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The trick to not giving a terrible gift this year

A utensil for picking up cookies. A ring for holding your book open. A game that shocks you for lying (sometimes). And a topper for your pencil point. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

When you’re buying gifts for people this holiday season, you might be thinking about how your loved ones will react the moment they open them. Will they be truly happy and thankful — or will you see disappointment flicker across their faces?

If you’ve given terrible gifts in the past, this focus on the moment of exchange might be why. A new paper that reviews decades of research on gift-giving suggests one common mistake people make is thinking too much about how recipients will react to their gift initially, rather than how it might benefit them in the long run.

Figuring out whether a receiver will use a gift might be hard. But one takeaway from the researchers at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and the Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business is that givers are often drawn toward surprising or entertaining gifts that are fun in the moment of exchange. But in the process, they underestimate how much people typically appreciate practical gifts.

Researchers say they aren’t sure whether gift-givers are doing this intentionally. That focus on the moment of exchange might be natural: In many cases, it’s the only moment the giver is around. They won’t be there on the morning of Jan. 10 to see your expression when you put on your comfy new pair of socks.

Research in social psychology has consistently shown that people are bad at predicting what others want, even those close to them. And failures in gift-giving are often linked to selfish behavior in the giver and the recipient. The giver is focused only on the recipient’s reaction on Christmas morning, while people who receive gifts often have little appreciation for the effort that goes into them.

Neither thoughtfulness nor price are actually a good prediction of how much someone will enjoy a gift. One 2012 study, for example, showed that recipients weren’t good at picking up on how much thought a giver had put into the gift. A study published in 2008 showed that while givers believe that expensive gifts are appreciated more, that isn’t the case, either.

Another paper published in 2015 showed that people don’t have much regard for socially responsible gifts, including donations to charity. Givers often think that a charitable donation on behalf of the receiver provides the recipient with a “warm glow.” But research says there’s little effect because the recipient doesn’t feel much ownership over the gift.

Finally, trying to express something about your knowledge of or relationship with the recipient in your gift usually doesn’t work well, either. Maybe the giver knows the recipient likes elephants or the Green Bay Packers and buys them gifts along that theme. In all likelihood, however, what the giver thinks they know about someone is probably only a small part of that person's identity. A paper published in 2015 showed givers would be better off going with more general gifts than more specific ones.

So what can you do as a gift-giver? If you want to give stuff most people will love, focus on presents that are versatile and useful. Rather than trying for something fun or thoughtful, it might be better to give them something you’re sure they can use.

You should also stick to people’s lists, the researcher say. Givers sometimes think surprises will be more appreciated, but past research doesn’t bear that out.

Finally, don’t be afraid to give experiential gifts. Givers often favor things that are tangible, so the recipient has something to open, but research says that people often get more happiness from dinner, a movie or a basketball game.