People are more appreciative when they receive a gift they have explicitly requested, according to a similar study published last year in a separate publication called the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
"Everyone has been a giver and receiver often in the past," says Francis Flynn, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, who has done research in the field of gift giving. Despite knowing what these roles feel like, people often fail, for instance, to draw on the experience of being a recipient when they are shopping for a gift to give, he says.
Regifting, once a social taboo, is gradually gaining in acceptance. According to a nationwide consumer-spending survey by American Express, 58% of people believe it is OK sometimes to regift an item. That figure rises for the holiday season, when 79% of respondents said they believe regifting is socially acceptable. The survey, which polled about 2,000 people last year, found that nearly one-quarter of consumers said they regifted at least one item the previous holiday season.
Regifting can lead to awkward moments. Humera Sayeed, a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago, received a brown leather Marc Jacobs purse from her aunt last year. The 26-year-old says she appreciated the high-quality purse but it wasn't exactly her taste.
"I thought, 'You know, I know someone else would like it more than I would.' So I gave it to one of my friends for her birthday," Ms. Sayeed says. About six months later, the friend came over to Ms. Sayeed's aunt's house, purse in hand, and the aunt exclaimed, "You know, Humera has a purse just like that!"
"I said, 'You know Auntie, I loved it so much that I got her the same one,' " Ms. Sayeed fibbed. "I had a moment to probably come clean about it and I just decided it would be better not to, which I guess is why people feel sneaky about regifting."
In the study of regifting, researchers conducted five separate experiments involving nearly 500 people in both real and imagined scenarios. The reason people weren't overly bothered when their gifts were later regifted was because they generally believed the recipient was free to decide what to do with an item. On the other hand, regifters were fearful of offending because they believed the original giver should retain some say in how the gifts were used.
The different points of view held true regardless of whether the gift givers and receivers were friends. The relative desirability of the gift also didn't affect the findings. When the researchers introduced the concept of a national holiday for regifting into the experiments, participants were more likely to give away their gifts.
There are efforts to promote regifting. Money Management International, a nonprofit that helps people facing financial difficulties, has run a Regiftable.com website for more than five years and declared the third Thursday in December to be National Regifting Day, to coincide with many holiday office parties. At least one state, Colorado, has officially sanctioned an annual regifting day.
"Regifting isn't a bad thing, it's not quite as offensive as people might think it is," says Gabrielle Adams, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School and a co-author of the recent study in Psychological Science.
Sharon Love, who heads a retail marketing agency, says she frequently regifts an item if she feels it is appropriate for another person. But she says she tries to be upfront about it.
Ms. Love, who lives in New York City, says she once received an entertainment and etiquette book that was clearly regifted: The book contained an inscription made out to the giver. "It did kind of make me mad, so I just kind of regifted it the following year back to him," she says. Ms. Love says she received a thank-you card in return.
The adage "It's the thought that counts" was largely debunked by the recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which concluded that gift givers are better off choosing gifts that receivers actually desire rather than spending a lot of time and energy shopping for what they perceive to be a thoughtful gift. The study found thoughtfulness doesn't increase a recipient's appreciation if the gift is a desirable one. In fact, thoughtfulness only seemed to count when a friend gives a gift that is disliked.
"The secret to being a good gift giver…is to give them what they want," says Dr. Epley, from the University of Chicago.
Dr. Epley says that after his wife gave birth to their second child, he spent a lot of time dreaming up what he thought was the perfect gift for her: a behind-the-scenes day as a trainer at the Chicago aquarium. "She loves marine animals, I thought this would be the best thing for her," he says.
Instead, he says, "She hated the gift. The idea of squeezing into a Neoprene wetsuit a month after giving birth and holding a stinky fish over a penguin or a dolphin was the last thing she wanted to do." She returned the gift.
Now, Dr. Epley says he asks his wife to tell him what she wants before the holiday season. She presented him with a list last week.