The art and science of gift-giving

<span>Photograph: Kseniya Ovchinnikova/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kseniya Ovchinnikova/Getty Images

December can often feel like a never-ending ordeal, as we try to find the perfect gifts for our nearest and dearest. No matter how well we know someone, we struggle to discern their hidden wishes and desires. Each decision can feel like a test of our relationship. This is a natural consequence of the brain’s workings. Humans may be unique in our advanced ability to consider others’ viewpoints, but perspective-taking is enormously taxing for our little grey cells.

“It takes a lot of mental energy,” says Prof Julian Givi at West Virginia University. As a result, our choices of gifts are extremely prone to error. Researchers such as Givi have now identified a host of cognitive biases that lead our judgments astray, so that we waste our money and miss opportunities for greater social connection.

Fortunately, the art and science of gift-giving can be learned. By recognising the most common errors, we can instantly improve our choices to ensure that we bring maximum satisfaction to the people we love.

Think beyond the moment

Many of our mistakes arise from a kind of myopia. The person giving the gift is fixated on the single moment of the exchange – they want a gift that will elicit the biggest immediate reaction, even if the pleasure is short-lived. Receivers, however, tend to feel greater gratitude for presents that bring longer-term enjoyment.

“There is a natural perspective gap,” says Prof Adelle Yang at the National University of Singapore. She calls this the “smile-seeking hypothesis” and has found strong evidence for the idea with a series of surveys. Consider Valentine’s Day gifts. She has found that givers will prefer to buy a bouquet of blooming flowers, for example, which might look stunning at the time of exchange but will soon lose their petals, whereas receivers prefer a house plant they can tend for weeks after.

If you are worried that you are falling for this bias, you could ask yourself whether you would make the same choice if you were to send the gift by post. Yang has found that people tend to make the better decision when they know that they will not be physically present at the opening, and so will not be able to witness the immediate reaction of the person receiving the gift.

Our focus on the moment of exchange can be responsible for many other howlers. People tend to prefer to go off-piste rather than buy a present that is already on someone’s wishlist, for instance. Givers want to see the surprise as they open the gift, but receivers prefer getting the presents they had actually requested.

“Surprising presents are doubly problematic,” says Prof Jeffrey Galak, who studies the psychology of gift-giving at Carnegie Mellon University. “Not only do you get the wrong thing, but if you’re close friends or romantic partners, you can’t do anything about it.” It would seem incredibly ungrateful to ask for a refund, after all. As our cluttered homes testify, the unwanted gifts of Christmas past can haunt us for many months or years after the event.

Consider experiences over tangible goods

The smile-seeking hypothesis can also explain why we prefer to buy material gifts: a fancy new watch or necklace compared with concert tickets or a cooking lesson, for example. The giver is excited to have something large and shiny to hand over, but the new and exciting experiences tend to bring greater overall happiness, and memories of the event will linger long after the material gifts have lost their lustre. “If you are optimising your choices for the exchange, you want to give the sparkliest thing that you can deliver,” says Galak. “But that’s doing the receiver a disservice.”

Forget the price tag

For many people, gift-giving is all about the price tag. We pay as much as we can afford in the belief that the cost reflects our esteem for the person. The psychological research, however, suggests that we vastly overestimate the importance of monetary value. “All the evidence points to the fact that cost has little relationship with how well a gift is received,” says Galak. Additionally, we are more likely to flash the cash with people who are already wealthy than poorer people who may be in greater need of a little luxury.

The potential for social comparison only increases our preoccupation with price. We worry that someone else’s showy largesse will cast a shadow over our efforts; Galak and Givi’s research suggests that some people will opt out of the gift-giving altogether if they believe that they cannot keep up with the “competition”. In reality, the relative value of people’s presents makes very little difference to the way that they are perceived; each present tends to be considered on its own merits. “[Our fears] don’t play out on the recipient’s side,” says Galak. “They’re just happy to get a gift.”

Override your egotism

In some situations, we may even be influenced by feelings of envy towards the recipients themselves. Imagine that your sister has asked for some new sunglasses for Christmas. You find a stylish pair that you know she will love, but they will make your own shades look unfashionable by comparison. In such situations, people will frequently choose to pick a lower-quality gift: they would rather risk disappointing the recipient than trigger jealous feelings in themselves.

Our desire to feel unique can also be a barrier. You may know that your friend hankers after a piece of Beatles memorabilia that you own, for instance, when you happen to find the same item in an online marketplace. It would make the perfect present, but you want to remain the only person you know who owns this coveted object. If you buy it for the other person, you will no longer feel so special. As a result, you choose a completely different present – one that would not generate nearly so much gratitude.

“We think of gift-giving as an act of altruism, but these self-serving motivations can come into play,” says Givi. And by overriding that egotism, we can make much better choices.

Overcome your fear of sentimentality

If you feel sufficiently close to someone, you may opt for something of sentimental value, such as a photo or scrapbook celebrating your relationship. This can feel a little exposing. When considering sentimental gifts, people often worry that their friend or partner would prefer to receive something with a higher price tag and greater practical use. But Givi and Galak’s research shows that those assumptions are wrong; people would rather receive the item with greater emotional resonance.

If you feel nervous about making this choice yourself, be reassured that Givi practises what he preaches. “Pretty much every time you give a sentimental gift, it ends up being a home run,” he says. “It really, really makes people happy.”

• David Robson is the author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply