The perfect gift is cheap and easy

If you're panicked because you still haven't thought of the perfect gift for the people on your Nice List, you'll be relieved to know you don't need to spend as much time as you might think looking for something thoughtful. You also don't need to run up your credit card bill.

Why? Because neither of these things is likely to be appreciated by the gift getter.

In fact, a 2008 study from Stanford University researchers found that spending a lot of time and money to select a gift doesn't make a bit of difference to the recipient. According to Francis J. Flynn, an organizational psychologist at Stanford, the price of a gift is more important to the giver than the getter. (Plus, most recipients actually prefer cash or something from a gift registry, such as their Amazon wish list.)

The perfect gift

Price Matters More to the Giver

Flynn says that people recall the most expensive gifts they've given, but price didn't play much of a role when it came to recalling gifts received. The givers of expensive gifts also expected more appreciation.

In one experiment, for instance, people were asked to imagine giving or getting a graduation gift. Those who gave an iPod had higher expectations than those who gave a single compact disc. [This study is from 2008, remember.] The recipients were equally grateful for either gift.

Dr. Flynn and his colleague, Gabrielle Adams, believe this is because the givers are more focused on their shopping experience, the “egocentric bias” of picking something more expensive over less expensive options or taking a long time to find the right gift.

Here's the thing: Recipients don't know how long you shopped or that that you considered less-expensive options. In certain cases, your idea of the perfect gift may actually strike them the other person as just plain wrong, especially if their frame of reference includes options that you ignored (or didn't know about), such as items from a wish list.

The Pros and Cons of Wish Lists

Wish lists are tricky. They're a point of contention for many. Some love them because they know their gift will be appreciated and used. Some find them impersonal or tacky.

Whatever your feelings, Dr. Flynn's research reveals something interesting. When a person is giving a gift, they believe that choosing something that's not on the list will be perceived as more thoughtful and considerate. However, the opposite is often true.

In one study, people were given money to buy gifts for somebody else via Amazon. The gifts chosen from a person's wish list were more appreciated than those selected independently by the giver.

My own experience bears this out. When I'm a giver, I enjoy spending time and money to select gifts thoughtfully. It makes the gift more meaningful to me. But when I'm the recipient of a gift, I prefer something from a wish list or a registry.

But just because a gift from a wish list is what the recipient wants, that doesn't mean the person giving the gift should be left out of the equation. It's an exchange between two people, after all.

Miss Manners Does Not Approve

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Judith Martin, author of the Miss Manners column, shared her thoughts about gift lists and registries:

“There is no way to make blatant greed polite. The gift registry thing is never a good idea and has gotten hideous in that people are constantly telling other people to buy them things: ‘Give me this,' the trading of shopping lists, ‘I want this,' and ‘This wasn't what I asked for and you take it back and get me something better' and ‘I prefer cash'. All of that stuff is just rude, rude, rude and it makes present exchanging meaningless, the whole custom meaningless.

Here's where I get frustrated with Miss Manners, though. I tried to follow her advice about registries when I was getting married. But with two bridal showers thrown by generous loved ones and coworkers, I broke down. I must've had 20 people ask me where I was registered, and when I said I wasn't, some got really frustrated. I gave in and registered.

As a gift-giver, I understood why they wanted a registry. It's just easier. They didn't know what I already owned or what color of tablecloth I might like in my dining room. They wanted to give me something I'd enjoy. They didn't want to waste their money on a gift I wouldn't use.

The Bottom Line

These studies (and my own experiences) have led me to believe the following about giving and receiving gifts:

  • If you want to take a lot of time and spend a chunk of change on a gift, go for it. It's your gift to give. You make the rules.
  • If you don't know what to give and you think a solicited gift, or cash, is a cop-out, rest assured that your recipient will greatly appreciate either.
  • As for registries, I agree with Miss Manners. But my own experience is that some gift-givers want wish lists and registries. That said, I'd only give out the information if I was asked for it.

What about re-gifting? What if you give something that you didn't pay for, but actually once received as a gift yourself?

In a New York Times write-up of Dr. Flynn's work, he says: “People assume it would be incredibly offensive for them to re-gift, but this may be another case where givers don't understand how recipients would feel.” Plus, if you don't tell the recipient that you've re-gifted, how will they ever know?

