In Pursuit of the Perfect Gift? It’s a Lot Closer Than You Think

In Pursuit of the Perfect Gift? It’s a Lot Closer Than You Think

Traditionalists and etiquette mavens are complaining, but the rest of us can thank social scientists this season. They have come up with experimental evidence to support three revolutionary rules for people who hate shopping for holiday gifts:

1. You don’t have to spend any time looking for “thoughtful” gifts.

2. You don’t have to spend much money, either.

3. Actually, you may not have to spend any money.

Yes, I know this sounds too good to be true. I was skeptical, too, if only because it contradicts a previous holiday column of mine. After looking at anthropological research into the potlatch, and talking with a Kwakwaka’wakw Indian chief who carries on this gift-giving ritual in British Columbia, I concluded that lavish presents are essential to social harmony.

But now this idea has been tested not only in the lab but also at Amazon.com, and it looks as if the zealous shoppers have been kidding themselves. Spending extra time and money for the perfect gift may make them feel better, but it’s not doing much for the objects of their efforts, according to one of the experimenters, Francis J. Flynn, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University.

“Our research shows that while gift-givers think they’re being more thoughtful by picking out expensive gifts, the recipients don’t appreciate the hefty price tag,” Dr. Flynn said. His experiments have shown that the price of a gift matters more to the giver than to the recipient, and that people like a surprise gift less than cash or something they picked themselves through a gift registry like Amazon’s wish list.

These results have distressed Miss Manners and other defenders of civilization against the barbarism of the gift registry. Dr. Flynn sympathizes with the critics. He can understand why people think it’s rude to ask for any kind of gift.

“Miss Manners says this ruins the experience for the giver, and I don’t disagree,” he said. “Personally, I like the process of picking out a gift for someone.” But he has also come to realize how clueless givers can be.

In one study, when people were asked to recall a birthday gift they’d given, there was a predictable correlation between price and expectation: the more someone spent on a gift, the more appreciation was expected for it. But when people were asked to recall a birthday gift they’d received, price didn’t matter. The recipients of expensive jewelry and gadgets were not significantly more grateful than those who had gotten T-shirts and books.

This effect was also demonstrated when experimenters asked people to imagine giving or getting a graduation gift. The people who gave an iPod had higher expectations than those who gave a mere CD, but the recipients were equally grateful for either one.


Credit Viktor Koen

Why would price matter more to givers than receivers? Dr. Flynn and his Stanford colleague, Gabrielle Adams, attribute it to the “egocentric bias” of givers who focus on their own experience in shopping. When they economize by giving a book, they compare it with the bracelet that they passed up.

But the recipients have a different frame of reference. They don’t know anything about the bracelet, so they’re not using it for comparison. The salient alternative in their minds may be the possibility of no gift at all, in which case the book looks wonderfully thoughtful.

Similarly, the recipient usually doesn’t know how much time and effort you put into finding just the right thing, so it doesn’t necessarily strike them as particularly thoughtful. Instead, your idea of the right thing may strike them as just wrong, especially if their frame of reference includes the alternative that you ignored — something on their wish list.

“With a gift registry,” Dr. Flynn said, “they’re telling you what they want, and you’re saying, ‘No, you want something else, because I know more about you than you know about yourself.’ ” The result is not joyous gratitude, as Dr. Flynn found in a series of studies with Francesca Gino of Harvard.

When married couples were asked about the wedding gifts they’d received, they reported liking the ones from the registry more than the unsolicited ones. When people were given money to buy presents for one another on Amazon, the gifts chosen from the recipient’s wish list were more appreciated than the surprises. Cash was better still — recipients liked gifts of money even more than something of equivalent value from their wish list.

Of course, just because recipients prefer these things doesn’t mean they should get them. The giver’s feelings count, too. This is a complicated social transaction, whether you’re giving away a camera on Christmas morning or handing out blankets to 500 Kwakwaka’wakw Indians at a potlatch, as Chief Bill Cranmer did at his home in Alert Bay, a village northwest of Vancouver.

When I asked him why he did it — and why a chief’s family typically gives away at least $30,000 worth of goods at a potlatch — Chief Cranmer cited the importance of redistributing wealth, but he also said that a potlatch was not just for the benefit of the recipients. By being generous, a chief and his family could gain status and strengthen alliances while enjoying that other great intangible reward: “We do it because we feel good.”

Those are the same reasons to give holiday presents, and if you don’t feel good unless you find something special and extravagant, then go right on shopping. But if you would just as soon skip that experience, you can now do so without feeling guilty. You’re not being lazy or selfish — quite the contrary, according to the new research. You have given careful (and scientific) consideration to the recipient’s feelings. You are the thoughtful one.

