Are women better at giving gifts than men?

Gift giving is an art that's tough to master.

I admit: I spend way too much time obsessing over the "perfect gift" every holiday season, yet sometimes my gifts still end up tossed into a corner or re-wrapped and shuttled to a new home. Popular psychology tells me, however, that I should have an upper hand in gift selection than half of the world's population – because I'm a woman.

Here's how the argument goes: gift giving is meant as a sign of love or appreciation, and women are generally more willing to express their love than men, which makes them more likely to give gifts and thus are better gift givers. (Yes, I'm raising my eyebrows too.) While previous studies showed that women spend more time Christmas shopping and self-estimate their gifts are returned less often than men, these measures are far too subjective to draw any conclusions.

To test for gender differences in gift selection, a group of researchers from the Netherlands recruited 61 pairs of participants covering a spectrum of relationships: family, heterosexual romantic and friendship. On average, each pair had known each other for roughly 17 years, and had either the same or different gender. Each participant received a shopping catalogue and were asked to pick out the top ten gifts they'd like to receive, as well as guess the ten gifts that their partner desired. Thus more guesses on target meant a more skilled gift-giver.

Results showed that regardless of the type of relationship, women were slightly better than men at gift selection, scoring ~0.3 more correct gifts on average. The gender of the receiver didn't matter: the participants were equally good at selecting gifts for receivers of the same or different gender.

If women are better gift givers, then it follows that they also should be better at selecting gifts for people they didn't know. Researchers followed up with a new study of 262 student volunteers (95 male, 157 female) in a game of secret santa. Each participant was given a photo of another and asked to buy a gift certificate for that person from 10 possible stores. The volunteers were asked to guess the preferences of their receiver, and rank the stores accordingly from most-wanted to least.

To tease out personality traits that contribute to better gift selection, the participants also took two standard questionnaires that measured interpersonal interest – how much someone cares about social interaction – and interpersonal reactivity, how much one feels empathy and is willing to take on others' perspectives.

Again, women were better at predicting their receiver's preferences. Surprisingly, empathy and perspective-taking had little to do with this edge; instead, it was more related to gender differences in social interaction, in that the difference can be partially explained by the fact that women showed higher interest in "interpersonal issues" than men. The authors conceded that the results may be off by using only a single questionnaire for each trait, and that they left out the effect of learning in their study. After all, if women give far more gifts than men, they would've had more opportunities to learn the preferences of each type of receiver.

It's also possible that men harbour more false beliefs about gift-giving than women. For example, although givers often think that the pricier the gift the better, receivers often don't share this belief. The "surprise factor" is also overrated: receivers are more satisfied with gifts that they explicitly ask for, while givers feel the need to find something both fitting and surprising. The idea that individualized gifts are better also doesn't stand up to scrutiny (pdf); sometimes you're better off with gift cards.

Does this mean that men are doomed? Not at all. The subjective experience of receiving a gift depends on a fireworks of factors, such as the timing of the gift, the presentation and wrapping, and the relationship status with the giver. (Ever tried giving a scorned lover something and have it thrown back at you? Yeah...) So stack your gift boxes under the Christmas tree, and enjoy the holidays – after all, the act of Christmas shopping is in-and-of-itself a labour of love and an expression of appreciation.

Pollmann MM, & van Beest I (2013). Women are better at selecting gifts than men. PloS one, 8 (12) PMID: 24386082

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