Friday, December 6, 2013

The Regifting Dilemma

It’s the first week of December, and we’re back in another holiday gift-giving season! For a psychologist, this is an especially fun time of year because it seems like people are all trying to get inside each other’s heads. As gift-givers, we do our best to predict what others will like and appreciate the most. Maybe we purchase the latest trends or use our own talents to create a special gift for our loved ones. Sometimes the perfect match is even sitting right in our closet - a gift initially given to us by someone else. If you run into this situation, is it okay to regift?

I’m sure you’ve heard this debate before and what the etiquette experts say: usually a range from a flat-out “no” to “only in rare circumstances.” They claim the original gift-giver would feel disrespected if he or she knew, as effort and money were put into the purchase and the intention was not for the gift to go to another person. Note that this line of reasoning about regifting relies on an assumption about how other people might feel if they were involved in regifting. According to the experts, we shouldn’t regift because the original gift-giver might be hurt. But is this actually the case – are people really offended when someone regifts their gift?

In a series of studies published last year, psychologists addressed this question by asking people to imagine being in a gift-giving scenario. Some imagined being a gift-giver, and some imagined being a gift-receiver. The study participants were asked to imagine what would happen if the gift-giver regifted the item to someone else. It turned out that gift-givers imagined being much less offended if someone re-gifted a present from them than gift-receivers imagined they would be. The receivers overestimated how offensive regifting was – they even thought that givers would be equally offended by a regift as if the giver threw the gift in the trash!

The researchers also tested out these ideas within groups of friends during actual gift exchanges. When groups of friends engaged in a regift process (Person A gave a present to Person B, Person B rewrapped the present and gave it to Person C), the receivers again thought that the original gifters would be more offended by the subsequent regift than they actually were.

Why? What makes gift-receivers overestimate how upset gift-givers would be by regifting? One reason for this lies in variation in the perceived entitlement of the original gift-receiver. In other words, the original gift-givers and gift-receivers (Persons A and B) had different thoughts about how much the receiver was entitled to do what he or she wanted with the gift. The givers thought the receivers were more entitled to determine the use of the gift than the receivers thought they were. In giving the gift, the givers felt they were also giving the entitlement of what to do with the gift. Partly because the givers felt the receivers had more say over what happened with the gift, they were then less offended when the giver regifted the gift.

A regift
If you’re hoping to regift this holiday season, these studies suggest that regifting may be less offensive than etiquette experts tell us. But not so fast! The studies also suggest occasions when regifting will be offensive to the gift-giver: when the giver does not believe the receiver is entitled to do whatever he or she wants with the gift. This might be the case when the giver actually creates the gift, instead of buying it. Making the gift may cause the giver to feel more entitled to the gift, and therefore, more offended if the receiver gives it away. It might also be the case that givers don’t believe the receiver is entitled to do whatever they please with the gift when the giver has strong intentions for the receiver and only the receiver to use the gift. Consider an extreme example of this, such as an engagement ring. You surely cannot regift an engagement ring without causing offense – the ring carries with it a symbolic meaning that is only meant for one person.

While these studies can’t offer you a sure-fire answer about whether regifting will offend anyone, if you want to regift, I would encourage you to think about how much the gift-giver passed on the entitlement of the gift to you. For example, did he or she say it would be okay to return or exchange it? This would imply that the giver wants you to do with the gift as you please. If the giver made the gift or definitely meant it to be only for you, then it’s likely that keeping the gift is a better choice than regifting. In that case, it’s time to find a different gift for that person on your list! Stuck? Check out my post from last year on some of psychology’s other gift-giving tips.

Whatever you decide, good luck getting inside other people’s heads and choosing gifts that help strengthen your relationships this season!

Does regifting seem offensive to you as a gift-giver? What about the other side – would you feel offended if you were the recipient of a regift? Let us know your thoughts on regifting and gift entitlement in the comments!


Adams GS, Flynn FJ, & Norton MI (2012). The gifts we keep on giving: documenting and destigmatizing the regifting taboo. Psychological science, 23 (10), 1145-50 PMID: 22915082

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