Skip to navigationSkip to content

There’s a simple, selfless genius to gifts that don’t aim to surprise or impress

Sarah Dennis for Quartz
By Marc Bain
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This story is part of our guide to five gift-giving philosophies to help you find the perfect gift.

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received came from my wife, Jessica, on Christmas in 2011: a pair of black Ralph Lauren jeans, made of an overdyed, heavyweight selvedge denim with a polyurethane coating that gave it a slight luster. As I tore off the paper, I knew exactly what I was unwrapping, and that they would fit just as I hoped, slim but not skinny. They were exactly what I wanted—which came as no surprise to Jessica, because I had told her just that, several weeks earlier.

Was I surprised by those black jeans? Not at all. Was I delighted? Deeply, and I continue to be, six years later, when I pull them on and pause to remember who gave them to me.

It’s common to think that giving someone a gift they’ve asked for is somehow less thoughtful than coming up with an idea on your own. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Indiana University found that gift givers often focus on the moment of exchange, and define their success partly by their ability to surprise the receiver. But that moment is fleeting. A good gift, one that the recipient will use and appreciate, is not.

When it comes to gift-giving, the research shows, surprise is overrated. And as my black jeans prove, the agonizing labor of trying to figure out what to buy a loved one is completely unnecessary. We can just ask—and then give them what they ask for.

Why, then, do we obsess about whether it’s Grinch-like to just buy someone a present they asked for? Because we’re making it about us. In 2011, a series of studies in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology determined that givers often focus on finding gifts that demonstrate how considerate they are, rather than just considering what the recipient actually wants.

The authors also analyzed how much people appreciated gifts chosen from a registry they created, versus similar items that were not on the registry, and concluded that recipients are “more appreciative of gifts they explicitly request than those they do not.”

“Indeed, gift recipients will likely report that gifts they requested are more thoughtful and considerate of their needs than those not requested because the former indicate that the giver is attentive and responsive,” the researchers wrote.

The unfortunate paradox is that the closer we are to a person, the more likely we may be to choose bad gifts, in our desperation to show how much we know and love the recipient. But often, the best—and easiest—way to do that is not to be so performative. It’s simply to find out what someone wants, and give it to them.

It mattered little to me that my wife didn’t spend hours scouring shops and the internet, trying to guess what I might like or need. And similarly, I’m grateful when she gives me the gift of telling me exactly what she’s wishing for. None of this makes our gifts matter any less. They’re still a way for us to express that we’re thinking about each other, and share our appreciation.

Over six years with my black jeans, holes have started to appear. I’ve patched them up twice now, and they’re getting softer with age. But they still have years of wear in them, which means years of remembering who it was that gave me exactly what I asked for.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.