Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why is it so hard to shop for others?

It is just hard to know what other people want.

Ugly sweater for the holidaysThere are lots of stresses during the holiday season. You may have to prepare to spend time with lots of family. You may have to get your home ready for an invasion of guests. On top of everything else, you are expected to go out and buy lots of gifts. And despite all of the jokes about regifting, none of us wants to know that our gift was the one that got passed on down the line.

There wouldn't be all of those jokes about regifting if it were easy to shop for others. Why is it so hard? What can you do about it?

There are lots of reasons why it is hard to shop for others, but here are a couple of few big ones.

First, remember that it is often hard to know what you want for yourself until you are actually in the situation in which you are faced with making a purchase or trying out something new. Since the 1970s, psychologists have pointed out that there is an inconsistency between people's attitudes-what they say that they will do-and their behavior-what they actually do. A big part of this difference between attitudes and behavior is that it is just hard to predict what you are going to want in the future. So, even if you ask people what they would like as a gift, when they actually get it, they may be disappointed.

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Beer can hatSecond, there is a tendency for people to act as though others have similar taste to themselves. This is not an explicit belief. If asked, you'd probably admit that your taste is different from other people's taste. However, when you're actually in a store looking at gifts, you tend to decide what you think looks fun or pretty or attractive or tasty based on your own biases. You make these judgments implicitly, without realizing the degree to which your own tastes are affecting your judgment. That's why you might nail the fact that your best friend needs a new sweater and still buy one that will never get worn.

What can you do about this? Here are a few suggestions.

Try to base your judgments of what to get for someone on what they do rather than what they say. For people you know well, think about their activities. How do they spend their time? Get gifts that support those activities. For people you don't know that well, guide conversations with them or with others (like their parents if they are younger children) toward what they do rather than what they want. When you ask people what they want, they will often draw a blank. Even if they have ideas, they may not think about all of the activities they do during the year. But if you ask about what people like to do, they will give you a list of hobbies and leisure activities that may guide the selection of gifts.

One reason to focus on people's activities is that otherwise you tend to look for rather generic gifts that you feel might appeal to anyone. Often, the things that catch your eye in the store are gifts that you understand immediately when you see them. The problem with many of those gifts is that if you understand them immediately, there may not be much more to them than what is on the surface. As a result, you may tire of them quickly as well. Many novelty gifts are like this, such as the trophy fish that sings a song when anyone gets near it, or the hat that allows you to attach a drink can and straw to it. As much fun as gifts like this might look on display in the store, they quickly find themselves in the back of the closet gathering dust.

Finally, stay away from gifts that require you to make taste judgments. Unless you have great confidence in your taste and are repeatedly complimented by others for your judgments, stick with gifts that you can evaluate based on their features rather than on their beauty. It is just too hard to overcome your own biases to really see gifts through someone else's eyes.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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