By Isabel Power, Behavioural Researcher at Ogilvy Consulting’s Behavioural Science Practice


Whether it’s the office Secret Santa, proving yourself to the in-laws, or showing a loved one your appreciation, finding the perfect gift is difficult. How is it after countless sleepless nights we still end up getting the people we care about different shades of the same scarf year after year?

It’s time for behavioural science to look at the research and help target these behavioural problems to make this year more successful.

Why do we keep getting it wrong?

Insights from a study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper Business school can help with this question.

In a nutshell, the study found that there is a mismatch between what givers think they should buy and what receivers actually want to receive. This is because givers focus too much on the ‘moment of exchange’. They want to wow the receiver in the moment rather than thinking about what the giver would actually enjoy for a longer period of time. Givers abide by a number of self-imposed “rules” which lead them to buying gifts they think will be surprising and novel. In reality, this conflicts with what the receiver truly desires; to receive a feasible gift which they actually said they wanted.

How to overcome the behavioural challenges of gift giving?

I have identified three behavioural challenges that underlie the harmful ‘moment of exchange’ pattern of present giving and have suggested a solution for each.

Behavioural Challenge 1: 

Overcome present bias to give a longer term ‘present’

We do not treat time consistently, in particular we have a bias to prefer shorter term gains in the here and now over larger benefits in the future. It’s one reason why saving up seems so difficult and, in this case, the ‘moment of exchange’ seems so important.  

Yang and Urminsky (2015) found that people are more likely to give a smaller bouquet of flowers in bloom than a larger bouquet of buds, even though in the latter case the recipient would be able appreciate the large bouquet in bloom for longer.

So how do we overcome this? 

TIP: Change your present focus

Dan Ariely has a fantastic tip for changing temporal focus in diary management which is; ask yourself would you still accept an invitation for next year if it was actually four weeks away?  This could be applied to gifting, instead of focusing on that moment imagine the receiver with that gift in four weeks. Ask yourself would they still appreciate it?

Behavioural Challenge 2: 

Conquer the false consensus effect to know what’s really on their wish list

We tend to think our beliefs and preferences are more commonly shared with others than they actually are. For example, if we like chocolate, we might think everyone wants to receive a box of chocolates, when in fact our intended recipient is lactose intolerant.  But how do we know what someone actually wants?

 TIP: Ask for Feedback

Overcome this tendency by asking the person themselves or someone close to them what they want. Best of all if they have a list, actually follow it. You don’t need to be more imaginative. It might not seem imaginative buying someone a Spotify subscription for a year, but you can guarantee they actually want it.

TIP: Become a detective

As found by Emory University, a difficultly is that receivers are often not upfront about what they want and do not give honest feedback. It’s a familiar situation, for me at least, for someone to declare ‘I absolutely love it’ and then see the possession packed in the charity drop-off box mere days later. 

Whilst givers aren’t always to blame, they can take the matter in their own hands by looking for clues. Be honest with yourself, what gifts have you honestly seen the recipient using again? If it’s none, look for other clues. Are there any items they are particularly attached to in their house? Were any of these gifts? Pay attention to how they show their appreciation of others, is it sharing an experience of a concert together? Do they like to send you positive messages? How about a message on a pillow case or a piece of jewellery? If you are still stuck, there is no shame in a voucher, they can use this to buy themselves what they really want.

Behavioural Challenge 3: 

Satisfy your need to ‘wow’ through the association effect

Because of our ego, we are highly motivated to behave in ways that will form a positive impression of ourselves, particularly in the eyes of others. We need to feel that our gift will be better than any other they receive. So how do we create that ‘wow’ factor whilst getting someone the gift they actually want?

TIP: Think about how and where you give the gift

By creating a positive atmosphere, the receiver will associate the gift with a good memory. When you give your gift; try taking them to a good restaurant to exchange gifts, feed them high-quality mince pies beforehand and put on cheery Christmas music in the background. If they are enjoying the atmosphere they will have more positive perceptions of the gift. If you really want to show appreciation, try thinking about wrapping their present creatively. People remember situations tied up with emotions for a longer period of time, so how about getting personalised wrapping paper with a picture of you together?

And finally…

Remember reciprocity

It’s not all about them.  Good gifting can help you too. People feel compelled to return favours so the better gifts you get, the more likely you are to receive them. It’s time to start dropping unsubtle hints.



Ariely, D. (2011). Admitting to another irrationality.[Blog] The Blog. Available at

Galak, J., Givi,J., (2017). Sentimental Value and Gift Giving: Givers’ Fears of Getting It Wrong Prevents Them from Getting It Right. Journal of Consumer Psychology,27, 473-479

Ward,M., Broniarczyk,S. (2011). It’s Not Me, It’s You: How Gift Giving Creates Giver Identity Threat as a Function of Social Closeness. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 164-181.

Yang, X.A., Urminsky,O. (2015). Smile-Seeking Givers and Value-Seeking Recipients: Why Gift Choices and Recipient Preferences Diverge. SSRN Electronic Journal


There's more behavioural science from Sam Tatam who explains how the practice can help maternity care following the birth of his daughter here.