Procrastinated on your holiday shopping and totally stumped on what to get? We have some tips for you. (Getty Images)
Still looking for that last-minute holiday gift? Picking the perfect present even when you have plenty of time is no easy task. You’d think after giving (and receiving) gifts year in and year out we’d be experts by now, but most people struggle to find presents that friends and family like and will actually use.
Under the pressure to find a gift that’s met with glee, it’s easy to throw money at the problem, thinking a luxurious item will wow them. But that’s not always the case, and can leave both giver and receiver feeling disappointed.
To take off some of that pressure and keep you from wasting time and money, here are six science-backed ways to choose presents for friends and family that they’ll actually love.
1. Keep the gift recipient in mind.
That may sound obvious, but we’re biased to pick gifts we like, rather than focusing on the preferences of the person getting the gift. That’s because it actually makes us physically uncomfortable to purchase gifts that go against our own preferences. A 2011 Journal of Consumer Researcher study showed that when people bought gifts that conflicted with their own sense of identity, but were in sync with the identity of the recipient (such as buying college football team memorabilia for someone who went to a rival school), the givers chewed on their lips, averted their eyes, crossed their arms, and fidgeted in discomfort.
So when you’re out shopping, remind yourself whom the present is for (hint: it’s not you). Also, if the gift is for your partner or your best friend, pick something that reflects your close relationship. “Presents should say something about the relationship between giver and receiver,” Art Markman, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Smart Change: Five Tools To Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others,” tells Yahoo Health. “Generic gifts are frustrating, because they suggest that the giver does not really understand the connection between giver and receiver.” Even if the present wasn’t perfect, research shows that the loved one on the receiving end will still appreciate your thoughtfulness.
2. Choose versatile presents over highly specific ones.
Before you run out to buy your dad a gift card at his beloved Home Depot, check this out: Research from the University of Cincinnati found that when people are given highly personalized gift cards, they take longer to cash them in and, in some cases, they don’t even use them at all. In other words, you may be better off buying a more general card, such as a MasterCard or American Express gift card, which frees up the receiver to use the gift card at a variety of stores. Or consider an iTunes gift card, which can be used to buy music, apps or e-books.
“Choose something versatile that the recipient could use to fulfill whatever their current wants and needs might be,” study author Mary Steffel, researcher and assistant professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, tells Yahoo Health. “In other words, focus on what they would like rather than what they are like. Givers who do this are more likely to select the more versatile gifts that recipients really want.”
3. Ask yourself: “Is the gift easy to use?”
A gift certificate to a Michelin-star restaurant an hour’s drive away or a high-end, cappuccino-making coffee machine may sound like sensational gifts, but if your parents aren’t willing to make the long drive to the restaurant or your partner can’t figure out how to brew a basic espresso, they may not be such great gifts after all. And research backs this up: A Journal of Consumer Research study found that while givers prefer bestowing highly desirable gifts, receivers prefer more feasible, practical ones. So before you plunk down your credit card, ask yourself if the gift recipient will realistically use the present.
4. Give them what they want.
Gift givers tend to assume that an unsolicited gift will be seen as a thoughtful purchase and, therefore, will be appreciated just as much as a requested gift. But science says otherwise. Multiple studies show that gift recipients are more appreciative of presents they specifically ask for than ones they don’t. Sure, flat-out asking someone what they want for the holidays kills the surprise, but it also practically guarantees that they’ll love their gift. And isn’t that, in the end, what giving a gift is about?
5. Don’t overspend thinking they’ll appreciate it more.
A Stanford University study found that when participants were asked to think about giving a CD or an iPod as a graduation present, the “givers” expected that spending more money — in this case, choosing the iPod — would mean that the gift receiver would be more appreciative than if he or she had received the less-expensive CD. They were wrong. Regardless of which item they were given, the “receivers” were equally appreciative.
6. Go for experiences over material gifts.
Once they’ve gotten over the initial thrill of a new flat-screen TV or shiny new watch, people typically go back to their same level of happiness. “People go overboard with gifts because they mistake the joy and surprise of getting a gift with the happiness that gift might provide in the future,” says Markman. “In the moment, when you receive something big, that shock creates a real uplift in mood. In the long run, though, research shows that experiences make people happier than things. Experiences create memories that people can look back on for the long-term.” Think an Italian cooking class, theater tickets, classes at a trapeze school, or whisky tasting at a local restaurant.
According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Reports, people are less likely to lose the joy that comes from rewarding experience-related purchases than gratifying material objects. The researchers point out that “psychologically, it is the experience that lives on and the possession that fades away.”
In a different study, the researchers explained why: The enjoyment people get from experience-related gifts comes from “the sense of identity they provide, the story-telling they afford, and the social connections they facilitate.”
In other words, it’s not just about enjoying the experience itself, but what comes with it: quality time with your partner or best friend, which is, well, priceless.
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