With all the gifting that goes on during the holidays, some presents are bound to blow. If you’ve ever swallowed your disappointment after tearing back the wrapping paper on a pair of new socks or coached your kid through saying thank you for a toy that’s three years too young for them, you know the deal. And while everyone misses the mark here and there — regifting something that still has their name on it, or picking out something that’s more their own style — some people give the worst Christmas gifts more consistently than others.
A group of economists set out to measure just how much money is wasted on holiday gifts, and ended up producing cold hard data on who the worst Christmas gift-givers really are. Their findings may… not surprise you.
The 1993 study, published in the American Economic Review and aptly named “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” looked at the value of gifts given by spouses, friends, parents, and grandparents. Researchers measured the quality of gifts by calculating the difference between their monetary value and the amount of cash that people would trade them for. So, if a shirt was gifted to someone that cost $20, but they would gladly exchange it for $5, the difference in value — $15 in this case, or 75% of the value — indicates that it was a pretty bad gift.
While the difference varied among recipients, researchers found that grandparents consistently gave gifts that their recipients would exchange for far less cash than the gifts were worth. Gifts from grandparents were, on average, worth 40 percent more than the cash value the recipient traded it for. In comparison, spouses tended to give gifts that were worth only 8 percent more than what people traded them for.
Anecdotally, this adds up. Reddit threads on gifts from grandparents feature everything from Minions pajamas that are four sizes too small, to a half dozen collectible quarters, and gift cards to regional chains that don’t exist where the recipient lives. Their age difference coupled with their generally less close relationship with the recipient makes grandparents uniquely positioned to deliver disappointing gifts.
Researchers found that, by their measures, friends and significant others gave the best gifts, parents and siblings gave slightly worse gifts, and aunts, uncles, and grandparents gave the worst gifts. Gifts got worse when the age difference between giver and recipient was greater, and when the relationship was more distant. So, while age alone would indicate that parents give bad gifts, the effect is mediated by how close the relationship is. Since parents are immediate family members who know the recipient well, they give better gifts than aunts or uncles, but not as good gifts as siblings or spouses, who have both close social distance and age in common. Grandparents were also by far the most likely to give cash gifts, followed by aunts and uncles.
Researchers concluded that between 1/10th and 1/3rd of the value of gifts is lost in gift-giving. This of course doesn’t account for the sentimental value of the gift. It’s the thought that counts, right?
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology looked at gift-giving patterns in 140 couples. Researchers asked one person to choose between giving their significant other a gift they thought they’d want, a gift card to their favorite store, or a sentimental gift of their choosing. After the gift giver made a choice, they left the room. The recipient then chose between the two gifts. Researchers found that while gift givers chose the non-sentimental gifts most of the time, recipients most often chose the sentimental gifts. They attributed this discrepancy to gift givers’ uncertainty that the recipient would like the sentimental gift, and concluded that “gift giver’s fears of getting it right prevents them from getting it right.”
Of all the money that’s wasted during the holidays, grandparents might have it the worst. They give gifts that recipients would willingly trade for much less money. And yet, people like sentimental gifts more than we think. So this year, hopefully Grandma or Grandpa have skipped the material things in favor of something less tangible, like having a socially distanced meal together or sharing that secret family recipe. As research confirms, it’s the thought that counts.