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The Psychology Behind Bad Gift-Giving: Where Buyers Go Wrong

As though holiday shopping weren't nerve-racking enough, there's yet another factor to stress out about: the prospect of buying a bad gift.

Despite our best intentions, we often end up purchasing gifts that aren't what recipients want or need. Hey, we've all been on the other side of the equation, haven't we? Just think about the butter warmer and beer hat hiding in your closet.

Well, it's time for us consumers to take charge and buy our loved ones thing that truly serves them!

Momentary Delight Doesn't Hold Up

Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give But Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift-Giving, a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, determined one major cause behind bad-gifting: our desire to delight the recipient in the short term, rather than considering long-term satisfaction.

"When givers are choosing [what to buy], they're often thinking about putting a big smile on the recipient's face the moment they get the gift," said Jeff Galak, associate professor and co-author of the study. "[Buyers] think, 'I want to make you happy right when you open the gift.'"

Inspiring a smile isn't a bad thing in and of itself; after all, opening gifts is supposed to be a joyous occasion. But those gift-givers who really want to bring value should consider the utility of their gift.

Instant gratification gifts, so to speak, "are not necessarily what the recipient wants or needs," said Galak. "What people generally want, broadly, are gifts they will enjoy and use for a good duration of time."

Leave Your Ego out of It

Gift-giving is meant to be a selfless act, but let's be honest: Our egos can be on red alert when that family unwrapping session begins.

Nicole Coleman, an assistant professor of business administration at Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, said that often, "givers want to choose gifts that reflect their relationship with the recipient, some specific knowledge that the giver has about the recipient, or other highly individual information about the recipient."

This kind of gift can be immediately exciting for the recipient, but it's also a thrill for the giver, and that's not really what giving is about.

"The bottom line is: gift givers tend to overlook how the gift will be used, and rather focus on what the gift means/represents," said Coleman.

What's more, we may feel anxious about whether our gifts are as good as or better than others the recipient receives. We may want to outdo our sibling or co-workers. This is another way in which we can stray from making the best choice.

"This is not in the paper, but we have a new line of work looking at the tendency of gift givers to think that recipients evaluate [and compare] the quality of one gift to another," said Galak. "This can turn into a race [on behalf of the buyer] to get the hottest, newest thing of the year."

The problem with this kind of thinking isn't so much that you'll end up getting a bad gift, but that you'll end up wasting money.

"When you ask recipients about gifts they receive, they actually don't make comparisons," said Galak. "They don't care if you spent the extra $100 or not."

Retailers, on the other hand, do care, and they're pouring money into campaigns to get you to spend the most this holiday on the newest, priciest products.

"Retailers are sensitive to the buyer's [anxiety] that how much they spend really matters," said Galak.

And retailers are feeding into that anxiety and competitive edge. So don't fall for it, especially if you're on a budget.

But No, Really, What Gift Should I Buy?

Even knowing all this, picking out the right gift for someone can still be challenging. You can spend all day in the mall or browsing online and not feel certain about any product.

Often asking the person outright what they want feels like the worst move, but Galak strongly recommends it.

"We have this social norm that says asking means you're not thoughtful," said Galak. "But actually, it's the opposite. When people tell you what they want, everybody wins. If you don't feel comfortable doing that, ask a friend of the recipient."

If you're really against asking, or if you're not getting direct answers, Galak suggests giving a gift card from one of the big credit card companies. It can feel wildly impersonal, but who doesn't like a gift card that allows them to buy from virtually any retailer?

Erika Martinez, a psychologist, suggests doing a bit of research, such as finding out if the recipient has an Amazon wish list, and jotting down items they've mentioned wanting to purchase.

"Asking yourself such questions can point you in the right direction for a thoughtful gift that'll be appreciated," Martinez said.