Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day or anniversaries - almost every month of the year we have a reason to give gifts. And every time we agonize over the same question – what to buy?

Giving gifts is a sure-fire way to cultivate strong social relationships – if we get it right, that is! A present that is well-thought-out signifies that we really know a person. We have taken the time to place ourselves in their shoes and view the world from their perspective to find the thing that is just right for them – a mental leap that can be difficult for most to make. But when we get it right, the appreciation we receive is exponentially greater, because now the monetary expenditure is only a small part of it. The effort, thought, and time that have gone in leave a stronger and longer lasting impression, deepening the bond. Add to this the fact that social psychologists have discovered how simply spending the time to think about the perfect gift for someone makes the giver feel more connected to the receiver, we can begin to see the bi-directional effect of thoughtful giving.

How will this help me?

We benefit from giving gifts on a personal level, with our brains positively responding to our own acts of generosity. But aside from the emotional value to us, social psychology now shows that gifting strengthens our relationships in many ways. Whatever your reason for giving someone a present – to say “thank you”, to celebrate their success, to show that you love and care about them, or simply because you want them to have something they will like – this resource will help you to 1) identify the perfect gift, and 2) solidify or strengthen your bond with them.

Step 1 – Gifts of the past

Think about previous presents you have given to people in your life, over the last several years – the occasion doesn’t matter.

Which presents were well received and which were not? Were there any, in particular, that worked well, evoked enthusiasm and genuine happiness and gratitude in your receiver? What were the presents that made them smile or jump with excitement?

On the contrary, were there any gifts that you were excited about giving but were met with a more subdued or nonchalant response?

What was the difference between these gifts and what factors do you think were responsible for the recipient’s response? It’s important to identify when, where and how we have got it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the past.

Step 2 – Tapping into interests and values

When we don’t know what to give, we become susceptible to our projection biases – we think about what we would like to receive and assume that others would surely want the same. It’s a default way of thinking – but one that fails to accurately predict how the recipient would respond to / feel about our gift.

So take a moment to shift from your own mindset to theirs and really tune into this person’s needs, values, interests and hobbies.

Look through the list below and make a note of the things that you know they are into. Note that each item on the list is likely to have multiple sub-categories or related activities, so take the time to consider these; for example, ‘Music’ could be about to listening to music, creating it, DJ-ing or going to festivals; similarly, you may want to think about the different music genres or artists your recipient may be into.

This list is by no means exhaustive and you can always add specific sub-categories that come to mind while reading through it, or any other interests your recipient has that do not appear here.

  1. Adventure
  2. Alcohol
  3. Animals
  4. Art
  5. Astronomy
  6. Baking
  7. Beauty
  8. Birdwatching
  9. Board games
  10. Books
  11. Bonsai
  12. Business
  13. Cars
  14. Ceramics
  15. Cleaning
  16. Collecting
  17. Comedy
  18. Computer games
  19. Cooking
  20. Crafts
  21. Dance
  22. DIY
  23. Education
  24. Fashion
  25. Fishing
  26. Food
  27. Football
  28. Gardening
  29. Golf
  30. Graffiti
  31. Gym
  32. Hiking
  33. Investing
  34. Interior design
  35. Jewellery
  36. Karaoke
  37. Karting
  38. Knitting
  39. Languages
  40. Magic
  41. Make-up
  42. Massages
  43. Meditation
  44. Minimalism
  45. Movies
  46. Music
  47. Plants
  48. Playing instruments
  49. Pottery
  50. Psychology
  51. Singing
  52. Sleeping
  53. Social media
  54. Sustainable living
  55. Tattoos
  56. Travelling
  57. Upcycling
  58. Veganism
  59. Volunteering
  60. Water sports
  61. Whiskey
  62. Yoga
  63. Zumba


Once you have zoned in on an area that would be appropriate and relevant to them, you can start to think about any specific items that they may need, have talked about previously, or would be nice for them to have. If they are to continue with this hobby/interest, your gift is likely to come in handy and will be very much appreciated in this moment.

Step 3 – Give an experience

Recent research has investigated what type of gift is most powerful in strengthening relationships. The answer?


In a gift-giving psychological study, participants were asked to give a friend something they could keep or use, or something they could live through. Not only were experiential gifts better liked and considered as more thoughtful, they evoked much stronger emotions in the receiver – both when they were received as well as when they were consumed. It is the diversity and strength of emotions felt, that account for the strengthening in the bond between the two people.

So although material gifts tend to be the go-to, think about what your recipient may enjoy doing – could a spa trip, ticket for the opera or safari experience be a better alternative? Whether you decide to share this experience or not – the benefits are all the same.

Step 4 – Multiple gifts of the same kind

It’s Christmas and we are now buying for dozens of people at the same time – which means 10x more time and effort working out what to get for each one of them, right?  Well, not quite.

Research has looked into the psychology of buying for multiple people and discovered something interesting – in striving to choose something that is unique to every individual, we bypass gifts that would, in fact, be better liked! Whether it’s a birthday card, a gift card or any other present, we tend to get it right if buying for only one individual. But as soon as we go up to two or more, we feel more motivated to personalise each gift and show our appreciation for their different personalities – this ultimately backfires; chances are some of our friends will have similar tastes and preferences, yet we aim to select things that are unique to them rather than ones they will really like.

While it makes sense to do this if your recipients are likely to compare gifts, most of the time they won’t. So don’t be afraid to get the same thing for multiple people – they’ll never know! You can save yourself time and effort, and still have a greater chance of getting just the thing they want.


At Zeal, we believe in strengthening people and organisations. Through our understanding of the science of human behaviour and experience of the workplace, we help organisations strengthen their people, teams and leaders to create healthier, happier and more productive workplaces.
What makes us different is we’re psychologists with business in mind. We are passionate about the use of psychology in the workplace, and aim to enhance individual and organisational health, well-being and performance.
Contact us for more information about our practical tools and the bespoke services we can offer to your organisation, or alternatively email us at or call us on T: 01159 932 324.

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