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The Best (and Worst) Holiday Gifts, According to Science

4 minute read

‘Tis the season—of scrambling to finish your holiday shopping before the big day.

If you’re still looking for some last-minute holiday gifts, there’s a better way to find inspiration than scouring gift guides and mall displays. Here are four types of gifts that, according to science, you should give this year —and three you shouldn’t.

Don’t: Splurge on something flashy.

It may feel like a faux pas to pick a holiday gift from the clearance section, but research suggests it’s the item—not the price tag—that matters most. While gift-givers tend to think their choices will land better if they’re expensive, research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology didn’t back that up. In fact, there was no clear correlation between present price and recipient satisfaction.

Don’t: Give gifts on their behalf.

Making a charitable donation in a friend or family member’s name may seem like the perfect holiday gift: Your spending goes to a worthy cause, and the recipient gets a gift they feel good about. A 2015 study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions, however, poked a hole in that theory. While close friends or family members may appreciate a socially responsible holiday gift, researchers found that casual acquaintances often feel slighted by them, potentially because the selection focuses “on the symbolic meaning of the gift,” rather than on the recipient herself.

Don’t: Dress up a bad gift.

If you know a holiday gift is underwhelming, it may be tempting to overcompensate with big bows or fancy wrapping paper—but data from the Association for Consumer Research says that strategy may backfire. When people got a gift that they liked, the researchers found, attractive trappings slightly enhanced the experience. But when the gift itself was unsatisfactory—a science documentary, for the purposes of the study—wrapping actually worsened the recipients’ perception of the gift, likely because their expectations didn’t match reality.

Do: Give people gifts that they want.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that gift-givers overestimate the impact of a surprise gift. In fact, the study found that people tend to appreciate getting things they specifically asked for more than unsolicited presents. Make your life easy and stick to their holiday wish list.

Do: Pick a gift card.

Gift cards may seem like an impersonal or lazy holiday gift, but surveys have found that they’re actually a popular pick among gift recipients. A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, for example, found that they were the most requested gift of 2015. Want to keep it even simpler? Other research has found that people are perfectly happy to receive cash as a gift.


Do: Give gifts that reflect your audience—and yourself.

A series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology two years ago found, logically, that recipients prefer holiday gifts that reflect their own interests and hobbies. Interestingly, however, the researchers also found that “givers and receivers report greater feelings of closeness to their gift partner when the gift reflects the giver.” Sharing a favorite book, garment or keepsake with a loved one, then, may make the strongest impact in the long run.


Do: Give gifts that will last.

Everyday items, like kitchen gadgets or wardrobe staples, may not feel like slam-dunk gifts, but a study published last year in Current Directions in Psychological Science found that people actually prefer presents they can use for months and years to come, rather than something that makes a statement right when it’s unwrapped.

Correction, Dec. 13: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the Association for Consumer Research. It is an independent research institution and is not associated with Yale University.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com