Not exactly. According to researchers Zhang and Epley, the thought only counts (i.e., enhances appreciation for and liking of a gift) under certain conditions. In one study, when participants recalled times they received a gift they liked, the amount of thought they believed their givers used was not correlated with their evaluations of the gift. In other words, the thought didn’t count. However, when participants recalled times they received a gift they didn’t like, the amount of thought they believed their givers used was positively correlated with evaluations of the gift. Here, the thought did count. Presumably, this is because disliked gifts trigger thoughts about the givers’ thoughts, like “what was he thinking when he bought me this?” The researchers propose that thinking about givers’ thoughts helps receivers link thoughtfulness to actual evaluations (i.e., makes thoughts count).
If all of this thinking about other people thinking about other people thinking is making you confused, the bottom line is this: givers’ thoughts don’t count unless receivers are triggered to think about them when evaluating gifts. This trigger could occur implicitly, like when people receive disliked gifts, or explicitly, like when people are asked to think about givers' thoughts. When receivers aren't triggered to think about the givers’ thoughts, then receivers will evaluate gifts based on quality.
Are there any benefits of thoughtful giving I can count on?
If I have almost ruined your guiding principle of gift-giving, don’t worry. Fortunately for your holiday spirits, Zhang and Epley found evidence that there are consistent benefits of thoughtful giving - but they are for givers, not receivers. In one study, participants were assigned to pairs, with one person a giver and one a receiver. Givers saw several products and chose one for the receiver with whom they had been paired. When making their choices, they were either told to think very carefully (thoughtful condition) or not to think hard (thoughtless condition).
How can this research help you with your holiday gift-giving?
Luckily, Zhang and Epley have provided us with some useful pointers for this season:
2. If your goal is to feel closer to someone, you should be as thoughtful as you can when buying that person a gift. Your thoughtfulness may help you engage in more perspective taking, helping you feel a stronger bond with your gift-receiver.
Hopefully these tips will help you feel more stress-free when your gift-giving is thoughtless and more connected when your gift-giving is thoughtful!
Do you do more “thoughtful” or “thoughtless” gift-giving? What are your reasons? Let us know in the comments!
Zhang Y, & Epley N (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When "it's the thought that counts" in gift exchanges. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 141 (4), 667-81 PMID: 22774790