PITTSBURGH — Finding a loved one or friend the perfect gift can be a daunting task, especially when deciding whether or not to go with something sentimental or something material. Which is the right way to go?

A new study finds that all too often, people are going about gift-giving the wrong way as they struggle to figure out what to get a person.

Gift box
All too often, getting a gift becomes a question of whether or not to go with something sentimental or something superficial. A new study finds most of us go about gift-giving all wrong.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted two separate experiments, hoping to sort out the messy psychology behind gift-giving and receiving.

In the first experiment, some participants wrote down the name of a friend to whom a present would be given, while others were assigned to give a gift to the friend.

The specific gift-giving occasion fell into one of two categories: it was to celebrate a friend’s birthday, or it served as a parting gift at a going-away party.

Givers were asked to choose between gifting a sentimental item (e.g., a photo showing a good time between the two friends) or a superficial item (e.g., a framed photograph of the friend’s favorite musician).

Meanwhile, the recipients of the present were asked to indicate which of the two gifts they would rather receive.

The researchers found that gift-givers gave recipients superficial items much more than they would have preferred, regardless of how close the two friends were.

It is believed that this may be the case because the reception that a sentimental present will receive is perceived to be more ambiguous.

“Essentially, givers seem to view sentimentally valuable gifts as having the potential to be either home runs or strikeouts, but they view preference-matching gifts as a sure single,” explains Julian Givi, the study’s lead author, in a press release.

A second experiment used similar conditions between romantic partners, finding the same results — the partner receiving the item did not get a sentimental present as often as they’d hoped.

Further experimentation showed that one’s tolerance for risk may determine their likelihood to choose a potentially risky sentimental item to give a person.

“People spend billions of dollars every year on gifts, and the data suggests that they’re not spending money in the best way possible,” Givi concludes. “We are also finding evidence in a different project that people feel closer to givers when they receive sentimental gifts, so people should keep this in mind the next time they’re making gift-giving decisions.”

The study’s findings were published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

About Daniel Steingold

Our Editorial Process

StudyFinds publishes digestible, agenda-free, transparent research summaries that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. We do not agree nor disagree with any of the studies we post, rather, we encourage our readers to debate the veracity of the findings themselves. All articles published on StudyFinds are vetted by our editors prior to publication and include links back to the source or corresponding journal article, if possible.

Our Editorial Team

Steve Fink


Chris Melore


Sophia Naughton

Associate Editor