Growing up, Stephanie Michael’s brother longed for a six-foot-tall K’nex Ferris-wheel set. At the time, however, the 8,550-piece toy exceeded their family’s budget. For his 30th birthday a few years ago, Michael, a geriatric social worker in Philadelphia, rallied her relatives to pool their funds and purchase the gift. The gesture moved her brother to tears. “It was that one big special present from our childhood that he really wanted and never got,” Michael told me over the phone. Assembling the set took him a few weeks, and it’s still in his bedroom today, taking up the space where a dresser should be. Even though her brother had requested video games that year for his birthday present, Michael decided the wheel set would be more memorable. Of her gift-giving philosophy, she told me, “I like to find the gift they didn’t know they wanted.”
As we enter the holiday season, American consumers estimate that they will spend an average of $932 on gifts this year. It might be useful, then, to consider the complex psychological processes that are typically at play when we select presents for others. Many of us like to think that we emphasize the recipient’s wants and needs when choosing a gift, but researchers find that the process isn’t so cut-and-dried. The inclination to give an unexpected, wow-worthy gift, for instance, “comes from the giver wanting to show how much they know the recipient—and to get them something that surprises and delights them,” Kathleen Vohs, a consumer psychologist and behavioral economist, told me over email. “It’s as much about what the giver wants to get out of the gift-giving process––warm feelings or even some dose of pride … as it is about making the recipient happy.” In these cases, one study found, givers may choose to forgo “satisfaction-maximizing gifts” (something versatile and useful) and instead favor giving “reaction-maximizing gifts” (something that will blow the recipient’s hair back).
Gifts can be an expression of our feelings toward others, but they also send messages about how we feel about ourselves. One’s sensitivities and insecurities, for example, can affect the selections we make. Let’s say you own an iPhone 10. If a relative requests an iPhone 14 for their birthday, you’re likely to be uncomfortable with them owning a nicer smartphone than yours, says Jeff Galak, a marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Opting out of that purchase isn’t necessarily a malicious decision. It can be psychological self-protection: We don’t want to feel like what we own is inadequate or lesser. It isn’t “about making you [the receiver] happy,” Galak told me. “It’s about making sure that I don’t make myself somehow worse off.” The goal here is to avoid feeling envious of a loved one.
Egocentric motives are embedded in many gift-purchasing decisions: A pair of concert tickets could say I want to feel closer to you, so let’s attend this event together. Eschewing a wedding registry and buying the couple a custom artwork could say I want you to feel like I know you better than you know yourself. “These are not choices about the recipient anymore,” Galak said. They’re attempts by the gift giver to garner more satisfaction for themselves through the giving process.
Another scenario in which psychology influences the present you choose is having an audience for the gift exchange. According to a study co-authored by Galak, in any group scenario (a baby shower, a retirement party), gift recipients believe it’s the thought that counts. However, gift givers assume that the recipient is focused on the gift’s value, how the present they gave compares with others at the same occasion. The giver’s motivation in a situation like this, then, could be one-upping somebody else in attendance.
Galak has also found that people sometimes purposely give gifts they don’t believe to be best, which he calls “selfish prosocial behavior.” “If I know that you love a player on a team but I already own that jersey, I’m not giving it to you as well, because it’s gonna really undermine me,” Galak told me. “I’m gonna protect my own sense of uniqueness and identity.” In this instance, you might give your friend another jersey from the same team, one that doesn’t infringe on your own self-image.
People make all sorts of unconscious calculations in choosing a present for someone else. Many of us want to feel like we’re benevolent, yet we tend to pay substantial attention to how the process of giving will make us feel about ourselves. None of those calculations is bad, per se—Michael’s gift for her brother ended up being truly touching, after all. But recognizing that those motivations exist might help ease the sometimes fraught, stressful process of holiday gift giving. These gestures are often summarily defined as selfless acts; what’s closer to the truth, though, is that gift giving is a nuanced psychological transaction in which the givers also bring their own desires to the table.