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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Bad Santa: The psychology behind ghastly gifts Add to ...

It’s the thought that counts when it comes to exchanging presents, right? So why is it so hard to choke back your resentment when you unwrap a diet book? A snow shovel? Or a coffee-maker from someone who knows you only drink tea?

Lousy gifts are relationship land mines wrapped in a festive bow. While decorum dictates you ought to be grateful to receive anything at all, a bad gift sets off doubts about whether the giver really knows you, whether it reflects their true feelings for you, or whether they even spared you a thought when they chose it. That uncertainty can sting long after you’ve banished the offending gift to the far reaches of your closet.

Ask Barrig Hayward. The Toronto resident once received a self-help book, titled When Your Loved One Dies, from a family friend for Christmas. No one in her life had died, nor was anyone sick. “I would have been fine if that person had given me no gift. But to open that?” Hayward says. “This was just like, ‘Are you serious? I can’t even regift it.’”

So what, indeed, is the thought process that goes into choosing a bad gift? What goes on in the psyches of the gifting-challenged? The answer, according to psychologists, may be less mystifying, and perhaps even more thoughtful, than you might think.

1. They did put thought into it. Too much thought

Travis Carter, a psychology professor at Colby College in Waterville, Me., says bad gift-givers tend to make misguided inferences based on the recipient’s behaviour. Often, those hunches are all they have to go on, given the general assumption that a gift-giver should be able to intuit what the recipient wants.

Even being aware of this phenomenon can’t save you from it. Case in point: Carter once gave his girlfriend a trash bin as a gift.

She was constantly complaining about the odours emanating from the kitchen garbage bin, so Carter decided he would impress her with a receptacle that would contain the smell. He did his research and spent several hours visiting different shops and browsing online to find the perfect can.

She did not love it as he had hoped. “The look on her face, it was pretty clear she was not expecting a trash can,” he recalls. While he had correctly deduced that his girlfriend’s existing smelly trash can annoyed her, “It didn’t bother her on a deep spiritual level the way that I had interpreted it to be.”

The only true insight you can get into what others are thinking is to ask them outright, however hard that may seem, Carter says. And even that’s not foolproof. “You can’t always be sure they’re going to be honest with you because it’s hard for people sometimes to admit they want what they want,” he says. So if you’re reluctant to divulge your wish list, try not to judge too harshly the next time you receive a new toilet-brush holder.

2. They let creativity get in the way

Sometimes gifts do more than just miss the mark. What possible explanation could there be for the used body butter that Lisa, 42, of Calgary received from her mother-in-law last Christmas? (Some last names in this article have been withheld to maintain family harmony.)

Some gift-givers are motivated by creativity, or the need to be perceived as creative – ensuring everyone on their gift list gets something different rather than what they really want, says Monique Pollmann, an assistant professor of communication and information sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

A U.S. study published in the Journal of Consumer Research earlier this year found that when participants were asked to shop for only one person, they chose what researchers identified as the most appealing gift from a selection of items. But when asked to shop for multiple people, they skipped the appealing gift, and opted instead to get each person something different, even when they knew the recipients wouldn’t compare what they got.

It seems Lisa’s mother-in-law may suffer from a form of this gift-giving overload. Her Christmas-gifting strategy, Lisa explains, is to blitz every one of her numerous family members with large sacks full of small, random presents that aren’t particularly personal, nor “anything that you would want.”

“I know that kind of sounds ungrateful, but there’s a pattern,” Lisa says, noting that the used body butter came in one of these annual grab bags. “There were just goops taken out, like you could see people’s fingers had gone through it and stuff. I never said anything to her because she would have been mortified, but … this was par for the course.”

3. You’re Mars. They’re Venus

A bad gift isn’t necessarily an indicator of a bad relationship, says Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. It may just mean you don’t have a lot in common.

“If I’m similar to you, I can just go, ‘Well, I would like this,’” Dunn says, and the resulting gift would likely be reasonably successful. But the more different two people are, the harder it is to get into each other’s heads.

This explains a lot in my own family dynamic. I’m guilty of years of dud gift-giving to my father, for this very reason. Much as I love him, no two people could be more different. He’s outspoken; I’m reserved. He’s a hawk; I’m a dove. He’s hot-tempered; I’m a robot. The gap in our personalities and interests has made for some real stinkers in my selection of presents for him over the years – aftershave, a balaclava and, perhaps most horrendous, a model airplane made out of beer cans. None of these are things I’d actually want myself, but because I haven’t a clue what he might like, I take blind shots in the dark. Men use aftershave right? Winters are cold in Canada! (Okay, I have no defence for the beer-can airplane.)

It’s tough to break the bad gifting cycle, given the strong social obligation for recipients to feign gratitude, no matter what the gift. All these years, my dad has never once hinted he’s hated my presents, and thus, my selection of ridiculous presents continues.

4. They don’t care

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh – but Pollmann’s own research suggests some bad gift-givers are simply less interested in other people. She conducted a series of experiments, published in the journal PLOS One last year, that found men are generally worse at selecting gifts than women. The key difference between good and bad gift-givers was their “interpersonal interest,” or their interest in others, which was measured through an autism-spectrum quotient questionnaire, Pollmann discovered. That’s not to say bad gifting is a sign of autism, of course. Rather, as her study stated, previous research showed that autistic traits are normally distributed among the general population, and that men tend to have more autistic traits than women.

