Skip to main content

With Gifts, It Actually Is the Thought That Counts

But giftees think a little too hard.
  • Author:
  • Updated:


Yesterday, Israeli chief executive Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off holiday gift season in spectacular fashion, presenting the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, with a history book about the Spanish Inquisition. That would be the unfortunate period in the late 15th century during which Torquemada, the John Yoo of his day, oversaw the Catholic church's expulsion of Jews from Spain.

Rather than gift the Pope just any exhaustively-researched investigation of Catholic anti-Semitism, Netanyahu chose a widely-lauded one written by his own historian father. A bit intimate really, the whole thing, like that time your intrusive aunt bought you a copy of Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret for your 13th birthday.

The real question isn't what Netanyahu was thinking—that seems fairly clear—but rather, what does Francis do with the book now? And how can that thought exercise help get you through your own gift obligations this season?

The study found that re-gifting bothered the people doing it more than it did the people who had provided the troublesome gift in the first place.

Fortunately, before last year's patriotic buying  holiday season, researchers at Harvard and Stanford (who know a little something about attracting nice gifts) looked at what gifters and giftees think. They focused a series of studies on "re-gifting," or passing gifts you have received but don't want, on to people to whom you should give a gift but can't seem to think of anything for.

Curiously, the study found that re-gifting bothered the people doing it more than it did the people who had provided the troublesome gift in the first place. "Givers believed that the act of gift-giving passed title to the gift on to receivers, such that receivers were free to decide what to do with the gift," they wrote. "In contrast, receivers believed that givers retained some say in how their gifts were used."

In the Netanyahu/Francis example, that would suggest the Israeli supremo could really not care less if the Pope decided to quietly re-wrap the volume and pass it on to someone on his own list who who would find a story about systematic subjugation of a people more interesting. According to the study, Netanyahu would say the book was now Francis' to do with what he liked. Francis himself, however, might wonder how Netanyahu would feel should word get back to him that he'd passed it on to, say, Vladimir Putin.

The research focused much of its attention on "entitlement," specifically the sense that one has control, to greater and lesser extents, over the gift. This in turn appeared to be a function of intimacy both between the gifter and giftee, and the implied intimacy of the gift itself. The researchers, who appear to be really fun people, picked various hypothetical gifts, including good ones—an iPod shuffle!—and not-so-good ones, like "Mandy Moore DVDs." (Question: What if the iPod had Mandy Moore songs on it? This was not explored.) A big discovery revealed that re-gifting changes significantly if the gift is crafty. The sweater with a duck on it that your mom knitted for you? You're keeping that, sorry.

Whereas regifting concrete resources (gift cards and DVDs) may be tolerable to givers, regifting symbolic gifts—for example, a hand-crafted scarf—may be more likely to offend givers because the act of regifting sends a stronger signal that receivers do not value their relationship with givers. In cases in which symbolic gifts are given to close friends—where gifts symbolize a social bond (Mauss, 1925)—regifting may have more negative consequences.

On a practical level, our results suggest a simple solution to increase regifting. Givers should encourage receivers to use their gifts as they please.

This muddies the waters for poor Pope Francis, seeing as the book isn't just any book, but the masterpiece of Netanyahu's own father. Also complicating the story is the simple fact that Francis probably doesn't stress the Santa Claus side of the season all that much, and Netanyahu, at least if his family is anything like mine, spends Christmas going out for Chinese food and then to a movie.