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What Gifts Are The Best? Social Science Researchers Investigate


Merry Christmas. You might not know it, but you are part of a giant experiment. As you check out the presents you've gotten over the holidays and reactions of friends and families to your gifts, you are testing a question that has intrigued psychologists for years. What makes for the best gifts?

New social science research might help you understand why some gifts are better received than others. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain. Hey, Shankar.


MARTIN: So what gifts are the best?

VEDANTAM: Well, there really are two kinds of gifts, Rachel. One is where you take a look at a person's interests, and you buy them a gift that matches their interest. So they like baseball, you buy them a baseball glove.


VEDANTAM: The other kind of gift is sentimentally valuable. The gift itself doesn't have great value, but it brings to mind associations and memories. So for example, you give a partner a pebble from the time the two of you went for a walk together on a beach, or you print out a photograph from high school, and you give it to a friend.

I was speaking with psychologist Jeff Galak at Carnegie Mellon University. He said the baseball glove-type gifts tend to be safe. Sentimentally valuable gifts, on the other hand, carry risks.

JEFF GALAK: For the sentimentally valuable gifts, there's a lot more uncertainty. You know, if I give you this customized something that is meant to remind you of our relationship, that might be a slam-dunk, and that might be a 10. But it also might not be something that the recipient wants at all, and it might be a two.

MARTIN: So I'm guessing people are risk-averse, and they end up doing the safe thing and giving a baseball glove to someone who likes baseball.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Very often, that's exactly what happens. Galak and his colleague Julian Givi asked both givers and recipients what makes for the ideal gift. Often, they found givers make a mistake.

GALAK: The givers are wrong, right? They're worried about this risk because they think that recipients won't like the sentimentally valuable gifts, right? They're worried that there's a chance they're going to give something that's not going to be a hit. But it turns out sentimentally valuable gifts, by and large, are a hit all the time.

MARTIN: So why is there this disconnect?

VEDANTAM: Well, Galak thinks that givers and receivers might actually have different goals, and even different scripts.

GALAK: Givers, generally speaking, are thinking about, what is the thing I can give that's going to put a big smile on somebody's face? And recipients, when you actually ask them, what is it that you actually enjoy? What they're actually enjoying are the things that are going to provide long-lasting utility.

VEDANTAM: When someone likes baseball and you give them a baseball glove, Rachel, you get a big smile, and big smiles make givers happy. What givers don't ask is what happens afterwards. How many of those sweaters and ties and baseball gloves wind up in some closet, never to be seen again?

If the point of gifts is to strengthen the relationship between the giver and the receiver, sentimentally valuable gifts put the relationship front and center. Yes, they do carry risks, but they keep that smile on the recipient's face for a long time afterwards.

MARTIN: I've got this napkin that you used when we had lunch recently...

VEDANTAM: Oh, dear.

MARTIN: ...And I'm going to go wrap that up and give that to you for Christmas.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Thanks a lot, Rachel.

MARTIN: I know it'll mean a lot to you.

Shankar Vedantam - he is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Shankar, thanks so much. Merry Christmas.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel. Merry Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and the host of Hidden Brain. The focus of his reporting is on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways. Hidden Brain is among the most popular podcasts in the world, with over two million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is featured on some 250 public radio stations across the United States.
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