This year I took my gift-giving duties very seriously. My game plan included setting out a reasonable budget, then researching the perfect gifts for each of my gift recipients. Instead of consulting predictable wish lists (no socks or sweaters for my loved ones), I chose to go-it alone all in the name of purchasing the most perfect, thoughtful gifts. The preliminary stages involved pen and paper lists and price comparing, then I sent gifts to work, my parent’s house, and my boyfriend’s apartment to be extra secretive. But despite my valiant efforts, science says the thought wasn’t worth it: People would rather receive something they explicitly asked for than a surprise, thoughtful gift.
In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology last month, researchers found that gift receivers didn’t care about the thought that went into the gift, but instead cared more about whether or not they wanted the item in the first place Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When "it's the thought that counts" in gift exchanges. Zhang, Y., Epley, N. Business School, National University of Singapore. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2012 Nov;141(4):667-81..
The researchers conducted four experiments with 44 visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. For the first two experiments, gift givers and receivers were asked how they felt about gift exchanges recalled from memory. For the third and fourth, an actual (albeit experimental) exchanging of gifts took place.
When participants recalled a gift they did like, they said they believed the amount of thought that went into buying it didn’t affect how much they liked it. When participants recalled gifts they disliked, they said they did care about the thought behind those items. It’s possible that people question why someone would choose a gift they didn’t like rather than appreciate the thought that went into it.
Breaking down people’s gift-giving intentions may be confusing, but the bottom line is this: Gift receivers appreciated receiving gifts they’d asked for more than unrequested — but thoughtful — gifts.
These studies may not tell us too much considering the very small sample size, and the researchers didn't do much more than ask the study participants to recall memories on-the-fly, or participate in short partner activities. The studies may give us an idea about gift-giving intentions and the way some of us think when we receive gifts, but these findings are certainly not the be all and end all.
Whether we brave overpopulated shopping malls or put a lot of time and energy into online shopping, it’s clear we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over finding the “perfect” gift. If all this unappreciated gift receiving has got you down, take solace in this:The researchers did find the people who put thought into gifts felt more connected to the recipients than the not-so-thoughtful people. Other research has shown the act of giving may be more powerful and beneficial than receiving Beneficiary or benefactor: are people more prosocial when they reflect on receiving or giving? Grant, A., Dutton, J. Management Department, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, PA. Psychological Science, 2012 Sep 1;23(9):1033-9.. So if you want to get that warm,fuzzy gift-giving feeling, it might be wise to stick to wish lists. And after all, it feels better to give than receive, right?
Would you rather a friend or family member put thought into a gift, or would you rather something you asked for? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.