Science has spoken: A new study uncovers the unexpected merits of a sloppy gift-wrapping job.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated December 05, 2019

When it comes to wrapping presents, there are two kinds of people: the ones who designate an entire weekend (or two) to measuring, trimming, curling, tying, and folding the sharpest folds imaginable; and those who inevitably scramble to find paper—any kind of paper—to bundle their gifts haphazardly at the 11th hour. Anyone who identifies with the former should be proud, because that kind of gift-wrapping care and precision yields enviable results. But according to a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it’s the latter type of gift-wrapping—the endearingly sloppy type—that often ends up getting the most appreciation from the recipient.

From a gift-giver's perspective, this news will either make you crazy-angry or super-relieved—but either way, from the recipient’s point of view, it probably explains a lot. Why is it that those presents charmingly swaddled in old newspaper and tied with kitchen twine end up being your favorites? There’s an answer to that. Sure, maybe it’s because you adore the person who gives them (my grandmother notoriously wraps her amazing gifts—seemingly with her feet—in tattered, repurposed gold paper from some long-gone decade). But there’s serious psychology to it, too, and it has to do with our expectations.

Researchers at the University of Nevada used the “expectation disconfirmation theory” to prove the hypothesis that the more neatly or elaborately wrapped a gift is, the higher the recipient’s expectations, and vice versa with sloppily wrapped gifts. They found that it’s true, particularly when giving/receiving gifts from friends or loved ones, versus an acquaintance.

When our expectations for what’s inside are inflated thanks to impressive wrapping, it makes it harder for the gift to meet our standards. However, if we’re opening a present with a lackluster wrapping job, what’s inside is more likely exceed our expectations. Counterintuitively, we’re more likely to end up loving it—not despite its slapdash packaging, but because of it.

Interestingly, the study also discovered that the closer the relationship between gift exchangers, the more amplified these results are. In other words, the closer the friendship, the more likely you are to be disappointed by a nicely wrapped gift (or delighted by a disheveled one). Why?

“When the gift-giver is an acquaintance, wrapping neatness serves as a cue about the relationship between the giver and the recipient. On the other hand, when the gift-giver is a friend, wrapping neatness serves as a cue for forming expectations about the gift inside.”

This is to say that if you’re not that close to begin with, how nicely a gift is wrapped tends to be more associated with positive feelings about your relationship, which is possibly still forming. However, if you’re already quite close—and already know where your relationship stands—the neatness of the wrapping will serve as a cue about the gift itself.

But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you need to stop wrapping your holiday presents with a surgeon’s precision, if that’s your style. Someone’s gotta do it, and we thank you for it! But it does let those of us with less of a knack for meticulous seam-creasing and ribbon-curling off the hook. That present quickly covered in crinkled white deli paper on the drive over is perfect just the way it is.