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 ...
5 People Don't Want Unsolicited Gifts
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."