It's nearly impossible to avoid the gift giving hubbub that dominates our lives this time of year. Either you're giving gifts, or receiving them. Likely you're doing both.
And even though many of us have participated in this annual tradition year after year, most people still fail to find the perfect gift -- even when they're certain that they have.
The results from a new study reveal why. "It seemed like there might be some sort of basic, underlying mechanism that drives all these errors," study co-author Jeff Galak told Scientific American. The marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University wanted to understand why most people don't like the gifts they receive.
We like to think we know our friends and family well, thus can adequately select gifts we just know they'll love. But when the researchers dug into the psychology of gift giving, they found many gift givers tend to make the wrong decisions. The study's authors examined a library of existing research on the topic of gift giving and came to understand why certain gifts are great to give, but not to get.
The disconnect comes from how each person involved approaches the exchange. Gift givers focus on the moment when their gift is opened. They hope the recipient will be surprised, delighted or touched. The recipient, on the other hand, couldn't care less about that eyes-lighting-up moment. Instead, they think how they can use the gift afterwards.
Here are a few insights the study's authors found in their work. If you want to be the world's best gift giver, follow these tips.
1. Practical often trumps fun
Would you rather have a Himalayan salt block? Or a tea kettle?
Study co-author Elanor Williams received the salt block because she loves to entertain. While this gift from her parents was cool-looking, it wasn't something she would use. So the Indiana University Kelley School of Business professor returned it and bought an electric tea kettle. She uses the tea kettle every day, and says she thinks of her parents every time she does.
The lesson here? As the gift giver, try to think about something the person would actually use. Chances are, it's not something very exciting. That's OK. Even if there isn't a huge reveal when someone opens your gift, something practical is no less thoughtful. A useful gift is one the recipient will enjoy again and again, long after this holiday season has passed.
2. Experiences often trump things
We're often on the hunt for a thing to gift someone. Because they need to have something to unwrap, right? Not necessarily. Consider something you two can do together, like going to see a show or enjoying a nice meal. Often, the greatest give we can give is our time.
"Receiving an experience from somebody makes you feel a stronger emotional connection to them," says Williams. "If we can make that better known, then people will get over that hiccup and realize that it's OK to give the representation... the eventual experience will make them happier and also happier with you."
If you must have something physical your recipient can open, consider wrapping up those tickets. Or even draw up a voucher for the experience you plan to gift them and wrap that.
3. Thoughtfulness often trumps expense
Spending more doesn't mean better gifts. You don't need to dazzle your recipient to be considered a good gift giver. Something meaningful and small can do the trick.
Consider this: Would you rather have $100 to spend at a store where you never shop? Or $20 to spend at your favorite store? It's likely the higher-valued gift card would just gather dust -- or be re-gifted. The $20 gift card will go to good use because you can pick up something you'll actually want or need.
4. Asking often trumps mind-reading
So how do find that perfect gift? Ask the person what they want. Then get exactly that thing for them. Yep, it's just that simple. Though not the most exciting way to go about giving gifts, it's a surefire way to prevent your gift from being returned, donated or forgotten about.
As we do our last-minute shopping, retail workers are bracing themselves for one of the busiest days of the year. It's December 26, when their customer service departments are slammed with people returning gifts they don't want. Cut them some slack, be a better gift giver and make everyone a bit happier this holiday season.