The perfect gift? It's the one they asked for

Researchers find that aiming for a sensational gift that creates drama when it is opened is not the best way to shop.
Researchers find that aiming for a sensational gift that creates drama when it is opened is not the best way to shop.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Recipients are also content with something quick - or even cash, say researchers

Social scientists bear glad tidings for the holiday season. After 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 that this is not a ploy by some lazy scrooges in academia.

These researchers are meticulous analysts of gift-giving rituals, 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 piece that will create drama when it's opened. But according to Professor Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University, gifts go wrong because givers focus on the moment of exchange, whereas recipients think long-term: Will I actually get any use out of this?

Don't "over-individuate" your gifts. People often give bad presents because they insist on something different for everyone. The more gifts you select, the more likely you'll pick some duds.

Don't be ashamed to "re-gift". Researchers have found that most people assume that someone who gave them a gift would be deeply offended if they passed it along. But most givers actually will not be. They figure it is the recipient's right to dispose of it at will.


A mother's touch is especially dear. Taking some liberty to speculate, these results might be relevant in an era where FaceTime and Skype are easily accessible and give working mothers who travel an opportunity to "stay in touch" (pun intended) without being physically present. This work suggests that such "contact" is insufficient to stimulate a young child's social development normatively. Of course, more work needs to be done to test if this is indeed true, but its implications on a society where a family of four can be having dinner at the same table but where everyone is texting someone else are sobering.

PROFESSOR MICHAEL CHEE, of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS Medical School. He was commenting on a National University of Singapore study on maternal touch and its ability to make children more social.

Let your recipients do the work for you. If they've asked for something, buy it.

Psychologists have found people are happier getting items listed in their gift registry, and some are even happier to receive cash. (But Professor 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. Psychologist Mary Steffel from Northeastern Universityhas found that the more specific a gift card is, the less likely it is to be redeemed.

Remember this: The thought usually doesn't count. This counter-intuitive finding emerged from a series of University of Chicago experiments at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry. Visitors were paired - as two strangers, or as two friends - and one of them was asked to choose a gift for the other person from the museum's shop. Some were told to pick randomly, others were told to think carefully about the recipient's tastes.

The thoughtful givers naturally expected their effort to be appreciated, but it turned out recipients liked a thoughtless gift just as much as a thoughtful one.

There was just one situation in which the thought counted: when someone received a bad gift from a friend or relative.

The researchers 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, but the only choices available to the givers were cheaper items like a pen or a deck of cards. When the recipients opened the cheaper gifts, they were predictably disappointed, but less so if the gift had been chosen by a friend or relative. 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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2016, with the headline 'The perfect gift? It's the one they asked for'. Print Edition | Subscribe