THE BLOG
12/19/2012 03:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2013

The Awkward Social Dynamics of Gift Giving

You've just been handed a gift, and you can feel the excitement from your wide-eyed friend. The huge grin on their face says it all... "you're going to LOVE it!"

The anticipation builds as you untie the ribbon and tear apart the gift-wrap to reveal... a ceramic statue of bird.

"Isn't it fabulous?" your friend proclaims as you manage to pull yourself together quickly enough to plaster a smile on your face and reply, "OMG, I love it!"

Sound familiar? We've all received a gift we didn't like, want or need. And we've all "faked it" in order to comply with the social dynamics of gifting.

As you've probably experienced, giving a gift is far from altruistic. In fact, your ceramic-bird-loving friend isn't alone. We're all egocentric gift givers.

Think about the last time you gave someone a gift. Did you pick a gift you knew they would love? Or did you pick something you thought was awesome? If it was both, that's a plus. But in many cases, we want to gift something we feel good about giving. Herein lies the trap. We succumb to "I love it so much so you'll love it too" syndrome.

Research has shown that the process of giving someone a gift has a complicated social dynamic. What the gift giver thinks will be perceived as "thoughtful" isn't necessarily appreciated by the recipient. Particularly if it wasn't something they wanted.

Take the example of wedding registries. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that when couples received a gift from their registry, the appreciation level was high. However, the guest's perception of how "thoughtful" was the gift is low.

Guests think that if they take the time and effort to pick something that isn't on the wedding registry, it will be appreciated more. That wasn't the case. Appreciation for non-registry gifts was lower than gifts selected from the registry.

The only thing that ranked higher on the "appreciation scale" than a gift from the registry was cash. But, while couples appreciated monetary gifts the most, guests perceived it as the least thoughtful and meaningful gift.

In essence, what people want doesn't necessarily correspond with what people want to give.

And this isn't only true when it comes to wedding gifts. When we give a gift, big or small, we are more concerned about how it will reflect on us. Sure, we want the recipient to like it, but not at the expense of our ego.

So how do you make sure you're giving gifts that your loved ones (not just you) will love? Regardless of the scenario, keep their wants, needs and preferences at the forefront of your decision-making. While you might gravitate towards one thing, they might appreciate something else even more -- which ultimately is a win for you.

The "Just Because" Gift

Giving a just because gift has never been easier with social gifting becoming more and more popular. Not only has Facebook announced their new Gifts services, allowing users to send physical gifts to their friends, but companies like Treater and Just Because make it easy and affordable to send friends or co-workers a gift. For example, Just Because allows you to send gifts valued between $10 and $100 for only $1... just because.

The Cash Gift

Sometimes it's the perfect gift. The majority of engaged couples prefer cash gifts. The perfect graduation present? A $100 bill slipped into that in the congratulatory greeting card. But obviously, in other cases it just isn't appropriate. Jerry learned this the hard way, so be sure to take Kramer's cue and put a little more though when shopping for your significant other.

The Obligatory Gift

Even though we might not want to give this gift, at a fundamental level, we still want to give them something "cool" -- something that makes us look good. Maybe even something that "trumps" other peoples gifts.

The Birthday Gift

As you get older, physical birthday gifts become less important. Many of us would rather go somewhere or do something in lieu of a gift in a box. Take this into consideration when buying for a friend. Would they rather get "stuff" or would an experience be more meaningful and appreciated?

The Christmas Gift

Christmas gifts tend to fall into two categories. First, you have the courtesy gifts and exchanges. This might include Christmas gifts for your child's teacher, a cookie exchange at your local book club or the secret Santa at work. They're inexpensive, get-into-the-spirit, feel-good gifts. You can't really go wrong with these as long as they don't... well, suck.

The second category includes more meaningful gifts for close friends and family. The younger the family (and the more kids running around), the more we're focused on presents under the tree. As we get older, physical gifts are less important and more value is placed on time spent with each other. That said; don't underestimate the importance of a good Christmas gift to a child anxiously awaiting Santa's arrival.

The Wedding Gift

When it comes to wedding gifts, there is more to the social dynamic than just giving a gift the couple appreciates. In this case, a gift isn't just a gift. It's symbolic, an affirmation of the couples union. And since over 91% of couples create a gift registry telling you exactly what they need to build their future together, deviating from this list is risky. If you're not planning to buy from the registry, be sure you know the couple well enough to know what they want.

The Hostess Gift

Does this fall into the category of obligatory? Maybe. But think of it this way: They've invited you into their home, cooked for you, bought wine for you and are promising a to keep you entertained for a few hours. Whether or not you should bring a gift is a no-brainer, but what to bring can be a bit tricky. You can find a little inspiration here and here.

The Thank-You Gift

Whether it's for a neighbor, your boss, employees or your bridal party, a thank-you gift is a special kind of gift, as it is usually unexpected. This is your chance to delight and surprise someone with more than just a simple thank you, so make it something they will love. Not just something you think is worth giving.

The Takeaway

There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel good about the gifts you give. After all, that's part of the fun. But that doesn't always mean you should give a gift that you would want receive. Take the recipient's wants, needs and personality into consideration. Feel good about the fact that you're getting them something they will love.

Happy gifting!