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Gift Giving: It Isn't Just The Thought That Counts

A lady hugs a man whilst she holds onto a Christmas gift wrapped in a bow on December 25, 1955.
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The winter holidays are upon us, and with them the excuse (or obligation) to buy presents for our loved ones. I was taught that it's the thought that counts; but recent findings in psychology suggest otherwise.

"It turns out it's not the thought that counts," says psychologist Nick Epley in a nice WSJ feature by Sumathi Reddy on gift giving. "It's the gift that counts."

On the other hand, spending money on experiences often makes people happier than spending it on objects. Psychologists Ryan Howell and Graham Hill, who conducted the research, suggest this is in part because experiences increase feelings of relatedness, which they describe in their paper as "the need for human beings to belong, to feel connected, and to be understood by others."

So while the thought that went into choosing a gift may not play a huge role in the recipient's happiness, being "thoughtful" in your relationship with that person likely does.

Happy holidays!

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.

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