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Whether it’s a holiday gift, a birthday present, an anniversary or wedding gift, or even a “just because” everyday present, learning how to give the perfect gift is hard. Why? Because many of the myths about gift giving turn out to be false – and the truths are somewhat elusive. Our correspondent Julie Chang Murphy, trained anthropologist and savvy gift-giver, breaks it all down for us in our series of luxury lessons: the surprising truth about gift giving. Here’s what you need to know about the psychology of luxury gift giving this holiday.

how do you give the perfect gift this holiday?

As reasonably smart and savvy people, trying to figure out what a person actually wants for their birthday or the holidays shouldn’t be that stressful or difficult in theory.

After all, we keep ourselves informed about the latest product launches, trends and styles. Latest and greatest activity trackers? Check. Best headphones? Yep. Most luxurious skincare– we know a thing or two about that too.


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Not to mention, we know what our friends and family members love to do, what they could benefit from in their lives, and all the other quirks that endear them to us.

But as anyone who has ended up slipping a generic gift card into an envelope at the last minute in defeat can attest, figuring out the perfect gift is hard.

The gift giving myths and truths you need to keep in mind this holiday season

The gift giving myths and truths you need to keep in mind this holiday season.

the psychology of gift giving

What if it finding the perfect gift is so hard because everything we’ve been taught about gift-giving is wrong?

Sociologist Theodore Caplow has theorized that gift exchange is a language that employs objects instead of words. What if we’ve been using the wrong “words” all along? Thanks to new research in psychology and sociology, we can bust some of these myths about gift giving.

While it’s still true that in gift-giving, it’s the thought that counts, now we can align our thoughts with the right gift that the recipient will actually love.


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what you need to know about gift giving myths and truths

Forget everything you thought you knew about how to shine in this holiday gift giving season! Here’s everything you need to know to find and give the perfect gift this year.

Gift Giving Myth #1: it’s all about the recipient

While we love to think of ourselves as generous and selfless creatures, it turns out that giving a gift is actually a selfish act. Or at least a self-centered one. Let me explain.

gift giving truth: it’s about relationships – gift giving is a two-way street

Anthropologically speaking, the ritual of gift-giving is an important mechanism of establishing and cementing our social relationships. Think about the incidences when a gift has been refused or un-reciprocated. The in-law who passive-aggressively rejects your gift as too expensive: “You shouldn’t have spent this much. Save it to pay off your student loans.” Or: “I’ll never figure out how to work this. Keep it for yourself. You need it more.

myths about gift giving

How to give the perfect gift: the psychology of gift giving.

Any person with feelings is bound to feel slighted. Maybe you’ve also found yourself giving a gift to someone on their birthday and not having it reciprocated when it’s your turn. It certainly feels like the relationship might be imbalanced. And that’s because humans are social creatures and when we give a gift, we want something in return namely someone’s affection, approval, and acceptance.

giving a gift increases the happiness of the giver

Giving is also selfish because it increases our own happiness. In a series of simple experiments, participants were given envelopes of cash of either $5 or $20. Some were instructed to buy something for themselves. Others were told to spend it on someone else. At the end of the day, people who spent their money on other people reported increased levels of happiness- regardless of the cash amount.

strive to be self-aware about what’s in it for you

How does this relate to finding the perfect gift? It sets the parameters so that we’re realistic about our expectations. When you approach the act of gift-giving thinking about fostering your relationship with the recipient, this intention can influence and change the tone of the actual physical gift.

It might also help alleviate the stress of finding the perfect present if we can enjoy the process and the joy and warm fuzzies that result in spending our money on someone else.


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Gift giving Myth #2: You should give something that the recipient would want, not what you would want.

 This seems like the most basic of rules. But the opposite can also be true. If we want the other person to feel closer to us, consider a “giver-focused” present.

This is a gift that reflects who you are. In a series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers found that gifts that reflect the giver promote greater closeness for givers and receivers and may be an underutilized way to boost closeness.

The gift giving myths and truths you need to keep in mind this holiday season

The gift giving myths and truths you need to keep in mind this holiday season.

Some of our most successful gifts (both as givers and recipients) have been the ones that come with a stamp of approval from the giver. For example, an aunt’s inscription in her favorite novel adds layers to the words on the page as we experience the book for the first time. And it also connects our thoughts to her experiences and why she loved the book.

gift giving truth: It’s OK to gift something that you personally really love.

Giving a scented candle that you personally love is a meaningful way to distinguish between all the varieties out there. And, hopefully, whenever your recipient smells that combo of ocean breeze and jasmine (instead of, say, New York City sidewalks on a sweltering summer day), they think of you.


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Gift giving Myth #3: Shock and awe your recipient the moment they open the gift.

