This study explains why you are a terrible gift giver

It’s human nature to compare ourselves with other people, but most would probably attest that this line of thinking usually results in more trouble than it’s worth. There’ll always be someone out there with a bigger house, higher-paying job, and seemingly better life.

Consequently, constant comparison is almost guaranteed to leave you frustrated and perturbed. It’s much healthier on several levels to just focus on you and the unique aspects of your life that make it distinctly yours. 

Comparison to others can creep into one’s psyche and complicate matters needlessly across a variety of life areas, from career or financial goals to fashion or decorating choices.

Now, a new study from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business finds many people are allowing this mental pitfall to influence their gift-giving decisions.

It doesn’t happen all the time, but across the vast majority of gift-giving holidays, such as Christmas, birthdays, or Mother’s Day, gifts are typically exchanged in a social setting with the recipient(s) receiving presents from multiple parties. The team at CMU, after analyzing 12 studies’ worth of data and findings, says that people often end up buying expensive gifts for loved ones or friends solely because they’re afraid others are buying similarly pricey gifts.

Essentially, gift-givers tend to assume that the recipient will either like or dislike a certain gift based on its perceived value in comparison to everything else they get that day. In reality, though, this analysis indicates that the old saying “it’s the thought that counts” still holds up today. Study authors say most recipients don’t judge one gift based on another. 

Ask yourself, if you received three gifts on your birthday; a new car from your mom, a new Playstation 5 from your sibling, and a first-edition copy of your favorite book from your significant other would you appreciate your spouse’s gift any less because it didn’t cost as much as a car?

“We found that, oftentimes, gift givers believe the recipient’s focus is on relative gift value. For example, if I gave one bottle of cheap wine as a gift, but another person gave a bottle of expensive wine, I would incorrectly assume that the recipient would appreciate the gesture of giving the expensive bottle more than mine,” says study co-author Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing at the Tepper School of Business. “As a result of this misconception, when givers know beforehand others will be giving gifts, they are more likely to spend additional money upgrading their gifts or even to skip the gift-giving occasion altogether.”

It’s an especially fascinating tendency because when the roles are reversed most people immediately recognize that it’s silly to compare gifts. Money is definitely one way of showing that we care, but the more meaningful a gift is the more it will be appreciated, regardless of its price tag.

“The next time you find yourself fixating on how your gift might compare to other gifts, consider instead how you would feel if you were in the recipient’s shoes. If you are like most consumers, the gift giving gesture is what would really matter to you, and chances are the recipient feels the same,” explains study co-author Christopher Olivola, associate professor of marketing at the Tepper School.

In short, the next time you need a great gift for a loved one or friend, focus on meaning over money – and don’t concern yourself with anyone else’s shopping list.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Business Research.