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Surprise is overrated

Posted by Robin Abrahams  August 4, 2011 11:22 AM

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Scientists now know: people want what they want. According to a study reported on the British Psychological Society blog, people had the best memories and preferred gifts that they asked for rather than surprise gifts -- although, as givers, their memories of giving surprise gifts were warmer and happier than their memories of giving gifts off the registry. From the report :

The third study involved 90 participants creating Amazon wish-lists and half of them playing gift-givers and half gift-receivers. Among the gift-givers, half were asked to choose a listed item to give to a recipient; the other half saw the list, but were instructed to choose a surprise item. Consistent with the first two studies, participants in a giving role didn't anticipate that it would make any difference to appreciation levels whether a gift was a surprise or selected from the wish-list. By contrast, participants in a receiving role were more appreciative of gifts selected from their wish-list and they perceived these gifts to be more thoughtful and more personal.

It seems gift-givers and receivers are at odds with each other. Gift-recipients prefer to receive items they've asked for, and they think givers who fulfil this ideal are more thoughtful. Yet when we're the one who is doing the giving, we suffer a temporary blind-spot and fail to realise that people tend to prefer receiving what they told us they want. (Emphasis mine)

Also, people want money, and like it more than presents.

We have had a fair number of discussions about gift-giving in this space, and I think we all recognize this trend. It's frustrating, though, isn't it? For both parties. Gift-giving reduced to a mere transaction is meaningless. Yet most of us are trying to reduce our material footprint in some way, and genuinely only want the things we want, not "cute" knickknacks, or kitchen gadgets that will go unused, or books we won't get around to reading until 2020. 

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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