Research Into Giving Gifts

The research found that people often prefer sentimentally valuable gifts instead of superficial gifts. Younger generations generally are also being found to have a high appreciation for receiving meaningful experiences.

Have you ever faced the daunting task of deciding what gift to give a significant other, friend or relative? And once you finally find a gift, will it be well received?

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study to investigate whether recipients are getting the gifts they want, and their findings suggest that the answer is no. When given the choice of receiving a gift that has sentimental value — such as a photograph of a special memory — versus a more superficial gift — such as a jersey from a favorite sports team — givers opt for the superficial gift more often that their recipients expect.

Why are gift givers missing the mark? The researchers found that most people are unsure whether a sentimental gift will be well-liked, but they are confident that a superficial gift aligning with someone’s interests and preferences will be enjoyed.

“Essentially, givers seem to view sentimentally valuable gifts as having the potential to be either home runs or strikeouts, but they view preference-matching gifts as a sure single,” says Julian Givi, lead author of the study. “Rather than risking a strikeout, they go for the sure thing, when what recipients truly desire are sentimentally valuable gifts.”

The researchers discovered this mismatch between givers and receivers in two separate experiments. In the first, participants were told to write down the name of a friend, and those who were “givers” were asked to select a gift for the friend. Some were told it would be a birthday gift while others were told it was for a going away party. They could choose either a framed photo of their friend’s favorite musician, or a framed photo of the two friends on a day they had a lot of fun together. The participants who were “recipients” were asked to select which of the two gifts they would prefer to receive.

The study results provided evidence that people do not give sentimentally valuable gifts as often as recipients would prefer.


“People spend billions of dollars every year on gifts, and the data suggests that they’re not spending money in the best way possible,” Givi says. “We are also finding evidence in a different project that people feel closer to givers when they receive sentimental gifts, so people should keep this in mind the next time they’re making gift-giving decisions.”