The autism questionnaire asked participants to rate statements, such as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”

“It was clearly the case,” she says, “that if you scored high on the scale – or if you are a male, which means you score high on the scale – you were just worse at gift-giving than other people.”

5. They really want to impress you

Gift-givers can get caught up in how attractive they believe a gift is, and neglect to consider how practical it would be for the recipient to actually use, says Nathan Novemsky, a professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management and professor of psychology at Yale.

In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Consumer Research earlier this year, Novemsky found that givers tended to focus on the perceived desirability of a gift, rather than its feasibility, or ease of use. For instance, he explains, if you know your friend loves Italian food, you might get buy him a gift certificate at a top-notch Italian restaurant an hour away, without considering what a pain it would be for him to get there.

Tessa, 23, of Toronto can relate. Every Christmas, her brand-conscious aunt gives her horrible brand-name gifts. One year, it was a pair of Juicy Couture tube socks – made for infant-sized feet; she was about 13 at the time. Another year, she received an XXL-sized designer sweater (she is petite).

“She’ll do anything to give us designer labels,” Tessa says. “The worst part is she makes a big deal out of the gifts too. She’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait till you see what I got you. You’re gonna love what I got you.’ And then it’s like the worst thing on Earth.”

6. They’d rather not give you a nice present at all. And they want you to know it

Let’s face it. Some gifts are downright insulting because the giver meant for them to be.

Signe Whitson, co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces, gives the example of a mother who gives her general contractor son gifts of expensive suits, ties and cufflinks that would be more appropriate for his financier father.

“To the general public, these look like kind and generous gifts from a loving mother, while to the son, the gifts are a clear passive-aggressive reminder of her disappointment and resentment of her son’s career choice,” Whitson writes in an e-mail.

Whitson calls this phenomenon “sugar-coated hostility,” when people do what’s socially expected of them but insult the recipient in a way that can be publicly justified. She says people who rely on passive-aggressive behaviours “believe their life will only get worse if they express their feelings directly.”

Reacting to a passive-aggressive gift with overt hostility will only allow the giver to feel they’ve succeeded in provoking the recipient into expressing the anger they themselves were harbouring, Whitson says. It’s better to point out that their gift sends the message they aren’t happy with you.

“Usually, the passive-aggressive person will deny their anger … but that’s okay,” Whitson writes. “Admission of anger is not the point; sending the message that their anger is no longer a secret is the key to changing the dynamic.”

Is there a way out of this annual tradition of awkward gift exchanges? Dunn doesn’t offer much hope. “Basically, people suck at gift-giving as a general rule,” she says. Short of asking point-blank what people want, Dunn suggests that a solution for the gifting-challenged may be to find someone similar to the intended recipient and ask what he or she would want. But alas, that would require bad gifters to recognize their shortcomings.

“In general,” Dunn says, “the more incompetent people are, the less they realize it.”

Here’s the good news: People seldom consider the time and effort put into a gift; they simply focus on the gift itself, Carter says. But a bad gift can be rendered less so if the receiver understands the giver’s motivations. Carter suggests you should tell people how much thought you’ve put into a gift when you give it to them. That way, he says, “Even if they end up taking it back, they’ll at least understand the intentions behind it.”


What’s the worst holiday gift you’ve ever received?

We put the question to our followers on Twitter. Here are some of the top responses:

@KingSeraSera: “Worst present ever was a fat/calorie counting book in a stocking, that had pages marked for Christmas dinner.”

@dream2screen: “I was given a used winter coat which was packaged as brand new with soiled Kleenex in the pocket. #true

@SimplyJackLane: “A coffee maker: I don’t drink coffee”

@AndrewHeffren: “Worst Christmas gift I received was a dog food scoop when I was 12”

@IHLChevy: “Rick Springfield album, not [the] requested Bruce Springsteen album. A for effort, Mom.”‏

@michaelajones2: “Worst gift: An oversized Fruit of the Loom T-shirt from my dad with iron-on photos of my mom and dad on vacation.”

@kitcatkayaker: “Jumper cables for my car!”

@allstaradele: “My dad got me bumpers for my waterbed. Wrapped I thought it was cross country skis. #xmasfail

@atelierivaan: “Worst gift was from my MIL: 4 handmade shiny orange pottery mugs, smeared with lumps of brown clay. Looked just like excrement.”

@6anderson1world: “A new snow shovel. Hubby thought I’d like a lighter one. I didn’t.”

@katedotcalm: “A pressure cooker from my husband for our 1st Christmas. Ex husband now.”

@TaraEWilkins: “One year my grandma bought one of my aunts [in-law] cleaning solution for Christmas. That was awkward.”

@ShawnyJeann: “An anniversary clock depicting the crucifixion. I was 20ish and had no anniversaries to celebrate”

@Lavi0lette: “My aunt gave me a mahogany jewellery box. I gave it back & said it didn’t go with my room. The next year, she gave it to me again.”

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