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The Science Of Gift-Giving

Maham Uzair discovers what new research tells us about the cardinal rules of gift-giving

Recently, I was having breakfast at a friend’s when she dug out a birthday present from her closet that she’d received not too long ago. Staring at me, deadpan, she slid it towards my direction on the dining table.

It was a fake leather envelope clutch, green and embossed. But faux leather comes in so many variants these days, I’d understand, dear reader, if you misconstrued the material I’m talking about for the sort of vegetarian leather engineered under the auspices of Stella McCartney or recycled vegan fabric the linings of Matt & Natt backpacks are made of.

No, here, I’m talking about a 100% polyurethane, faux croc-effect clutch, so plasticky, that the scaly surface scraped my fingers as I examined it closely. Far from even lending the impression that the material is leather in any shape or form,

the envelope clutch didn’t even roll or ripple in the slightest as I snapped open the metallic fastening. Humans could become extinct, nuclear war could take place, but this rock-hard, plastic monstrosity would survive it all.

I knew instantly to whom this clutch could be traced: a mutual acquaintance and a serially terrible gift-giver.
We all know it’s the thought that counts, always, but she’s someone who would never buy something like this for herself, and so, why gift it to others?

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with this,” said my friend incredulously. “I’m obviously never going to wear it. Should I maybe pass it on to someone else?”

Even as she mouthed the words, she cringed in horror and so did I.

“Absolutely not,” I said flatly.

As the clutch made its way back to the closet, with our fingers chafed and lips curled in distaste, we found ourselves talking about the minefield that is gift-giving.

In the UK this year, the first return of a Christmas gift was made at 7:02 am on Christmas Day. On reading this story, I remember giggling at the thought of a disgruntled holidaymaker sneaking out of the parents’ home in a festive jumper, parcel in tow. Imagine that, I’d thought to myself and then quickly sobered upon remembering the number of times I’ve rushed to exchange a kurta someone has given me.

Gift-giving is hard work, the results of which rarely satisfy everyone because we’re a picky lot, the modern consumer. We have a lot of choices now and the world of social media has exposed us to brands that were previously far beyond our reach. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have dreamed of Anastasia Beverly Hills or a fresh alternative to anti-ageing skincare such as The Ordinary lining the counters at select makeup stores and pharmacies in Pakistan. A mere decade ago, fewer women had a disposable income of their own and even fewer were travelling solo to explore the world for work and pleasure. We know full well which scents suit us; the skincare that works for us; the websites to bookmark; the books to stimulate our minds; and like-minded influencers to follow. Quite often, as soon as a [insert friend, sibling, cousin, aunt] announces dates to visit the motherland, we draw out our credit cards to place orders for delivery to their addresses in [insert London, Toronto, New York, Houston]. There’s no longer a need to request so-and-so to go downtown and pick up, say, those Zara pearl-embellished slides: it’s all sorted online. Nothing surprises us anymore, which is a boon for our individuality, but a nightmare for gift-giving friends, family, colleagues and partners.


The gift you give can show how well you know a person and how considerate you are. The more money- and status-obsessed our circles, however, the more will be extrapolated about us – and this becomes a cause for peer pressure. There is a fear that in the backdrop of all this one-upmanship, you’ll be judged on the basis of your taste and how much you’re willing to splurge. All this keeping-up-with-the-jones sullies the fun of gift-giving, often yielding appalling results; for example, people try to pick and pass on terrible, hollow presents that appear substantial to appease the god of ‘Log Kya Kahengey’, like an excessively large crystal vase or another decoration piece that no one wants.

Navigating this torturous path is a nightmare, and it’s ideal to have shortcuts in place to avoid that altogether.

Spend on non-durable, perishable items

In a research paper, titled ‘Less Is Better: When Low-Value Options Are Valued More Highly than High-Value Options’, the way to win your way into a recipient’s heart is to buy the most sought-after, premium product in a low-cost category: think fine 100% cotton socks, expensive chocolate and various other luxury perishable items. Splurge on the cheaper items the recipient would or wouldn’t normally spend on.

