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3 Tips for Choosing the Perfect Gift

Insights from psychology and neuroscience about how to give the best gifts.

Key points

  • Happiness from items with a positive social impact might not get old in the same way that those without an impact do.
  • Gifts that involve something enjoyable in the future can be a source of positive anticipation and excitement.
  • Our expectations are key in determining how much we enjoy receiving something—is it better or worse than we thought it would be?
Liza Summer/Pexels
What can we learn from science about how to choose the best gifts?
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

With Christmas around the corner and so many other holidays and birthdays throughout the year, it can be hard to always choose the right gift for friends, family, colleagues, and even unknown people in Secret Santa or Kris Kringle games. Of course, everyone has their own tastes, so we have to use our “theory of mind”—the ability to think about what someone else might think—to work out whether a specific gift is right for a specific person. However, there is lots of research in psychology and neuroscience on when and why people particularly like or enjoy things, and these findings can offer some insights on what makes a good gift.

1. Gifts That Keep on Giving

By spending money on a gift for someone else, you are already likely to buy more happiness compared to spending that money on yourself. Research has shown that spending money to help others makes you happier than receiving or keeping money. Can we also use this knowledge to buy gifts that make the receiver particularly happy? There are many options for gifts that have positive benefits for people other than those giving or receiving them. Many charities now have donation gifts or shops selling items that also help their cause. Other products can help us address climate change or ensure positive social impacts through how they are made—for example, by a social enterprise. This could be particularly important at times we receive lots of gifts, such as a holiday or birthday. Another study showed receiving something over and over again can get old—we get used to the good feelings, so happiness declines. However, the study also found positive feelings from helping a charity multiple times didn’t get old. This suggests that giving a gift that also has benefits for others may stand out among other gifts that are just for the recipient.

2. Something to Look Forward to

We all look forward to celebrations and receiving gifts, but some gifts, such as tickets to an event, also give us something else to look forward to in the future, rather than being immediately rewarding. Research has shown that finding out something good is going to happen causes positive emotions and is associated with activity in similar brain areas as when something good actually happens. Sometimes we can feel impatient and put more value on things that will happen sooner, a phenomenon known as temporal discounting, but research also shows that excitement and anticipation can provide a lot of joy. In fact, the excitement and anticipation of a reward might be as positive as receiving the reward itself and has been linked to specific neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine. By giving a gift of something to look forward to, we are also giving someone that excitement and anticipation.

3. What Did You Expect?

 Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Research with monkeys can tell us about what happens in our brains when we receive good things.
Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

From the research above on anticipating rewards, we might think we can improve giving a gift by talking a lot about it in advance to build up the excitement. We also often wrap up presents so the recipient can’t immediately see what the gift will be, increasing the anticipation. However, there is a risk this could backfire if it means the reality does not match the expectation. Many studies in neuroscience have found signals in our brains when we experience something good that represent the difference between what we expected and what we got, instead of simply how good the thing is. For example, the brain cells of a monkey who expected one grape and received three grapes will fire very rapidly whereas if they expected three grapes and got three grapes the signal will be much smaller. We are not suggesting you tell someone you’re going to give them one grape then give them three, but, counterintuitively, this research could suggest it is the small, unexpected gifts you give that will be most appreciated.

References

Charpentier, C. J., Bromberg-Martin, E. S., & Sharot, T. (2018). Valuation of knowledge and ignorance in mesolimbic reward circuitry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(31), E7255–E7264.

Curry, O. S., Rowland, L. A., Van Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 320–329.

Frith, C., & Frith, U. (2005). Theory of mind. Current Biology, 15(17), R644–R645.

Loewenstein, G. (1987). Anticipation and the Valuation of Delayed Consumption. The Economic Journal, 97(387), 666–684.

O’Brien, E., & Kassirer, S. (2019). People Are Slow to Adapt to the Warm Glow of Giving. Psychological Science, 30(2), 193–204.

Schultz, W. (2007). Behavioral dopamine signals. Trends in Neurosciences, 30(5), 203–210.

Schultz, W., Dayan, P., & Montague, P. R. (1997). A Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward. Science, 275(5306), 1593–1599.

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