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3 Simple Tips to Pick the Perfect Gift

What science has to say about choosing gifts people will love.

Key points

  • Don’t overthink it or focus too much on the cost.
  • Focus on communicating with the recipient.
  • Experiences vs. material things make better gifts.
Shanoon Cox/Filmora
Source: Shanoon Cox/Filmora

I’d be willing to bet that if you’re reading this, you have received a bad gift before (or maybe even given a bad gift yourself). While the odds of getting the perfect gift for someone can feel as likely as winning the lottery, there are a few simple steps we can take to increase the chances of getting it right when it comes to giving a gift that will be loved and appreciated by the recipient. Finding the perfect gift probably sounds like more of an art than a science, yet psychology researchers have studied gift-giving extensively and provided some helpful suggestions when it comes to giving a successful gift. Here are my three favorite tips.

1. Focus more on the gift and less on the cost.

If shopping for a gift gives you anxiety as it does for me, relax and take a deep breath. The fact that you are purchasing an item or experience for a person in your life that you care about goes a long way. Chances are that they are going to appreciate anything you spend time or money on because it shows that you care. So you’re off to a good start.

A second point about overthinking gift-giving relates to the aspect of how much money to spend. In a scene from the AMC series "Breaking Bad," Walter White brings a package of ramen noodles to his multimillionaire friend’s birthday party as a gift. To his horror, there is a mountain of large, expensive-looking gifts on the table when Walter arrives at the party (although the invitation explicitly said no gifts). When Walter’s friend opens the ramen noodles, he breaks down in emotion and nostalgia because he and Walter used to eat ramen noodles every day when they were working around the clock starting their own company decades ago. Even though the gift cost pennies to the giver, it had a profound emotional impact on the recipient.

As the giver, we assume that the more money we spend, the more the gift is going to be liked by the recipient. We focus too much on the objective value of the gift we are giving rather than the intrinsic value the recipient will derive from the gift (Flynn & Adams, 2009). There is absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing an expensive gift for a special occasion, but the take-home point here is to focus more on what will the person appreciate and cherish from you specifically rather than how much money you spend. A thoughtful gift is often more appreciated than an expensive gift.

2. Communicate.

No matter who you’re buying a gift for, communication is key. Don’t hesitate to talk to the person directly and ask what they want. For better or worse, we cannot read each other’s minds. Asking what your gift recipient wants and fulfilling their wish will guarantee you get them a gift that they won’t hate, and ought to love. Research shows that gift-givers will often forgo buying gifts from registries or gifts that were explicitly asked for because they want to “surprise” the recipient and shock them with a gift they didn’t expect (Ward & Broniarczyk, 2016). It’s true that you might lose some of the shock and awe factor the moment the person opens the gift if you simply buy someone a gift they asked for. But, more importantly, you guarantee that you won’t screw it up, and you'll leave the person with a gift they’ll definitely appreciate.

3. Spend on experiences over material gifts.

This one is simple. If you’re considering buying two different gifts, one being a material item (like a new TV) and the other being an experience (e.g., a wine tasting for two at a fancy vineyard nearby), choose the experience. Researchers have found time and time again that spending money on experiences promotes happiness (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003; Gilovich, Kumar, & Jampol, 2015). One of the reasons experiences make people happier is because they provide more opportunities for bonding with another person, so consider an experience that you can share with the gift recipient, such as a wine tasting for two.

Buying gifts can be stressful, but these gift-giving strategies will help make it less stressful while simultaneously helping you get it right. Seeing the awkward look on a disappointed gift recipient’s face is something we all strive to avoid.

By not overthinking, communicating effectively with the recipient, and opting to buy experiences, you’ll minimize seeing the Arnold smile (see above) the next time you watch your friend, family member, or romantic partner open the gift you gave them.

References

Flynn, Francis J., and Gabrielle S. Adams. "Money can’t buy love: Asymmetric beliefs about gift price and feelings of appreciation." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45.2 (2009): 404–409.

Gilovich, Thomas, Amit Kumar, and Lily Jampol. "A wonderful life: Experiential consumption and the pursuit of happiness." Journal of Consumer Psychology 25.1 (2015): 152–165.

Van Boven, Leaf, and Thomas Gilovich. "To do or to have? That is the question." Journal of personality and social psychology 85.6 (2003): 1193.

Ward, Morgan K., and Susan M. Broniarczyk. "Ask and you shall (not) receive: Close friends prioritize relational signaling over recipient preferences in their gift choices." Journal of Marketing Research 53.6 (2016): 1001–1018.

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