This Is the Best Way to Pick Out Gifts

Maybe you've refused to confront it until after Thanksgiving; maybe you've been excited since July. For better or for worse, it's well and truly winter gift-giving season now. If Christmas, Hanukkah, and birthdays in general give you sweaty palms about choosing the right presents, behavioral economics is here to help.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University put together a series of studies unlocking the psychology behind shopping for gifts. One of the most interesting findings was that gifters and giftees have very different goals. That may seem obvious, but it guides a great deal of how each party determines success. The person shopping for a gift is mostly concerned with the big reveal, how their present will go over the moment it's opened. But recipients are much more concerned with the long-term value of a present, whether it's practical or sentimental.

Some other points to consider while you're shopping:

  • It's okay to give people what they ask for. If you're really struggling to surprise someone but you're also worried about picking the right thing, listen to your friends and loved ones. Giving them something they've expressed an interest in shows that you've been paying careful attention to them.
  • Separate your shopping experience from your recipient's unwrapping experience. When you buy a gift while you're having a great time (a cruise, a trip to a new city, etc.), you can fall prey to attribution bias — letting your emotions at that moment color your judgment of an item. That monster made of seashells might look, feel, and go over differently away from that sunny beach.
  • Feel good about giving practical gifts. According to researcher Jeff Galak, "[T]here may be times when the vacuum cleaner, a gift that is unlikely to wow most recipients when they open it on Christmas day, really ought to be at the top of the shopping list, as it will be well used and liked for a long time."

Whether you know someone really well or are just trying not to ruin a colleague's White Elephant, you can choose something everyone can feel good about. Just remember who the gift is really for, and go from there.