Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: when "it's the thought that counts" in gift exchanges

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 Nov;141(4):667-81. doi: 10.1037/a0029223. Epub 2012 Jul 9.


Gift-giving involves both the objective value of a gift and the symbolic meaning of the exchange. The objective value is sometimes considered of secondary importance as when people claim, "It's the thought that counts." We evaluated when and how mental state inferences count in gift exchanges. Because considering another's thoughts requires motivation and deliberation, we predicted gift givers' thoughts would increase receivers' appreciation only when triggered to consider a giver's thoughts, such as when a friend gives a bad gift. Because gift givers do not experience this trigger, we expected they would mispredict when their thoughts count and when they do not. Three experiments support these predictions. A final experiment demonstrated that thoughts "count" for givers by increasing social connection to the receiver. These results suggest that mental state inferences are not automatic in social interactions and that inferences about how much thoughts count are systematically miscalibrated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Gift Giving*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Psychological Distance
  • Psychological Tests
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*
  • Thinking / physiology*