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Using Behavioral Science To Pick The Perfect Holiday Gift

December 11, 2012

When you choose a gift for someone you care about, you probably put a lot of thought into it. No-one wants to buy dad another silk tie that he’ll never wear, plus you probably think that he’ll appreciate the time and energy you spend picking out the perfect gift for him. After all, everyone knows that it’s the thought that counts, right?

Maybe not. As the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted, new research by Nicholas Epley, John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science, with Yan Zhang, a Booth alumnus who’s now an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, suggests that the thought that goes into gift-giving may not count as much as people think.

In four studies published last month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Epley and Zhang found that people who received good gifts were grateful but paid little attention to how much thought had gone into choosing them. As a gift-giver you’re aware of all the thought you invested in making the perfect choice, but, Epley and Zhang explain, “mental states are, after all, inherently invisible, making them relatively easy to overlook.” For the thoughtfulness of a gift to be appreciated, Epley and Zhang proposed, you have to prompt the recipient to consider the thought behind it.

In one study, conducted at the Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago’s South Side, the researchers approached museum visitors and asked each person to describe either a gift that he or she had given or had received. The researchers asked gift givers how much thought they had put into buying the gifts and how much they believed those gifts had been appreciated; similarly, the researchers asked gift receivers how much they appreciated the gifts they described and how much thought they believed had gone into buying those. The underlying question was this: would people say they liked gifts more if they believed more thought had been put into selecting them?

When people recalled gifts they had given, their answers were unequivocal: the more thought people put into selecting gifts, the more they believed those gifts would be appreciated. But this was not the case for people who recalled gifts they had received. To the recipients, the givers’ thoughtfulness was invisible.

When the researchers asked visitors how much they appreciated gifts they’d received, and then asked about the thought that had gone into buying those, it was apparent that the thoughtfulness behind gifts did not necessarily increase the recipients’ appreciation. Although many people liked their gifts, that was unrelated to the givers’ thoughtfulness.

That said, when the researchers first asked about the thought that had gone into purchases, and then asked how much that thought was appreciated, visitors’ answers suggested that the thoughtfulness mattered. In other words, the more thoughtful visitors believed their gifts to be, the more they liked them, but only when they had first been prompted to consider the gifts’ thoughtfulness.

Of course, asking people to consider your thoughtfulness can be awkward — so is there anything else that triggers people to consider that? One thing that works is to make the thoughtfulness transparent and obvious. When your grandmother knits a sweater, it’s hard to miss how much care and thought goes into it. The other thing that gets people to consider thoughtfulness is an unexpectedly bad gift. Generally speaking, you expect people you care about to give reasonably good gifts, so if your best friend hands over a terrible one, you’re more likely to wonder what he or she may have been thinking.

This was true of visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry. In another experiment, contrary to the expectations of gift givers, recipients generally failed to appreciate the thoughtfulness behind “good” gifts, but recipients who got “bad” gifts at least appreciated thoughtful gifts more than unthoughtful ones. This was only true when a bad gift was from a friend, however. Epley and Zhang found that a bad gift from a stranger did not trigger a recipient to appreciate the gift’s thoughtfulness.

So what does this research tell us about gift giving? First, it suggests we should probably lower our expectations about how much our thoughtfulness will be appreciated. That does not mean that we should be any less thoughtful, because being thoughtful is still a good way to hedge your bets. If dad doesn’t like the silk tie you end up buying him, you’ll at least get credit for the thought you put into picking one in his favorite color.

Also, your thoughtfulness, even if unappreciated, could help you avoid buying a terrible gift. You don’t want to be the jerk who buys an 18-year-old Scotch whisky for someone who’s a recovering alcoholic.

And further research from Epley shows that being thoughtful has benefits for the giver, who feels closer to the person receiving the fruits of the giver’s efforts. So there’s nothing wrong with occasionally spending hours trying to find just the right gift, it’s just worth recognizing that you’re really doing it for yourself.

And if a good gift is what you’re after, the research also serves as a reminder. “Our findings suggest that gift givers should give priority to choosing gifts that receivers actually like rather than gifts that reveal thoughtfulness,” wrote Epley and Zhang. Recent research by Harvard’s Francesca Gino and Stanford’s Frank Flynn shows that gifts selected from a registry are better-liked and considered more thoughtful than ones that didn’t appear on the registry.

So be thoughtful about your thoughtfulness. Racking your brain trying to surprise that special someone with the perfect gift is what makes gift giving great fun, but it’s not the secret to giving the perfect gift. If you really want to give a gift that counts, find out what someone really wants.—Dave Nussbaum

Dave Nussbaum is an adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth. His social psychology blog, Random Assignment, can be found at