A Scientific Guide to Giving Gifts

Gift giving can be perilous! So, how do you give gifts the right way? There is some science to this, Sumathi Reddy writes in The Wall Street Journal.

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It's that time of year, again. That time in which we all run around stressing out about putting down our credit cards or hard-earned cash money for those absolutely perfect things that our friends and lovers and family members will, we hope against hope, finally appreciate. The time that we overdo it, spending too much money (every year our mothers warn us against this!), or that time that we underdo it, only to pass along our sad little gift at the Secret Santa party for it to be scoffed at or ignored in favor of something legitimately good.

Gift giving can be perilous! Not everyone likes everything, and some people are very vocal about expressing their dislikes. Relationships, especially new ones, are especially fraught with gift-giving difficulties because you haven't reached a point of mutual directness in terms of what you dislike about each other (i.e., the jewelry he buys, her taste in ties). There is so much room to do it wrong, though, even if you've known someone for years. So, how do you give gifts the right way? There is some science to this, Sumathi Reddy writes in The Wall Street Journal, and it may help you be a more successful giver of gifts. We've broken down the most pertinent points.

Regift Without Guilt! 
According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, the original gift giver is less likely to be offended by your thankless regifting than you might think. So, if you have a bunch of gifts you hate but have been hanging onto for fear that the givers will fall into a haze of fury finding you've gotten rid of their presents to you, go ahead and get rid of those items! The original gift giver might not be angry. Or maybe she will be ... but less than you'd think, apparently. "The reason people weren't overly bothered when their gifts were later regifted was because they generally believed the recipient was free to decide what to do with an item," writes Reddy. You can also just regift and then lie if caught. And, you're in good company: During the holiday season, "79 percent of respondents [to an American Express consumer-spending survey] said they believe regifting is socially acceptable."

The Thought Doesn't Count!
It's actually the gift that counts, and not the thought behind it, according to the research. "The benefit of a thoughtful gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person," a recent study found. Doesn't this just turn the tables nicely? Those people adamant about giving their thoughtful, thoughtful gifts are the selfish jerks, while the rest of us materialists are gift-giving the right way. "In fact, thoughtfulness only seemed to count when a friend gives a gift that is disliked," explains Reddy. The thought and the gift both being bad seems the key scenario to avoid here.

Money Does Not Buy Happiness!
Just because you spend a lot of money doesn't mean people are going to like a gift more, or like it at all. So, don't bother spending a lot of money. Unless someone explicitly asks you to do so, we suppose. And: "the gifts in the study were engagement rings." Another trope down!

Give What People Actually Ask for!
One might think there'd be no need for science to prove this, but it has, and so we thank them: "People are more appreciative when they receive a gift they have explicitly requested, according to a similar study published last year in a separate publication called the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology." What do you know? If someone back in 1990 asked you for a name-brand Walkman, you should have given them the name-brand Walkman and not the cheap one that broke immediately, apparently. Darn it.

In summary: Give what people want, don't rely on your own "thoughts" to make a gift better because suddenly you've just made the gift all about you, don't spend too much money just to spend way too much money, and feel free to regift. The season just got so much easier. Send your thank you notes to science.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.