As I scrolled through a friend’s Secret Santa wish list recently, I felt conflicted. I’ve always believed that a good gift requires thought and effort. If I just got him something on his wish list, would he think I didn’t care enough to try to come up with the perfect present on my own? If I put in minimal thought, would he like the present less?
The answer is no, according to research. In fact, focusing on adages, such as “It’s the thought that counts,” isn’t necessarily the best approach to gift giving.
“One of the central challenges in gift giving is that you are trying to get something that’s ideal for another person, and what seems ideal to you — what’s going on in your mind as a gift giver — might be quite a bit different from a gift receiver,” said Nicholas Epley, a behavioral science professor and the director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Although many common gift-giving beliefs are well-meaning, leaning on them can potentially lead givers astray, said Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert. “The problem with some of these platitudes is that they pretend that we all have universals,” she said. “It replaces the other person and the other person’s actual needs and actual languages of love.”
Here’s what experts say about some popular gifting beliefs, and here are their tips for giving holiday presents in a way that can help optimize happiness and connection.
It’s the thought that counts
“What we find in our work is that thoughts count pretty importantly for the givers,” said Epley, who published research in 2012 that examined the cliche. “Putting a lot of thought, spending time thinking about what a recipient might like tends to make the givers feel closer and more connected to a receiver.”
But recipients often “are not having your thoughts,” Epley said. His research suggests that, when people receive gifts, the “dominant effect” of the gift is how much the person likes it.
Franco agreed. “We think that people would prefer something we’ve chosen for them rather than what they’ve explicitly asked for,” she said. “When in fact, people actually like when they get a gift that they actually like.”
There are some situations, however, in which the thought behind a gift does matter. Recognizing thoughtfulness can help buffer the negative experience of receiving a bad gift from someone you know, experts said. Thought can also play a larger role in gifting when the alternative is giving nothing.
“If thoughtfulness comes not from the amount of thought you put into a gift, but just from the fact that you were thinking about somebody and you got them something — maybe when they weren’t expecting it — that’s really meaningful,” Epley said. “We value expressions of warmth from others a lot, and giving somebody a gift, even a small one just to show that you’re thinking of them, matters.”
Still, the desire to be thoughtful can lead to pitfalls, such as overthinking, said Mary Steffel, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University who has studied gift giving. “Givers often end up overshooting, getting things that are maybe more unique or more narrow than what the receiver might want.”
Take, for example, some people’s aversion to giving cash or gift cards because they believe it is too impersonal. Not only is gifting money accepted, and in some cases expected, within certain cultures, but Steffel said her research also indicates that recipients may prefer gifts with more flexibility, including gift cards that aren’t specific to a store. “They’d rather have that Visa gift card or Amazon gift card that allows them to get whatever they want or need.”
By relying too much on thoughtfulness, givers tend to “overlook better ways of gift giving, which is to listen to what the other person wants,” Epley said. “You don’t have to divine it. I don’t have to read your mind and guess what you want. I can ask you directly what you might like, or I can just listen carefully.”
It’s also important to remember that despite our best attempts, it can be challenging to get into the minds of others, said Sam Maglio, a consumer psychologist. “All the thought and mental effort in the world isn’t going to get you inside somebody else’s head as well as consulting a wish list.”
Gifting experiences is better than giving material items
According to science, this holds true. People who get experiential gifts, such as event tickets, gift certificates to restaurants or special trips, feel closer and more connected to their gift giver compared with those who receive material gifts, according to the results of multiple studies published in 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Additionally, the researchers noted that experiential gifts can have a connecting effect even if the giver and the receiver aren’t sharing the experience. “The reason is because even though you aren’t with me, I’m thinking of you,” said Cassie Mogilner Holmes, who co-authored the 2016 paper and is an expert on happiness and the role of time. “I feel like you’re with me vicariously, and the emotions from consuming that experience lead to greater sense of connection.”
Holmes encouraged gift givers to think about their relationships with recipients and how the recipients spend their time. Another benefit of giving experiences is that a person’s time can feel more enriched, she said. For “time-poor” people, she suggested getting them experiences that give the gift of time.
“You can buy them time by hiring a babysitter for them, so that they have the space to go out and spend their time in ways that are satisfying for them,” said Holmes, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision-making at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.
If an experiential gift isn’t feasible, material gifts can create a similar sense of connection when presented in ways that emphasize experience, Holmes said. For example, she said, she gave her husband a watch for one anniversary and included a letter about how the watch represented a way to track their shared experiences and life together.
“You can frame the gift as an experience that they will have consuming it,” she said.
Give from the heart
Gifts that require a lot of effort — for example, something handmade or something that took you a long time to find — can be important ways for givers to “symbolically show just how much they care,” Steffel said. Ideally, Franco added, a gift you put extra effort into should align with what the recipient wants.
Giving from the heart can also take the form of sentimental gifts, experts said. Research shows that givers tend to shy away from sentimentality more than they should, because recipients actually appreciate presents with emotional value.
When in doubt, Epley recommended “creating a diversified portfolio of gifts.” You can gift a person something you know they’ll like, either because you asked them or because you picked it off a wish list, and supplement that with a present that may feel more meaningful.
It’s better to give than to receive
Not necessarily, experts said. “Giving love is a blessing, and so is receiving love,” Franco said. “One doesn’t have to be superior to the other.”