Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences


I got you something: 5 gift giving rules for ALL of your relationships

I got you something: 5 gift giving rules for ALL of your relationships

Loyola Psychologist Jeffrey Huntsinger shares some advice on how the gift you give, or receive, can influence your relationships.

By Tasha Neumeister

We’re at the height of gift giving season, and picking out the “right” gift can be easy for some while others find it burdensome. There’s also research that suggests men and women view gifts differently. Men and woman may as differ when it comes to what is a perceived “bad” or “good” gifts as well. Jeff Huntsinger, assistant psychology professor, and colleagues did a nearly decades-old study that is still relevant today on how gifts impact relationships. Here are some of Huntsinger’s insights and rules on how the gift you give, or receive, can influence your relationships:

Rule #1: Give well - A “bad” gift could change your relationship for the worst
The whole reason we give gifts is that we want people to be happy. We often give gifts as a means of showing our closeness to other people or bringing them closer to us. If we give a good gift, it should be a marker of understanding—letting the receiver know that we “get” them in some sense. So good gifts will tend to strengthen relationships and bad gifts—depending on how bad they are—can in the worst case scenario show a complete lack of understanding of another person’s likes and dislikes. This can at least temporarily cause each person to seem less similar or hurt the relationship in some way. In terms of bad gifts, both men and women—in romantic or platonic relationships—will feel a loss of closeness. But women tend to take receiving bad gifts better than men, which our study showed. What seems to be happening is that women will engage in relationship maintenance behavior and will rationalize away a “bad gift.”

Rule #2: If you want to grow closer, give an experience
Experiential gifts—like concert tickets or hiking trips or dance lessons—are unique and can’t easily be replicated. Often these are things you can’t do again. Material gifts, and that warm glow of happiness you get from receiving them, wear off relatively quickly. Material gifts are often not shared with other people, whereas experience gifts are: Let’s get tickets to the Bulls or the Cubs game and we’ll go together and share it with other people. And that experience becomes a part of us and makes us closer to the other person.

Rule #3: Don’t sweat it—the thought counts, but not really
We think if we put a lot of thought into a gift, people will like it better. But as far as my research shows, it doesn’t really matter as much as we think it does. We tend to overemphasize the thought we put into a gift, but that thought often isn’t recognized by the person we give it to. Why is that? Well, when you have a gift—a box for instance—in front of you, you’re focused on the gift itself, not so much on the giver and their effort. It’s your gut reaction to the gift: Do you like it or not? You don’t often see the effort right in front of you.

Rule #4: Give of yourself
Think about giving a person something you already have. For example, if I say, “I have this coffeemaker. I love it and so will you,” we’re on the same plane. It’s saying, “I love this and you should experience it too.” It makes you feel connected to the other person. With these companionized gifts, people are seeing that they’re giving a little bit of themselves: This is part of me, I like this, and I’m going to share it with you. This is even true for material gifts, which don’t always make us happy.

Rule #5: Ask for a wish list
We like to get gifts from our wish lists. We know what we want. Sometimes a person may pick the “wrong gift” because maybe it’s not the gift we want in that moment. When we’re trying to find a gift for someone we have to put ourselves in their shoes and think about their likes and dislikes. What do they like to do? It’s not the easiest thing to do. We tend to anchor on our own likes and dislikes and then start thinking about them. It’s a difficult differential puzzle to do that well. So women tend to engage in “perspective taking” by default. But most people will make a lot of mistakes: We think people want a unique gift, but in fact, people would be more satisfied if you went off their Amazon wish list. Because we—the receiver—put the thought into the gift we want better than anyone else could.