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How to Be a Tiny Bit Better at Buying Gifts

Photo: Kristin Duvall/Getty Images

After searching high and low for a thoughtful gift for a friend one year, I finally found it: a cat ring. Meaning, a silver ring with cat ears attached to it, perfect for the feline-loving friend in your life.

“How cute!” she exclaimed upon opening the gift. But then she never wore it, and I realized that, while adorable, it wasn’t a very practical gift. Sure, she had cats, but that didn’t mean she wanted to wear one around her finger. Come to think of it, she didn’t even wear rings! I felt better giving this gift than my friend did receiving it, and an analysis published in Current Directions in Psychological Science sums up why this happens: “Givers often try to ensure that their gifts meet certain criteria that will make them seem like ‘good gifts.’” The trouble is, “these criteria may not be valued by recipients.”

It seems like a harmless enough disconnect, but giving the wrong gift isn’t just wasteful; it can be alienating. “At best, a poorly chosen gift will irritate the recipient, and at worst, it may drive the giver and recipient apart,” the paper’s researchers write, somewhat ominously. This rift could happen because often, the recipient feels that the poorly chosen gift is evidence that the giver doesn’t truly understand them. (I’m reminded of the Blossom-inspired hat my parents gave me for my 29th birthday, insisting that it was “so” me.) It’s hard to balk at a gift without coming across as a selfish jerk, so most recipients simply accept it and hide their feelings. All the while, you are clueless about how terrible you are at giving gifts.

So where do we go wrong? This paper says there are a few common criteria we all follow when it comes to giving gifts, and there are big discrepancies between how we perceive these rules as a gift giver versus a gift recipient.

For example, one of the first rules of gift giving is that the gift should be desirable and enjoyable. This sounds simple enough, but in practice it’s not that easy. When you’re giving, “enjoyable” means the gift should dazzle when it’s opened. When you’re receiving, “enjoyable” simply means a gift that provides value. As a giver, you’re focused on the uniqueness of the gift — but all the recipient usually wants is something they can actually use. They might indeed be surprised and tickled upon seeing the gift (I mean, a cat ring? Come on. Cuuuute.) but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good gift. Think beyond the moment they unwrap the thing.

By design, a gift is also an act of generosity. To the giver, generosity typically translates to a super thoughtful or maybe expensive present. But it’s easy to overthink — and overpay. To the recipient, value doesn’t always translate to thought or price. “Thoughtfulness and price are not necessarily predictive of how much a recipient will use or enjoy a gift after it is opened, and thus will not be valued by the recipient,” as the paper’s researchers phrase it. Still, givers are usually dead set on impressing the recipient, and to do this, we often buy something that’s really expensive. Cost doesn’t matter as much as we assume it will.

And then there’s the surprise factor, which, again, is way more important to the giver than it is to the recipient. You know that thing your sister said she really wanted for Christmas? But you’re not going to get it for her because that’s too easy, so you get her something you think she wants instead? Bad move. Recipients “favor gifts they explicitly request, because such gifts are certain to match their preferences,” the analysis explains.

If you want to be better at giving gifts, the act of giving has to be about them, not you. It might help to think about your own preferences as a gift receiver. Instead of trying to be as impressive, exciting, or thoughtful as possible, keep it simple and ask one question: How likely is this gift to collect dust?

How to Be a Tiny Bit Better at Buying Gifts