Trying to find an ideal gift for a friend or family member, or at least something that won’t end up in the trash, is a perennial source of pre-holiday anxiety.
As it happens, behavioral science can help. After all, gift-giving combines economics and psychology (the exchange of goods plus the complicating desire to affirm or celebrate a personal relationship), and those two academic fields have grown ever more entwined in recent years. So before struggling to sort through the likes, dislikes, quirks and wishes of the people on your holiday lists, you may want to consider some recent findings about which gift-giving strategies work — and which don’t.
First, should we give gifts at all? Some economists think gifts — unless they’re cash — are a waste of money, pointing with horror at the “deadweight loss” that occurs when people give each other goods that don’t mesh precisely with what consumers would have bought for themselves. “Holiday gift-giving destroys between 10 percent and a third of the value of gifts,” the economist Joel Waldfogel has written.
But that mind-set misses the point of gift-giving — and it’s just plain unromantic. The value of a gift extends beyond the price of the item and its raw usefulness to include sentimental value, and this second kind of value can be empirically measured. One study from researchers at the University of Florida and Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated that people valued comparably useful objects more highly when they were gifts, as opposed to when they were self-purchases. What’s more, while the pleasure derived from all new acquisitions wanes over time, broadly speaking, the part of a gift’s value that comes from sentimental attachment is largely immune to decline, the study found.
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