Science Reveals the Secrets to Choosing the Perfect Gift

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Many people think giving the “perfect gift” is all about wowing the recipient the moment the present is unwrapped. But a new study suggests that approach might be off-base.

New research shows there is a disconnect between gift givers and recipients that often causes givers to make what the Association for Psychological Science (APS) describes as “critical errors.”

When trying to decide on the perfect gift, givers tend to think about the moment when they give the present to the recipient. But recipients are more concerned about a gift’s practicality or long-term utility, according to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Their findings were recently published in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

As lead researcher Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon explains it:

“We are seeing a mismatch between the thought processes and motivations of gift givers and recipients. Put another way, there may be times when the vacuum cleaner, a gift that is unlikely to wow most recipients when they open it on Christmas day, really ought to be at the top of the shopping list as it will be well used and liked for a long time.”

Specific errors that stem from a gift giver focusing on a gift’s “wow factor” or immediate use include:

  • Giving unrequested gifts in an effort to surprise the recipient, when recipients are likely hoping for a gift from a preconstructed list or registry.
  • Focusing on tangible, material gifts, which are likely to be immediately well-received. In fact, experiential gifts — such as theater tickets or a massage — result in more enjoyment later on.
  • Giving socially responsible gifts, such as donations to a charity in the recipient’s name. These seem special at the moment of gift exchange, but provide almost no value to recipients down the road.

Researchers suggest gift givers empathize with recipients and consider whether a possible gift would be both appreciated and useful.

Here’s Galak’s take:

“We exchange gifts with the people we care about, in part, in an effort to make them happy and strengthen our relationships with them. By considering how valuable gifts might be over the course of the recipient’s ownership of them, rather than how much of a smile it might put on recipients’ faces when they are opened, we can meet these goals and provide useful, well-received gifts.”

If you’re still struggling to find the right gift, check out some of our latest guides:

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