10 Sep 2020 • 5mins • Yolt

What gives? A Behavioural Scientist sheds some light on the psychology of gift giving


Laura Straeter, Behavioural Scientist at ING, joins us to answer our burning questions on the season of giving. From how much to spend, to picking the perfect present, get all of the answers ahead of the festive season!

Yolt: Thanks for joining us, Laura! So, why do we give gifts?

Laura: The reasons for giving gifts can actually get pretty complex, and it's a tradition that goes back millennia - there's even evidence of giving gifts at this time of year in pagan times! As I said, there can be lots of different motivations behind gifting. We might want to congratulate a person, empathise, apologise or surprise. Gifting can also influence our relationships: repair, strengthen, weaken or even create one. But, for me, and especially at Christmas, I see gift-giving as one of the time-honoured ways to express that we’re grateful for someone in our lives. This can be anyone: a romantic partner, family members, friends, or even a business partner.

Yolt: Is there any kind of science behind how much you should spend on a gift?

Laura: Someone's gifting budget depends on so many different factors, and there’s really no such thing as the perfect amount to spend on a gift. My research has shown that there are lots of ways to boost someone's appreciation of a gift, and while it is true that giving something expensive will earn you some brownie points, the thought and effort that went into a gift plays an even bigger role. If you still want to splash out, it's worth keeping in mind that givers tend to overspend on gifts. Research has found that, when asked, many recipients wouldn’t pay the amount that the giver had paid for a specific gift. Adding to that, people frequently underestimate the cost of a gift that they received – so don’t go big just for the sake of it.

Yolt: What about gift wrap? Is it a waste of money or does it add value?

Laura: Gift wrap matters! How you wrap a gift can reveal a lot about where you bought the item and how much time and effort you’ve invested into the gift as a whole. It’s the so-called first impression. However, be careful. Gift wrapping sets the stage and could actually deceive your recipient – in a worst case scenario, it can actually set expectations too high. In other words, don't wrap a pair of socks in gold-leaf wrapping!

Yolt: Following that, is it really the thought that counts?

Laura: The idea behind the gift definitely counts! But, it’s a bit more complex than that. The ‘type’ of thought you put into it plays a big a role. For example, the gift doesn’t have to perfectly match the recipient’s interests. It can also reflect your relationship or, even more interestingly, your own tastes! My research has shown that, in the right context, gifts that reflects the giver’s identity are valued, too. This comes in handy if you have to buy a gift for someone you don’t know that well yet. So, the next time you’re worrying about what to buy for your office Secret Santa, pick something that reflects you. If you're an avid baker, make them a cake; if you're a librarian, pick a book by your favourite author! You get the idea. Not only does this show you put some thought and personality into the present, but it makes a nice conversation starter. As I said, the right gift can actually jumpstart a new friendship!

Yolt: What about handmade gifts? What's the perception there?

Laura: Once again, this taps into the concepts of effort and time, and love, too! People tend to like handmade presents, as they symbolically “contain love”. They also have a tendency to reflect the giver, their relationship with the recipient, and, of course, the extra effort and time that went into the gift. Overall, something handmade is a great way to go.

Yolt: What’s the general consensus on giving money as a gift?

Laura: Money is generally less positively received than a gift of the same monetary value! My advice would be to not give cash gifts at all, but to use the money to purchase a thoughtful gift or, at least, a gift card, instead.

Yolt: One last question... Experiences vs. things – which is better?

Laura: Experiences just might reign supreme as the king of gifts! Previous research has shown that people tend to prefer receiving experiences over material objects, and I'm not surprised. For one, experiences last longer and, through them, we can build positive, lasting memories. In addition, if you gift someone with a shared experience that you can enjoy together, it can strengthen your relationship! If, like me, you believe that the main motive behind gift giving is telling someone that you care about them, I can't think of a better way than something special you can enjoy together!

That's a wrap!

Thanks for joining us on the blog, Laura! Looking for ways to stay on top of your Christmas gift shopping this year? Get Yolt for iOS or Android, and stay on top of your Christmas spending with easy budgeting, money insights, and spending tags!