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Three myths about gift giving

By Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton
updated 8:22 AM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authors: Our notions about gift giving are belied by scientific research
  • They say we wrongly believe that gifts of stuff are better than gifts of experience
  • Unique gifts aren't necessarily better, if recipients are hoping for something specific, they say
  • Authors: There's a mistaken view that gifts will be more appreciated if they're more expensive

Editor's note: Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton are co-authors of "Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending" (Simon & Schuster). Dunn is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and Norton is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

(CNN) -- Giving gifts around the holidays conjures up warm fuzzy images of loved ones tearing open presents to find wonderful gifts and then smothering the giver in grateful hugs and kisses. But despite the joy of giving gifts, gift-giving isn't all fun and games.

Consider the stress of finding the perfect gift -- the gift that truly reflects how you feel, that will make the recipient's eyes light up -- and the hurt feelings when recipients clearly hate the gifts we've chosen ("Thanks...it's... nice?"). Fortunately, recent research by us and by our colleagues offers scientific insights into gift-giving. Following these tips can reduce your stress about finding the perfect gift and make it more likely that you give gifts that your loved ones will love.

You may be thinking to yourself, "But everyone always loves my gifts!" Trust us: they don't. All of us likely need to rethink our ability to nail the perfect gift. If anything, research shows that our intuitions about how to give great gifts are often not only misguided, but exactly wrong.

Elizabeth Dunn
Elizabeth Dunn
Michael Norton
Michael Norton

Here are three myths about gift-giving:

1.) Stuff is good. The first thing most of us think of when we think about what to give? Stuff. From flat-screen televisions to clothes to jewelry to the lowly gift card, we tend to associate giving gifts with giving a physical object. But in many cases, more ephemeral gifts can bring more happiness.

Gifts of experiences (like concerts and special meals) are a better bet than material things. Why? Not only do experiences make us happier than stuff, but experiences brings givers and recipients closer together -- and come with the added bonus that the giver sometimes gets to tag along.

Or consider giving an even more intangible gift: time. People tend to report that some of their least favorite activities are household chores. (Few among us truly enjoy cleaning the kid's bathroom.) Think about it: would you rather someone give you yet another scarf, or buy you out of bathroom duty for a week?

Websites like TaskRabbit.com allow people to hire freelancers to perform tasks as varied as assembling IKEA furniture to picking up groceries to, yes, cleaning up around the house. Consider forgoing the gift of stuff and giving your friends and family a gift of what they really feel they are lacking: time.

2.) Uniqueness is key. We have all received "unique" gifts from people who try to get us things we would not otherwise buy for ourselves. Think 19th century folk art, when we really wanted an iPad.

Airline buys passengers Christmas gifts

Givers tend to think that the amount of thought they put into a gift signals to recipients their level of investment, which leads them to buy obscure, hard-to-find gifts to prove that they have devoted effort to finding the perfect gift. Research shows, however, that recipients would really just like, well, gifts they like. If they ask for an iPad, guess what they want? An iPad.

When someone asks for a specific gift and you're tempted to buy them something "special," think of how you would feel if you ordered a burger with fries and a waitress decided to bring you sushi instead. If you're mentally decreasing the waitress' tip, then you've understood why you should skip the folk art, and buy the iPad. The director -- and Christmas aficionado -- John Waters said it best: "I had a good family and good Christmases. They got me things I asked for."

3.) Expensive is better. When scrambling for that perfect gift as the mall is closing, many shoppers default to a seemingly sensible strategy: I'm not sure which of these two gifts she'll like, but buying the pricier one will show I care. Again, though, research shows that givers are getting it wrong.

In one study of newly engaged heterosexual couples, men were asked to report the price of the engagement ring they had purchased and to predict how much their fiancée appreciated the ring. Their fiancées were asked to guess how much the ring cost, and report how much they actually appreciated it.

What did the results show? Men had the strong intuition that the more expensive the ring, the more their brides-to-be would love it. But those brides disagreed. In fact, they showed no evidence that they felt more appreciative for the more bling ring. Instead, their satisfaction was driven by how much they felt their beaus cared about getting them a ring they liked.

Now, we've all received expensive gifts we liked, so going big is not always wrong. But believing that expensive gifts automatically show that you care -- whether giving to your fiancée, your children, or your boss -- can leave your gift recipients cold.

Still thinking you give perfect gifts, each and every time? Most people have fallen prey to at least one of the giving traps above. It just feels right to give expensive, unique stuff. But reconsidering whether our gift purchases are actually paying off in recipient happiness (and trying some of these giving tips) can maximize your chances of getting the most "bang for your giving buck."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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