holiday-shopping

In hunt for perfect gift, not everyone's a 'special snowflake'

Dec. 13, 2013 at 9:36 AM ET

Instead of aiming for a unique gift, consider what the recipient really wants, researchers say.
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Instead of aiming for a unique gift, consider what the recipient really wants, researchers say.

This time of year, you’re probably knocking yourself out trying to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Stop it.

It’s perfectly fine just to get iPad minis for both your teenagers and Starbucks cards for everybody in the office. And it’s probably a smarter move. A new research paper by two marketing professors finds that when people agonize over finding the “perfect” gift for multiple recipients, they wind up picking things those recipients don’t like as much. Ironically, when finding something unique is our goal, we tend to forget to take into account whether or not the recipient will actually enjoy the present.

“Givers try to find things that will be thoughtful, [something] that signals or conveys how well they understand the recipients,” said Mary Steffel, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati and one of the study’s authors. “The more people try to be especially thoughtful, the more likely they are to pass up gifts they know would be better liked,” she said.

In a series of experiments, Steffel and her co-author, Robyn A. LeBoeuf, an associate professor at the University of Florida, showed that people tend to pick different gifts for different people, even if they know enough about the recipients to know that they would probably like the same thing. This holds true even when the recipients wouldn’t know they’d be getting the same gift as somebody else.

“When people select gifts for multiple recipients versus a single recipient, they pass up gifts that would be better liked in the service of getting different gifts for each recipient,” they wrote.

The technical term for this is “overindividuation.” In real life, it means getting your mother-in-law a garden gnome because she likes to garden and you already bought a digital meat thermometer for your mom, even though your mother-in-law also likes to cook — and probably would have liked the thermometer better.

As for why we do this, blame our pioneer spirit. “Givers may be more prone to individuate gifts in Western than Eastern cultures since Western values emphasize individualism,” Steffel and LeBoeuf wrote.

“Particularly in American culture, we see everybody as unique. Everybody’s a special snowflake,” said Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On.” “But we’re actually quite similar in ways we don’t realize or like to admit.”

Although it makes sense that the other members of your book club or the friends you hit the gym with probably like some of the same things, when you’re wracking your brain for unique gifts, you focus on the differences rather than the similarities.

“When we compare things, we’re used to focusing on differences,” Berger points out, and that tendency holds true when we’re shopping for multiple people.

To avoid giving people disappointing gifts, keep the focus on them, Steffel said.

“Givers often fail to take the perspective of the recipient sufficiently,” she said. “In some cases, the givers may do this in order to signal to recipients that they’ve demonstrated thoughtfulness… which is in some case short-sighted because it’s missing the point.”

Think about what the recipient would choose if they were buying something for themselves, Steffel suggested. If the same item comes up more than once, individualize gifts by picking different colors or personalizing the items with monograms or inscriptions. “That can help them feel more comfortable giving the same gifts. It signals they’ve put thought into the selection,” she said.

Go with your gut and don’t overthink things, Berger said. “If a product seems like it would fit both of them really well, that’s probably correct. Focus on what they actually want.”

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