You don't have to spend as much money as you think (or any).

December 19, 2018

Traditionalists are complaining, but the rest of us can thank social scientists this season. They have come up with experimental evidence to support three revolutionary rules for people who hate shopping for holiday gifts:

1. You don’t have to spend any time looking for “thoughtful” gifts; 2. You don’t have to spend much money, either and 3. Actually, you may not have to spend any money.

Yes, we know this sounds too good to be true. We were skeptical, too, if only because it contradicts previous advice of ours to always seek gifts that are thoughtful.

But now this idea has been tested not only in the lab but also at, and it looks as if the zealous shoppers have been kidding themselves. Spending extra time and money for the perfect gift may make them feel better, but it’s not doing much for the objects of their efforts, according to one of the experimenters, Francis J. Flynn, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University in a  New York Times article.

“Our research shows that while gift-givers think they’re being more thoughtful by picking out expensive gifts, the recipients don’t appreciate the hefty price tag,” Dr. Flynn said. His experiments have shown that the price of a gift matters more to the giver than to the recipient and that people like a surprise gift less than cash or something they picked themselves through a gift registry like Amazon’s wish list.

These results have distressed Miss Manners and other defenders of civilization against the barbarism of the gift registry. Dr. Flynn sympathizes with the critics. He can understand why people think it’s rude to ask for any kind of gift.

In one study, when people were asked to recall a gift they’d given, there was a predictable correlation between price and expectation: the more someone spent on a gift, the more appreciation was expected for it. But when people were asked to recall a gift they’d received, price didn’t matter. The recipients of expensive jewellery and gadgets were not significantly more grateful than those who had gotten T-shirts and books.

This effect was also demonstrated when experimenters asked people to imagine giving or getting a graduation gift. The people who gave an iPod had higher expectations than those who gave a mere CD, but the recipients were equally grateful for either one.

Why would price matter more to givers than receivers? Dr. Flynn attributes it to the “egocentric bias” of givers who focus on their own experience in shopping. When they economize by giving a book, they compare it with the bracelet that they passed up.

But the recipients have a different frame of reference. They don’t know anything about the bracelet, so they’re not using it for comparison. The salient alternative in their minds may be the possibility of no gift at all, in which case the book looks wonderfully thoughtful.

Similarly, the recipient usually doesn’t know how much time and effort you put into finding just the right thing, so it doesn’t necessarily strike them as particularly thoughtful. Instead, your idea of the right thing may strike them as just wrong, especially if their frame of reference includes the alternative that you ignored — something on their wish list.

With a gift registry, they’re telling you what they want, and you’re saying, ‘No, you want something else, because I know more about you than you know about yourself.’  The result is not joyous gratitude.

When married couples were asked about the wedding gifts they’d received, they reported liking the ones from the registry more than the unsolicited ones.

When people were given money to buy presents for one another on Amazon, the gifts chosen from the recipient’s wish list were more appreciated than the surprises. Cash was better still — recipients liked gifts of money even more than something of equivalent value from their wish list.

Of course, just because recipients prefer these things doesn’t mean they should get them. The giver’s feelings count, too. This is a complicated social transaction.

We give because we feel good.

Those are the same reasons to give holiday presents, and if you don’t feel good unless you find something special and extravagant, then go right on shopping. But if you would just as soon skip that experience, you can now do so without feeling guilty. You’re not being lazy or selfish — quite the contrary, according to the new research. You have given careful (and scientific) consideration to the recipient’s feelings. You are the thoughtful one.

And if you really want to save time and money, you might consider re-gifting. Once considered taboo, as isn’t some expenditure of money required to show you cared? But look at it through the giver’s frame of reference.

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