Why Is It So Hard to Give a Great Gift?

The worst gift Sue — one of several respondents to an informal Facebook survey I conducted on terrible gifts — ever received was an ill-fitting sweat suit from a discount store's clearance rack. For Marci, it was a donation in her name to a cause she didn't support. Gift giving is hard. Most of us want to find the perfect gift for the special people in our lives, but have no idea where to begin. We purchase something we're sure will delight, but it doesn't. Or we wait until the last minute and end up buying something in a panic.

Gift giving is a worldwide tradition, yet it stumps many of us. An article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology describes five separate studies that all show people prefer to receive gifts they specifically request. Easy enough. But gift givers tend to believe unsolicited presents will be viewed as more considerate, so they tend to go rogue.


Similarly, a 2016 paper based on prior research of gift giving notes a discrepancy in the way a gift giver and the recipient think about the gift. Gift givers typically select a present by picturing how it will be received, often going for a "wow" factor or a complete surprise. Yet recipients are more practical when they open a gift, focusing on its usefulness and long-term desirability.

Here's an example. A husband purchases pricey diamond earrings for his wife, going for that "wow" factor. He can just picture how she'll give a little shout of joy when she opens the box. But she doesn't. She'd asked for slippers, a blender or a pair of leather gloves, and would have preferred those than the diamond earrings, no matter how beautiful. Another scenario: A woman buys her coffee-loving mom a gift card to a coffee shop, something she deems a very thoughtful present. While her mother does enjoy coffee, she wishes she had received a more versatile credit card gift card.

The 2016 paper also revealed that gift givers prefer giving tangible items that can be used immediately, such as those diamond earrings. But recipients often prefer experiential gifts, such as concert tickets or passes to go zip lining. Spending more on your loved one doesn't impress gift recipients, either. So if someone says he wants a $20 nylon wallet, don't go out and buy its $100 textured-leather counterpart. Finally, the study says to stay away from donations to charity in the recipient's name. These often bomb because the recipient gets little out of it.

Of course, there are more nuances to gift giving than those outlined in the studies. Let's say your wife says she'd like a new blender, so you run out and grab it for her as a Christmas present. She may be miffed when she unwraps the box if she views the gift as a household item she would have purchased anyway. While we're often instructed to pay close attention to what our loved ones say to pick up possible gift ideas, care is needed. If your best friend has been complaining about her wrinkles, she may not appreciate receiving a gift card for Botox injections, no matter how useful and practical — especially if she opens the gift in front of others.

Some people say you should share your interests and passions through your gifts. But that's not necessarily true. One woman I surveyed says some of the worst gifts she's ever received are from her brother, a "Star Wars" fan, who has given her many Darth Vader-themed items. "I couldn't give a crap about 'Star Wars,'" she says.

And funny gifts? Well, they're not always so funny to others. One woman recalls that years ago, her husband gave her a ball that made the sound of smashing glass when you tossed it. He thought it was a hilarious gift, but she was not amused. "We had two babies. I wanted perfume to feel pretty, a certificate for a massage or time away with him," she says. "But I got this stupid ball."

Some assert it's the thought that counts, and that might be true. But maybe you should turn your thoughts to the items on your loved ones' gift lists. They'll get exactly what they want, and you don't have to spend countless hours fretting over what to get them.