Think you're a great gift-giver? Probably not

Story highlights

  • Givers are all about the moment, but recipients consider long-term value
  • Asking what someone wants is the best way to give a gift they wish to receive

(CNN)If you're stressed about finding the perfect presents for your friends and loved ones this holiday season, ask them what they want. It could save you a lot of trouble in the long run, according to a new study.

Even the most well-intentioned gift givers don't always give their friends and loved ones what they really want. But it's not for a lack of trying -- it's more of an "expectations vs. reality" dilemma, according to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Indiana University.
    This scenario will sound familiar to most people.
    Say you've put a lot of time and effort into finding a gift for your significant other. It's expensive and says something important about your relationship. You think, "this really shows that I know them." It's a total surprise, a gift they didn't ask for, and you can't wait to see the look on their face when they open it.
    But you don't get the reaction you were hoping to inspire. Maybe they appear confused or upset or even sport a fake smile.
    What went wrong?
    "Givers pick gifts hoping to make the receiver as happy as possible at the moment of the gift exchange, but receivers prefer gifts that will make them happy during the course of their ownership and use of their gift," said study co-author Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon.
    "This one simple dimension captures pretty much all the gift-giving errors that have been documented to date."

    Giving vs. receiving

    Galak and his co-authors synthesized all of the existing research around gift-giving and receiving to create a review. What they discovered is that gift givers abide by self-imposed rules that don't necessarily align with how their receivers feel.
    Givers believe that gifts should be desirable, tangible and expensive, as well as a total surprise that both uniquely reflects the recipient and symbolizes their relationship. Recipients are anticipating feasible, experiential and requested gifts that reflect their interests.
    Givers are focused on gifts that can be enjoyed immediately, like a small bouquet of roses in full bloom as opposed to a larger bouquet of buds that will begin blooming soon. They also like to give lesser but complete gifts as opposed to incomplete ones that may be better quality, like a cheap blender as opposed to a contribution toward a top-of-the-line machine.
    Experience-driven gifts like concert tickets may seem exciting to recipients, but givers think that material gifts are more substantial and valuable. To the receivers, the true value of a gift doesn't necessarily correspond with the price or thoughtfulness.
    Galak has experienced this for himself. When his daughter was born, a family member gave him and his wife an Hermes baby bib that retailed for $255.
    "The family member clearly thought that we would be incredibly delighted when we opened the gift but failed to consider that we would be mortified to actually use it," Galak said. "Who wants to get baby spit-up on a $255 bib?!"
    Galak said that though it was well-intentioned, the family member would have been better off buying them a cheap 10-pack of baby bibs that they could use over and over again. Instead, he prioritized an expensive gift over a useful one.

    The taboo of asking

    Recipients would rather receive something they asked for, but givers often spring for the surprise factor or something "special" even if the recipient has a registry or list.
    "The single best thing that gift givers can do is to ask recipients what it is they want," Galak said. "The problem is that in our culture, it is taboo to do so. Somehow it seems like by asking what someone wants, it makes you, the giver, seem less thoughtful. This just isn't true. Gift recipients are more happy with requested gifts because they are the things that they actually want."
    The researchers also noticed that although givers favor socially responsible gifts, like donations to a charity in someone's name, receivers don't see the value.
    But givers aren't all to blame here.
    "We rarely get honest feedback about gifts we have given, so most of us have no idea if we are presenting gifts that people like," said Morgan Ward, assistant professor of marketing at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. "Irrespective of what we give, most recipients respond with a 'thank you' and an 'I absolutely love it!' "
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    In other words, if you really wanted a Fitbit or gym membership and your friend buys you a cute but ill-fitting workout shirt with your favorite animal on it, be honest. They probably didn't want to give an awkward gift -- even one you requested -- that might suggest you should exercise more. But you're not helping their gift-giving decisions in the future by flipping out over the shirt.
    At the end of the day, people give gifts to strengthen relationships and make each other happy, and the research proves it. It's also an interpersonal behavior that has been going on for centuries across cultures, Ward said.
    "One way that we relate to each other, send signals about the relationships we are in and remain connected is through the exchange of products," Ward said. "Importantly, gifting isn't just one individual shopping for another. It revolves around selecting an item that signals important themes, feelings or obligations that exist in the relationship. It seems that these items are more than just material items, but they are tangible statements we make to one another about the role we play in each other's lives."