When It Comes to Gift-Giving, the Thought Doesn't Matter After All

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If you’re feeling pressure to buy the perfect Christmas or Hanukkah present, experts have some advice for you: Don't try so hard. According to The New York Times, social science researchers say that most people are satisfied with receiving a generic, boring, or even regifted gift instead of one that’s surprising, novel, thoughtful, or unique. To put it bluntly, as researchers concluded in a 2012 study, "If you want to give a gift that someone will appreciate, then you should focus on getting a good gift and ignore whether it is a thoughtful gift or not" [PDF].

Next time you hit the mall, follow a few guidelines to save time and effort. One major rule of thumb is to buy loved ones a practical object—not a novelty object intended to astonish or delight, the Times advises. In a recent study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, business professors from Indiana University and Carnegie Mellon University found that gift givers often focus on how someone will react when they open their present, and not on whether the gift is actually something they will keep and use.

"We exchange gifts with people we care about, in part, in an effort to make them happy and strengthen our relationships with them," Jeff Galak, a study co-author and associate professor of marketing at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a press statement. "By considering how valuable gifts might be over the course of the recipient's ownership of them, rather than how much of a smile it might put on recipients' faces when they are opened, we can meet these goals and provide useful, well-received gifts."

To avoid feeling like you're giving a boring gift, study co-author Elanor Williams recommends pairing a practical gift with a fun accessory, like a blender and margarita mix, for instance.

Studies also show it's best to just give the people what they want. Researchers from Stanford and Harvard business schools published research in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that revealed that—gasp!—most people prefer getting something they’ve asked for.

If your loved ones don't provide you with a wish list, there's no shame in giving a gift card—just choose one that gives them flexibility in how they use it. A study published in The Journal for Consumer Research found that people are less likely to redeem a gift card if it’s to a specific institution. “For example, a giver might personalize a gift card for a friend who loves sports by getting him a gift card for his favorite sporting goods store or a local sports venue,” the study’s lead researcher, psychologist Mary Steffel, said in a press statement. "However, the sports lover might prefer a more general card, like a Visa- or Mastercard-backed gift card, as it would allow him to purchase sporting equipment, tickets to a sporting event, or anything else that he might want or need.”

Another tip: Don’t feel like you need to give everyone in your life a personalized gift—especially when the recipients don’t know each other. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that the more specific you get with your presents in order to avoid giving the same gift to multiple people, the more likely you are to choose one that someone doesn’t like—so if you’ve found an object that will win over everyone on your holiday list, stick with it. For example, if several of your friends like sports, go ahead and give them all subscriptions to a sports magazine.

There are eights days left until Hanukkah begins and nine until Christmas—happy shopping!

[h/t The New York Times]