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Sometimes the Thought That Counts Comes Too Late

Or, how not to buy your girlfriend a trashcan for her birthday

Since this is the season of giving, with many of us scrambling to find the absolutely perfect gift for the people in our lives, it’s always worth considering that you won’t be able to find the perfect gift. Or worse: your belief about the perfect gift for this person might be completely wrong. But you can always take solace in the old adage that “it’s the thought that counts.” Well, perhaps not. Some recent research by Yan Zhang and Nick Epley suggests that the old saying isn’t very reliable.

This is perhaps best illustrated with a story from my own life that’s a more than a little bit embarrassing for me to admit: this past June I gave my girlfriend a trash can for her birthday. In hindsight, this was clearly a terrible gift (and thankfully one we can joke about now), but before I actually gave it to her, I truly believed it was something she’d really like. We’d been living together for a little more than a year, and she complained almost daily about how much the trash can smelled, even when it wasn’t full enough to take it out yet. (It’s worth noting that she has an incredible sense of smell, whereas I can barely smell anything, so this bothers her much more than it does me.) We’d tried all sorts of solutions, but nothing seemed to work. So, thinking that I would be a hero if I could remove this constant vexation from her life, I set out to solve this once and for all with a new trashcan – but not just any trash can, the Cadillac of trashcans. It was beautifully and intelligently designed, with a quiet close lid, made from steel and plastics that wouldn’t absorb odors over time, and specifically designed to prevent odors from escaping. If anything were going to solve this problem, it would be this.

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But then, shortly before I presented it to her, I started having second thoughts about how much she’d like it, based largely on the fact that I was giving her a trash can on her birthday. At this point, it was too late for me to get something else, and perhaps it would be the “thought that counted,” even if she didn’t really like the trash can. The saying essentially suggests that what really matters in how you feel about a gift (and the gift giver) depends on how much thought and effort they put into the gift, regardless of the objective quality — you should like a gift more if it was thoughtful, and less if it was thoughtless. Based on this, when presented with this gleaming stainless-steel wonder, even if my girlfriend thought that a trash can was a horrible birthday gift, she should have immediately seen that I had put a lot of thought and time into choosing it, and loved it (and me) anyway.

However, Zhang and Epley’s research demonstrates quite clearly that this saying isn’t terribly accurate. What they find is that gift receivers don’t spontaneously consider the giver’s thoughts — they must be prompted by something like the gift being egregiously bad. Receivers won’t naturally give a bonus for thoughtfulness when the gift is a good one, but in the struggle to understand why they received a terrible gift, will consider the thought behind it, and give credit to the giver. Gift givers, like me with the trash can, have direct knowledge of all of the thought and effort they put into the gift, and don’t anticipate this. They generally believe that the receiver will automatically consider the amount of thought they put into the gift, and that this will strengthen the relationship. And while givers do perceive a stronger social connection when they’ve put a lot of thought into a gift, since receivers don’t spontaneously consider the giver’s thoughts, it doesn’t have an impact on their perceptions of the relationship. Have you ever felt some incredible bond with a co-worker after working very hard to get inside their mind to figure out the perfect Secret Santa gift (within the $10 limit, of course), only to be met with a polite smile instead of a warm embrace? Now you know why.

Armed with this knowledge, I knew what I had to do: I needed to make it very, very clear that this was not a thoughtless gift. I told her about all of the reasons behind the choice of a trash can, the problems in her life that it would solve, and made sure to mention all of the research that I had done and the time spent shopping for it. And it worked — she definitely hated the idea of getting a trash can for her birthday (even while admitting it was a very nice trash can), but very much appreciated the thought and effort behind it. In the end, I did end up taking it back and getting her something that she really wanted. But this only proves the simplest point from this research: thoughtful gifts are great to receive, but not nearly as great as gifts that you actually like. It’s also why wish lists are so effective, but unappreciated by the giver (see Gino & Flynn, 2011). You are all but guaranteed to get people something they actually want.

And so, perhaps our understanding of meaning behind the adage “it’s the thought that counts” is actually wrong. Instead of being a statement about what actually does matter (thoughts over quality) in evaluating a gift, perhaps it’s actually meant to be a prompt to do something we don’t naturally do: consider the thoughts of others.

Travis J. Carter, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. He studies decision-making, motivation, and cognition.

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