Finding the perfect gift is supposed to be a matter of instinct—something we achieve by tapping into our intuitions about the people we love and magically sensing what they want. To present such a gift is to bask in the warm glow of the bonds we share with those closest to us, and to briefly lend physical form to our mutual understanding.
That’s the Hallmark version, anyway. The reality, as millions of us are remembering this holiday season, is that giving gifts is hard work, and the yearly process of finding one for everybody who expects one from us can feel like a series of taxing emotional tests. How well do we really know the people in our lives? How perceptive and creative are we, and how generous? How harshly will we be judged if we get it wrong?
Instead of wallowing in self-doubt, it’s worth realizing that we’re not crazy to find gift-giving difficult: As social interactions go, it’s deeply complex, and has long been a topic of fascination for experts on human behavior. From developmental psychologists who have looked at gift-giving among babies, to hyper-rational economists who have wondered why we don’t all just give each other money instead of presents, researchers from across the social sciences have zeroed in on the ritual of gift exchange as a window into what we think, feel, and want. Collectively, their work has produced insights that cast an analytical—and helpful—light on the trials of our yearly quest to delight our families and friends.
Sure, it may run counter to the spirit of the holidays to think about gift-giving in such a cool and calculating manner. But by treating the holidays as a series of solvable problems—rather than by holding ourselves to an impossible ideal—we can, perhaps, get better at it. So this holiday season, give yourself a break: Use the advice inside to treat gift-giving not as an art, but as a science.
AN EXPERIENCE YOU CAN WRAP
For a lot of us, doing stuff is more fun than having stuff: A study from 2003 conducted by Leaf Van Boven, a psychologist at University of Colorado Boulder, showed that people who spend their money on experiences end up happier with their purchases than those who spend it on material possessions. According to Van Boven, this extends to gift-giving as well. Paying for your husband or wife to visit a massage parlor, or treating your family to a beach getaway, is likely to create more happiness in the long run than a physical gift. But Van Boven acknowledges that such intangible gifts have their downsides, particularly at the moment when they’re being presented to the recipient. “It’s really natural for people to want material things,” Van Boven said. And, he added, when it comes to ritualized holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, unwrapping presents and opening boxes is a huge part of the fun. “When you deviate from that, it’s really disruptive—it feels like something is not quite right,” said Van Boven.
How to square this with the happiness research? What Van Boven has done in his own life, he said, is spend the big money on experiences—say, a ski vacation—and supplement them with related material objects, like hand warmers. That way, recipients have a thing to open in addition to an activity to anticipate.
THE BOX MIGHT BE THE BEST PART
Getting presents for children—whether your own or someone else’s—involves a tangle of complications, starting with the fact that what looks like fun to an adult often doesn’t look that way to a kid. But there’s even more to think about than that when it comes to kids: what’s good for their mental and social development, what will expand their horizons, what will prove entertaining to them for weeks or months instead of minutes.
Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The Philosophical Baby,” has found that when it comes to young children especially, the most important property to look for in a gift is that it lends itself to pretend-play. Such gifts, Gopnik said, develop children’s ability to engage in counter-factual thinking—to imagine “ways the world could be other than the way it is.”
Blocks and dolls are good in this respect, according to Gopnik, while some toys that are explicitly designed to be educational—a talking microscope, for instance, that recites facts—are not. “One of the best presents my son ever got was from his wonderful grandmother,” Gopnik said. “She made dress-up clothes: a whole box full of capes and different kinds of trousers and wands and sparkly crowns. And it was a very inexpensive present, but it was a fantastic source of pretend-play.”
A good gift doesn’t even have to be that labor intensive. In fact, according to Gopnik, one of the best things you can do when you give a kid a gift is not throw away the box it came in. “Boxes end up being a fantastic toy,” she said. “You can turn it into a boat, you can turn it into a house, you can ride in it—there’s very good play value in a cardboard box.”
