What Research Says About the Perfect Gift
If you asked a bunch of people how good they are at buying gifts for business associates, family and friends, there's a good chance that most of them would say they're pretty good at it. Yet, if you asked those same people to rate the gift-giving skill of their business associates, family and friends, you will probably hear horror stories about getting unintentionally hilarious clothing, useless trinkets, or electronic singing fish. In fact, if people were nearly as good at buying gifts for others as they think, websites like WhyDidYouBuyMeThat.com and BadGiftEmporium.com would be out of business. Fortunately, researchers have discovered that there's a simple way to buy the perfect gift.
Researchers Francesca Gino and Frank Flynn (2011) were interested in exploring the question of why gift-givers and gift-receivers so rarely see eye-to-eye on the quality or usefulness of a gift. They pointed to a survey by the National Retail Federation showing that nearly 50% of Americans anticipate returning at least one holiday gift every year, a clear indication that gifts tend not to be nearly as cherished by recipients as gift-givers might think.
The researchers thought there might be a simple solution to this problem: prospective gift-givers should just ask their business associates, family and friends to list some things they might like to receive and then buy something on the list for them. The concern, of course, is that having to ask the recipient what he or she wants might signal that the giver doesn't know the recipient well enough to buy a personalized gift or that the giver doesn't want to spend the time, effort or energy necessary to choose a gift. However, the researchers suspected that gift-recipients would actually perceive the gift-giver as especially thoughtful for buying something they really want.
In one study, Gino and Flynn asked half of a group of married individuals to think about a time they gave a wedding gift to someone else, whereas the other half were asked to think about the wedding gifts they themselves received. In addition, half of the givers were asked to think of a gift they chose from the registry, whereas the other half of the givers were asked to think of a gift they bought that was not on the registry. Similarly, half of the gift-recipients were asked to think about a gift they received that was from their registry, whereas the others were asked to think about a gift they received that was not from their registry.
Although the gifts people chose to think about were roughly the same monetary value (approximately $120 dollars on average), their perceptions of the gift differed in important ways. Specifically, it didn't matter to gift-givers whether what they were thinking about was from the registry or not--they assumed the recipient appreciated and liked the gift roughly to the same degree. However, for people who were asked to consider a wedding gift they received, the ones thinking about the gift from the registry were far more appreciative of the gift than those who were considering a gift that wasn't from the registry.
The researchers weren't done there. They conducted a number of additional studies in different contexts (e.g., birthday gifts) showing the exact same pattern: gift-givers didn't think the recipient's level of happiness and appreciation for the gift would matter much as a function of whether the recipient asked for the gift or not, but in fact recipients were clearly happier and more appreciative when they received something that they had previously said they would like.
In another study, participants were randomly assigned to be a gift-giver or gift-recipient. Each gift-giver was anonymously paired with a gift-recipient. The recipients were asked to generate a list of ten $20 to $30 gifts on Amazon.com, which would be sent to the gift-giver. Half of the gift-givers were told to pick something from the list that would be sent to the recipients, whereas the other half were told to buy something that was not on the list. Once again the researchers found that those who were told to buy something off the list thought the recipient would like the gift just as much as those told to buy something on the list. Yet, when they looked at the recipients' evaluations, those who got something from their list were much more appreciative of the item.
One other fascinating finding from this research is an important exception to the rule. When it came to giving requested gifts or simply giving money of equal value to the recipient, givers thought recipients would appreciate requested gifts more than money. However, it turns out that recipients reported appreciating money even more than their requested gift.
Because the level of appreciation for a gift is one of the main determinants of how much people are motivated to reciprocate, this research has important implications for influence. As these findings show, taking the guesswork out of gift-giving is a win-win proposition for all involved.
Gino, F., & Flynn, F. (2011). Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 915-922.