The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For

Social scientists bear glad tidings for the holiday season. After extensively observing how people respond to gifts, they have advice for shoppers: You don’t have to try so hard.

You’re not obliged to spend hours finding just the right gift for each person on your list. Most would be just as happy with something quick and easy. This may sound too good to be true, but rest assured this is not a ploy by some lazy Scrooges in academia.

These researchers are meticulous analysts of gift-giving rituals. Whether they’re drawing lessons from Kwakwaka’wakw Indian potlatches or wish lists, I’ve always found them the wisest mentors for the holidays, and this year they have more data than ever to back up their advice:

Don’t aim for the “big reveal.” Many shoppers strive to find a sensational toy or extravagant piece of jewelry that will create drama when it’s opened. But drama is not what recipients want, according to a new study by Jeff Galak and Julian Givi of Carnegie Mellon University, and Elanor F. Williams of Indiana University.

They have found that gifts go wrong because the givers are focused on the moment of exchange, whereas the recipients are thinking long-term: Will I actually get any use out of this?

Don’t “over-individuate” your gifts. People too often give bad presents because they insist on buying something different for everyone.

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In experiments using greeting cards and gifts, psychologists found that people typically feel obliged to choose unique items for each person on their list even when the recipients wouldn’t know if they got duplicates — and even when one particularly good gift would work better for everyone.

The more gifts you select, the more likely you’ll pick some duds. If you can find one sure thing, don’t be afraid to give it more than once.

Don’t be ashamed to regift. Researchers have found that most people assume that someone who gave them a gift would be deeply offended if they passed it along to someone else. But these same studies show that most givers actually aren’t offended.

Once they give someone a present, they figure it’s the recipient’s right to dispose of it at will.

Let your recipients do the work for you. They know what they want better than you do. If they’ve asked for something, buy it instead of surprising them.

Psychologists have found people are happier getting items listed in their gift registry than unsolicited gifts, and in some cases they’re happier still to receive cash. (But one of the researchers, Francis Flynn of Stanford University, cites an exception: Don’t try giving your spouse cash.)

If someone hasn’t asked for anything, a gift card is an easy way to please, but don’t be too specific in choosing a store or a product. You may think a film buff would love a gift certificate for a movie theater, but they’d probably prefer something less restrictive, like a card allowing them to buy movies online, too, or some other indulgence that would never occur to you.

CreditMelinda Beck

Mary Steffel, a psychologist at Northeastern University, and colleagues have found that the more specific a gift card is, the less likely it is to be redeemed.

“If you’re not sure what your recipient wants,” Dr. Steffel advised, “give them the gift of flexibility.”

Above all, remember this: The thought usually doesn’t count. This counterintuitive finding emerged from a clever series of experiments by University of Chicago researchers at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry.

Visitors to the museum were paired off — sometimes two strangers, sometimes two friends or relatives — and then one of them was led off to a separate room and asked to choose a gift for the other person among items from the museum’s shop. Some givers were told to pick randomly, while others were told to think carefully about the recipient’s tastes.

The thoughtful givers naturally expected their effort to be appreciated, but it usually didn’t matter. Even though the recipients knew which gifts had been picked randomly and which had been chosen carefully, it turned out they liked a thoughtless gift just as much as a thoughtful one.

As long as the gift was satisfying, they usually didn’t consider how much thought had gone into it, especially if it came from someone they didn’t know well.

There was just one situation in which the thought counted: when someone received a bad gift from a friend or relative. The researchers, Yan Zhang and Nicholas Epley, approximated this scenario by raising the recipient’s expectations.

They told the recipient to expect a gift similar in quality to a popular museum shop item, Newton’s Cradle, a gizmo with five swinging silver balls that demonstrates the conservation of momentum. But the recipients didn’t actually get anything so desirable.

The only choices available to the givers were cheaper items like a pen, a deck of cards, a key chain or a refrigerator magnet. When the recipients opened one of these cheaper gifts, they were predictably disappointed, but less so if the gift had been chosen for them by a friend or relative rather than picked randomly.

While they weren’t thrilled to get a deck of cards, they could console themselves that it had at least been chosen by someone who knew they liked to play cards.

So if you fear you’re doomed to buy a bad gift, then maybe you should find something that shows at least that you made an effort.

Otherwise, the best reason to try hard is for your own pleasure in choosing the gift — which can be quite real, as several studies have shown. When people spend time thinking about a gift for someone else, they feel closer to the person, and that makes them happier even if it does nothing for the recipient.

Here’s the bottom line, as summarized by Dr. Zhang and Dr. Epley after their experiments at the museum in Chicago: “If you want to give a gift that someone will appreciate, then you should focus on getting a good gift and ignore whether it is a thoughtful gift or not.

“But if you want to feel closer to the person you are giving gifts to, then put as much thought into your gift as you possibly can and do not be offended when your thoughtfulness is overlooked.”

Correction: December 12, 2016 

An earlier version of this article misidentified the institution where Mary Steffel is on the faculty. It is Northeastern University, not the University of Cincinnati.


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