There’s a reason you give gifts that your family and friends only somewhat like—research suggests that regardless of what their recipients would enjoy for the long run, people pick gifts that reward them with a smile or emotional reaction.

A person might get more long-term satisfaction from a houseplant than a bouquet, but smile larger or exclaim louder when presented with fresh-cut flowers, according to National University of Singapore’s Adelle X. Yang and Chicago Booth’s Oleg Urminsky. But that positive reaction “provides immediate and automatically evaluable gratification, which can be more motivating than eventually learning that the receiver is satisfied with the gift,” they write.

In search of smiles
Asked to imagine a hypothetical wedding shower, would-be gift givers preferred a gift with greater affective reaction (personalized mugs), but would-be gift receivers did not.

To test what they call the smile-seeking hypothesis, the researchers asked a random group of participants to imagine they were giving or receiving two similarly priced pairs of mugs—either personalized wedding mugs adorned with silver inscriptions of a couple’s names, or ergonomic mugs that were comfortable to hold. When asked to imagine giving the mugs, participants preferred the personalized mugs. But when participants imagined receiving mugs, they wanted the ergonomic option.

In another experiment, when researchers told participants who imagined giving a gift that they wouldn’t be able to see the recipient’s reaction, participants’ gift selections became less smile seeking and more practical.

And gift givers don’t let long-term thinking get in the way of their short-term happiness. A month after Christmas, Yang and Urminsky asked another group of participants how satisfied they thought their friends and family were with the gifts the participants had given them. People predicted that the recipients weren’t as happy with their gifts as they might have been upon first receiving them—but the givers weren’t bothered by that.

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