And if you really want to save time and money, you might borrow another custom from the potlatch: re-gifting. Chief Cranmer had a basement full of presents from other families’ potlatches that he was planning to re-gift, and he assured me that the recipients would not mind at all. At the time, this sounded odd — wasn’t some expenditure of money required to show you cared? — but now I see that I was looking at it through the giver’s frame of reference.

Could the recipient really not care if you paid anything for the gift? That possibility is now being investigated by Dr. Flynn. “People assume it would be incredibly offensive for them to re-gift,” he explains, “but this may be another case where givers don’t understand how recipients would feel.” It’s still too early to give a definitive verdict, Dr. Flynn says, but he does offer a joyous hint for the holidays: So far the research shows no reason to doubt Chief Cranmer.


Gifts With Meaning

Gifts With Meaning

A HeroRat can clear 20 times as much minefield as a human can. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times..

IT’S time for my annual holiday gift guide, the chance to recommend presents more meaningful than a tie or sweater.

For $20, through Heifer International (heifer.org), you can buy a flock of ducks and help a family work its way to a better life. Or $74 through CARE (care.org) pays for a schoolgirl’s books and supplies so she can attend school for a year — and girls’ education may be the highest-return investment available in the world today.

Here are some other ideas:

■ We’re seeing painful upheavals about race on university campuses these days, but the civil rights issue in America today is our pre-K through 12th grade education system, which routinely sends the neediest kids to the worst schools. To address these roots of inequality, a group called Communities in Schools (communitiesinschools.org) supports disadvantaged kids, mostly black and Latino, in elementary, middle and high schools around the country.

■ The world today has more refugees and migrants than at any time since the World War II era, and winter will be a particularly brutal time for them. The International Rescue Committee (rescue.org) has long been the champion of refugees everywhere, and on its website $25 will buy a solar lamp so refugees can see at night. Or $84 buys 15 warm blankets to fight the cold.

■ Trickle Up (trickleup.org) lifts people out of extreme poverty through the “graduation program” (so called because people graduate from poverty). The program typically consists of a gift of a cow or other animal, training, a savings account and other support, and as I wrote earlier this year, it seems to work by giving people hope.

The graduation program’s effectiveness has been proved in rigorous international trials. In India, each dollar invested in a version of this program generated economic returns of 433 percent. When a Yale seminar on economic development was given foundation money and entrusted with studying how to allocate the money so that it would do the most good, it ended up donating the sum to Trickle Up.

■ In Angola, I visited “HeroRats” that have been trained to sniff out land mines (and, in some countries, diagnose tuberculosis). In a day, they can clear 20 times as much of a minefield as a human, and they work for bananas! My kids adopted a rat in my name five years ago for Father’s Day, and he’s still clearing minefields. You can adopt a rat for $7 a month through Apopo.org.

■ I wrote this month about Dr. Sanduk Ruit and Dr. Geoffrey Tabin fighting blindness in Asia and Africa (CureBlindness.org), at a cost of just $25 per cataract surgery on an eye. There’s nothing more joyous than to see someone who has been blind for years have the surgery and, the very next day when the bandages are removed, being able to see again. Now, that’s a gift!

■ In June I wrote about Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary physician in the rebel-held Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The government of Sudan regularly bombs the area and has even bombed his hospital; the hospital grounds have foxholes to shelter in when bombers appear overhead.


Dr. Tom Catena with a young boy who broke his leg climbing a mango tree. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times.

Dr. Tom, as he is known, battles leprosy, delivers babies and amputates arms of kids hit by shrapnel. He pulls maggots out of burn wounds and struggles to get United Nations agencies to supply vaccines. He’s also among the worst-paid doctors in the world: Working seven days week, he gets $350 a month. And as it happens, donations to Dr. Tom’s hospital through amhf.us are now matched by a New York couple, Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson.

And that in itself is beautifully heartwarming this holiday season: A rabbi matches gifts by atheists or Muslims to support the work of a Catholic missionary doctor.

I’m also announcing my win-a-trip contest for 2016, seeking a university student to travel with me on an expense-paid reporting trip to the developing world. The winner (this year it was Austin Meyer of Stanford University) will write posts for my blog on The New York Times’s website. This will be the 10th anniversary win-a-trip journey, and one former winner, Mitch Smith, is now a Times reporter. Another, Dr. Leana Wen, is health commissioner of Baltimore.

Information about how to apply is on my blog. The Center for Global Development in Washington will pick finalists. If you know good candidates for the trip, please encourage them to apply. I’m looking for a smart undergraduate or graduate student with great storytelling skills who wants to help shine a light on neglected issues and doesn’t mind bedbugs or warlords.