Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

You are the greatest gift: The science of giving

By Janina Steinmetz


Imagine you’re invited to a friend’s birthday party and you’re thinking about what to give them as a present. You might be trying hard to figure out what they might like, and you’re thinking about which interests or hobbies they had recently mentioned. However well-meant these efforts to find something suitable for the recipient are, there is plenty of room for error in predicting their tastes and preferences. We all surely remember having received gifts that left us wondering if the giver even knew us at all. How can such calamities be avoided? After all, giving and receiving gifts often accompanies some of the most important events in our lives, such as weddings, graduations, and birthday celebrations with loved ones. These beautiful occasions that give us purpose and meaning in life should not be overshadowed by the awkwardness of receiving an undesired gift, or by the giver’s stress and worry about what the recipient might like.

Recent research by Lara Aknin from the Canadian Simon Fraser University and Lauren Human from the University of California in San Francisco offers a surprising solution to the problem of what makes a good gift: It might have to do more with the giver than with the recipient. As paradoxical as this may sound, the authors conducted some fascinating studies that investigated what it is about a gift that helps to grow a stronger bond between the giver and the recipient. First, they asked participants on what basis they usually chose gifts, and found that participants were more likely to give gifts that reflected the receiver’s interests and passions, instead of their own interests and passions. Similarly, also receivers preferred gifts that were relevant to their own interests and passions, instead of to the giver’s interests and passions. Interestingly, however, when givers did give gifts that reflected their own interests and passions (e.g., a book they had recently enjoyed, or something else they liked, instead of something they thought the receiver might like), givers felt closer to the recipient than when givers gave gifts that matched the recipient’s interests. In other words, giving something that reflects yourself instead of the recipient makes you feel closer to them and may increase your bonds with them, which is why we give gifts after all.

Image ©: David Blackwell. 2013

But what about the receiver’s feelings? In another experimenter, the authors assigned people to give a small gift to someone in a lab session. Participants were instructed to give a gift that either reflected their own true self, or the knowledge they had about the recipient. Subsequently, the authors contacted the receivers of these small gifts and asked them how close they felt to the giver and how much they enjoyed the gift. Even the recipients felt closer to the giver when they had been given something that reflects the giver’s personal interests, than when the giver had selected something to match the recipient’s personal interests.

Next time you’re selecting a gift for a loved one or a friend, remember these results. We give gifts to connect to others, and to celebrate their purposeful events in life and to honor our relationships with them. Gifts are often not about the good exchanged per se, but about the relationship between the giver and the recipient. So don’t be shy to give something that reflects you, because this might especially strengthen your relationship with the recipient. As NPP member Liz Dunn has shown in her research, giving to others makes us happier than spending money on ourselves. Now, when we decide to give to others, it might make them happiest if we give something of ourselves.


Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

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