We’ve all been there before. Christmas time draws closer and we walk through multiple aisles of multiple stores, hoping that something will jump out at us as the perfect gift for our friend or partner. The easiest thing to do is to pick something that they like, or something related to their interests. If they like Spiderman, buy them something with Spiderman on it. It’s simple enough logic, and logic that I’ve used many times myself. For five years every gift I gave my friend had Spiderman plastered on it. One would question whether this particular gift-buying strategy is really the best way to strengthen one’s relationship.
Historically, gifts have been used as tools to strengthen and foster our social relationships with others. Gifts involve an investment of time and money, and Canadians who were polled by the Globe and Mail planned on spending an average of $1,810 during the 2013 holiday season. Picking gifts for those close to us can be stressful. We want to make sure that the recipients appreciate the gifts we spend our hard-earned money on, so it’s important to put a lot of thought into the type of gifts we give. People tend to choose a gift that matches the recipient’s interests, but how many times can you give someone a Spiderman-themed gift before their house becomes a comic book shrine? And what if picking something based on your friend’s interests wasn’t the only way to become closer and bring them happiness?
There’s now research evidence supporting the idea that recipient-centric gifts (or, gifts based on the recipient’s likes and interests) are not the only way to promote closeness in relationships. Aknin and colleagues conducted a series of studies that looked at what kinds of gifts bring people closer together, and their studies revealed some interesting findings that challenge the type of logic we normally use when choosing gifts.
Half of Aknin’s studies supported the claim that participants preferred giving gifts that reflected the recipient’s interests and that showed their knowledge of the recipient. The results also indicated that people mostly received gifts that were related to their interests. This is to be expected, as the gift is supposed to be for the recipient, not for the giver, and people pick gifts based on what they think the recipient will enjoy. After all, giving your friends a gift that you would enjoy would seem kind of egotistical…wouldn’t it?
The results aren’t necessarily what you would expect. Researchers conducted a lab experiment in which participants were assigned to give an iTunes song that either reflected the giver or the recipient to a friend, family member, or romantic partner. Both the gift-givers and the recipients responded to questionnaires measuring how close they felt to the recipient/sender, how much they liked the gift, and how much they felt that the gift reflected their “true self” (in this case, how much the gift really reflected their interests). The researchers found that when recipients received a gift that reflected the sender, the recipient felt closer to the sender than recipients who received a gift that reflected their own interests. Moreover, how much recipients liked the gift didn’t affect how close they felt to the sender. Even if they hated the song they were given, they still felt like their relationship with the sender became closer.
Why did the results turn out this way? There are a few theories. Aknin proposes that gifts that reflect the giver serve as an act of self-disclosure—givers are sharing a piece of their personality, passions, or interests with the recipient, and this causes both people to feel closer to each other because the gift serves as a bonding experience. Another possible explanation is that givers know themselves better than they know the recipient, so a gift that is more in line with the giver’s interests is easier to execute successfully than trying to predict what the recipient will like. As for my Spiderman gifts, I found out the hard way that my friend didn’t like Spiderman enough to justify slowly buying him a room’s worth of merchandise.
These results aren’t to say that buying gifts you think your friends, families, or partners will like will not strengthen your relationship with them. In fact, Aknin also found that when recipients felt that the gift accurately—accurately is the key word here—reflected their own interests, they felt closer to the giver. This is research that you may want to take into account while Christmas shopping this year, if you’re looking to become closer to the important people in your life. Perhaps broadening your options when you’re perusing the aisles for Christmas presents will make it easier to find “the perfect gift.” The gift you choose doesn’t have to be based on what you think your friends will like. Introduce your friends to the music you enjoy, give them your favourite book, or take them to see a movie or play you’ve been dying to see. Giving friends “a piece of you” is an underused strategy—people don’t do it often. Try it out!
Aknin, L., & Human, L. (2015). Give a piece of you: Gifts that reflect giver promote closeness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 8-16. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2015.04.006
Marotte, B. (2013). Canadians plan to spend an average $1,810 this holiday season. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/personal-finance/household-finances/canadians-to-spend-more-shop-online-this-holiday-season/article15290922/
- Julia Kilpatrick