Altruistic holiday shoppers, take note: Giving a socially responsible gift could hurt--not help--your relationship with the receiver. 

That's according to a study about "mis-predicting" the appreciation of charitable gifts, published this past July in the journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Lisa Cavanaugh, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, co-authored the study, along with Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, and Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. 

The research consisted of three parts: The first, a gauge of how gift givers anticipated their gift would be received, compared to how the recipient felt about the gift. The second examined real gifts given to recipients in a university setting, while the third looked closely at the "psychological processes" behind ethical gift giving.

"Even though we may try to be thoughtful, there is a tendency to see gifts we give through our own eyes," Cavanaugh said in an interview with the WSJ. "In some sense, associating with a socially responsible gift may be an unconscious way to make the giver look better." 

Traditional wisdom holds that charitable gifts (i.e., fair trade cocoa, or a donation to those in poverty) is an excellent gesture. These types of gifts have become increasingly popular in recent years, thanks to organizations like Oxfam, Just Give, and Shop With Meaning.

What's more, the holiday season is already steeped in charity, with major initiatives such as the annual Thanks and Giving campaign, which falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and to date has raised more than $600 million. Funds go towards research into cancer and other life-threatening childhood diseases, at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. 

Unfortunately, as Cavanaugh's data suggests, a charitable gift actually does more for the giver than it does for the recipient--particularly if that recipient is more of an acquaintance or colleague. It may even weaken your bond as a result. 

"Givers overestimate the appreciation of distant others for socially responsible gifts because they focus more than recipients on the symbolic meaning of such gifts," the report states.

It also found that the extent to which the giver misinterprets how the gift will be received depends on the nature of the relationship, or how close those individuals are to each other.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should never give a socially responsible gift. Rather, the study implies that it may benefit your relationship to take the recipient's unique interests into consideration first. 

Published on: Dec 14, 2015