When we’re tasked with giving gifts—whether it’s for a birthday, a wedding or an office Secret Santa exchange—we often consider two different types of presents: sentimental and material. If you tend to go with the safe but superficial option, you’re not alone: In a new study in the , plenty of participants opted to give a personal but predictable present, assuming it was what the recipient would rather have.
But here’s the thing: That assumption is often wrong. It turns out, the study authors say, that giftees would rather receive emotional tributes that tug at their heartstrings than commercial goods that match their personalities—and they’d rather have a less valuable gift with more sentimental meaning than the other way around.
The study specifically compared sentimental gifts with “preference-matching” gifts—a photograph of a special memory versus a jersey from a favorite sports team, for example. To examine the behaviors and beliefs of both givers and receivers, they performed several different experiments.
First, participants were told to write down the name of a friend. Some people were asked to select a gift for that friend, for either a birthday party or a going away party. They could choose from a framed photo of that person’s favorite musician or a framed photo of the two friends having fun together. Meanwhile, other participants were asked to select which of those two gifts they’d like to receive from their friend.
The givers chose the sentimental gift—the photo of the two friends—63 percent of the time for the birthday and 76 percent of the time for the going-away party. But actually, 79 percent and 96 percent of the recipients in those two scenarios said that’s the photo they’d rather receive, meaning that anywhere between 16 and 20 percent of people who wanted sentimental gifts did not receive them. Even super-close friends didn’t give sentimental gifts as often as they would have liked to receive them.
Then the researchers focused on romantic partners, and told participants they had the choice of giving to (or receiving from) their loved ones either a gift card to a favorite store or a sentimental photo of the couple with a personalized frame. Just as in the first experiment, givers didn’t choose the sentimental option as much as recipients would have liked.
For another experiment, the researchers wanted to learn more about why this mismatch was happening. Half of participants were told to write about a time they took a risk and it paid off, while others were told to write about a time they took a risk and failed. Then the participants were asked to choose one of two bicycles to gift to a friend—one of which had sentimental value, while the other was made by a brand the friend liked.
Apparently, their decisions were swayed by the memory they’d just revisited: The participants who’d written about taking a risk and succeeding were more likely to choose the sentimental gift—which is also something of a risk, the study authors say, since there’s a chance the recipient won’t like it or won’t appreciate its non-monetary value.
“Givers seem to view sentimentally valuable gifts as having the potential to be either home runs or strikeouts, but they view preference-matching gifts as a sure single,” says lead author Julian Givi, a Ph.D. candidate in Carnegie Mellon University’s department of marketing. “Rather than risking a strikeout, they go for the sure thing.”
That’s a shame, says Givi, considering that recipients tend to favor gifts with special meaning and memories. “It seems like people are playing it a little bit too safe,” he says. “If you want to give something your recipient really wants to receive, you should at least considering giving something sentimental.”
The study authors named their paper after this finding, and say the title sums up their research nicely: “Givers’ fears of getting it wrong prevents them from getting it right.”
One caveat: The study didn’t look at situations in which recipients have asked for specific gifts ahead of time—like for a couple with a wedding registry—so Givi says he can’t say whether the sentimental rule would apply in these cases. But in another paper published last year, Givi and his colleagues note that it might not be so smart to go off script when people have made their requests clearly known.
Last year’s paper also laid out a few other gift-giving rules, including thinking about how your recipient will actually use their gift rather than just their reaction when they open it, and thinking twice about charitable donation gifts that the recipient won’t get personal value from. And because people tend to enjoy experiences more than material objects, the researchers say, it’s always nice to consider gifts like theater tickets, a massage voucher, or a gift card to a favorite restaurant.
This newest study is just another bit of insight to help people make the best choices for people they care about, says Givi—and it adds sentimental memories to that list of smart and thoughtful gifts to consider.