Last year we spent over £2 billion on unwanted presents. Here’s some practical advice on choosing something your loved ones actually want

The Psychology of Christmas Gifts

Think practical

Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes by imagining the gift they would benefit from most – something useful, rather than something that’s going straight to the back of a cupboard. US researchers Galak, Givi and Williams have solid advice: “Givers should choose gifts based on how valuable they will be to the recipient throughout his or her ownership of the gift, rather than how good a gift will seem when they open it.”

Reflect your personality

Psychologists Lara Aknin and Lauren Human suggest choosing a gift that reflects your own personality: “Choosing something that reflects the giver tends to promote closeness and intimacy because it’s an act of personal disclosure.” This needs some thought, as it depends how similar you and the recipient are in outlook. A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reported that trying to second-guess what someone wants to receive isn’t the way to go, as it often causes us to lose an understanding of what they really want and value.

Money talks

We often feel that giving money shows a lack of thought and care. But research by Francesca Gino and Francis Flynn, who study human behaviour, shows otherwise. They studied 107 students and found they appreciated cash gifts far more than the items they had originally asked for. But if you don’t feel comfortable giving cash, a gift card could be the way to go. Researchers Chelsea Helion and Tom Gilovich found that when individuals receive a gift card, they are more likely to buy something special for themselves than if they were given cash.

The Psychology of Christmas Gifts

Say thank you!

We’ve all been there – you open a gift only to find you really don’t like it, and then try to hide your disappointment so as not to hurt the gift-giver’s feelings. Now, research by Catherine Roster, of the University of New Mexico, finds that you can gauge how good your relationship with another person is based on how they reject your gift. Although frowns and false smiles were signs that a gift has been unsuccessful, the failure to say “thank you” was the only response “reliably associated with how detrimental participants said the incident would be to the future of their relationship”. Roster found that the gift-giving process could be improved simply by saying “thank you”, even if it isn’t completely genuine.

Men and women are different

Gender differences play a big role in gift giving. Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, found that women tend to be more sentimental about giving gifts and attach a lot of meaning to specific presents. But men tend to want and give gifts that are practical and functional. So, if you find a new vacuum cleaner under your tree this year, take a few deep breaths and remember your partner probably thinks they’ve found you the perfect present.

The Psychology of Christmas Gifts

Ask for what you want Researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities found that most people would prefer to receive something that they’ve actually asked for. However, this fact seems to be forgotten when it comes to actually giving a gift, with givers believing the recipient would like a surprise. So, how can you sensitively convince people to get you what you would really like? Another study has shown that if you give someone a whole list of desired things, they fall into the same trap of believing you would be happy with something “off-list”. But if you just tell them one thing that you would really like, they tend to realise you would probably prefer to receive that one item.

Final thoughts

Although it’s fascinating to understand the psychology behind giving and receiving Christmas gifts, it’s also best not to over-analyse things too much. Christmas is really about spending time with loved ones and having fun. If you are exchanging gifts this year, just remember that it’s the thought that really counts.