Bad Christmas Gifts – A Neuroscientific Gifting Guide

Gift-giving isn’t easy — particularly during the holidays, when there are so many different people for whom to buy. It’s overwhelming and stressful, and people cope with the burden in different ways. Some, like myself, begin lists in September, all the while picking up hints from others and taking note, then making my purchases before Thanksgiving. Others rush to the mall the weekend before — or of — Christmas, hoping something will catch their eye or they’ll snag a great deal.

At one point or another, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a poor or ill-fitting gift. How did you react to it? Or, more importantly, what did it mean to you in terms of your relationship with the giver? A study in recent years has explored exactly how men and women react upon receiving good and bad gifts.

A paper published in Social Cognition by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues at the University of British Columbia explored the theory that while “good” gifts would reaffirm similarity between couples, poor gift-giving may cause partners to question their compatibility.

In the first experiment, participants met and chatted with a person of the opposite sex for four minutes. Afterward, they were instructed to select a gift for their new friend from a list of gift cards for various restaurants and stores. Would each participant evaluate their similarity to the person based on the gift they received?

Beforehand, each participant had ranked the gifts in the order in which they would personally prefer to receive them; the experimenter then used this information to persuade the participants when it came to gift-selecting. As a result, half of the participants chose their friend’s top choice, while the other half selected their friend’s second-to-last choice. Basically: half got what they wanted, and half did not.

Men who received the gifts they desired perceived themselves as more similar to their partner than those who did not. Women, however, seemed relatively unaffected by the appropriateness of the gift.

Dunn and colleagues performed a follow-up experiment, this time with men and women already in heterosexual relationships. Again, men who received poor gifts perceived less similarity to their partner. When asked how long they expected their relationship to last, those men predicted a shorter future with their girlfriend.

In an unexpected twist, women who received the poor gift from their boyfriend actually perceivedmore similarity with them, and predicted their relationship to last longer compared those women who received the good gift.

Dunn reason that perhaps the more “threatened” women feel in a relationship (in this case, internal conflict from receiving the poor gift), the more they try to protect against it. With the new relationship (experiment #1), there was not much to protect, hence the indifference to their partner. When, however, there is a substantial relationship to guard (experiment #2), women are more motivated to remedy the situation. Men did not display this effort, simply stating that they did not like the gift — and, by extension — their partner.

So the moral of the story is: if you want to stick with your honey, gift a woman a sock and a man their favorite Rolex. (Just kidding. Don’t. Seriously…don’t.)


Dunn, E., Huntsinger, J., Lun, J., & Sinclair, S. (2008). The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gifts Influence Relationships Social Cognition, 26 (4), 469-481 DOI: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.4.469

Image via Yelloj / Shutterstock.

Jordan Gaines, PhD (c)

Jordan Gaines, PhD candidate, is a graduate student and science writer pursuing her PhD in Neuroscience at Penn State. She maintains the blog "Gaines, on Brains," which introduces recent discoveries in neuroscience to science lovers and non-lovers, the literate to the laymen.
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