We all like to buy premium products in low-cost categories. People opt for little luxuries all the time, such as a speciality tea or artisanal butter and are very likely to appreciate you for presenting them with shea butter soaps, organic shampoos and homemade jams and biscuits.

Head to Springs and put together a hamper of Patchi and Godiva chocolates and M&S drinking chocolate or a selection of jams. Or make a beeline for Neco’s and prepare an assortment of organic jams, honey and nut butter to take to a loved one in a reusable tote. When on holiday, consider getting the family cubes of traditional hand soap like Savon de Marseille over a polyester top from H&M or Topshop, for example.

There are so many wonderful, perishable treats out there: a cheese basket from Karacheese, (@karacheese), a lovely bouquet of lilies, an exquisite cake from Batter & Dough (@batter.dough). How about a care package with a jar of organic coffee, some chocolate and a copy of British or American Vogue?

This could work for milestones like a birthday or a graduation present as well. The success and merit of certain achievements shouldn’t have their worth weighed in material, long-lasting objects. Your little basket of goodies can have just as strong an impact.

The gift of experiences

Experiential purchases provide a more enduring form of gratification than money spent on material items. But while most studies focus on the satisfying act of consuming an experience over a ‘material purchase’, in a piece of research from 2019, Amit Kumar, Matthew A. Killingsworth, Thomas Gilovich argue that even waiting for an experience to unfold provides a more long-lasting, rewarding journey for the recipient. Think about it: you receive a gift card to a spa. You cancel all your commitments in anticipation. You then book in a time for the treatment and peruse the spa menu online. You choose whether you’d like a pedicure and a manicure along with a hydrating facial. Perhaps if the gift card only covers a massage, you add a flash facial as a top-up for yourself.

Tickets to a play, or taking someone out for a culinary experience is equally rewarding. Swing (@swing.khi) comes to mind if your friend likes a daily fix of good conversation and an equally crisp Instagram post to prove it. The newest casual dining haunt in town is a cosy café that holds within it all the tools you need for a stunning Instagram shot – a backdrop of pastel florals, a swing for those Boomerang videos, meticulous latte art and decorative flamingos, rearing their heads from various nooks.

Give what can be concealed

According to a piece of research from 2016 in the journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science, discrepancies between the giver and recipient occur when the giver feels the most valuable point of impact in the process of gift-giving is the moment of exchange, whereas the receiver feels the quality of a gift and its value are derived through its prolonged use.

This brings me to my next tip: think of getting the recipient something which has purpose, is strikingly beautiful, but is something that can be hidden away; a pocket mirror for a handbag, for example, or a jewellery box inlaid with jamawar by Taali (@talikarachi) that can be slid into a drawer and doesn’t need to be displayed on your dressing table; cases, jewellery pouches that can be used to further compartmentalise someone’s jewellery collection at home; a bottle of Elixir Glow Mist from Primary (@primary.skin) skincare that’s small enough to slip into someone’s tote, for instance.

Trinket boxes are ideal, but ring holders are best avoided because the recipient may feel compelled to display it on a tabletop somewhere. A notebook from Polly & Other Stories (@pollyandotherstories) that says Coolest Khala Ever is worth ten generic kurtas from the mall and it can be securely stowed away in a drawer or someone’s handbag. This way, they’re not coerced into displaying it, all the while appreciating and deriving pleasure from the memento.


As a society, we also need to move away from a culture that promotes thoughtless, senseless gift-giving for the sake of keeping up appearances. Ostentatiousness and spending more should never be the purpose of gift-giving and there needs to be a gradual, societal shift in attitudes.

Perhaps it’s okay at times to consider not giving gifts at all. This isn’t a question of money, and in friendship and family, it rarely should be. Instead, why not give someone a present when you truly find something you know they’ll value? I may be an eternal optimist, but one good, curated present or experience every five anniversaries and birthdays is worth ten mediocre token items that take up space and waste your precious hours in shopping. Let’s draw that line in the sand and see where it takes us.

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