As the holidays are approaching, you may be starting to think about what gifts to give your family and friends. This time of year is challenging. Selecting and purchasing gifts requires time and thought on top of attending the many holiday gatherings of your work and social circles and making your own holiday plans.

In the spirit of making it easier for you, we have looked to psychological research to understand the science behind gift giving (it helps that our founder Mary Ann is a huge fan of scientific proof). Our aim is to help you save time by understanding what makes gifts stand out to recipients and provide actionable steps to pick the perfect gift.

To aid your gift search, we have distilled this research into four tips.

  1. Give Them Something They Really Want1,2

As a gift giver, your intention is to give the recipient something he or she wants. Unfortunately, givers often miss the mark, according to research from Research by Ward and Broniarczyk of Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Austin.

In many instances, givers unknowingly or unintentionally prioritize proving the closeness of the relationship over what the recipient actually wants. Instead of choosing a gift the recipient wants, a giver may choose a gift that tries to prove that the giver knows the recipient.

For example, Marcus* gave his wife Megan* a set of flannel pajamas that were 3 sizes too big and adorned with golden retrievers. Marcus thought he was fulfilling a need, as Megan had mentioned she needed a new pair of pajamas. Megan loves dogs and grew up with a golden, so Marcus also thought this was a creative way to show he knew her. Megan still loves golden retrievers, but she did not want them on her pajamas. Marcus’ demonstration of relational closeness was in conflict with what Megan actually wanted.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent, well-meaning giver

Ward and Broniarczyk found that, in close relationships, a giver may avoid purchasing something the recipient explicitly requested, believing this to be impersonal or not thoughtful. Their research also shows that the closer you are to a person, the more likely it is that you will experience this pitfall. This is probably why Google searching “husband buys terrible gifts” yields nearly 700,000 results.

The study tested scenarios in which gift giver participants had access to a gift registry for recipients to understand if there was a correlation between social closeness and giver willingness to purchase a gift the recipient specifically asked for. It found that the greater the social distance between givers and recipients, the more likely givers were to purchase items from a recipient’s gift registry. When social distance is greater, givers feel less pressure to prove a closeness of relationship.

Research by Gino (Harvard University) and Flynn (Stanford University) supports the findings and adds a new layer. In a series of five studies, Gino and Flynn found “that gift recipients are more appreciative of gifts they explicitly request than those they do not.” 2

To a giver, this may feel impersonal or not thoughtful, and they tended to believe recipients would appreciate unsolicited gifts more than solicited ones. Recipients, however, felt the opposite, and did not consider requested gifts any less thoughtful than gifts the giver had chosen that the recipient did not request.

What You Can Do

  • As you are selecting gifts for close friends and family members, take a step back and ask yourself “is this something this person really wants?” Want is the key word here. This will help you to identify whether you are choosing a gift that is relational or if it is something the person truly wants.
  • If you are unsure, ask. This feels funny, although it does not mean necessarily asking the person. You can ask friends, family, or coworkers of the recipient or see if they have mentioned anything on social media that could provide clues.
  • When in doubt, you can create a gift or experience using a gift card or cash. Instead of simply giving cash or a gift card, you can include a thoughtful, handwritten card providing ideas of things they may enjoy with it like “I know you enjoy golfing, so use this to buy yourself a round at your favorite course.” This way, you have provided a thoughtful gift they will enjoy, and they can use the gift as they see fit.

If you’re still unsure, I encourage you to consider our second and third giving tips: give a piece of you and give an experience.

  1. Give a Piece of You3

This probably feels counterintuitive. Research shows you are not alone. Both givers and receivers believe that gifts should be recipient-focused, according to a recent study by Aknin (Simon Fraser University) and Human (University of California, San Francisco).

The study reveals that givers should reconsider this viewpoint. Akin and Human found that “both givers and receivers report greater feelings of closeness to their gift partner when the gift reflects the giver.”3

You need to exercise caution here. Do not to simply give something you would want to receive, especially if you reside with the recipient. In our search of terrible gifts, we found many instances of people within families giving gifts that the giver, not the recipient would want, like a new TV, a new recliner, or a new grill.

For this to be successful, you need to strike the balance of the giver feeling reminded of you yet receiving something he or she would enjoy. Our founder, Mary Ann, and her husband Mike received a remote-control beverage cooler as part of the wedding gift from a group of their groomsmen. Since they are both engineers, this quirky piece of technology fits both of their personalities, is a fun conversation piece when they host parties, and it always makes them think of these particular groomsmen.

