Emotions in Gift Giving

In light of this holiday season, the University of Hertfordshire has conducted a study on gift giving. The focus of this study was determining whether or not gift givers could tell whether or not a recipient liked a present just by looking at their facial expressions and nonverbal behavior.

Dr. Karen Pine, a Professor of Developmental Psychology, led the study of 680 men and women in the process of giving and receiving gifts.

Three quarters of the participants were able to correctly identify whether or not a recipient of one of their gifts truly liked it. According to Dr. Pine, “People always try and say the right things, there’s a lot of social pressure to say the right things and to give the impression that we do like a present and our words tend to be quite positive, but the real feelings tend to leak out in our non-verbal behaviour.”

What do you say when you receive a gift you are not too fond of?

Eye contact, or lack thereof, is one easily spotted sign that the recipient did not like their present. They try to avoid eye contact with the giver in case the expression on their face gives away their true feelings. The expression on a displeased recipient’s face is often a ‘social smile,’ which involves only the mouth muscles. When someone is truly happy about something, they smile with both their eyes and their mouth; what is often called a Duchenne smile.

In terms of the gift itself, the recipient tends to rewrap it and put it out of sight fairly quickly if they do not like it. Contrastingly, if someone really likes a gift, they hold it up like a trophy, passing it around and showing it off. They also tend to hold on to the present for a little longer. If it’s a scarf that they really like, for example, the recipient may stroke it for awhile, or even put it on.

However, a negative nonverbal response is not necessarily indicative of someone being unappreciative of a gift. Perhaps what they have received isn’t quite what they were hoping for, but they could still be appreciative of the gesture. Isn’t that what is important?

Dr. Pine told BBC News that she believes we need “to go back to the old values about what a gift is really for; it is a token of appreciation or affection for a person.” However, by conducting this study, she is putting emphasis on reactions towards the gifted items themselves, rather than the meaning behind them.

What are your thoughts? Are you able to tell when a gift you have given is not well received? You may read more about the study here.

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