The one thing we all get wrong when choosing Christmas gifts

“Christmas is coming,” laments Ellen Stewart, “and I must think of presents for everyone . “Gifts didn’t fly in those days like they do now.”

These familiar feelings are older than we think. Elaine is a Christmas character. Or, The Good Fairy, a short story written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1850.

In The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum says Beecher Stowe, born in 1811, was correct in her childhood memories. The custom of giving gifts at Christmas began in the United States in the 1820s. By the 1830s, newspaper letters pages contained complaints about commercialization, and Macy’s in New York was open until midnight on Christmas Eve as early as 1867.

Gift-giving became commonplace when Christmas evolved into a primarily domestic holiday. Before that, it was a hooligan public group party, like Halloween. Of course, at Christmas the trick-or-treaters weren’t kids in fancy dress but gangs of drunken youths demanding beer, moldy cheese, and money. No wonder Clement Clarke Moore, writing in the early 1820s, was eager to rename Christmas Eve as a time of quiet home life when “no creature moved about the house”.

After two centuries of Christmas commercialization, it seems futile to resist. But we can at least aspire to become the best gift-givers. Social psychologists have investigated this challenge in recent years. Frances Flynn and Francesca Gino find that selecting a gift from a wish list may seem unflattering and unimaginative from the giver’s perspective, but recipients see these gifts as thoughtful. The giver who consults the wish list is the giver who takes the trouble to choose something you actually want after all.

Jessica Rixom, Erick Mas, and Brett Rixom found, surprisingly, that a sloppily wrapped gift from a friend may be more appreciated than something more Instagram-worthy. The reason seems to be that filth lowers expectations. If the gift looks like a fistfight while wrapping it, the contents are most likely a pleasant surprise.

And in a study that won’t surprise anyone, four (male) researchers advised men not to give women overtly luxurious gifts too early in the relationship; Women don’t always seem to appreciate men’s efforts to make them feel committed.

But the study that caught my eye the most this year comes from Jeff Gallack, Eleanor Williams, and Julian Giffe. Givi and his colleagues argue that there is one simple mismatch that underlies many of our errors. Gift-givers tend to focus a lot on the moment the gift is unwrapped, while for recipients, that moment is just the beginning of the gift’s story.

This mismatch explains many of the things that go wrong when opening gifts. The most obvious kind of bad gift is a “novelty”—a golf chutki for someone known to love golf, perhaps, or a T-shirt with a slogan too obscene to wear in public. These presents are all sizzle, not steak. They elicit immediate laughter or howling of acknowledgment, but then simply pop the question of whether the local garbage dump opens before the New Year.

But there are more subtleties, too. For example, many people enjoy experiences like a night out at a concert, but maybe a concert ticket is just a piece of paper with a QR code on it, and there’s nothing fun about unwrapping it. So gift-givers tend to lean towards something physical instead.

Another bias is the preference for a complete gift over a partial one. Let’s say the recipient wants a food processor and the gift-giver can’t afford a good product. Most gift-givers prefer to give an inexpensive model that fits the budget, while many recipients prefer to contribute to the cost of quality equipment.

Gift-givers rarely think about practicality – for example, when will the recipient actually get a chance to use this? Even a gift card can be practical or impractical, depending on the circumstances. (I know people who have received gift cards that are only valid at stores a few hours away.) In 2007, economist Jennifer Pat Offenberg studied the resale value of gift cards on eBay. Cards from Home Depot, OfficeMax, and Starbucks performed well. Tiffany & Co and Victoria’s Secret products are sold at a deep discount. The Tiffany Card may seem a little more special, but the Starbucks Card is the card people will find the easiest to use.

Above all, surprise is exaggerated. In the rare instance when a surprise gift is well chosen, the surprise is the fleeting delight that benefits the giver as much as the recipient. When the present abrupt is a failure, the receiver gets stuck with it.

Beecher Stowe’s Christmas Story concludes with one character saying, “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things no one wants, and no one cares about after they have them.” It has been like this for 200 years. But thanks to the social sciences, we can do better.

Focus on what the recipient will actually do with the gift, rather than striving to make an impact at the moment of unwrapping. Romance, surprise, and delight are nice, but don’t shy away from being practical. And if you’re not sure what gift might be appreciated, ask.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on December 17, 2021.

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