There’s a science to gift giving and receiving

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 18, 2013.

Plenty of research shows that giving gifts and gestures of kindness help the giver feel happier and even healthier, although shopping for just the right gift can be a source of some mental anguish. But Francis Flynn, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, has shown there is a science to giving and receiving, and his findings take away some of the present pressure to find the “perfect” one.

On how much to spend: Price has very little to do with appreciation on the part of the receiver. Most givers might think that recipients will be more grateful for expensive gifts, but several 2009 experiments showed people had similar levels of gratitude for all gifts. This held true for small purchases, including a CD versus an iPod, and huge ones, such as pricey engagement rings versus economical ones. As the study explains, givers tend to compare the price of their gift with the prices of all other potential gifts, but recipients know nothing about that. They likely compare the gift they got to not receiving any gift at all.

On regifting: Don’t worry about hurting the original giver’s feelings. In a series of experiments Flynn published last year, recipients thought the people who gave them the gift to begin with would feel a lot worse about their presents being regifted than they actually did. Many givers said giving a gift means giving the recipient full license to decide what to do with it.

On buying from a wish list: It’s usually the way to go. Flynn’s 2011 research discovered that givers erroneously believe gifts will be more appreciated if they don’t take the easy route of buying from a wish list and, instead, come up with a more thoughtful gift on their own. In reality, recipients say that they appreciate it more when people show they’ve listened to and honored specific gift requests. Gifts that stray from the list often miss the mark. Another surprise finding: Givers viewed cash as the least thoughtful gift, but recipients often appreciated it the most.