If you're here just for the practical tips, without all that psychological mumbo-jumbo, skip to the bottom of the article.
Why is buying gifts so…
If you believe popular media, winter is coming, and so is Santa Claus, bringing with them the annual hunt for the greatest hunting experience of the year: the hunt for perfect gifts.
For many of us, this tradition is very rewarding. And not necessarily just in the “I’ve just gotten a gift, so this is quite literally a reward” way. Over the last decade, there have been various studies proving that spending money on somebody other than ourselves stimulates the parts of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure. Therefore, we can claim nearly with scientific certainty that being generous promotes happiness.
However, science is significantly less optimistic in a comportment crucial to successful gift-giving. We are apparently incredibly un-gifted when it comes to predicting the preferences of others. (Hsee, C. K., & Weber, E. U., 1997).
A 2016 study (J., Givi, J., & Williams, E. F.) indicates the source of this difficulty might be the differences between how givers and recipients perceive what are the features of a valuable gift. For example: for givers, a “good” gift will delight the recipient and make them feel surprised or touched by our thoughtfulness. However, for the recipient temporary pleasure from a gift is less important than its durability and overall usefulness. With such an approach, most givers will inevitably prioritize the initial gifting experience (a feeling of delight when someone unwraps their gift) over the practicality of ownership of such an item.
To translate it into real life, imagine that your best friend got you a puppy for Christmas. At first, you are ecstatic! – it’s your own ball of barks and delight, and you spend the entire evening stroking its little head and playing tug-war together. But then comes the next day – and suddenly you have to wake up at 5 a.m. to feed the little fellow, then go outside in the freezing weather to walk it. When this furry ball of delight becomes a ball of sneezes (because it was really was cold outside), you find yourself searching for an emergency dog-doc in the middle of the holidays. And sure, you could argue that that is life, and we all adore dogs – but undoubtedly sometimes it's best to, you know, adore from the distance.
Bad gifts and their worse results
What is more, research indicates that ill-chosen gifts can have unwanted consequences: recipients of such gifts can become annoyed (Dunn E. W., Huntsinger J., Lun J., Sinclair S., 2008). I imagine their reactions can range from proclamations: “It's like you don’t know me at all!”, to a more classic and classy Dracula line: “Wine? I don’t drink…wine”. According to a 1999 study (Ruth J. A., Otnes C. C., Brunel F. F.) poorly chosen gifts, in the best-case scenario, can irritate the recipient. In the worst-case scenario – they can drive the giver and the giftee apart. Or even drive the giftee to tear the giver apart – but that is the absolutely worst-case, Dracula scenario*(research on that one is still pending).
Guidelines: How to buy better gifts
Bearing the research in mind, here are some key rules that can make gift-giving slightly easier.
Tip 1: Start early
There is a saying in Poland: “kto rano wstaje temu Pan Bóg daje” which is a loose equivalent of English “the early bird catches the worm”. Whether you prefer the god or bug-related metaphor, both share the same practical wisdom: an early shopper avoids the holiday rush. Therefore, best to begin your Christmas gift shopping well in advance. This will ensure that you have ample time to find thoughtful gifts and take advantage of early-bird discounts.
Tip 2: Create a budget – and stick to it
Before you hit the stores, establish a budget that won’t be hitting your wallet too hard. This will help you manage your finances and prevent overspending during the festive season – getting carried away is frightfully easy, once you are blinded by all the shining Christmas lights, and deafened by all the catchy Christmassy jingles they play in the stores.
Tip 3: Santa says: Make a list
Santa makes and then checks his list twice – and so should you! Create a list of everyone you need to buy gifts for, jotting down ideas for each person. You can also write down their interests, hobbies, etc. This approach will help you to brainstorm gift ideas while keeping you focused and preventing last-minute panic purchases.
Tip 4: Consider a person's preferences…
A thoughtful and personalized gift is often more appreciated than a generic one. Therefore, pay attention to the likes and dislikes of the recipients. Consider their hobbies, interests, and preferences when selecting gifts. Ask yourself questions, for example: do they like cooking?
If so: perhaps a piece of cooking equipment, a cooking book, or even a cooking class would be a great idea for a gift.
If they detest cooking: more power to them! Perhaps you could give them a subscription to the meal-delivery service?
Tip 5: …but don’t try to subvert their expectations, for GOT’s sake!
You might be tempted to surprise the receiver with your gift, to show how well you know them and to bequeath to them not what they wanted, but perhaps what they really needed all along.
And that looks all good and dandy – on paper. In real life, subverting someone’s expectation to enhance the surprise factor rarely ends well – if the final seasons of Game of Thrones taught us something, it would be just that.
Sometimes, it’s best to deliver a gift from someone’s wish list, than to try to outsmart the recipient. To put this in real-life context: imagine that you are five, and you want to receive a Batman action figure. But when the time comes, waiting under the Christmas tree is not a figure of the caped vigilante, but the red and silver armor of Ironman Stark – because “Tony Stark is objectively superior to Bruce Wayne” as you are informed by your father, who, as you imagine, must be relaying this message from Santa Claus himself.
Yes, technically hey are both orphaned, damaged, genius playboy multimillionaires, but only one of them can pull off singing:
You think my muscles are big? (Thank you)
You haven't seen my brain
Ladies, it's okay if you stare (Why?)
CAUSE I'M A BILLIONAIRE!
*Spoiler alert: it’s Batman!
Tip 6: Prioritize quality over the razzle-dazzle
This rule comes back to the research back to the research: it might tempting to buy something shiny and pretty, but really, it’s all about durability.
Tip 7: Consider do-it-yourself gifts
Gift-giving is not necessarily about the money, but rather the personal touch. And what can embody that more than something you made with your own hands? Do-it-yourself (DIY) gifts can be more meaningful and friendly to your bank account balance. Whether it's homemade cookies, a knitted scarf, or a crafted photo album, handmade items show you've put thought and effort into the present.
Tip 8: And remember: it’s the thought that counts!
At the end of the day, what we truly want is to know that someone cares about us. Christmas gifts are a physical representation of the thought and effort that we put into them. The problem is that all of those good intentions are known only to the giver, and not the recipient. So… why not just tell them about it? Along with the wishes, you can mention, for example: why you chose this particular item, if it was tricky to make or obtain, what is the gift’s sentimental value, etc. It really is the thought that counts – but you shouldn’t be counting on your recipient being a telepath.
Dunn E. W., Huntsinger J., Lun J., Sinclair S. (2008). “The gift of similarity: How good and bad gifts influence relationships.” Social Cognition, 26, 469–481.
Galak, J., Givi, J., & Williams, E. F. (2016), “Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get. Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Hsee, C. K., & Weber, E. U. (1997), “A fundamental prediction error: Self–others discrepancies in risk preference.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 126(1), 45–53.
Ruth J. A., Otnes C. C., Brunel F. F. (1999). Gift receipt and the reformulation of interpersonal relationships. Journal of Consumer Research, 25, 385–402.
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