Christmas presents

Christmas presents

Whether you believe that it’s better to give than to receive you’ll probably agree that they both come with their own problems.  You can spend hours searching for the right gift only for it to fall horribly flat on the day, and you can hint for months about your ideal present only to unwrap something that leaves you puzzled.  When it comes to choosing someone a Christmas present what on earth is going on?

The first issue underneath all of this is that people don’t enjoy “surprise”gifts.  It’s obvious when you stop to think about it, but “surprise” gifts involve a degree of cognitive dissonance.  When people tell us what they would like we tend to think that it would be a much better if we used it as an opportunity instead to show how well we know the person.  Surely, we think, that’s much nicer than rather mechanically receiving items from a list of suggestions.

However when we’re asked ourselves what Christmas present we’d like then we really do want the things we’ve mentioned, and we tend to be slightly taken aback by “surprise” gifts.  In fact studies show that people rate gifts that follow their suggestions as being more thoughtful and personal than the carefully chosen surprises.

That’s the cognitive dissonance – we are happiest getting just what we asked for, but think that everyone else would rather have what we choose instead.  Looked at one way it could almost appear conceited, in as much as our choice is better than theirs even when it comes to their own likes and dislikes.

After that it shouldn’t be a surprise that the most popular Christmas present to receive is cash.  A gift that gives absolute choice to the recipient is one that we tend think shows a lack of thought or imagination.  And studies from the University of Basel in Switzerland have shown that the longer couples are married the more they tend to think that their partner will share their likes and dislikes.

On the subject of couples a common complaint is that men tend to appear undemonstrative or disappointed with their presents.  The reality is that, on top of any reaction to a “surprise” gift, for many men gifts are still tied up with ideas about reciprocal gestures, and that the Christmas present they bought should have shown as much if not more expense and thought than the one they received.  In fact so intense can this worry be that it can genuinely spoil men’s pleasure in receiving gifts.

If you do want to tell if someone genuinely likes the Christmas present that you bought them there are a couple of things to watch out for.  If people can’t maintain eye contact with you when they’re thanking you then that can point to a reluctance to look you on the eye whilst lying.  Other unconscious signals are when people put the wrapping paper back over the present, or put a Christmas present straight back in the box.

A surprising reason why people might be less impressed by a present is because you have been too generous, either in the amount of gifts you’ve given or the amount of money you have spent.   In terms of being generous with the number of gifts you give the problem arises from how most people assess value or cost.  Known as the “presenter’s paradox” it means that if you buy someone a £100 jumper and a £1 bar of chocolate they will see them as having a combined value of around £50.  Our smaller gift hasn’t made us look more generous – in fact it’s reduced the perceived cost of the presents as a whole.

If replacing the £1 bar of chocolate with another £100 jumper or shirt was your solution to the presenter’s paradox then think again.  We are social animals and have a built in bias to not just to conform to the rules of the group, but to enforce them as well.  This doesn’t just mean disgruntlement at meanness in present giving but disapproval of disproportionate generosity as well.

So how do you make sure you don’t look too mean or too generous, or find yourself watching someone’s body language as they open their Christmas present from you?  The answer is to take three simple steps – (i) ask them what they would like, (ii) buy it for them, and (iii) leave it at that.

In a Christmas mood after reading about presents? Read my blog on argument free family Christmases.  Thinking about shopping for presents?  Read my blog post about surviving the January Sales.