It’s that time of year again. A time for good fellowship, good wishes…and bad gifts. Sure, our hearts are in the right place and sometimes so are our wallets, but it can still be hard to find just the right present for someone. And it can be awkward for both giver and receiver when an unwelcome surprise emerges from beneath the paper and ribbons.

One problem is that the giver is often motivated more by his or her own preferences than those of the recipient. I, for example, used to place a high priority on finding gifts that were offbeat and unexpected. But a series of puzzled stares and tepid thank-you’s eventually taught me that this approach often backfires.

Then there’s the problem of figuring out how much you should spend…remembering whether the person already has what you have in mind…and whether you should give a fun but useless gift, a practical or boring one, or one with a limited life span (food, candles) that will not become a dust collector or future tag-sale bargain.

It Is More Blessed to Give Than to Receive…Unless You Give a Dud

Birthdays tend to be less stressful than holidays such as Christmas when it comes to choosing presents because they are only being given, not received. Gift exchanges, however, are like a business transaction; there’s a tacit understanding that the value of what you give should match what you get. If there’s an imbalance in this trade, there may be a “correction” next year; the person who gave too little will remember his embarrassment and upgrade his offering the next year. Meanwhile, the person who gave too much may scale back on his choice, thus perpetuating the imbalance.

Beauty Is in the Eyes of the Beholder…and the Beholden

A similar type of gift may be perceived differently by giver and receiver depending on a number of factors, including relationships and gender. A gift of cash from a parent to an adult child, for example, seems appropriate. But a cash gift from a child to adult might be viewed as an insult.

Perhaps the most dramatic differences in gift psychology are between men and women. According to Todd Kashdan, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University, women tend to gladly accept a present, while men feel an obligation to the giver. Margaret Rucker, a consumer psychologist at the University of California, Davis, notes that men tend to give practical gifts and are concerned about the cost, while women would rather give and receive gifts that have emotional significance.

A Perfect Gift…But for Whom?
The Psychology of Gift Giving
The Strangest Gift I Ever Received                     One Christmas I unwrapped a gift from a relative. I held it. I stared at it. I turned it over and looked at it from another angle. I squeezed it. I smelled it. It was a combination of yarn, leather, possibly metal, and other substances hitherto unknown to man, and I had no idea what it was. At first I thought it might be a potholder. Then a miniature hassock for one foot. Maybe a saddle for a small pony. I sent a generic thank-you message to my relative, then deposited the unsolved mystery into the trash. 

A gift choice is often based on assumptions about the recipient that may or may not be true. As Barry Schwartz noted in The American Journal of Sociology, “Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures that others have of us in their minds are transmitted.” The standard gift I always received from my godmother is a good example of this phenomenon. When I was about six, I made a casual comment about a bell she had on display in her apartment. She then assumed that I loved bells, and over the next decade gave me one for every Christmas and birthday. Over time other relatives “chimed in,” and bells were often bestowed on me by my grandmother and mother as well. Today, I have close to 100 of these music makers. I did grow to enjoy my involuntary collection that was forged by one random observation.

Another risk factor in gift giving is being swayed too much by things we love or are important to us. We may treasure songs on a CD and assume a close friend would be equally enamored. Typically, the gift recipient will thank us politely, but then we may never find out whether the CD became her go-to music or a coaster. Lacking this knowledge keeps the door open to future gifts of music that may be inappropriate.

My father, a professional carpenter, gave me a skill saw one year. He considered such a device standard equipment for any man’s basement. I had never told him about my aversion to power tools, especially power saws (which reminded me of “Perils of Pauline” serials in which a poor damsel tied to a log approached a spinning blade).

Where is that skill saw now? Enjoying its tenth year in my garage, its power cord still unacquainted with electricity.

Luckily, It’s the Thought That Counts

In O. Henry’s classic story The Gift of the Magi, a wife and husband experience a bit of Christmas irony. To get enough money to buy special gifts for each other, the wife sells her glorious hair to a wigmaker and the husband sells his treasured pocket watch. Then the wife buys a watch fob chain and the husband a set of special hair combs, both gifts now useless.

The bottom line: It’s the thought that counts.

What’s the most bizarre gift you’ve ever received? How about the best gift? Tell us in the comment box below.

Click here to see Rose’s tips for healthy and happy relationships


  • Tamara Schindler
    Posted November 19, 2015 12:16 pm 0Likes

    My last boyfriend gave me these super ugly, purple, oversized and extremely childish butterfly earrings for my birthday after a few months of dating. It was terrible… Today I can laugh about it

  • Kelly
    Posted November 19, 2015 12:20 pm 0Likes

    There’s no greater feeling than picking out a gift for someone you know they will love. And then seeing their face when they open it.

  • Charolette
    Posted November 20, 2015 4:08 pm 0Likes

    This is a great article, and important to remember especially right before the holidays. I know for me personally I get so caught up in just trying to find something the person will like that I forget about the joy of being able to give a gift and what that communicates to the other person.

  • Gemma
    Posted November 23, 2015 1:42 pm 0Likes

    I LOVE the gift giving season. Nothing feels better than showing your love and appreciation for those who you spend the whole year with. I totally agree that it’s the thought that counts!! No gift is too small


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