Gift Registry for Everyone? Why Surprise Presents Are a Bad Idea

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Say your mom, or best friend, or spouse has made it perfectly clear what they’d like in a holiday gift. Better think twice before going off the script and buying something else you have a gut feeling they’ll just love. Studies show that people are happier, and more appreciative, when they receive gifts that they’d explicitly requested. In other words, if there are lots of surprises under the tree on Christmas morning, that’s probably not a good thing.

In a New York Times story accompanying the paper’s holiday gift guide, a study is highlighted written by a pair of business school professors called “Give Them What They Want: The Benefits of Explicitness in Gift-Exchange,” which makes a strong case against the surprise, out-of-left-field gift.

According to the research, gift givers assume that recipients are equally appreciative of presents that are “both solicited and unsolicited.” Unfortunately, the givers are wrong. In five different studies, giftees were consistently more appreciative when receiving something they’d asked for.

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This doesn’t say a whole lot for the old standard, “It’s the thought that counts.” The message to take from such as study is: “Don’t think. Just do as commanded.”

While mercenary and unsentimental—and pretty boring to boot—the idea of delivering the goods as requested makes logical sense. Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, explained why gift exchanges are so typically a waste of money in a TIME Q&A conducted a couple seasons ago:

Normally if I spend $50 on myself, I’ll only buy something if it’s worth at least $50 to me. But if you buy something for me, and you spend $50, since you don’t know what I like, and you don’t know what I have, you may buy something I wouldn’t pay anything for. And so you could turn the real resources required to make things into something of no value to me. And that would destroy value.

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On the other hand, if you know exactly what the recipient wants—because he or she told you so explicitly—a gift exchange isn’t as much of a waste of money. It could be argued that it’s a waste of time, however, because if surprise is taken out of the equation, some might say everyone’s better off buying their own presents wherever and whenever it’s most convenient.

It’s pretty clear that most people, at some point or another, receive gifts they don’t want. The flip side, therefore, must also be true: Most people, at some point or another, give gifts people don’t particularly want to receive. A new survey conducted for Coupon Cabin that 41% of people admit to “regifting.” Wealthier individuals have a higher likelihood of giving something away as a present that’s been given to them: 49% of those with household income above $75K say they’ve regifted, compared to 33% of folks in households with income less than $35K.

All of this regifting and unhappiness and gift-exchange inefficiency is why gift cards remain so popular among givers and recipients, even as roughly one-quarter of consumers have a gift card sitting around from last holiday season that still hasn’t been used.

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Neither gift cards, nor formal or informal gift registries are OK for the holidays, however, according to Judith Martin, a.k.a. “Miss Manners.” Martin tells the Times that “blatant greed” is the main problem concerning gift exchanges, not the inefficiency and wastefulness of the tradition.

About those people who state exactly what they want for the holidays, and are miffed if they don’t receive them?

“They are getting other people to do their shopping for them,” she continued. “They are exchanging shopping lists and paying for the milestones of life.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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