How to Give the Best Gifts, According to Science

Researchers are unwrapping the science behind gift giving, from the value of simplicity to the quality of the bow on top

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Science can help you avoid a holiday gift faux pas. Jessica Peterson/Tetra Images/Corbis

Aunt Edna's fruitcake. Pink bunny pajamas. Jelly of the Month Club. Ever feel like you just didn't get what you wanted for the holidays? Science can help explain why: The person who gave you that dubious present actually wanted you to like it too much.

Givers often focus on the perceived desirability of their gift because they feel it will make the recipient more appreciative of them, says Nathan Novemsky, an expert on the psychology of judgment and decision-making at Yale University. But receivers really value convenience, feasibility and ease of use in a gift. This difference can lead to disappointment, according to research Novemsky and colleagues published in the Journal of Consumer Research earlier this year.  

For instance, givers may choose a complicated computer program with lots of features because they think it will be seen as more valuable. But receivers may prefer an easy-to-use program with fewer features. The study also offered a choice between two gift certificates to Italian restaurants. One eatery was very highly rated but located an hour away from the recipient's home, while the other was less well rated but was only 5 minutes away. With all else being equal, givers tended to focus on the “more desirable” gift—the more highly regarded restaurant—while receivers preferred the convenience of being able to dine close to home.

How does one avoid falling into such a holiday faux pas? In a season filled with reminders to think of others, there's an aspect of thinking about oneself that's useful here, Novemsky explains. “The interesting solution to this particular problem is to think about yourself using the gift,” he says. “First, do think about the general preferences of the person you're buying the gift for. So if you like French food but they like Italian, you're going to get them a gift certificate to an Italian restaurant.

“But once you have a general idea of what to give them, you then can get some insight from turning inward. You care about convenience, accessibility—and those are the kinds of things we miss when we focus entirely on the other person.”

The possibility of overthinking gifts resonates with a 2011 study regarding "The List", which shows how much people value getting exactly what they've asked for. Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Francis Flynn and Francesca Gino found that the gifts recipients appreciate the most are the ones that they've explicitly requested. Givers, by contrast, often feel that unsolicited gifts will be more appreciated, because they show that more consideration and thoughtfulness went into choosing them. The same study also found that while givers often feel a gift of money is a less desired option, the opposite is actually true. Cash remains king even during the holidays.

Perhaps a more surprising discovery in gift-giving science is that it seems cost doesn't really impact how much receivers appreciate what they get. In a pair of 2009 studies, Flynn and his Stanford colleague Gabrielle Adams asked gift givers and receivers to rate their perceived levels of appreciation for birthday gifts such as jewelry, wine, books or iPods. Givers reported feeling that more expensive gifts would engender more appreciation, but receivers claimed no greater happiness with expensive gifts versus cheaper options.

These appreciative attitudes may hold true for even the most expensive and status-conscious gifts. During a third study, the pair polled recently engaged couples and found that men generally believed their fiancées would appreciate expensive rings more than cheaper options. The fiancées, however, rated their appreciation for more expensive rings no higher than that for more frugal choices. The combined trio of studies suggests that it really is the thought that counts, even for traditionally huge-ticket items, despite pressure on buyers to show how much they care by spending more money.

And no matter the cost of your gift, you might want to think carefully about how you wrap it, according to research by Novemsky and his Yale colleague Ravi Dhar The bows, ribbons, tinsel and other holiday wrappings add to the festive appearance, but they can actually heighten disappointment when a less desirable gift is found inside.

“When you wrap a gift nicely, you raise the recipient's expectations,” Novemsky says. “If they do feel it's a great gift, then everything is fine and the wrapping doesn't really help or hurt in terms of the appreciation. But if it's not a great gift, then people are actually more unhappy with the gift if it's nicely wrapped than if it's just in brown paper or unwrapped.”

“I think when people think about gift wrapping they think of the receiver's delight, but they don't always realize that raising expectations, in this case by fancy gift wrapping, can actually be a bad thing if the gift inside isn't perfect,” he says.

If you do find yourself with gifts you don't want this year, take heart. Researchers have also examined the somewhat taboo yet widely repeated practice of re-gifting. One study found that although receivers typically think that the original givers will be offended if they pass their gift on to another, givers simply didn't feel that way as often. Perhaps that's because they too know what it feels like to get those head-shaker holiday gifts.

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