What Makes a Good Gift?

by | Nov 19, 2018

You shouldn’t have . . . .

Black Friday is this week and that means that holiday gift shopping season is about to be in full swing. As you think about buying gifts for those on your list, below is helpful guidance from experts about what makes a good gift. First, however, here’s a fantastic video featuring Elton John – some gifts are more than just a gift (it’s amazing and well worth the 2ish minutes IMO):


So, what makes a good gift? 

The behavioral economist Dan Ariely and author excellent books Predictably Irrational and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty , has the following gift giving advice:  “A good gift is something that someone really wants, but feels guilty buying it for themselves. What is interesting about this answer is that the ideal gift from this perspective is not about getting the person something that they can’t afford, or something that they have no idea that they want – it is all about alleviating guilt connected with the purchase of a highly desirable (yet guilt invoking) item.”  Thus, luxury items, rather than necessities, often make better gifts.   Here’s an example Dr. Ariely gave that is interesting: Imagine that you are walking by a storefront and you notice a beautiful coat that is just the right cut and color.  You walk in to check it out, and up close it is even more beautiful.  But then, you look at the price tag and you discover that it is about twice as expensive as you originally guessed, and after 30 seconds of painful deliberation you decide that you can’t possibly justify paying so much for a coat – and you go on your way.  When you get home, you find out that your significant other has purchased that same exact coat for you … from your joint checking account.  Now, ask yourself how you would feel about this. Would you say a) “Honey, this is very nice of you, but I have weighted the costs and benefits earlier and decided that this coat is not worth the money — so please take it back immediately” or b) “Thank you so much, I love it, and I love you.”  I suspect that the answer is b.  Why?  Because by getting you the expensive coat, your significant other got you what you wanted without making you contemplate the guilt associated with the purchase.

Researchers analyzed 20 research papers on what makes a good gift in this paper Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving. Their advice based on research:

  •  The main goal of selecting a gift should be to give the recipient what they want rather than focus on surprising them.
  • Research has found that “people are not nearly as talented at knowing the preferences of others as they think they are.” So, selecting a gift for another person can be very hit or miss.
  • “Givers try to put a smile on the faces of recipients right at the moment of the gift exchange [via surprise], but recipients don’t really care about this. Instead, recipients care about how useful a gift is when they actually possess and use it
  • From the researchers: “Yes, a bride and groom may be quite surprised and thrilled (for the moment) when they open the unrequested embroidered designer napkin set, but it is likely to sit in a drawer for decades without providing any value to the couple. In contrast, that iPad they asked for on their registry, while expected, is something the couple will use daily and get plenty of joy from for years. Somehow, we have been tricked into thinking that the best gift isn’t one that is actually wanted, but rather one that is somehow unusual and “special.” Unfortunately, that just isn’t what the research says is true.”

One downside of getting a really nice luxury gift (like a dressing gown) could be the Diderot Effect.


  1. Another superb post JJ. My only contribution is this: Ultimately we want to be seen/understood/ well held. If a gift can make the recipient feel any, or magically – all! Well then, I think the giver hit the trifecta.

  2. I still don’t know what to buy you for Christmas.

  3. Brought me back to my favorite short story ever, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”.

  4. When I first learned of the IFOD….I throught “Can I afford this?”
    And then I learned its free….
    Thanks John, for making ‘being able to splurge on myself’ justifiable!


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