Psychology of Gift Exchange

How people react to gifts matters hugely to both the giver and the receiver.

Download a paper on THE PSYCHOLOGY OF GIFT EXCHANGE here.

We all want to give a gift that delights and pleases so the recipient thinks positively of us. When we’re receiving a gift there’s an expectation that we’ll adhere to a socially prescribed ‘script’.

There’s a strong pressure to appear grateful, even if the gift isn’t what we want. Yet when we say, ‘It’s just what I always wanted,” who are we really kidding?

My research has analysed people’s attitudes to giving and receiving gifts that fail to please, as well as the subtle signals that leak out when someone pretends to like a gift they actually hate.

Appraising the gift-giving situation accurately is an important social process because gifts can potentially change relationships. To date, gift-giving anxiety and how people reveal their true feelings when they open a gift had been poorly understood. My research revealed some of the  psychological processes involved.

The phenomenon of re-gifting has received extensive media coverage, as has the idea of having a gift-giving formula to work out how much to spend on a person.

Do people reveal – through their gestures and non-verbal communication  -what they really think of a gift?Which gifts are most likely to succeed – and to fail? Who gets more anxious about gift buying, men or women?How many people really liked what they got for Christmas?

Click here to view findings

Headlines from the Gift Giving survey conducted by Professor Karen Pine in association with Ocado:

People’s comments on Xmas 2008 revealed that a lot of gifts failed to please.

  • One in ten people said they liked only 10% of the gifts they received last Christmas.
  • Men, generally, were more dissatisfied than women.
  • Almost half had lied about liking a gift from someone close to them. Men and women did not differ on this.

Gift giving and receiving induces anxiety in a lot of people.

  • One in four people say that giving a gift makes them feel anxious or very anxious.
  • One in five people say that receiving a gift makes them feel anxious or very anxious.
  • Men are more likely than women to feel anxious about both giving and receiving gifts.

How do people say they react to a gift they don’t like?

  • Women were more likely than men to ‘make appreciative noises’ (55% vs 49%), to ‘say thank you enthusiastically (65% vs 57%), to say something nice about the gift (69% vs 59%) and to convey excitement through their body posture (49% vs 39%).
  • Although only 12% of respondents said they would tell the person directly that they disliked the gift, men were significantly more likely to do this than women.

People’s general views about gift giving and receiving

  • 40% think it’s OK to take an unwanted gift back to the shop and get a refund. More people (50%) think it’s acceptable to pass it on to someone else.
  • Most people thought it OK to lie and say you liked a present when you didn’t, although more women than men (77% vs 69%) agreed with this.
  • One in four people look for equanimity in gift exchange, believing people should give each other ‘gifts that are of roughly equal value’. More than one in five say ‘If I .give someone a present I expect to receive one back’.