Culture & Society

“The Gifts We Keep on Giving”

Professor Francis Flynn discusses research on giving away a present you don’t really want.

December 17, 2012


Someone wraps a holiday gift

Gift givers are not as offended by regifting as many people assume. | Reuters/Johannes Eisele

Regifting is generally regarded as a taboo, but is this practice really as offensive to the original giver as people think? And is there a way to shift cultural norms so as to promote this sort of gift recycling and reduce the trashing of perfectly good items?

In a recent paper, my colleagues Gabrielle Adams, Michael Norton, and I closely examine the psychology of regifting. Across several studies, we find a clear disconnect: Receivers believed passing a gift on to someone else would be more offensive to givers than givers actually reported feeling. Receivers in fact thought that regifting was as bad as throwing a gift in the garbage, while givers saw the trashing of their presents as significantly more offensive than giving them away.

The asymmetry between givers and receivers held across the board in several studies. In one, participants envisioned either giving or receiving gift cards, and then regifting them. In another, they imagined that they had recently given or received a wristwatch as a graduation gift, and they then reported their feelings about scenarios in which the gift was either granted to another or thrown away.

In a third study, we found an explanation as to why givers and receivers have different perceptions of the offensiveness of finding new homes for unwanted presents. We involved participants in a simulation of gifting and regifting with unappealing gifts, and then assessed their beliefs about who had the right to do what with the gifts. We found that although receivers felt givers should have a say in what happened to their gifts, givers actually felt that receivers had the full right to do whatever they liked with a present. Put differently, receivers seemed to believe that gifts come with strings attached whereas givers disagree. It’s this belief that leads them to assume regifting is more offensive than givers actually feel it is.

Can regifting be made to seem more acceptable? Apparently, yes. In a final pair of studies, participants were more likely to give away personal gifts if they were informed that it was “National Regifting Day.” Destigmatizing regifting in this way increased receivers’ feelings of entitlement as to what they could do with their gifts. This served to correct their perceptions so that their beliefs about the offensiveness of regifting decreased and came more into alignment with the beliefs of givers.

Future research should explore the role of relationship closeness in reactions to regifting. Receivers might fear that close friends are more likely than acquaintances to be offended by regifting, but it is also possible that receivers feel better about regifting gifts from close friends because they assume that people who care about them would want them to use their gifts in any way they choose.

In addition, the impact of relationship closeness on regifting may depend on the type of gift in question. In our studies, skews in beliefs about regifting arose with both “good” and “bad” gifts — but gifts vary on other key dimensions, such as whether they are concrete goods and services or more symbolic gifts that convey love and status. While regifting concrete items (gift cards and DVDs) may be tolerable to givers, regifting symbolic gifts-for example, a hand-sewn scarf-may be more likely to offend givers because it sends a stronger signal that receivers do not value their relationship with the givers. When symbolic gifts are given to close rather than more distant friends, regifting may have even more negative consequences.

On a practical level, our results suggest a simple solution to increase regifting. Givers should encourage receivers to use gifts freely, perhaps even telling them that passing the presents along would not be offensive. This would not only increase gift recycling behavior, it would also reduce unnecessary guilt experienced over such behavior. And as we head into the holiday present-giving season, that may be a welcome gift, indeed.

The study, “The Gifts We Keep on Giving: Documenting and Destigmatizing the Regifting Taboo,” by Gabrielle S. Adams, Francis J. Flynn, and Michael I. Norton, appears in Psychological Science 23(10), 1145 -1150.

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