Why are we so bad at guessing what people really want as gifts?

Choosing the perfect gift for someone is rarely easy. Whether it’s our best friend, co-worker, client, or mother-in-law, we’ve all probably spent more time than we would like agonizing over what they really want. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, science says that despite our best efforts, we’re often getting it wrong.

Apparently, we are pretty bad at guessing what people want as gifts. Yet, we keep doing it. We keep trying to read their minds and come up with what their absolute favorite gift of all time would be. And because we aren’t telepathic, we’re frequently way off. Here are some common ways we fundamentally misunderstand what people truly would like to receive as a gift.

Too Specific

It’s a subtle distinction, but there is a difference between choosing a gift for someone based on what makes them unique, and choosing a gift for someone based on their likes and dislikes. Gift givers often want to choose a gift that is unique to the recipient. Something only they would love. But often, that misses out on getting the person what they actually want.

For example, you might think it’s a great idea to get your friend who loves both Harry Potter and manatees a stuffed animal manatee dressed as Harry Potter.* But the truth is, that probably wouldn’t be their first choice for a gift. It’s a little too specific. They might actually want something like a high-end coffee grinder, or a clothing box subscription. But because you don’t think of those things as unique to that person, you miss out on getting them something they really want.

The science backs this up. In this article from Science Daily, it notes “researchers recommend that givers focus more on what the recipient would like, rather than focusing on their unique traits.”

Another issue with going too specific, is that you may be mistaken. What if you overestimated your friend’s love of manatees? Or it’s not manatees they love at all, but narwhals? Now they have a manatee dressed as Harry Potter, which they feel awkward getting rid of, since it was a gift, but with which they have no real connection.

*Based on a brief search, this item doesn’t seem to exist. Which is, quite frankly, surprising.

Too Versatile

Harry Potter the Manatee may be a little bit too specific, but gifts that are too generic are a problem as well. Consider cash, for example.

Cash is incredibly versatile. It can be used to buy, well, anything. So, when you give someone cash, you might think it’s the best gift of all, because the recipient can get whatever they want.

There are two problems with that. First, cash is so versatile that it can be used on mundane things, like paying bills or buying groceries. Usually gifts are a chance to get something that isn’t a basic necessity, but when you give someone cash, they might feel like it needs to be used for living expenses, instead of something fun.

Second, a gift of cash requires the recipient to do something. You're basically gifting someone a chore. Sure, some people love shopping. But others hate it. For those people, receiving cash (or a gift card) can create stress and tension, because now they feel pressured to go do an activity they hate (shopping) in order to show that they appreciate the gift.

That being said, some studies have shown that people do appreciate receiving cash as a gift. However, you should always consider the specific circumstances and whether cash is an appropriate gift. And if you’re giving it to someone who is likely to spend the money on necessities, consider including a note encouraging them to use the gift to indulge.

Not Practical / Inconvenient

When we give gifts, we often focus on getting something that we perceive as highly desirable. And while no one wants a cheap, crappy gift, sometimes they would prefer a slightly cheaper, but more practical version of the same thing.

For example, in one study, gift givers chose a high end, heavy, state of the art pen as a gift. But the gift recipients preferred the somewhat cheaper retractable pen with long ink life. Still a quality option, just slightly more practical.

In the same study, both givers and recipients were asked whether they would choose a gift certificate to a fancy, highly-rated restaurant that required an hour drive, or to a restaurant only five minutes away that isn’t quite as highly regarded. Gift givers said they would choose the gift certificate to the fancy restaurant, but recipients opted for gift certificate for the restaurant nearby.

If we want to improve our gifting and get people things they will truly like, we should focus more on convenience and ease-of-use, and less on desirability.

Wish Lists and Gift Requests

People giving gifts sometimes think that choosing something from a wish list is impersonal, and they try to show how well they know the recipient by buying them something not on the list. But people want the gifts on their list! That’s why it’s there. Don’t try to prove that you can read your recipient’s mind, or that you know them better than they know themselves by deviating from what they have specifically asked for.

Summing Up the Science

Essentially, science tells us the following things about how to better align our gift-giving with what people actually want to receive:

  1. Don’t get too specific. Recipients’ first choice of gifts is not usually something super specific to them. Plus, getting too specific can backfire if you’re mistaken about the recipient’s interests.
  2. Don’t get too versatile. Cash is too impersonal, and often ends up being used for necessities instead of for something fun that will make the recipient feel happy.
  3. Be Practical. Gift recipients emphasize practicality over desirability. Don’t get bogged down trying to find the highest-end product available when a nice, practical version is available. And make sure it’s something they will actually be able to use.
  4. Give the people what they want! You do not know the gift recipient better than they do. You can’t read minds. If they want something, don’t try to come up with something better.

Now, if only science could automatically use these guidelines to choose perfect gifts for everybody...

EvaBot Can!

EvaBot uses these science-backed concepts about gifting, plus our own in-house research about gift preferences, to send the perfect gifts to your clients, family and friends.

Eva, the friendly gifting assistant, chats with the recipient and finds out what they like. She doesn’t ask about their Harry Potter or manatee obsessions. Instead she’s right in the sweet spot of getting just specific enough, without going overboard. This way a gift from Eva will be just what the recipient wants, and you don’t even have to tap into your mind-reading abilities.