The psychology behind a great Christmas present

Christmas is fast approaching, and that means I will soon have to face the annual challenge of wrapping presents.  It doesn’t matter if I put the gift in a showbox with nice straight sides, the wrapping is always awful (and there is a good chance it will unwrap itself before Christmas!). But there is good news for anybody who is incapable of neatly wrapping a gift. New research has shown that if somebody receives a badly wrapped present, they are more likely to prefer the gift than if it is neatly wrapped. It may sound counter intuitive, but it does make sense. When we receive a gift, we look for cues as to what it might be like. If someone hasn’t put the effort in to wrap it neatly, we assume the gift won’t be great. Likewise, if we receive an immaculately wrapped gift, with a beautiful ribbon, it builds up our expectations and increases the likelihood that the gift won’t live up to our expectations. As with many aspects of marketing, it's all about managing expectations.

However, there is a twist to this finding; it depends on who we are receiving the gift from. If we receive a gift from an acquaintance or someone we don’t know very well, we prefer the gift when it is neatly wrapped. This is because rather than using the wrapping as a cue to guess what is inside, we use the neatness of the wrapping to determine how much they value the relationship. If they don’t put the effort into wrapping the present, they clearly don’t value the friendship. 



So if you’re like me and incapable of wrapping a present so that it looks respectable, are you better off just not bothering? Unfortunately not. When researchers tested peoples’ reaction to receiving a gift that was wrapped in an attractive blue and white paper with a matching ribbon and bow, participants were happier with the gift than when it was just in the manufactures packaging. But even if you don’t have any fancy paper, wrapping a gift in just plain brown paper with no bows or ribbons is preferred to an unwrapped gift but researchers aren’t certain why this has such a profound impact. The current working hypothesis is that unwrapping gifts has a mood induction effect – it acts as a retrieval cue, triggering positive memories from childhood.

But even if you know how to wrap a present, that doesn’t fix the problem of what to get someone. Most people work on the assumption that it is far better to give friends something that they didn’t ask for as they perceive these gifts to be more thoughtful and considerate. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. People are much happier receiving a gift they asked for rather than an unsolicited gift. It may sound obvious, but people just don’t believe or do not realize that sticking to the list would actually come across as more thoughtful. If your friends haven’t been thoughtful enough to provide you with a convenient list, there is nothing wrong with giving money.  Once again, we assume that friends don’t appreciate money, but the psychological research shows that in most cases people prefer it!  And what’s more, if you give money, you don’t need to worry how to wrap it.  


Gino, F., & Flynn, F. J. (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(5), 915-922.

Howard, D. J. (1992). Giftwrapping effects on product attitudes: A moodbiasing explanation. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 1(3), 197-223.

Rixom, J. M., Mas, E. M., & Rixom, B. A. (2020). Presentation matters: The effect of wrapping neatness on gift attitudes. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 30(2), 329-338.