What You Can Do

  • Think about what you and the recipient have in common or activities you have partaken in together. Do you often try new craft beer places together? Some new craft beers for the recipient to try may be a good gift. Do you enjoy seeing movies together? Some passes to a local movie theater may be a good choice.
  • Keep your recipient’s wants and preferences in mind. This is about having the recipient feel close to you, not about giving them something you want. Suppose you are really into knitting but your friend has never shown interest. Unless this friend explicitly tells you that she wants to get into knitting, her birthday is not the time to buy her a set of knitting needles.
  1. Give an Experience4,5

Giving an experience is a great option for both giving something a recipient truly wants and something that reminds the recipient of you. Goodman & Lim at the Washington University in St. Louis noticed that research with gifting generally focused on material items. They were curious to see if there was a difference between material gifts and experiences.

Their research reveals that givers believed recipients are equally happy whether the gift was a material item or an experience. However, recipients were actually happier with experiential gifts when compared to material gifts, something they call “the experiential advantage.” Experiences lead to increased social connectedness, as much of the research cited by Goodman & Lim shows, potentially driving the greater happiness when compared to material gifts.

Interestingly, they also found that social distance between giver and recipient has an impact on whether the giver chooses a material item or an experience. When givers are socially distant from recipients, they are more likely to choose material gifts over experiential ones, even though experiential gifts bring greater happiness to recipients, due to what they identified as the social norms of gift giving.

Experiential gifts have another distinct advantage over material possessions, as Kumar, Kilingsworth, and Gilovich discovered. Their research found that “consumers drive value from anticipation, and that value tends to be greater for experiential than for material purchased.”5 They also found that people are happier, derive more pleasure, and are more excited when waiting to receive an experience than a material good.

What You Can Do

  • When choosing a gift for your recipient, consider giving an experience. This is a way to give your recipient a great experience as well as the additional happiness that comes with anticipation of an experience.
  • If you feel you do not know the recipient well, opt for an experience that is fairly universal. Taking the recipient to coffee, a drink, or a meal at a place of their choice or buying them a gift card to a restaurant or a movie theater are good options for recipients whose preferences you may not know well.
  • Experiences do not have to be expensive (as we will cover in the next tip), so do not assume you need to take every person you know on vacation or even to a really expensive meal. There are many, smaller experiences you can spring for that won’t break the bank (like a coffee or a pair of movie tickets).
  1. More Expensive Does Not Necessarily Mean Better6

The gift, whether it is an experience or a material item, does not have to be expensive. Flynn and Adams of Stanford University found that givers and recipients hold different beliefs about gift value versus appreciation. In their study, givers tended to assume that “more expensive gifts conveyed a higher level of thoughtfulness. Gift-recipients, in contrast, reported no such association between gift price and their actual feelings of appreciation.”5

Good news! You don’t have to break the bank to give a thoughtful gift!

What You Can Do

  • Keep the recipients wants in the front of your mind and find ways in your budget to deliver something they want.
  • Avoid the trap of assuming an expensive gift will be more appreciated than something less expensive. We saw many anecdotes in our research where people purchased seemingly expensive gifts at deep discounts, thinking they purchased a lot of value for the money. Since they did not consider what the recipient wanted, these gifts often fell flat. Recipients have a weak association between gift price and feelings of appreciation.

Recap of our 4 Science-Backed Tips for Giving:

  1. Give Them Something They Really Want
  2. Give a Piece of You
  3. Give an Experience
  4. More Expensive Does Not Necessarily Mean Better

As the holidays draw closer, make selecting a gift a little easier by keeping these principles in mind. Focus on what your recipient wants (over who they are to you). You don’t have to break the bank, and, when in doubt, buy an experience.

Over the next few weeks, we will bring you gifts for holiday inspiration via this blog, Facebook and Instagram. Let us know your thoughts or if there are particular topics you want us to cover by contacting us at


    1. Ward, Morgan K., Broniarczyk, Susan M. “Ask and You Shall (Not) Receive: Close Friends Prioritize Relational Signaling Over Recipient Preferences in Their Gift Choices.” 14 January 2016. Southern Methodist University Accessed 31 October 2016.
    2. Gino, Francesca, Flynn, Francis J. “Give them what they want: The benefits of explicitness in gift exchange.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 47, issue 5, September 2011, pp. 915-922. Accessed 31 October 2016.
    3. Aknin, Lara B. Human, Lauren J. “Give a piece of you: Gifts that reflect givers promote closeness.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 60, September 2015, pp. 8-16. Accessed 31 October 2016

4, Goodman, Joseph K., Lim, Sarah. “Giving Happiness: Consumers Should Give More Experiences but Choose Material Gifts Instead.” Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School. May 2015. Accessed 31 October 2016.

  1. Kumar, A., Killingsworth, M. A., Gilbert, D. T. “Waiting for Merlot” Anticipatory consumption of experiential and Material Purchases.” Psychological Science, vol 25 no. 10 October 2014, pp. 1924-1931. Accessed October 31, 2016.
  2. Flynn, Francis J., Adams, Gabrielle S. “Money can’t buy love: Asymmetric beliefs about gift price and feelings of appreciation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 45, issue 2, February 2009, pp. 404-409. Accessed 31 October 2016.