How to Give Better Gifts – Based on Science
I I like to think of myself as a great gift giver, but sometimes I’ve strayed into questionable territory. I once packed a 25 inch cardboard cutout of my smiley face. The recipient – a family member who wanted to see me more – loved it (despite the weird looks from everyone else).
My other biggest hits have been less controversial: Jeni’s ice cream shipped to a friend across the country; cute tee shirts; a rare plant from the Netherlands; dog toys that were gutted long before their scheduled reveal.
They are all the result of months of agony. Somewhere around Labor Day every year, I go into elf mode and start spinning my wheels on holiday gifts. How to make a splash without emptying the bank account? What to give to the person who will not make a list? Why is it so difficult?
To my surprise, help came from an unexpected source: scientific researchers. People actually specialize in studying gifts to shed light on what we get right and wrong.
Lest anyone think this type of research isn’t as important as other more important topics, keep in mind: we all give gifts, and we all stress about it. “It can really impact people’s relationships,” says Julian Givi, who teaches marketing at West Virginia University and has authored numerous studies on gift giving. “It can bring people together or separate them. It has huge implications for well-being, it is practiced all over the world and tons of money is invested in it. (Everyone must look forward to Givi’s gifts, right? “I guess it depends on who you ask,” he says modestly. “But I’m definitely trying to take the advice.”)
Here are six scientific tips that can help you improve your gifts game This year.
Embrace the sentimental
A few years ago, a friend sent me a package for one of my favorite holidays: my birthday. She had secretly saved a dozen photos from my Instagram account — of me and my dog, and my other dog, and my cat, and my other cat — and printed them on a large blanket that I still admire every day. I cried. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.
While most of the things we give people eventually disappear into the black hole of forgotten objects, sentimental gifts often remain treasured for years. But we don’t give them as often as we should, usually because they seem risky. When faced with the choice between a sentimental gift or something that directly relates to the preferences and tastes of the recipient, most people choose the latter, according to a 2017 study. report co-written by Givi and published in the consumer psychology journal. However, Givi’s research indicates that recipients actually prefer sentimental gifts that remind them of special events and relationships.
Let’s say Givi was running errands for her brother, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. “I could just go ahead and give him a Steelers jersey,” he says, rather than the more sentimental option he’d considered: a special photo album. “It’s a superficial type of gift, but I can be sure it will be at least somewhat well received.” In fact, he would have been better off opting for the photo album, his research suggests.
So the next time you’re in doubt, remember: it’s hard to go wrong with something sentimental, and the recipients really want these gifts, even more than anything that seemingly matches their interests.
Think beyond the moment of the exchange
Everyone wants a “wow” moment – an amazed and ecstatic friend or family member who can’t believe their chance to receive such a nice gift. As a gift giver, “I want to see your eyes light up and you be thrilled,” says Robyn LeBoeuf, gift researcher and professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis. But those moments are fleeting, and the recipient will be stuck with the gift far beyond that initial exchange.
Research indicates that, rather than looking for a big reaction, we should focus on what will ultimately provide the most long-term utility or pleasure. “We tend to prioritize expediency or excellence over feasibility or usefulness,” she says. “As donors, we try to optimize and maximize – we try to do the best and most fanciful – but recipients don’t always need or expect it, and might in fact be happier with something that fits better into their life.”
For example, says LeBoeuf, recipients don’t necessarily want a gift card to the fanciest restaurant in town, which may be far away or hard to book. They prefer to go to their favorite restaurant down the street. So release the pressure to find something that will be super exciting to unbox, and think about two weeks or two months later instead. What will still be useful then? (In case you’re wondering: a cardboard cutout doesn’t pass the test, no matter how sentimental. Mine is now gathering dust.)
Fill up on experiences
You’ve heard this debate before: things versus experiences. It turns out that experiential gifts are better at strengthening relationships than material gifts, according to to research published in 2016 in the Consumer Research Journal.
“What we found was that people who received experiential gifts felt more connected to the gift giver,” says Cassie Mogilner Holmes, study co-author and professor at the Anderson School of Management. from UCLA. “And oddly enough, the giver didn’t have to experience it – whether he was going to dinner with the person or going to a concert with them.” While that was certainly a bonus, the recipients were just happy to be able to experience something fun. “Whether the giver is there or not, the receiver is thinking about that person as they consume the experience, which I find very enjoyable,” Holmes adds.
I offered a climbing lesson for two; I would be extremely happy if my friends reading this introduce me Taylor Swift Tickets. But you can also be creative with what counts as experience. For example, let’s say you give someone a book. Write a message about what you hope they get out of the reading experience. Or maybe you selected “something as mundane as a mug,” as Holmes puts it. “When you give them the cup, you can write a card saying that when they drink their morning coffee, you want them to relax.” It shows that you are thinking about their morning ritual and the experience of using the gift.
Try not to be selfish
Givi’s research found that we often refrain from giving people a gift that we ourselves already have, because we don’t want to devalue the uniqueness of our own possessions. “Let’s say I have a special Josh Allen jersey,” he says, referring to the Buffalo Bills quarterback. “Maybe it’s a retro jersey. Would I give an identical version, or even a better version, to a friend? It’s going to make mine not feel so good anymore.
But it’s also going to deprive the person you’re giving of something they might like, and come on, it’s the holidays. To the extent possible, crush these selfish tendencies. “If you’re really trying to maximize recipient happiness, get out of the picture,” advises Givi.
Make it easy
If you already have go shopping for a long list of people, you may have felt pressure to make each gift unique. That shouldn’t be a concern. LeBoeuf’s research indicates that in this situation, shoppers are focusing on gift differentiation rather than what each would like most. As a result, they choose unique gifts over those that would have been more appreciated. Instead, we should consider what each recipient would choose for themselves, and if that means buying everyone the same, so be it.
“We want to honor their unique personalities, but maybe a larger gift would have been better for each person,” LeBoeuf says. “Think of everyone in isolation, rather than comparing them to others.”
Don’t overdo personalization
Sometimes we’re so eager to prove we know the person we’re looking for that we overdo it by catering to a specific interest.
Let’s say you like cats. “Your friends might start giving you cat things, like cat stationery and cat enclosures and cat, cat, cat,” you name it, LeBoeuf says. “They try to be really thoughtful and show, ‘Hey, I know who you are.’ But at some point, recipients say to themselves, “Enough with the cat stuff already.”
Research LeBoeuf is currently working on indicates that recipients prefer more versatile gifts. For example, even if someone’s favorite color is pink, they might be happier with a nice pen suitable for everyday use, compared to a neon pink option. “We try to say, ‘This is going to be the perfect thing for you,'” she says. “But recipients might prefer something a little more flexible and a little more usable.”
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