Betsy Hart: Gift-giving isn't an art, it's a science

Scripps Howard News Service Published:

Last Christmas my youngest daughter, 10 at the time, made a long list of the gifts she was hoping for. She then explained that Christmas morning would be a very happy one as long "as everyone got what they wanted."

As I wrote at the time, I'm pretty sure that was an extortion attempt.

I know, er, Santa and I and their new stepdad know exactly how to make kids happy with their gifts on Christmas. Get them exactly what they want. Mind you, I'm not saying I do it. I'm just saying I know how to do it.

Of course, any parent does, but, naturally, this doesn't preclude scientific inquiries into such things.

And so with the approach to Christmas, I'm reminded of -- and several news stories have recently revisited -- well-known studies showing that people are, well, happiest when they get the gift they explicitly ask for. For starters, that's according to an analysis published last year in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The September 2011 report on five different studies was done by Francesca Gino and Francis Flynn of Harvard University and Stanford University, respectively. It did have some less intuitive but useful findings: Note to gift-receivers: When you ask for one thing instead of giving folks (i.e., parents) a list of things from which they can choose what to get for you, you are more likely to get the one thing you really want.

Interestingly, my kids do not seem to instinctively know this, but rather seem to like to play the odds at Christmas with their long lists. For my part, it's my "system" to go out of my way to not get them everything on their list. It's a game we play.

Though it just occurred to me that they may be playing me here.

Anyway, it's apparently also the case that gift-givers think that the receiver won't like getting money as much as getting an "actual" gift. Wrong. People love getting money for gifts, these studies show.

That I could have told you, too. This is because apparently money can buy happiness, at least for very short periods of time. Who knew?

In short, lead researcher Flynn has done a lot of looking at social interactions including gift-giving and has found that people are better off when they ask for exactly what they want, and givers take those requests at face value and don't try to freelance. In essence, they don't tell themselves, "Oh, he'll like something I think of on my own better."

Apparently, they won't.

Though this was not in the study, my guess is that men, more likely to take things at face value to begin with, are more likely to get their wives exactly what they ask for. (Frankly, it's safer for them that way.) Wives, I'm betting, are the ones more likely to think, "He wanted those football tickets, but I'll get him those dance lessons with me instead -- he'll love it! -- and it will be so thoughtful because I thought of it myself."

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Meanwhile, other research by Flynn shows that people don't necessarily appreciate more-expensive gifts over less-expensive ones. Fair enough. How many parents have found that when it comes to young children, the kids often enjoy playing more with the box the gift came in than they do the gift itself?

Please note I argued that money can buy happiness in the short term -- it doesn't always do so.

In light of all this, I've asked my new husband what he wants for Christmas. He said he'll get back to me. He asked me what I wanted. I said I didn't know.

Meanwhile, my now-11-year-old daughter, like so many kids, intuitively knows what to do. She texted me her Christmas list. A revised version appeared a few days later. At the top it read, "My Christmas list: I'll send it to you whenever it updates."

I mean, really: Who needs a study when you have kids?

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