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How to Give the Perfect Gift, According to Science

Gift giving puts me in a cold sweat. I always feel pressure to give really good gifts (because otherwise, what is the point?), but so rarely feel like what I end up giving is right. Maybe it’s too goofy. Maybe it’s too serious. Maybe it’s too expensive or cheap. Maybe I’m confusing their size or favourite colour with someone else’s. And is it too similar to last year’s birthday present?

Which is why this new set of studies out of Carnegie Mellon University has me at least a little relieved: Apparently, people would rather receive personal, unique gifts — that is, a sentimental token like a photograph of a special memory or shared experience — than less meaningful gift ideas related to their interests or hobbies (like a sports jersey for their favourite team). But gift givers tend to opt for the less meaningful gift ideas because they believe the recipient will use or enjoy them more.

“Essentially, givers seem to view sentimentally valuable gifts as having the potential to be either home runs or strikeouts, but they view preference-matching gifts as a sure single,” says Julian Givi, lead author of the study. “Rather than risking a strikeout, they go for the sure thing, when what recipients truly desire are sentimentally valuable gifts.”

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The researchers discovered this mismatch between givers and receivers in two separate experiments. In the first, participants were told to write down the name of a friend, and those who were “givers” were asked to select a gift for the friend. Some were told it would be a birthday gift while others were told it was for a going away party. They could choose either a framed photo of their friend’s favorite musician, or a framed photo of the two friends on a day they had a lot of fun together. The participants who were “recipients” were asked to select which of the two gifts they would prefer to receive.

Researchers found that people do not give sentimentally valuable gifts as often as recipients would prefer. The researchers also tested to see whether the level of closeness of two friends made the gift giving mismatch disappear, but there was still a discrepancy.

And — perhaps most relevant to all of us living comfortable lives — there was still a discrepancy between gift giving and receiving when they tested romantic partners. In the experiment, partners could give either a gift card to their loved one’s favorite store, or a sentimental gift, such as a photo of the couple with carved initials in the frame. Like the previous experiment, recipients didn’t receive the sentimental gifts as often as they wished.

Finally, the researchers conducted a study to discover why givers were not choosing sentimental gifts. In this experiment, one group of participants started by writing about a time in their lives when they took a risk that paid off, while the other group wrote about a time when they took a risk and failed. Then the groups were asked to read a vignette in which they were deciding between two bicycle gifts for a friend. One of the bicycles had sentimental value, while the other was made by a brand the recipient liked.

The results were consistent with the researchers’ hypothesis: The participants who had written about risks paying off were much more likely to choose the sentimental gift compared to those who had written about risks failing.

“People spend billions of dollars every year on gifts, and the data suggests that they’re not spending money in the best way possible,” Givi says. “We are also finding evidence in a different project that people feel closer to givers when they receive sentimental gifts, so people should keep this in mind the next time they’re making gift-giving decisions.”

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