Every year, I obsess about finding the perfect, thoughtful, unexpected holiday gifts for my loved ones, and then, inevitably, I end up giving up and buying them the boring gift cards they asked for. It turns out that research supports this method: You shouldn’t think too hard about gift giving, according to social scientists. For all of the time we spend worrying about how our family and friends will receive their gifts, studies suggest that most people aren’t nearly as fussy about the gifts they get as we think they’ll be. In fact, most of the time, people are perfectly happy to receive whatever it is they asked for.
One recent study found that, when they’re selecting gifts, people focus too much on having a “wow” factor — they think a gift needs to be really exciting in the moment that it’s given. But, in reality, people like practical gifts, ones that may not be terribly fun, but that they’ll actually use frequently. Study co-author Elanor Williams explained in a press release that a lot of gift givers have a problem of perspective. “The biggest mistake that people make is that they end up thinking about gift giving as a gift giver, instead of from the point of view of a recipient,” she said. “They often end up neglecting important things for the recipient, including their preferences.”
Williams and her colleagues analyzed existing research to come up with a few important, and perhaps counterintuitive, points about gift giving. First, gift-givers tend to think that people won’t like “boring” or practical gifts. Not so. People like receiving items that they actually need and will use. The research also suggests that surprise is overrated — if someone has made a list of suggestions for gifts, use it; they’re more likely to be pleased with what they get. (In fact, there’s a separate study that shows that people prefer to get things they ask for explicitly over surprise gifts.)
And though they’re not the most creative gifts in the world, gift cards aren’t a bad thing. The study suggests that it may be a good idea to give a gift card that can be broadly applied to a number of contexts (like a Visa card or Amazon card) because people are more likely to use those than gift cards that are attached to specific shops or types of merchandise. The research team also found that recipients enjoy experiential gifts, like concert tickets or gift cards to restaurants or spas. In fact, some people prefer them to physical gifts, so don’t worry about having something tangible for your recipient to open on Christmas morning. Finally, a word of caution: The researchers warn against giving “socially responsible gifts,” like donations to a charity in a loved one’s name, because they “provide little value to the recipient later.”
Other studies also show that you really don’t need to overthink your gift giving. For example, many people feel obligated to give a different gift to every person on their list, but, as The New York Times points out, a 2014 study found that when people try to give a unique, personalized gift for each of their recipients, they are more likely to choose gifts that the recipients don’t love. So if you find one awesome gift that would work for multiple people, go ahead and buy that gift in bulk.
We often hear the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts,” but research from scholars at the University of Chicago suggests that the thought doesn’t actually count as much as you’d expect. In an experiment at a museum, the researchers put pairs together made up of people who knew each other and people who didn’t. Each member of each pair was told to select a gift for his or her partner — some chose randomly, and some were instructed to really think about choosing a gift to suit their partners' tastes. And in the end, the “thoughtfulness” or lack thereof put into the gifts didn’t really matter. In general, the recipients were equally happy with both the thoughtful and thoughtless gifts.
The moral of the story? Have fun picking out presents, but don’t stress out about it — your recipient won’t care if your gift is exciting, thoughtful, or surprising, as long as it’s something he or she will actually use and enjoy.