 The big reveal has certainly been overemphasized ad nauseam in television and film. You could understandably think that the whole point of gift-giving is to elicit an over-the-top shocked and emotional reaction. Like a contestant winning the Miss American pageant. Or that we should also stage a theatrical event, like having your eyes covered while you’re being guided out of the house to a luxury car with a giant red bow wrapped around it. Gotta say, we do love that one.

gift giving truth: longevity is better than immediate gratification

Though everyone should be awed like that at least once in their lives, the better bet for fostering those feel good feelings year round is to give a gift that has longevity.

how to give the perfect gift

The psychology of gift giving: myths and truths.

Researchers at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon concluded that givers and receivers have different perspectives on what makes a gift “valuable.” Givers overvalue the feelings of being delighted, surprised and impressed. Whereas recipients tend to value usefulness and versatility.

So while that shiny new raincoat might not make the biggest splash at first, in the long run, it might be the most appreciated. The caveat here is the usefulness of the gift should not overwhelm the delight it should also inspire. Like, almost no one really wants a mop for their birthday, even if they really need one. Unless it’s really cool-looking and maybe plays music. You get the idea.


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Gift giving Myth #4: You should give a gift as unique as your recipient is. 

 A gift that potentially works for multiple people is usually deemed to be basic and insufficiently special. Showing up at a gathering with the same presents for everyone, or even giving the same gift to different people who don’t even know each other, feels lazy and uninspired.

We’ve been socialized to think that bespoke and tailor made are the superior gift ideas. Right?

The thing is, in our pursuit of individualizing gifts we may be giving sub-optimally. An article published in  The Journal of Consumer Research found that we tend to end up giving inferior items just for the sake of not repeating a better, actually more desirable gift.

gift giving truth: it’s a good idea to give the same great gift to more than one person

If you’ve done the research and found the most beautifully designed, highly rated and well-priced accessory, it makes sense that many people would appreciate it. In this case quantity does not negate the quality of the gift.


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Gift Giving Myth #5: You should give a gift that the recipient didn’t even know they needed.

Guilty as charged! We have to admit, this is often our goal in picking the perfect gift. It checks all the boxes. Not only does it surprise and delight the recipient, but it is also something useful that enhances their lives.

Unfortunately, your friend might not actually appreciate that adorable retro ice cream maker as much as a new 10” pan that she has gone through the trouble of researching and listing on her wish list.

Findings from the Stanford’s Graduate School of Business revealed that recipients appreciated receiving items from their wish list more than unsolicited items and perceived the requested items to be more thoughtful and considerate.

In direct contrast, the givers thought that recipients would be more impressed with spontaneous gifts as it required more time and thought on their part.

gift giving truth: you don’t need to go the extra mile

It turns out that going the extra mile to be thoughtful can actually backfire when it means ignoring others’ direct requests. There is no need to try and outsmart our friends and overthink our gifts. Instead, just listen to them.


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Gift giving Myth #6:  The more money you spend, the more the gift will be valued.

Often, givers like to present a primary gift, plus a number of add-ons or accessories. Think of those gourmet gift baskets containing chocolates, charcuterie, jams and crackers atop shredded paper. Or a new tech device along with add-ons like headphones and a leather holder.

You’d think that the recipient would view this collection of gifts as far more valuable than just the primary gift alone. But dear reader, you’d be wrong.

Dubbed by marketing researchers as the “presenter’s paradox,” it turns out that less is more. Recipients generally favor one expensive item over that same item combined with cheaper products.

When presented with a bundle of gifts, recipients will make counter-intuitive judgements about value. They’ll basically average everything out.  Which makes the entire bundle of gifts less valuable. By averaging the value of both the expensive and the cheaper items, the overall value of the package is lessened, in effect diluting the perceived worth of the highly favorable item.

gift giving truth: less really is more

Better to buy one box of high-quality chocolates (or maybe two so you’re not salivating over theirs).

The psychology of giving the perfect gift – myths and truths to know this holiday season.

what you need to know about the psychology of gift giving

Are you surprised by these findings as much as we were? It turns out that this whole business of giving a perfect gift is not nearly as complicated as we’ve been taught. Now that you’re in the know, your next gift exchange will be a breeze!

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This article contains affiliate links to products independently selected by our editors. As an Amazon Associate, Dandelion Chandelier receives a commission for qualifying purchases made through these links. 

Crediting her training as a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, Julie has immersed herself in various industries in the last 15 years including fashion design, event planning, and fitness. Julie lives in New York where she loves trying every ramen and dumpling restaurant with her husband and three children. She finds joy in bold prints, biographies of fierce women, kickboxing. And spending way too long finding the perfect polish color to express her mood.