Sci&Tech Editor Leah Renz offers gift-shopping advice based on studies in Psychology

Images by Lore Schodts

Winter is coming and the gift-giving season looms upon us. You’ve been elected as a Secret Santa for that friend who is inexplicably enigmatic and elusive about their hobbies, aesthetic tastes, and their heart’s true desires. The budget is £10, but what could they possibly want? What can you possibly give? Gold is a little out of your league. Myrrh to scent their deathbed works as a neat reminder of mortality, but risks being misunderstood and consequently shunned, marking instead the death of your friendship as it goes up in pleasurably perfumed smoke. You may come to feel, hopeless and completely out of thoughtful ideas, that Jacque Derrida was right, and that truly giving a gift is impossible.

There is a reason to plough on with your gifting mission though, and not just because neglecting your Secret Santa would be an abominable crime against the Christmas spirit. Multiple studies across psychology and neuroscience have shown that spending money on others (prosocial spending) leads to greater happiness than spending it on oneself. With that in mind, here’s a guide on how best to knock your gift recipient’s fluffy socks off.


Go Sentimental

According to the Journal of Consumer Psychology, gift-givers often assume that buying a gift which matches the recipients ‘superficial interests’ is safer – buying a book by their favourite author –  than creating a photo-album of your latest trip/night out together, in spite of the fact that recipients often love to receive more personal ‘cringey’ gifts.


Unless They Specified Otherwise

The above tip, and all the following ones, may be waived however in the face of explicit preference-giving from the recipient. If your friend has specifically asked for that new book by their favourite author, makeup branded foundation or dinosaur-printed socks, studies overwhelmingly show that it will please the recipient more than gifting them your own more ‘thoughtful’ gift. It may seem boring… but think of the satisfaction and happiness you have potentially felt in the past when you received a gift you really wanted and had been hinting at for weeks!


Think long-term

A trap that, according to a study in Current Directions in Psychological Science, gift-givers fall into is valuing the instant ‘wow-factor’ of a gift above its long-term impact. Some presents are undoubtedly flashier and more unusual than others, but after the novelty has disappeared, you are left with a metallic silver blazer you will never wear. The oft-slated funky socks option however may not initially garner respect from your fellow Secret Santas but come next Christmas your recipient will have probably worn them and thought of you several times over the year!


Make it Easy to Use

Related to the ‘wow-factor’ gift trap is the belief that a more complex gift is a better gift. Between the options of a gift-card for a deluxe French restaurant a 40 minute commute away or a voucher for the delicious Indian down the road, an article in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests you choose the Indian because recipients prefer feasibility and ease over fanciness of gift.


Pick experiences

This is for those people – notoriously mothers – who ‘don’t want anything for Christmas’. This often means that they do not need anything material for Christmas but would rather love to spend more time with you. Consider making a date for a joint spa day – at a salon or at home depending on budget – or a trip to see an art exhibition. Alternatively, consider adding a heartfelt letter to a material gift, such as a movie, book, or funky mug, which promises to watch the movie with them over the holidays, make a date to discuss the book or even your vision of how they can use the mug for their daily morning coffee.


Reign in the Over-Personalisation

Your friend may adore cats, Arsenal, or the BBC Sherlock Holmes TV show; it does not follow that they want every gift from you and everyone else to be printed with Benedict Cumberbatch’s face. Sometimes, gift-givers believe they are being thoughtful, and showing how much they know and care about the recipient’s interests, without considering what is practical or needed by their friend. If they already have an Arsenal shirt and scarf, do they really want or need an Arsenal jumper or notebook with the gunner’s logo emblazoned on it? If they have enough memorabilia relating to their core interests, consider what else they might want.


Don’t Break the Bank

If the thought of cracking into or sinking deeper into your overdraft fills you with fear and dread, it is worth remembering that the pleasure recipients receive from a gift is not correlated to its financial worth. Though gift-givers often assume that more expensive is better, studies show that the old adage – it’s the thought that counts – is often true.


Do Consider the Ethical and Environmental Impact

Finally, the ideal gift for our planet is one which has been produced in fair conditions and has a minimal impact on carbon emissions. In the 2020 Greenhouse Gas Study by the International Maritime Organisation, scientists estimate that shipping accounts for 1,056 million tonnes of CO2 emitted in 2018. To minimise your impact, try to buy locally or make things yourself!

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