The Science of Gifts

Is it possible to get gifts down to a science? With gift giving season upon us, there has been a flood of advice for consumers on how to navigate their purchases scientifically. The Wall Street Journal explains that re-gifting is an acceptable practice, while the Boston Globe counsels that fancy wrapping can backfire; Cass Sunstein (President Obama’s regulations guru and the co-author of Nudge) tells us what lessons behavioral economics has to share on gift giving. I even got in on the action myself, writing a piece for the Chicago Booth website on some new research by Yan Zhang and Nick Epley about when people appreciate a gift’s thoughtfulness. (There’s also a nice review of the research by Kate Reilly at the always interesting Psych Your Mind blog).

Reviewing the research – and the journalism – got me thinking about the strengths and the limitations of bringing a scientific approach to exchanging presents. There is a lot to be said for studying gift giving, as long as we remain mindful of its limitations.

Take the work by Zhang and Epley that I wrote about. The research demonstrates that when we give gifts we tend to believe that the thought we put into the gift will be appreciated. In reality, people often don’t pay much attention to the thought that went into a gift (unless there’s something that triggers them to consider it). The finding is built on an important insight that may seem obvious, but is frequently overlooked: people can’t read your mind.

When we give a gift, we know about the hours of thought we put into it, but usually they can’t see that just by looking at the gift. We know that we picked just the right tennis racket or sweater out of the dozens there were to choose from, but all they see is the one we chose.

In some cases it’s easy to see – like when your eight-year-old rips open the packaging of the video game that he desperately wanted. He doesn’t take the time, amidst all the jumping up and down and screaming for joy, to consider how you took the time to talk to his friends or read online reviews to make sure you got the right game. You’re lucky if you get a breathless thank you.

On the other hand, there are other cases in which the finding just doesn’t hold up – like when your grandmother knits you a sweater. It’s really obvious that a lot of thought and effort went into the gift and, in those instances, we usually do appreciate the thought (the research actually shows that we’re particularly likely to appreciate the thought that went into an unexpectedly bad gift, but I’m pretty confident that we appreciate the thoughtfulness of grandma’s sweater even if we really like it).

It’s the in between cases that are tricky and where the research proves the most valuable. For example, your intuition might tell you that picking a wedding gift off a registry is impersonal, and your college roommate would appreciate something more thoughtful. The research (by Francesca Gino and Frank Flynn link to PDF) says you would be wrong – people tend to like things off their registry better than vigilante gifts and they consider them more thoughtful.

In short, the research helps us to confront our intuitions; those cases in which it feels like we’re right, but in reality we’re not. We think people will like a gift more the more expensive it is, but they don’t (link to PDF). We think that people will get mad at us if we re-gift something they’ve given us, but they generally seem not to mind (link). And we tend to think that people will like the same things we like, but often they don’t.

So has science solved the gift conundrum? Are we about to leave behind our misguided intuitions and become perfect little Santas? Maybe not. Sometimes it may seem like science has all the answers, but the problem for science is not a shortage of answers but that it’s not necessarily asking all the right questions. If we can tell science what outcomes we value then science does a decent job telling us how to get those outcomes. But science is not necessarily good at deciding on its own what outcomes we should value.

cashgiftTake the example of how (rational) economics tackles the question of gifts. As George Loewenstein and Cass Sunstein point out, gifts tend to destroy value because “the value of gifts to their recipients is typically far lower than the money that was spent on them. [Joel Waldfogel] found that of the $65 billion spent on winter holiday gifts in 2009, about 20 percent was wasted, in the sense that the gifts were worth that much less to the recipient than they cost.” From a purely rational economic perspective this makes no sense; what we should do, if we insist on exchanging gifts on Christmas morning, is each pass an envelope of money to the person on our right. Of course that misses the point of gift giving. An economic perspective can arm you with tools that help you destroy less value, but it doesn’t ask the right questions to make you a better gift giver.

We can try to console ourselves with the notion that psychology (and behavioral economics) does a better job when it comes to gift giving, but let’s not kid ourselves, psychology has blind spots, too. Just like economists, we focus on one outcome while we neglect others that were too hard to measure, that we dismissed as unimportant, or that we simply didn’t think of.

For example, reading the first three experiments in Zhang and Epley’s paper might lead you to the conclusion that there’s no real upside to spending a lot of time trying to think of the perfect gift. After all, the time you put in is unlikely to be appreciated. If you were to stop reading there, you’d have an answer to the question of how much is the thought that goes into a gift appreciated.

Luckily, Zhang and Epley did not stop there. In their fourth experiment they found something surprising. The benefits of thoughtfulness often did not go to the person receiving the gift – they didn’t appreciate the gift any more when the giver had put a lot of time into it. Instead, the benefits went to the gift giver who, having spent time and effort thinking about what the recipient of their gift might like, felt closer to that person and more socially connected to them. That certainly would have been easy to miss had the researcher’s only question been about gift appreciation. Of course we fail to ask the right questions all the time and it’s a very difficult problem to detect. How do you know when you’re missing something? Certainly science has done its job answering the question it was presented, but science can’t always tell you what other questions still need to be asked.

What we need, both as scientists and as consumers of science, is a healthy dose of humility. The scientific method may be the best approach we have to answering questions about the world we live in, but that obviously doesn’t mean that we have all the answers yet, or the right questions. And, as we are constantly reminded, our provisional answers are often off the mark.

If our goal is to gather up all the science and create a gift giving textbook that could explain gift giving completely, I think we’re headed for disappointment. We may be able to provide better advice than, “just give cash,” but we’re bound to come up with an impoverished view. But that need not be our goal.

wisegiftsAs Epley told me when we spoke about his research, the hope is to make people a little wiser. That doesn’t mean that they now have a scientific account of gift giving, just that they have a few new insights to put into action, or enough knowledge to keep some of their intuitions from leading them astray.

Here are a few of my favorite bits of wisdom, drawn from this year’s guides:

Leaf van Boven and Tom Gilovich find (PDF) that people are happier with experiences than with material things, but when it comes to gift giving this can lead to a problem. Namely, when you’re unwrapping presents the “experience” gift – like a massage or a cooking class – can leave you with nothing to hold but a coupon or a ticket. This can be awkward, because people like to have something to actually hold on to. Van Boven’s solution? Give an inexpensive additional gift that’s related to the experience, like massage oils or a spatula.

Dan Ariely has an article in which he advises giving gifts that will be used intermittently, like a fancy tablecloth. A perishable gift, like flowers or chocolate will soon disappear; a permanent one, like a painting, “just fades into the attentional background.” But a fancy tablecloth, which is used on special occasions, is the most likely to remind people of the giver every time it’s used.

Lastly, Zhang and Epley’s finding that the benefits of thoughtfulness accrue to the giver leads Epley to counsel that we diversify our gift giving. When you really want to get someone the right gift, then ask them what they want; but don’t hesitate to be extra thoughtful once in a while, even if that means you don’t end up with the perfect gift, because gift giving can also be about feeling closer to the person you’re giving too. What’s the right balance? Go with your gut – it’s more of an art than a science.