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If it’s the thought that counts, what were you thinking?


The COVID-19 pandemic and the series of lockdowns that ensued have gotten most of us rethinking what we have spent money on in the past two years. However, with restrictions easing up just before Christmas, some of us have started thinking about how to spend the holidays and what gifts to get for our loved ones and colleagues. “It’s the thought that counts” is probably the most cliche statement we all know about gift-giving. But it got me thinking: what do we really think about when we make gift purchase decisions? Naturally, as a graduate student, aspiring researcher, and self-confessed nerd, I turned to peer-reviewed journal articles for answers. Here’s what I found.

You were thinking of them. Gift-giving is a prosocial behavior. According to Julian Givi and Jeff Galak in their article in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (2020), by spending time and money on gifts, givers are presumably acting in the best interest of their recipients. However, gift-giving is also welfare-reducing. According to Zeev Shtudiner in Economics Bulletin (2020), economists have found giving gifts in kind to be inefficient because givers don’t always know the recipients’ preferences with certainty. Thus, a gift in kind often costs more than the value that it gives to the recipient. So, if we, as gift givers, are really thinking about gifts that maximize the utility or satisfaction of the recipients, isn’t money the safest bet? And yet, some of us shy away from giving monetary gifts because it seems impersonal, maybe even tacky.

I recently gave monetary gifts to friends for various reasons and occasions. Based on our exchanges afterwards, all of them expressed appreciation for the gifts. When I asked one friend how receiving a monetary gift made her feel, she said that she didn’t think it was any less thoughtful than a gift in kind. If anything, it was more practical because it removed the guesswork from me and allowed her to decide what she needed or wanted.

You were thinking of yourself. Givi and Galak cited prior research that indicated that our gift-giving motives are not entirely altruistic. The authors’ research findings also suggested that gift givers sometimes give precedence to their desire to be unique gift givers (that is, they give gifts that other people will not think of giving) over their recipients’ preferences. In other words, we choose gifts based on how they make us look to the receivers. But do our selfish motives necessarily invalidate our gift-giving?

I don’t think that gift-giving must be altruistic to be meaningful or even thoughtful and personal. What I take away from these two articles is that we also derive satisfaction from the act of gift-giving just as the recipients of our gifts enjoy receiving them. But for those of us who are looking to give “the best gift ever,” here’s one more thing to think about.

Think about what the recipient will experience. Ines Branco-Illondo and Teresa Heath identified the properties of “best gifts ever” in their article in the Journal of Business Research (2020). The authors described the “best gift ever” as experiential, memorable, and life-changing. The “best gift ever” is described by Branco-Illondo and Heath’s informants as life-changing because it fulfilled a seemingly unattainable desire, related to a change in the giver’s or receiver’s life, and was “associated with “magical or otherwise mysterious elements.” We enjoy receiving gifts that symbolize changes in our lives.

But perhaps the key to gift-giving is to not overthink it and to just enjoy every moment–from browsing online or walking around in the stores, to wrapping them up, to exchanging gifts, to watching the receivers’ reactions, and to sharing laughter afterwards.

Liza Mae L. Fumar is a PhD in Business student of De La Salle University, where she also teaches Human Behavior in Organizations and Corporate Social Responsibility and Governance. Her research interests include consumer behavior and green consumption. She finds gift-giving to be delightful and stressful at the same time.

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