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The Irrational Pleasure of Exchanging Gifts

What is your favorite kind of gift to receive?

My favorite is useful gifts. Socks, for example. A nice sweatshirt—nicer than I might buy myself. Something related to one of my hobbies. Food gifts are nice. They always fit and don’t take up space.

My least favorite is gift cards, which stress me out a little because then I have to decide what gift to buy myself. That’s a lot of pressure. And I’m at an age when tsotskes are a headache. I have a house full of stuff already. These are gifts I also rarely give.

Research has found that experiences make people happier than possessions. I like those, too. I don’t remember what gift my husband gave me on my last birthday, but I do remember the fun we had a baseball game that day. A festive dinner with friends is a gift in itself.

Gifts are interesting, when you really stop to think about them.

Dr. Dan Ariely, a Duke University researcher and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions has a nifty story in the Wall Street Journal about gift-giving

Rational economists, he points out, think gifts are just like burning money.

One much-cited study estimated that as much as a third of the money spent on Christmas is wasted, because recipients assign a value lower than the retail price to the gifts they receive. Rational economists thus make a simple suggestion: Give cash or give nothing.

When you think of it, we have all probably received at least as many, if not more, gifts we have hated or been indifferent to than ones we loved. If you buy someone a $20 sweater he hates and never wears, you have essentially thrown money away. Oh yes, you kept the receipt so he can exchange it if he wants. But to quote comedian Jim Gaffigan, “Don’t get me an errand.”

We give gifts as an expression of affection or esteem, but is our message thwarted if the gift misses by a mile? (I say no. My husband married me even though my very first gift to him was so far off the mark, I could see question marks floating around his head when he opened it.)

My socks, according to Ariely, are rational gifts. Everybody always needs socks. Rational economists would approve, he says. Especially if you’d already told the person you need socks.

There are paternalistic gifts, when you give something you think the other person should have. When my friends had small kids, I was always torn between getting them whatever piece of plastic crap kids were into at that moment, or books. (Books usually won.)

And there are luxury gifts—the kinds of things people feel guilty about buying for themselves. I like those best of all. And the very best gift (other than love, my health, happiness, all that) is both rational and luxurious. Nirvana.

I give a lot of homemade gifts. I don’t know if people really like them but they’re obligated to pretend they love them, so that works for me. The thing about homemade gifts, though, is that no matter how crude the item, the recipient knows a lot of thought went into it. And, as we all know, it’s the thought that counts. Especially if the gift’s a dud.

The Irrational Pleasure of Exchanging Gifts

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). The Irrational Pleasure of Exchanging Gifts. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2011
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