DON’T SHOP ALL AT ONCE
You may feel tempted to get your gift-buying out of the way all in one go. Certainly it saves time on transportation and waiting in line. But that may be exactly the wrong way to play it. Ravi Dhar, a professor at the Yale School of Management and director of the Center for Customer Insights there, has studied something he calls “spending momentum,” a phenomenon that makes it easier to spend money once you’ve already spent a bunch of it. That means that if you’re buying gifts for 10 people in the space of a few hours, you’re more likely to spend more than you would otherwise be inclined to.
“To fight momentum,” Dhar said, “separate it out.” One smart way to do this, he added, is to divide up your list based on the sorts of people you’re buying gifts for, and how much you want to spend on them. In other words, don’t buy gifts for your acquaintances at work right after you’ve bought a bunch of expensive presents for your immediate family—your frame of reference will be thrown off and you’ll wind up spending more than is reasonable. “You end up overspending because the amounts look relatively small compared to the other gifts that you’re buying for people. Suddenly, it seems OK to spend $50.”
HOLD BACK, WRAPPERS
Perhaps the most iconic image associated with gift-giving is the shining, beautifully wrapped box being giddily torn open by a recipient who can’t wait to find out what’s inside. On the face of it, gorgeous gift presentation seems to imply that the contents will be of equally high quality. But this can backfire: Studies have shown that if you want your gifts to leave your loved ones satisfied, you’re better off giving them in a plain, understated package. “What we find is that fancy wrapping can often be counterproductive,” said Yale’s Dhar, who oversaw the studies with his colleague Nathan Novemsky. “Typically, when people open the fancier wrapping, they feel a little bit disappointed.” Instead, he said, the goal should be to manage expectations: Wrap presents in a way that prevents people from fantasizing too much about what they’re going to get.
DON’T BE SHY ABOUT FOLLOW-UP
Part of what makes gift-giving so exciting is that it usually lasts just a few seconds. Maybe the recipient drags things out a bit by opening your card first and making a show of reading it before moving onto the actual gift, but generally speaking, it tends to be over in a flash. And it’s important to remember that what happens after the gift has been handed over is just as important. A recent study by Yan Zhang from the National University of Singapore Business School and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business underscored this point. Oddly enough, they found, it’s only when your gift is a dud that you’re likely to get credit for the thought you put into it. If your gift is a hit, the recipient will be happy, but won’t be prompted to wonder about what was going through your head when you picked it out.
One way to interpret this finding is that it’s always worth doing the work of explaining your motivations and reasoning after you’ve made landfall: If the present is a failure, you’ll get points for effort, and if it’s a triumph, you’ll be appreciated all the more by drawing the recipient’s attention away from the innate quality of the gift and reminding them of how much care you put into choosing it.
BUT WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Though most of us hesitate to admit it, one of the best parts about giving gifts at the holidays is getting a bunch in return. But how do you maximize your chances of getting what you want? Some research simply underscores the value of straight shooting: Studies by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and Francis Flynn of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business suggest that the most effective way to end up with presents you’re happy with is to just tell people exactly what they should get you, and not dance around the issue out of modesty. But if being specific is not an option, and what you want is to generically increase your holiday haul, consider the work of Stephen Leider, a professor of operations and management science at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
Leider studies favor-trading in social networks, with special attention paid to the dynamics between people who feel indebted to one another. Leider has found that one reliable way to get better and more valuable presents from others is to deliberately give presents to people with whom we share a lot of friends. The more “dense” the social connection between two individuals, Leider said, the more obligated they feel to do right by each other by reciprocating. “The consequences if you don’t return a favor are bigger the more friends we have in common,” he said.
Thinking about gift-giving so strategically will no doubt strike many as repugnant. But regardless of what we may want to believe about the transformative power of the holidays, the fact is that human nature doesn’t go away just because we’re trying to be extra nice to one another. Giving gifts, in this context, is a delicate and predictable dance. We might as well know the right steps.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.