3 Psychology Studies on Gift Giving

What’s the best gift to get someone, is it OK to regift that ugly sweater your aunt got you for Christmas, and can science solve all your gift giving problems?

Answers: I have no idea, yes, and maybe. While psychology research can’t tell you what the perfect gift is, it can give you some interesting insights into gift giving. Here are some findings from psychology studies that are, well, a gift to the stressed-out holiday shopper.

1. Regifting Isn’t That Bad

So about that ugly sweater. Clearly, there is a taboo around regifting. And let’s face it: no one buys a holiday gift thinking “this will be the perfect book for Bob to feign interest in, then turn around and give to his mother for her birthday.”

But is regifting that bad? Maybe not.

Researchers from London Business School have shown that gift givers and receivers evaluate regifting differently. Gift receivers think regifting is such a slap in the face to the person who gave the gift that it’s not any less offensive than just outright throwing the gift in the trash. Gift givers, on the other hand, would definitely prefer to have their gifts regifted. In other words, your aunt would really rather be surprised by seeing that carefully selected sweater being worn by your neighbor than by discovering it in the dumpster out back.

Part of this seems to come down to how gift givers and receivers perceive ownership of the gift. Gift receivers see the giver as still having some stake in how the gift is used, whereas givers see the decision of how to use the gift as being entirely transferred to the receiver.

In any case, the researchers say that the taboo around regifting can be broken by explicitly normalizing regifting with an official “National Regifting Day.” Personally, I have no idea what they’re talking about because I’m pretty sure we already have that day and call it “Christmas.”

2. Gift Givers and Receivers Have Different Preferences

Whenever I give someone a gift, I worry about whether they’ll like what I got for them. But whenever someone gives me a gift, I’m just happy they gave me a gift! Often, we hold ourselves to higher standards than we do other gift givers.

That’s the basic idea behind a study from psychologists at University of Oslo, which found that people seem to feel the social norms around gift giving more acutely when they’re giving a gift than when they’re receiving one.

The result is that people tend to have different preferences when they’re giving gifts versus receiving them. For example, givers prefer more exclusive and luxurious presents while receivers prefer more practical ones. Similarly, givers lean toward gift cards while receivers would rather have cold, hard cash. And givers worry about getting their gifts ready on time while receivers easily forgive a late present.

Ultimately, these findings suggest that as gift givers, we should cut ourselves some slack. A present is a present, even if it’s a late present, a useful but unexciting present, or a wad of cash.

3. Women Give Better Presents

Lest you think I may be oversimplifying this psychological study, here’s the actual title of the paper: Women Are Better at Selecting Gifts Than Men. Well, that’s pretty clear then, let’s wrap it up, time to go home.

The study found that women’s superior gift selecting skills correlated with a greater interest in other people. With these kinds of broad statements, there are naturally some caveats to be aware of, though.

First, women appear to select better gifts on average, but of course you can bet that there are men with standout gift-giving skills and women who are atrocious at picking gifts. More importantly, there’s no evidence that these gender differences are innate, rather than just a product of social conditioning. It’s quite possible that women are forced to hone their gift giving skills because society expects them to get better gifts than men.

Overall, these studies suggest that we should all just chill out about gift giving. Regifting is OK, gift receivers have lower standards than you think, and we should all just not worry too much about finding the perfect gift and enjoy the holiday season.

Image: Flickr/Jennifer C.


  1. Maggie on December 23, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Giving cash is crass. If you don’t care enough about the person to figure out what they would like, don’t go through the pretense of giving a gift (of cash) as if you do.

    • Neil Petersen on December 26, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      I think the interesting takeaway from that study isn’t that cash makes the perfect Christmas present but that gift receivers generally hold gift givers to lower standards than the gift givers themselves do.

  2. Allie on October 22, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    I just wrote a blog on creative gift ideas for the college student. One was cash since many students are short on cash. There are a myriad of creative, fun, and unique ways to present that cash–a money lei, Christmas Tree cash, fancy money origami–which shows that the giver did indeed put some time and thought into the gift.