7 Science-Backed Ways to Give Less-Bad Gifts

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To you, gift-giving is a mildly stressful holiday chore. To researchers who study consumer psychology, it’s a fascinating way to learn more about human nature. What are we trying to say with the presents we give? And what message do we interpret from the ones we receive? Unfortunately, much of the research shows that all the best gift-giving intentions in the world do not necessarily lead to good gifts. Here’s a brief look at some recently published studies that give us some hints on how to give less-terrible presents this holiday season, or any other time of the year, really.

Just give them what they asked for. Having someone hand you a list of the stuff they want does not seem like the most thoughtful approach to gift-giving. But these gifts will probably be appreciated, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

In one experiment, study participants were told to imagine themselves either giving a wish list of gifts to their spouse or receiving one; in a separate experiment, participants were asked about a (real-life) time they’d been on the giving or receiving end of a wedding registry. In both scenarios, gift recipients said they wished the giver had just stuck to the list; they rated those gifts as being more thoughtful and appreciated than un-asked-for items. But gift givers, on the other hand, guessed (incorrectly) that their off-list items would be perceived as more thoughtful and, as such, more appreciated.  

Don’t be afraid to buy the same present for several people on your list. In a study published in April in The Journal of Consumer Research, University of Cincinnati marketing professor Mary Steffel found that when people buy gifts for several friends at once, they tend to place more emphasis on finding unique gifts for each individual — even when that led to purchasing not-quite-right gifts, and even when gift getters didn’t know each other and would have no way of ever finding out that they each received the same thing.

For example: One scenario asked participants to choose birthday cards for two imaginary pals named Rob and Pete, who didn’t know each other. In pictures the researchers provided, Rob was laughing, suggesting that he had a better sense of humor than Pete. Before starting this experiment, the researchers had people rate the funniness of a set of birthday cards and the one that was most-liked read: “Happiness is like peeing your pants. Everyone can see it, but only you can feel its warmth. It’s your birthday. Let your happiness show.” The other cards had plainer messages, like “Happy birthday. You’re one of a kind.” The participants were told that they could give Rob and Pete the same card, but they tended to give the funnier one to Rob and the comparatively boring one to poor Pete. This suggests, the researchers argue, that in trying to find a personalized present for one person, we end up giving a second-rate gift to someone else, if we’re trying to buy them both at the same time.

Try to imagine what the people on your list would buy for themselves. One practical problem with the previous finding: Who has time to devote separate shopping occasions, online or offline, for each person they need to buy a present for? Steffel’s paper suggests one way around this: Try to think of what they’d actually buy for themselves.

Study volunteers were asked to imagine buying a DVD for two of their cousins, Sarah and Steph; both cousins liked animated movies best, though Steph also liked sci-fi. The participants were given a list of movies — including Up, the only animated movie on the list — and asked to pick a gift for Sarah and Steph. When they were told to imagine Sarah or Steph buying the DVD for herself, they usually chose Up for both of them; when they weren’t given any particular prompt, only Sarah got Up. Putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes is obvious-seeming advice, but it apparently isn’t our natural instinct when making our gift-giving decisions.

Don’t overdo it with the fanciness. We like to buy people extravagant presents, but most people would really just prefer a gift that’s easy and convenient for them to use, found a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Consumer Research. In one experiment, Ernest Baskin, a doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Management, asked some participants to imagine buying photo-editing software for a loved one, and others to imagine receiving it as a gift. Given the choice between software that was higher quality but harder to use and software that was lower quality but more user-friendly, gift givers tend to go for quality; gift getters, on the other hand, just wanted the one that was easier to use.

The researchers found similar results when they asked participants to imagine buying or receiving a gift certificate for a restaurant that was highly regarded, but an hour away, versus a certificate for a restaurant that was less beloved but just five minutes away — again, convenience trumped quality. The lesson: Don’t buy people presents that might turn out to be something of a chore.

It’s the thought that counts, and you really should be sure to mention the thought. As part of a 2012 study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, when people were given a weird, unwanted gift — a small, wooden ruler from a museum gift shop — they rated it as more desirable when they were told that it had been thoughtfully picked out for them. A weird gift doesn’t seem so bad when you understand that the person was at least trying to be thoughtful.

Don’t pair a big present with a little one. When I buy a loved one a big present, I often like to pair it with some smaller thing: tickets to a pricey concert and a book I think they’ll like, for example. But a 2012 paper published in The Journal of Consumer Research by Virginia Tech’s Kimberlee Weaver suggests that when I do this, I’m undermining my own gift.

Weaver’s study was designed for marketers, but everyone can learn something about gift-giving here. She asked participants in one experiment what they would do if they were trying to create a package for an iPod Touch that would seem to be of higher value. Would an iPod and a free cover seem more expensive, or the iPod and cover plus one free song download? Most participants chose the latter package. But to a separate group of study volunteers, who were to imagine purchasing the iPod, the free song download cheapened their perception of the device those presented with the sans-song package said they were willing to pay $242 on average, whereas those who were shown the one with the free download said they’d pay about $176. Impressive items appear more impressive when they’re standing on their own.

But when in doubt, just give them cash. The same 2011 paper mentioned at the start of this post, which was co-authored by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and Stanford University business professor Frank Flynn, revealed the one gift that everyone wants, even if they didn’t explicitly ask for it: cash.

Participants made wish lists that included gifts that cost around $15, and the researchers asked them to imagine receiving an item from their lists: an unsolicited item, or $15 in cash. As it turned out, they wanted the cash most of all. Another set of study volunteers were asked to play the gift-giver role in this scenario, and the researchers asked them what gift they expected would be most appreciated. They guessed money would be least appreciated. They guessed wrong. So if you’re at a total loss as to what to buy someone, just give them what they want — and they probably want cash.