Mind & Body

Most People Pick Gifts to Wow Rather Than to Satisfy, According to a Study

For most of us, the gifts we hoped for as children were very different than the ones we hope for as adults. The stuff on our lists would make a 6-year-old die of boredom: a warm sweater, new underwear, maybe some dishes or a new book. But despite knowing how humdrum the average grownup wish list is, most of us search for something different and exciting to give our friends, parents, and siblings in hopes of wowing them when they open their presents. If you've ever gotten a flashy gift when you really just wanted socks, you'll be familiar with this phenomenon. Why do we do this? According to a study published in Psychological Science, it's because we get more pleasure out of the surprise and delight we see on their faces than we do from the satisfaction our gifts give them in the long run.

It's Not You, It's Me

When it comes to giving gifts, we imagine what it'll be like to watch someone tear open a package and smile brightly. It sounds obvious, but we — and most scientific studies of gift-giving — assume that a person's emotional display matches up with how they feel on the inside, and we use those emotional displays to make choices on their behalf. If someone's brow furrows, we assume they're disappointed, and we want to avoid that result. If someone smiles, laughs, or cries tears of joy, we assume they're overcome with happiness and gratitude for the amazing gift we've given them.

The thing is that facial expressions don't tell you much about someone's appreciation of a gift. Research suggests that emotional reactions often occur without much cognitive processing — that is, the first thing someone does when they open a gift doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what they think about it five minutes later. Those two reactions can differ a lot: A novelty T-shirt, for instance, might make someone laugh out loud when they open it and then donate it when they realize they'd be embarrassed to wear it anywhere.

This discrepancy led researchers Adelle Yang and Oleg Urminsky to propose the "smile-seeking hypothesis": the idea that gift-givers value those enthusiastic emotional displays over the less dramatic evidence of overall satisfaction. We don't give gifts for long-term pleasure, but rather for a quick burst of performative enthusiasm.

To test the hypothesis, researchers asked 357 participants to take part in an online simulation that had them imagine either that they were giving gifts to a couple or that they were part of the couple receiving a gift. Then they looked at pictures and descriptions of two pairs of mugs. They were similarly priced, but one set of mugs was personalized with the couple's names and wedding date and the other pair was ergonomically designed so the mugs were pleasant to hold. The participants rated each option, noted which set of mugs they preferred, and predicted the emotional response and satisfaction someone would get from each set.

Both givers and receivers thought the personalized mugs would elicit stronger reactions. And while receivers showed no preference between the ergonomic and personalized mugs, givers chose the personalized ones. In later studies, the researchers continued to find that givers chose gifts that would elicit a strong emotional reaction over those that would deliver more long-term benefits: roses in bloom over roses about to bloom, for example, or a bouquet of flowers over a potted plant.

But when the givers learned that they wouldn't be able to see the recipient's reaction? Their preference for gifts with a "wow" factor disappeared. That suggests that gifting is not as much about the receiver as it is about the giver.

Stubborn Gifters

"Our findings suggest that the pleasure that we can derive from others' display of emotions is more powerful than previously considered," Yang said in a press release.

When Yang and Urminsky asked people to think about gifts they themselves had actually enjoyed receiving, they found that books and money were popular items. But because those gifts aren't very fun to give, people often shy away from them. In an online study, the researchers found that gift-givers aren't swayed by how much a person will enjoy their gift in the long term.

It seems like this should be a pretty easy tendency to fix, but the researchers say our giving preferences are actually quite stubborn. Even if we try to imagine ourselves as receivers of gifts, we choose flashy, unhelpful things when it comes time to buy. And let's not even get started with the consequences this research could have when we make medical, financial, health, or career decisions for others.

But when it comes to gift-giving, there's only so much you can do — you only have control over yourself, after all. Even if you can't bring yourself to buy the serious nonfiction book over the adorable elf slippers, you can remember how important your emotional reactions are to those who give gifts to you. So slap on a smile and get ready to shout with joy over every gift you get — whether it's a flashy new toy or a sensible pair of socks.

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Written by Kelsey Donk December 16, 2019

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