Christmas Gifts Guaranteed to Make People Like You Better

Yes, Virginia, you can artificially manipulate the emotions of your friends and family!

It’s Friday, December 6th, and you know what that means?

SWEET HOLY BABY JESUS, ONLY 19 MORE SHOPPING DAYS TILL CHRISTMAS, except that the “shopping” qualifier is stupid now that every day is a shopping day.

In case your weekend plans involve schlepping all over God’s green earth to find the perfect thoughtful, deeply meaningful gift for Uncle Ebenezer, Cousin Dorothy, your mom, your dad, Grammy, Gramps and your sister’s new baby — stop! Don’t! Sit home on the couch and watch that Law & Order: SVU marathon instead!

You might as well, because research says there is no — we repeat, no — connection between the time and thought and energy you expend on choosing a gift and how much the recipient appreciates it. And don’t bother busting your budget, either, because research also shows that how much you spend on a gift doesn’t count for a hill of beans when it comes to how much the gift-getter likes it.

Whoa. Assumptions totally blown. How, then, in the face of such contrary science, to approach the looming giftapolooza? Aha! Science to the rescue, in the form of Wharton professor Cassie Mogilner, who spends her days examining how time and money are related to happiness, which, had I known such a job existed, is exactly what I’d have wanted to do when I grew up.

Along with PhD candidate Cindy Chan, Mogilner conducted research, to be published next year, examining how recipients are affected by different sorts of gifts. In one study, they measured how the parents of college students felt when presented with an experiential gift — i.e., a spa gift certificate, a wine-tasting class or tickets to the opera — vs. a material gift, i.e., a nice sweater or new golf club. Both moms and dads reported that the experiential gifts made them feel closer and more connected to their kids. A similar study in which college students were given $10 and instructed to buy a friend either an experiential gift like a Starbucks gift card or a material gift like socks showed the same results, as did a survey in which participants were asked to recall how getting gifts in the past made them feel.

The key, Mogilner says, is how emotional the consumption of the gift is: “When you’re enjoying the dinner or the ballet, you feel greater emotion than when you use a material gift, and the emotion you feel is very vivid. This greater emotionality transfers to the relationship with the person.” It doesn’t matter whether the gifter is there with the giftee to partake of the experience; actually, it doesn’t even matter whether the giftee enjoys the experience (if you’re not sure Mom actually likes opera). All that matters for that jump in warm-and-fuzzy connection, Mogilner says, is “bringing the emotion into the relationship.”

In a rare instance of academic research having real-life application, Mogilner says her work has revolutionized her own gift-giving: “In the run-up to Christmas, I’m not shopping online at Amazon. I’m trying to think about what restaurants my relatives would enjoy gift certificates for.”

We thought it only fair to ask: Could Mogilner’s findings be extended to gift-giving on the job? “We looked at friends and family, not the workplace,” she says. “But I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work the same way. The effect is driven by emotion.” So giving a colleague an experiential gift would … “Make a professional relationship feel closer and more personal,” she confirms. Hey, cubicle mates! Starbucks gift cards all around!