with something else. So when Teigan's team asked people to rate from 1-10 how much they would like to receive certain gifts - two cheap bottles of wine, say - then exclusive or more expensive gifts received higher ratings every time.
"Positive attributes like quantity are harder to evaluate without a comparator", the authors said. "Exclusive, spotless items are ideal gifts whereas quantitatively superior items need to be compared with something else to be fully appreciated [...] Accordingly, the art of successful gift giving consists of selecting items that can
be appreciated even when they are presented on their own".
Teigen, K.H., Olsen, M.V.G. & Solas, O.E. (2005). Giver-receiver asymmetries in gift preferences. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 127-148.