Every year, we hear the same claptrap from holiday specials, greeting cards, and grandmas: Christmas is really about family or charity or kindness or the birth of God's one and only son. Whether any of those is true or not, it sure does suck if you don't get any presents.
But what no one tells you about the whole gift-exchange scenario is that it's a lose-lose situation. Everything you think you know about gift-giving and receiving is wrong, which we know because science has spent a surprising amount of time studying it.
(The bad news: your brain hates you. The good news: The De-Textbook has an entire chapter on practical psychology, so you can jiu-jitsu those stupid lobes and lead a happier life.)
What did they find? Well ...
A certain percentage of your holiday shopping, or all of it, involves just going to the goddamned person and asking them what they want. It's the only safe bet. You don't know what they like or what they own because you've been to their house only once, and even then you don't know what shit they've got squirreled away ("Thanks ... this will be really useful if my other copy of the Becker DVD box set wears out"). But let's admit that it's also the saddest form of gift-giving -- it turns what should be a special gesture of generosity and friendship into simple order fulfillment.
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"I already put it in my Amazon cart, all you have to do is click 'submit.'"
So, for most of us, when it comes to the people closest to us, we want to surprise them.
We'll search high and low for the perfect gift -- one that proves just how well we know them. It takes a hundred times more effort, but so be it. Those are the gifts that people really treasure. Right?
But Actually ...
It turns out that -- surprise! -- people don't like surprises as much as we think they do.
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Especially when they find out the cake you just jumped out of isn't actually edible.
Professors from Harvard and Stanford ran a series of experiments on gift-giving -- five of them, to be exact, because apparently that's all researchers are busy with these days (suck it, cancer!). What they found each time was that recipients generally just wanted to get the gift they explicitly asked for, and get this: The receivers actually perceived such explicitly-asked-for gifts as "more thoughtful and considerate" than the special surprise gifts the givers spent so much time trying to hunt down. The gift-giving motto is apparently "Don't think. Just do as commanded," a phrase you typically don't see spelled out on festive holiday sweaters.
But what's really interesting about this is that we should already now it. Think about it -- we're all givers and receivers of gifts -- so while we know we prefer to get precisely what we want, we all assume other people prefer to get thoughtful gifts that may be way off the mark. In other words, we trust ourselves to find a super awesome gift the recipient didn't even know they wanted, but we assume other people are too stupid to do that for us. Typical.
Oh, and do you know what gift consistently got the highest rating? Cash. The laziest, easiest, least personal gift you can give someone is also the one they look forward to getting the most. Because that removes all doubt about whether or not they'll get the right thing -- cash always fits.
"Normally I'd accept a check, but you have the face of a deadbeat, grandpa."
What's better than giving people stuff? Giving people more stuff. Yes, the dragon living outside your village seems happy with your sacrifice of a buxom wench, but why not throw in a baby or two to sweeten the deal?
Check with your local shaman for the wench-baby exchange rate.
Or, for a more practical example, if you're not sure the person you're buying for will like your big gift, why not throw in something small along with it? It can only help -- if giving makes you look kind, then giving more only makes you look kinder. It's logic.
But Actually ...
Humans do not function according to logic. This isn't a criticism of the species, it's just a fact -- logic is a horrible way to predict how the human brain will react to something. Logically, it shouldn't be a big deal to find a dead tarantula in your breakfast cereal -- it can't hurt you, and you can eat around it -- but your brain will tell you, "Flee the room and burn the house down."
"Say again, Talon-one-one -- all the napalm?"
Well in this case, for some reason adding a small gift to a big gift doesn't make the recipient think, "Ooh, more stuff." Our brain doesn't add up the gifts when deciding on value, it averages them out. A $100 sweater and a $10 gift card says to our brain, "This stuff is worth, like, 50 bucks." This is known as the Presenter's Paradox (also a suitable name for going back in time and killing the guy on TV that told you how to build a time machine).
When looking at a package deal, our brain has a tendency to use the lesser parts to dilute the value of the greater parts. It works for good and bad things both -- adding two hours of community service to a $750 fine made people rate the punishment as less severe than the fine by itself.
Due in no small part to the amount of money to be made selling weed to the other highway cleaners.
It actually almost makes sense when presented that way -- you hear the two hours and think, "Well, the judge must not have been THAT mad at me: Two hours is nothing!" and it puts the fine in a new light. So if somebody gives you what appears to be a very expensive rhinestone codpiece, and inside you find they've also tossed a $5 coupon to Taco Bell, you think, "OK, these rhinestones probably aren't real."
Television has a pretty clear idea about men and their relationship with gifts -- namely, men are thoughtless buffoons who suck at gift shopping (TV Tropes has a whole page dedicated to all the times male characters have screwed up gift-giving). TV writers don't do it simply to annoy men's rights activists (though that's always a bonus) -- they do it because we love thinking of women as fragile time bombs easily set off by the wrong present, and men are cavemen who can't afford to put three minutes of thought into anything that's not football or boobs.
But there is an upside: Men don't care what you get them, either. They're like dogs, just happy with whatever. Get them a new drill or something and a month later they'll probably forget where it came from. Living with an emotionally stunted yeti has its advantages.
Even if the DVR is a bit one-sided.
But Actually ...
Men get tied up in emotional knots when they get a gift -- they find expressing gratitude to be more complex and uncertain than women do, and for men it's tinged with more internal conflict. Men have been so hammered with ideas of detached masculinity that saying "thank you" carries emotional baggage that's normally reserved for interactions involving genitals.
While women can (usually) accept a gift as simply someone trying to be kind, a man's reaction is more, "Oh God, now I need to get something in return or I'll look like an ass. Life would be much simpler if nobody gave me anything." There's a reason Scrooge isn't a woman. Yes, the reason is that Victorian England allowed women to make exactly jack shit, so that would've been totally unrealistic, but we're going to shoehorn "men hate gifts" in as a reason for the purposes of this article.
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And if we can convince you to give your favorite comedy writer sex for Christmas this year, all the better.
So yes, ladies, you may have spent weeks hunting down the perfect anniversary present for your man while he got you jack shit, but he's not actually the bad guy here. The internal struggle he experiences when he opens his present is part of an emotional cocktail that tends to ruin his overall happiness. You should be ashamed of yourselves, ladies.