When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts — but not in the way you might expect! Gift givers often err by putting too much thought into their gift selections: they overthink their holiday shopping and choose gifts that are not what their recipients actually want.
So here are some science-backed tips for avoiding overthinking your holiday shopping this year:
1. Don’t be afraid to get the same gift for more than one person.
When people shop for multiple recipients at a time, they tend to lose sight of what each person wants the most and focus too much on how recipients are different from one another. My research, “Over-Individualization in Gift Giving: Shopping for Multiple Recipients Leaders Givers to Choose Unique but Less Preferred Gifts,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research, finds that this leads shoppers to choose unique items for each person, even if they think everyone would actually be happier getting the same item, and even if they know that the recipients won’t compare gifts.
People are especially likely to make this mistake when they overthink what to buy. Shoppers in my research were more likely to pick unique but less-appealing gifts when encouraged to put more thought into their gift selections. So, instead of thinking harder, try thinking smarter: remember that your recipients would rather have the item on the top of their wish list than something that differentiates them from whoever else happens to be on your shopping list. Shoppers who first think about what their recipients would choose for themselves are less likely to overthink and more likely to give everyone that same best-liked gift.
2. Don’t overdo it with personalization. Choose versatile over highly specific gifts.
Another way in which shoppers overthink their gift selections is by choosing gifts that are tailored to recipients but are less versatile than what recipients would prefer to receive. Through my research I find that givers are more likely to favor a gift card to the recipient’s favorite store that reflects the recipient’s tastes but affords less flexibility in how it can be spent than a Visa gift card. But, recipients prefer greater versatility and are less likely to use gift cards that are overly restrictive.
This mismatch arises, at least in part, because givers and recipients think about different things when evaluating gifts: givers focus on recipients’ stable traits and preferences and choose gifts that reflect those characteristics, whereas recipients focus on their variable wants and needs and prefer gifts that have the versatility to fulfill whatever their current wants and needs might be. So, to be a better gift giver, be sure to think about what your recipients would like rather than what they are like. Givers who do this are more likely to choose the more versatile gifts that their recipients prefer.
3. Don’t try to guess what your recipients want. Ask them.
Common wisdom tells us that, if we want to do a better job of predicting what other people want, we should try to take their perspective. As it turns out, this advice is not as wise as it seems. In ongoing research, I find that encouraging people to take others’ perspectives increases the amount of thought they put into their predictions, but this additional thought does not translate into improved accuracy. In fact, in many cases, perspective taking actually makes people worse at gauging other people’s preferences.
If taking others’ perspectives won’t help you get them better gifts, what will? Rather than trying to take someone’s perspective by imagining what the world looks like from their eyes, you must instead get their perspective by asking them what they want. Couples who were instructed to ask their partners for their perspectives were more accurate than those who were instructed to perspective take and those who were given no special instructions. Thus, thinking too hard about what your recipients might like is unlikely to help and may even backfire—instead, simply ask your recipients what they want!