It may seem safe to grab chocolate or wine for someone, he added, but getting people things they would likely buy for themselves anyway isn’t much different from cash. In research that is not yet published, Ariely’s team asked about 10,000 people to reflect on the last gifts they had given and received. As givers, people tended to be risk-averse. But receivers said they wished givers had taken more chances.
Whether risk-taking actually pays off, though, depends on the situation, said Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
In an attempt to test the old cliché that “it’s the thought that counts,” Epley and colleague Yan Zhang assessed how grateful and appreciative people were after a series of experiments that asked visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to pick out gifts for others at the museum shop.
When recipients liked their gifts, happiness followed, the researchers reported last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Only when they didn’t care for what they were given did recipients bother to think about how much though the giver had put into their purchases.
“Thoughts really only count when a good friend gives you a crappy gift,” Epley said. “Thinking about the thought takes an additional bit of cognition. If you like the gift, you don’t think about the thought at all.”
That doesn’t mean it’s pointless to dwell on the interests of your friends before you buy. When people put a lot of thought into their purchases, the researchers found, givers felt closer to the people they gave the gifts to, even if the recipients didn’t necessarily appreciate that thoughtfulness.
In other words, givers are happiest when they spend time thinking about the people they love. But recipients are happiest when they get something they want.
So what’s a conscientious gift-giver to do?
“What I advise my family members and do myself is the same thing a financial manager would suggest: diversify your portfolio,” Epley said. “Give some gifts that are for you as a giver by imagining what they want, being sensitive to their interests and putting a lot of thought into it. If you want to make the receivers happy, ask them what they want and give them what they want.”