When selecting a gift for Mother's Day, or any other occasion, don't try to be "thoughtful." Choose the gift the recipient will like best. Don't confuse what you know with what she feels.
That may sound obvious, but it isn't. A growing body of psychological research suggests that gift givers pay too much attention to the inputs of gift selection -- the price, how much trouble they went to, what they got for other people -- and too little to what they know about what's likely to make the recipient happy.
This work shows that "people tend to be egocentric when making choices for others and that they often fail to recognize that their own perspective may differ from the perspective of those for whom they are choosing," write Mary Steffel of the University of Cincinnati and Robyn A. LeBoeuf of the University of Florida in a recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research. The article's title gives away the results: "Overindividuation in Gift Giving: Shopping for Multiple Recipients Leads Givers to Choose Unique but Less Preferred Gifts." Consider one of their experiments. Participants read Facebook profiles describing either one or two imagined cousins (Steph and Sarah). One was supposed to be from the mother's side of the family, the other from the father's, making the two less likely to know each other. The profiles included a list of each cousin's favorite movies. All of Sarah's were animated films. Five out of seven on Steph's list also were animated; the other two were science fiction/fantasy movies.
Participants were then given a list of 10 movie DVDs in six genres, including the Pixar animated hit "Up" and two science fiction/fantasy movies. Some participants were asked to choose a DVD for Steph's birthday after reading only her profile; a second group picked a DVD for her after reading both profiles; and a third group was told to select DVDs as birthday presents for both cousins. Those choosing gifts for both cousins were explicitly told they could give them the same movie. Three parallel groups were asked simply to predict which movie Steph or both cousins would use a gift certificate to purchase on their own.
Both cousins' lists showed they liked animated films most, making "Up" the best bet for a successful present. That's also the film the vast majority of people in all three prediction groups -- including 75 percent of those predicting for both cousins -- imagined that Steph would choose for herself.
But when it came to choosing gifts, people acted differently. As long as they were picking a DVD only for Steph, more than 80 percent still went for "Up." But a mere 43 percent of those selecting presents for both cousins gave Steph the animated movie she was most likely to enjoy. They paid more attention to what made her different from Sarah than they did to what she liked. They let the irrelevant circumstances of shopping for a second person trump what they knew about her taste.
Trying to be "thoughtful," it seems, leads people to be thoughtless.
Testing that conclusion directly in another experiment, Steffel and LeBoeuf found that participants given more time and encouraged to shop "thoughtfully" did worse than those given limited time and told not to "overthink" the decision. "Givers may, paradoxically, get worse gifts the more they try to be especially thoughtful," they write, "as their focus on giving individuated gifts may make them lose focus on getting the best-liked gifts."
(Another experiment found that givers weren't going for variety for its own sake and only mixed up the selection when there was a difference in the movies listed by the two cousins.)
This research has the faults of most psychology experiments. It draws broad, if tentative, conclusions from a relatively small sample, only 168 participants, and it's explicitly limited to the U.S. (The authors note that gift-giving customs could affect results elsewhere.) But it rings true. It's hard to see the world through other people's eyes -- even when we're buying them gifts.
To contact the writer of this article: Virginia Postrel email@example.com.