Would you rather receive a gift that cost a lot, or that means a lot?
When we’re in the position of giving a gift, the answer to this often isn’t clear. But most people would rather receive a gift with sentimental value—like their late grandma’s kind-of-ugly dog statuette, or a mix CD of all the songs that make you think of them—than one that fits their personal tastes exactly. So, if you’re stressing over giving the perfect gift, lean toward the sentimental.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University compared giving and getting gifts with sentimental value, ones “that serve as reminders of significant others, or special events or times in a recipient’s life,” and “preference-matching gifts, which are gifts with superficial qualities that match a recipient’s tastes.”
The researchers found that gift-givers confront this dilemma more than any other when trying to find the right present.
“Specifically, we wanted to know if when faced with the decision of whether to give a sentimentally valuable gift or a preference-matching gift, whether givers give sentimentally valuable gifts as often as recipients want to receive them,” researchers Julian Givi and Jeff Galak wrote.
The truth is, we give these preference-matching gifts more than we should.
“We found that givers gave the preference-matching gift much more often than recipients preferred to receive it, or in other words, that givers did not give the sentimentally valuable gift as often as recipients would have liked,” Givi and Galak wrote.
But why? Probably because, when you give a gift, it’s easier to know that your cat-loving friend will also love a pair of cat earrings than it is to know what they’ll find touching. When you give a sentimental gift, you’re taking a bigger risk. The researchers found that people who are more comfortable with risk-taking are more likely to give the better, more sentimental gift.
I have a friends who still have quilts and cross-stitch samplers I made them years ago. I’ve kept every mix CD anyone has ever given me. Those gifts didn’t cost a lot to make, but they have become treasured keepsakes and reminders of those people and times in my life.
The researchers suggest going down that road. You’ll save money and you’ll be a better gift-giver. That doesn’t mean you need to learn how to quilt or cross-stitch. Think about special times you’ve shared with the people you love and plan your gifts around those memories.
“Billions of dollars are spent on gifts across the globe each year,” Givi and Galak wrote. “Our results suggest that much of this money is going to waste as givers are being overly-cautious and opting for preference-matching gifts when what recipients truly want are sentimentally valuable gifts.
“Our results suggest that if givers want their money to be better-spent, they should think twice the next time they give a gift and consider going with something sentimental.”
If you’re still in doubt, check out these other gift-giving tips supported by science. For example, if you’re wondering whether the gift you’re contemplating is too practical, it’s probably not. Just like they love sentimental gifts, people love to receive things they can get a lot of use out of. They also love the gift of experiences. Tickets to that art show you’ve both been wanting to see or a live performance of their favorite band are a great choice.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.