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The Narcissist’s Guide to Gift-Giving

Five ways to be a better gift-giver (especially useful for narcissists).

Gift-giving is an integral part of social life, communicating to others that we care about them and want them to have things they’ll like. Despite the enormous focus on the monetary exchange of gifts in the U.S. in particular, successful gift-giving doesn’t require that you go into debt every time the holidays, a wedding, a birthday, or a work-related occasion comes around. The psychological meaning of a gift is equally, if not more, important than its value in hard cash.

As much as people may voice this opinion, however, it’s not all that easy to come up with gift ideas that will have the effect of pleasing the recipient. The problem is that when people go shopping for someone else, they do so with their own preferences and desires in mind. Do you like jewelry? If so, then your gifts will probably be made of silver or gold, fashioned in a style that suits your taste. A chocoholic? It’s probably safe to bet that your presents will come from the closest Godiva store.

We often buy things for others, then, that reflect our own likes and dislikes. Whether the gift is a hit or not depends on whether our taste happens to coincide with that of our recipient. For ardent sports fans, receiving a t-shirt with the hometown team’s logo will be appreciated but the same gift to an art buff will quickly go to the giveaway bin. Using yourself as the guide to buying a gift is a risky proposition, then, unless you and the recipient truly share a set of values and preferences.

The people most likely to give gifts that they would want, we might expect, are the ones who have the greatest trouble seeing the world from the eyes of their recipients. To put it in psychological terms, the poorest gift-givers are likely to be the highest in the personality quality of narcissism, particularly the component of narcissism having to do with empathy.

There are other features of narcissism that can interfere with successful gift-giving. The same feelings of insecurity that can drive narcissists to want to out-do everyone else can lead them to want to make their gifts as lavish as possible, regardless of whether they fit the recipient’s needs and desires. For example, at a wedding shower, those high in narcissism will want to make sure not only that they bought the most expensive items but that everyone else is aware of just how much they spent.

In its most extreme form, this kind of show-offish narcissism can also lead people to go “off-list” when people getting married or having a baby have specifically asked for certain household items that they need. How many times has your heart sunk when, having requested practical items for your home, you open an elegantly-wrapped package with such useless but expensive items as silver tea trays or fragile crystal baby rattles? The chances are your gift-givers sincerely intended to please you, but there’s always the possibility that they just wanted to please themselves.

It might come as no surprise to you that this is a rather under-researched area in psychology. There are, of course, a plethora of scientific studies on narcissism, but none that specifically explore the angle of what people high in narcissism do when gift-giving time comes around.

One promising investigation by the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh psychologist David Lishner and colleagues (2015) examined the relationships among narcissism, psychopathy, and borderline personality traits with the ability to feel empathy toward others. You wouldn’t expect psychopaths to be able to feel the feelings of others, and the Lishner et al. study confirmed this hypothesis. In fact, it was the quality of emotional callousness shown by people high in psychopathy that was most strongly related to their inability to experience the feelings of others. Narcissism itself, however, didn’t show any particular relationship to emotional empathy.

However, the kind of empathy required to be a good gift-giver is as much motivational as it is emotional. You have to be able to see what other people need and want if your gifts are going to hit a home run. Australian psychologist Peter Jonason teamed up with Christopher Kroll (2015) to look at how narcissism along with other Dark Triad traits of psychopathy and manipulativeness would predict various components of empathy.

Jonason and Kroll found, somewhat surprisingly, that people high in narcissism were actually quite good at understanding other people’s pain or distress. This positive quality, though, needs to be understood in terms of the overall exploitative way that people high in narcissism view other people. As stated by the authors: “Being able to understand others’ pain might better help the narcissist relate to and even take advantage of others (p. 154).” We can conclude that some people high in narcissism, at least, are able to read other people, but for the purpose of using them, not helping them out of their pain.

Returning now to the question of how someone high in narcissism can become a good gift-giver, these five tips seem to emerge from the literature:

  1. Try to tap into the personal values and needs of your recipient. What you like won’t necessarily be what others like, so force yourself to see them (and you) in a realistic manner.
  2. Examine your reasons for giving the gift. Are you trying to make yourself look more successful by outspending everyone else, or are you motivated sincerely by altruistic instincts?
  3. Think back on gifts that worked, and those that didn’t. Maybe you crafted what you thought was a lovely needlepoint picture but it mysteriously never ended up on the walls of your recipient. Rather than feeling hurt or snubbed, recognize that not everyone has the room on their walls or preference for handmade gifts.
  4. Join collaboratively with others in group gifts. Don’t see every gift-giving occasion as an opportunity to beat out the others. If everyone is chipping in for a gift card, just go along with the gang, even if it means you won’t be getting individual recognition.
  5. Don’t go overboard in expecting thanks. The narcissist’s feelings of entitlement can translate into outrage at not receiving enough of an expression of gratitude in your recipient. If you become insulted at your recipient’s lack of gratitude (in your opinion), this will only create ill will at future gift-giving occasions.

Enjoying the gifts that we share with others means that the giving is as fulfilling as the receiving. You’ll get more enjoyment out of those you give when the exchange taps into your recipient’s needs even more than it does your own.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Jonason, P. K., & Kroll, C. H. (2015). A multidimensional view of the relationship between empathy and the dark triad. Journal Of Individual Differences, 36(3), 150-156. doi:10.1027/1614-0001/a000166

Lishner, D. A., Hong, P. Y., Jiang, L., Vitacco, M. J., & Neumann, C. S. (2015). Psychopathy, narcissism, and borderline personality: A critical test of the affective empathy-impairment hypothesis. Personality And Individual Differences, 86257-265. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.05.036

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