Gareth Cook

The perfect gift

Giving mediocre presents is human nature; instead, just ask people what they want

istockphoto/heather hopp-bruce/globe staff

THE HIGH season of gifts is now upon us, and it is time to face a few uncomfortable truths: You do not know what most of the people on your list will actually enjoy. The majority of your gifts will be something of a failure. In fact, your whole concept of what makes a gift thoughtful — of what will be appreciated — is almost certainly wrong.

There is, however, good news: You can do better, and it’s not that hard.

First, though, consider the evidence of our gifting flops. When polled, almost half of all Americans predict they will be disappointed enough to return a holiday gift, and perhaps several. An American Express survey found that roughly a third of people admitted to re-gifting - to wrapping up those scented candles from last season and sending them to Aunt Susan.


An economist once attached some numbers to our national mis-gifting. The University of Minnesota’s Joel Waldfogel asked people how much they would have been willing to pay for the gifts they received, and the value typically ranged between 10 and 33 percent below their cost. (“Gifts from members of the extended family,’’ he noted, “are least efficient.’’) Every present is a little loss.

Get This Week in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Now a scholar at Harvard Business School has subjected gift giving to careful psychological scrutiny, and suggests a simple solution: Ask people exactly what they want, and then give it to them.

In multiple experiments, Francesca Gino found that people appreciate requested gifts more. This may not be that unexpected - the recipient is getting exactly what they asked for. But it’s the feelings involved that are truly surprising: when you buy someone a gift that they have asked for, they consider the gift to be more thoughtful, more personal. You may feel it’s less thoughtful (after all, you didn’t think of it), but if it’s their feelings you care about, ask for a wish list.

The research has its roots in an Italian wedding. Gino grew up in the northern Italian city of Tione di Trento, and this is where she wanted to have the ceremony. Gino lives in the United States (her husband is American), so she asked her Italian relatives for cash in lieu of gifts. The request was widely ignored, yielding a rich trove of international shipping challenges.

A few years ago, Gino shared this story over coffee with a colleague, Stanford’s Frank Flynn, who had similar tales of gifting gone awry. The two decided it was a worthy topic of inquiry. The ritual exchange of goods is a practice found in cultures around the world, with origins deep in prehistory. Every year, Americans spend many billions of dollars on gifts; the average household devotes more than 4 percent of its budget to presents of one kind or another.


People generally assume that accepting a gift suggestion is a sign of laziness, of not knowing the recipient well, or, worse, just not caring very much about them. But in three separate studies of giving (wedding, birthday, Amazon wish list) the pair found that this is not at all the case. Instead, acting on a gift suggestion is a sign that you do care.

The essential problem, Gino tells me, is our psychology. We are overconfident in our understanding of others, and assume that other people are more like us than they truly are. We are also reluctant to accept suggestions.

These are flaws, of course, that afflict our lives and our society in countless ways. But when it comes to shopping for a gift, you can see how they lead us astray. We want to show we care. It is possible that we can find the perfect gift, that amazing thing our sibling or spouse didn’t even know they wanted. Yet we massively overestimate our ability to find this gleaming ideal; we are likely to fail, yet our pride blinds us.

Gino has published a detailed scientific paper, complete with tables and footnotes, describing her findings. But the beautiful thing is that she can boil her advice down to a single word, one that will make your holiday much more joyful: Listen.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GarethIdeas.