More about...Giving, Psychology, Relationships

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COD
COD
1 year ago

“Plus, if you don’t tell the recipient that you’ve re-gifted, how will they ever know?”

Clearly, somebody has never watched Seinfeld.

JanBo
JanBo
1 year ago

We don’t live close to my nephews and nieces. If they did not have a registry, they would not get a gift (I WANT to give them a gift). I don’t “do” money and want to give them something they can use. PLEASE, use registries with a variety of priced things on it. Miss Manners must live close with her family and all of her friends so she just “knows” what they need/want. PS- I gave away the 24k rimmed plates I was given for our wedding, 35 years ago. I knew they were tremendously expensive, but they did not… Read more »

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

Cash is the best gift, IMO. My wife gets cash from her parent every Christmas and she’s very appreciative. Our son enjoys getting cash too.
I got a few board games for us this year. Those will be a lot of fun too.

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago

I think this falls under: It depends. It depends on the relationship. It depends on the registry. And there are plenty of other considerations. My sister spends a lot of energy cultivating her wish list and those of her children. She gets mad at family that doesn’t shop from her Amazon lists. I find that rude. I want my children to have the experience of shopping for gifts for her kids and practice thinking about what other people want. But I will shop from a registry for a wedding or shower, especially if I don’t know the person well (or… Read more »

Elyse
Elyse
1 year ago

I have an Amazon wish list that I only give out if my family are asking me what I would like to Christmas and/or my birthday. I have a range of items from under $10 (that’s the established approximate amount we arranged in my family for adults for Christmas) up to $50 and I think it is really helpful for them. Sometimes they use it and sometimes they don’t. They can use it for specific ideas or get an idea for something else that they may think I’ll like based on the items on my list. My brother took it… Read more »

CalLadyQED
CalLadyQED
1 year ago
Reply to  Elyse

I keep an Amazon wish list and no one has EVER purchased me a gift that was on it. :/ One of my sisters even told me she didn’t think I really wanted any of the things because they had been on the list for so long and I hadn’t purchased them for myself.

Rebecca B
Rebecca B
1 year ago

I maintain Pinterest boards for myself and the kids just in case people ask for ideas. They have a range of prices and I update them before birthdays and Christmas. Some givers want to select and surprise. Some like lists. I agree with SG about context mattering. I have people I can think up great gifts for without a list and others where I’m guessing or uncomfortable with what they’d ask for (I also don’t do cash and reserve gift certificates for only a few recipients). I love registries for baby and weddings, but will often give cash for weddings… Read more »

Brenton
Brenton
1 year ago

I have just about given up on fighting the registry/gift list battle. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell people why I think they are bad, or why I think gift cards/cash are bad gifts. No one cares and I end up with gift cards, cash, and people harassing me asking me what I want for Christmas, even from people who KNOW I do not like any of those things.

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago

I have been thinking about this and I realized something was bothering me. That is the assumption that gift giving is about the receiver. However gift giving is as much about the gifter, and finding genuine expressions of gratitude is important, even if the gift isn’t exactly what we want. I have standards as a gift giver. Sometimes it is for the receiver’s good, like don’t give wine to an alcoholic. Sometimes it’s my own standards. But ultimately choosing a gift is an expression of something about the giver and their relationship to the receiver. If it’s an obligatory gift… Read more »

gj
gj
1 year ago

While I agree that cost isn’t a meaningful attribute, I disagree on time. As a recipient, I generally don’t care if you are inefficient at the mall with your shopping but time can be a factor. Two examples from my husband: 1) when we were broke college students, he secretly had a mutual friend teach him to knit and he knit me a scarf that I still cherish 14 years later and 2) a few years ago an item I wanted rapidly sold out and he had friends all over the country checking their local stores so he could track… Read more »

CalLadyQED
CalLadyQED
1 year ago

I think “time” has to be taken with a grain of salt. If the recipient knows that the item was personalized, created, or is difficult to find, than the time factor will be appreciated. However, yes, if you spend all day shopping and end up with a sweater from GAP, for all the recipient knows, that’s the first place you went. I recently gave a friend a journal to commemorate a special milestone in her life. I wrote a quote in the margin of every page. These quotes were meaningful to both of us and relevant to her milestone. It… Read more »

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