Santa Science

Five science-backed findings to give essential holiday gifts

Stop thinking like a giver and start thinking like a receiver.

Originally Published: 
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During the holidays we're both givers and receivers

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When we're in giver mode, we tend to forget what truly makes a good gift, explains Mary Steffel, an associate professor of Marketing at Northeastern University.

being in the role of a giver versus in the role of a recipient has a powerful influence on our perception—it leads us to focus on different things.

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Researchers like Steffel have identified some of the common traps we fall into as gift givers.

Here's what to look our for while you're shopping this year...


Ask yourself what someone would like, not what they are like.

*Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the findings of two studies.


In one study, Steffel found that givers tend to focus on someone’s traits, which can lead them to choose more specific, personalized gifts. These are less versatile compared what recipients actually want.

In one experiment, givers chose whether they would give a friend a Visa gift card or a gift card to their friend’s favorite store. The receivers were more likely to want the Visa gift card than the givers were to select that as their gift of choice.

In another experiment, givers rated themselves more likely to choose the preferred Visa gift card if they first thought about what their recipients would like.

But there were more likely to choose the store gift card when they thought about what the receivers were like.

That trait-based thinking can lead you astray.


Don't worry about giving multiple people the same thing

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In a 2014 study, Steffel and colleagues conducted six experiments on gift-card giving. In one, they asked college students to give a $25 gift card to one or two friends: one friend at the same university, or that friend at the same school and another from another university.

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For each person, they could choose between a card for their university bookstore, an Amazon gift card, or certificate to a sporting goods store. (The Amazon card was the most popular).


55 percent of people gave their friend at the same University an Amazon Gift Card when they were shopping for two friends.

43 percent gave their friend the Amazon gift card.

But when shopping for just one friend 72 percent of people gave their friend at the same school the Amazon card.

Givers ended up giving different gifts to each person, because they thought it was more thoughtful, but those gifts weren't what the receivers really wanted. (College students preferred the Amazon card.)

That was the case even the recipients weren't going to compare gifts with one another.

Receivers gravitate toward gifts that satisfy their own wants.

Givers focus on traits that describe the recipient when choosing a present, but that thinking comes at the expense of utility.

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Don't get too caught up in the "wow" factor.


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A 2018 paper describes six different studies showing that givers focus on gifts that will elicit the biggest reactions instead of gifts that satisfy people.

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Ten days before Christmas, the scientists recruited 138 Amazon employees who planned to give 333 gifts in total.

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A month later, researchers contacted the workers again and asked about giver satisfaction, receiver satisfaction, and the reaction when the gift was given.

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The receiver's initial reaction to the gift significantly affected the giver's happiness. The receiver's long-term satisfaction with the gift didn't contribute to the giver's happiness.

But the receivers were more satisfied.

These results suggest that givers derive enjoyment from a big receiver reaction in the moment.

But they also know receivers were less satisfied with the gift later.


Don't undervalue practicality.


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In a series of eight studies, scientists found that givers value fancy gifts, but receivers value practical ones.

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In one study, the team recruited 189 pairs of friends at malls, food courts, and beaches. One person was allowed to give the other one of two pens.

One was a "state of the art" fancy pen but was heavy and cumbersome. The other was a "practical" pen with a long ink life.

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The givers tended to prefer the fancy pen.

But the receivers preferred the practical one. They also said receiving the practical pen made them happier, and signaled that the giver cared more about them.


Don't ignore the power of a gift card.


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Even generic gift cards, like Amazon cards, are not thoughtless. Rather, they just happen to bring less joy to the giver. They still bring plenty of joy to the receiver.


"What feels thoughtful to me as the giver isn’t necessarily what seems thoughtful to the person receiving my gift."

-Steffel tells Inverse.

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A 2014 paper describes four experiments showing how people actually use gift cards. 100 Amazon employees were asked to use cash or a gift card to pay for a practical book on taxes or a new novel by their favorite author.

Most participants used cash to buy the tax book and the gift card to buy the novel.

The authors suggest that people use gift cards to treat themselves.

You could see a gift card as providing someone with that luxury.

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But if you still want to get the thrill of personalizing a gift, Steffel offers some final advice:

Personalize the card.

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"I can always satisfy my desire to personalize the gift in another way, such as including a thoughtful message or gift suggestion..."

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...or by pairing the gift card with a more sentimental item that connects to special memories that the recipient and I share."

Read more about the science of holiday spirit here.

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