We recently covered Professor Nick Epley’s new research on gift-giving, which finds that recipients do not appreciate the thought givers put into presents as much as givers expect them to. That story briefly noted an additional experiment that adds a silver lining. Putting thought into a gift may not make people appreciate it more, but it does have a benefit: it makes the gift giver feel more closely connected to the gift’s recipient.
For this study, Epley recruited 150 visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry. They were split into pairs, with neither person knowing the other, and one of them was randomly chosen to be the giver and the other, the receiver. After being introduced briefly , the givers and receivers went to separate rooms.
Each giver had to select as a present one of five items from the museum gift shop, such as a keychain, a magnet, or a deck of cards. The researchers instructed half of the givers to make their choice thoughtfully, telling them to “put a lot of thought into choosing what the receiver would like most.” The other half were told not to be thoughtful and that even choosing randomly was fine. The receivers were informed of the instructions that their partners were given. All participants then rated how socially connected they felt to one another, as well as how much they appreciated the gift (receivers), or how much they thought the gift would be appreciated (givers).
As in the earlier studies, although givers expected thoughtful gifts to be appreciated more than gifts chosen at random, receivers actually appreciated both thoughtfully and thoughtlessly chosen gifts equally. The key finding, however, was that compared to those who chose a gift thoughtlessly, givers who put a lot of thought into choosing a gift reported feeling more socially connected to their partner.
So if you were feeling down about people being unlikely to appreciate the time you take to consider what gifts they will really like, take heart. All that time you spend thinking about your loved ones’ likes and dislikes, their interests and their idiosyncrasies, will make you feel closer to them. And research shows that social connection is an essential source of happiness. It apparently really is better to give—thoughtfully—than to receive.