The one thing we all get wrong when choosing Christmas presents

8th December, 2022

“Christmas is coming”, laments Ellen Stuart, “and I have got to think up presents for everybody . . . Dear me, it’s so tedious!” Her aunt sympathises and recalls her youth, a time before gift-giving became excessive. “Presents did not fly about in those days as they do now.”

These familiar sentiments are older than we might guess. Ellen is a character in Christmas; or, The Good Fairy, a short story written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1850.

In The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum argues that Beecher Stowe, born in 1811, was correct in her childhood recollections. The custom of giving gifts at Christmas took off in the US in the 1820s. By the 1830s, newspaper letters pages contained complaints about commercialisation, and Macy’s in New York was open until midnight on Christmas Eve as early as 1867.

Gift-giving became popular when Christmas evolved into a primarily domestic holiday. Before then, it was a riotous public bacchanal, more like Halloween. Of course, at Christmas the trick-or-treaters weren’t children in fancy dress but gangs of inebriated young men demanding beer, mouldy cheese and money. No wonder Clement Clarke Moore, writing in the early 1820s, was keen to rebrand Christmas Eve as a time for hushed domesticity when “all through the house, not a creature was stirring”.

After two centuries of Christmas commercialisation it seems pointless to resist. But we could at least aspire to become better gift-givers. Social psychologists have been investigating this challenge in recent years. Francis Flynn and Francesca Gino found that picking a gift from a wishlist may seem joyless and unimaginative from the perspective of the giver, but recipients see such gifts as thoughtful. A giver who consults the wishlist is a giver who takes the trouble to pick something you actually wanted after all.

Jessica Rixom, Erick Mas and Brett Rixom found, surprisingly, that a sloppily wrapped present from a friend may be more appreciated than something more Instagrammable. The reason seems to be that scruffiness lowers expectations. If the gift appears to have put up a fight while being wrapped, the contents are more likely to be a pleasant surprise.

And in a study that will surprise nobody, four (male) researchers advise men not to give conspicuously luxurious gifts to women too early in a relationship; it seems that women do not always appreciate men’s efforts to make them feel a sense of obligation.

But the study that most caught my eye this year comes courtesy of Jeff Galak, Elanor Williams and the aptly named Julian Givi. Givi and colleagues argue that there is a single, simple mismatch underlying many of our mistakes. Gift-givers tend to focus too much on the moment that the gift is unwrapped, while for recipients that moment is merely the start of the gift’s story.

This mismatch does explain many of the things that go wrong when presents are opened. The most obvious type of bad gift is the “novelty” — a golfing tchotchke for someone known to like golf, perhaps, or a T-shirt with a logo too bawdy to wear in public. These gifts are all sizzle and no steak. They elicit an immediate laugh or howl of recognition, but thereafter simply raise the question of whether the local rubbish tip opens before New Year.

But there are more subtle errors too. For example, many people enjoy experiences such as a night out at a concert, but a concert ticket is probably just a piece of paper with a QR code on it, and there is nothing fun about unwrapping that. So gift-givers tend to lean towards something physical instead.

Another bias is to favour a complete gift over something partial. Let’s say the recipient wants a food processor and the gift-giver can’t afford a good one. Most gift-givers prefer to give a cheap model that fits the budget, while many recipients would rather have a contribution towards the cost of higher quality gear.

Gift-givers rarely think about practicality — for example, when will the recipient actually get a chance to use this? Even a gift card can be practical or impractical, depending on circumstances. (I know people who’ve received gift cards that are valid only in stores a few hours away.) In 2007 the economist Jennifer Pate Offenburg studied the resale value of gift cards on eBay. Cards from Home Depot, OfficeMax and Starbucks did well. Those from Tiffany & Co and Victoria’s Secret sold at a substantial discount. Tiffany’s might seem more special, but the Starbucks card is the one that people will find easy to use.

Above all, surprise is overrated. In the rare instances where a surprising present is well-chosen, the surprise is a fleeting delight that benefits the giver as much as the recipient. When the surprising present is a flop, the recipient is then stuck with it.

Beecher Stowe’s Christmas story concludes with one character noting, “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of the year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.” It’s been that way for 200 years. But thanks to social science, we can do better.

Focus on what the recipient will actually do with the gift, rather than aiming for effect at the moment of unwrapping. Romance, surprise and delight are nice, but don’t be ashamed to be practical. And if you’re not sure what gift might be appreciated, ask.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 December 2021.

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