People Don’t Really Love the Charity-Donation Gift

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The charity donation as holiday gift — you know, the “a donation has been made in your name” thing — is such a nice thought, which is why it’s really too bad people don’t always appreciate it as much as you think they will. On a recent episode of the “PsychCrunch” podcast, psychologist (and Science of Us contributor) Christian Jarrett dives into the surprisingly robust subject of gift-giving research, interviewing USC Marshall School of Business professor Lisa Cavanaugh on her new study about this apparently disappointing gift. 

As part of Cavanaugh’s research, people were asked to choose a real gift they really would then be giving to a friend, selecting between a donation to Oxfam to support fair-trade coffee workers or a more traditional gift, like a nifty new travel coffee mug. Their results showed that when they gave the donation to a close friend, the friend appreciated it about as much as the gift giver expected. But when they gave the donation to "someone you see often but maybe isn’t one of your closest friends," Cavanaugh told Jarrett, "those people really did not appreciate the gifts to the same extent that gift givers believed they would." 

If you’re closer to someone, you’re better at guessing what he or she would truly like to receive as a gift; likewise, if someone close to you gives you a gift that maybe isn’t exactly what you would’ve chosen for yourself, you at least assume that their heart was in the right place. But it’s harder to take the perspective of someone you’re not as close to, Cavanaugh explained. Gift-giving: so many ways to screw it up, not a lot of ways to get it right.