How can you use gifts to improve your relationships?

By Rohini Venkatraman, business designer at Ideo, and Kristen Berman, co-founder of Irrational Labs and director of Common Cents

If you’re like most Americans, the fast-approaching hap-happiest time of year is also your most stress-stressful. You not only have to pick out a gift for your loved ones…but they have to like it.

According to Consumer Reports, almost 30% of Americans stress about Christmas gift-shopping and 20% stress about giving disappointing gifts. Of course, one way to deal with this stress is by simply asking people what they want.

In fact, previous research has shown that getting people what they request is generally a good strategy. If your spouse asks for a blender, chances are he or she would be happy to receive it as a gift from you. The problem is that while people might be happy to receive something they wanted, the gift will likely not serve to strengthen your relationship with them.

Why? To examine this we recently ran a large-scale survey in collaboration with Loop Commerce to understand gift-giving and receiving.

Our question wasn’t about recipient satisfaction, but instead: Can a gift you give improve your relationship with the person who receives it?

Of the 1,000 people we studied, we found that while gift-givers often buy either expected gifts (ones that they know that the gift-receiver wants) or safe gifts (such as flowers or wine), the majority of gift-receivers prefer gifts that are unexpected.

Of course, there’s always a risk in guessing what someone might like. But there’s pay-off to gift-giving risk: When gift-receivers receive unexpected gifts, the study shows they appreciate the gift-givers to a higher degree.

This means that you can give someone something that they don’t need or want if it’s a thoughtful surprise, and that they may like you more than if you had given them what they expected from you.

The reason for this may be rooted in the way we use contracts in social relationships. A social contract is an unspoken agreement you have with your interaction partners, be it a colleague, a friend, or that spouse with a new blender. In his research on social contracts, Harvard’s Deepak Malhotra has found that when a contract between two people has too many rules, it undermines their trust in one another. Rigidity prevented a spontaneous display of good intentions between the parties. When a contract was less rigid, both parties can activity display an act of trust or forgiveness.

In some ways, a gift may act like a contract. While it seems logical to get something that someone explicitly requests, it also neglects the ability to show your willingness to go above and beyond. There is no way to show that you are willing to put in special effort to please the other person.

By surprising someone, you may strengthen the relationship by showing that you’ve gone out of a way and taken a risk with the sole goal of pleasing him or her.

If gift-giving was invented to be a money transfer system between family and friends, we would want to get people exactly what they would have purchased for themselves. But if you’ve ever given or received a gift, you know that gifts serve a higher purpose. And done right, it is able to strengthen a relationship by showing your thoughtfulness and effort.

So what does this mean for your holiday gift-giving, and gift-giving in general?

Your parents told you this as a kid and now science is telling you too: It’s the thought that counts. This year, consider going off the path and surprising people with your gifts. Buy them a sweater you’re not 100% sure they will adore but intimately means something for you or for your relationship with them. Or introduce your partner to a hobby you enjoy or inspire your friend with a highly-rated gadget. Even better, ask your recipients what they want then deliberately get them something that represents the essence of their desire, but with a little personal twist.

We know this sounds counterintuitive, but consider it our surprise holiday gift to you.

*Kristen is an advisor to Loop Commerce


Written by

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.

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