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The Secret to Being a Great Gift Giver

Forget spending hours stressing. This is the key to buying the perfect present for anyone in your family.

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Buying holiday presents for your kids is easy: They’ve outlined an extensive list of every toy they’ve ever seen in their lives, plus you know they need new sneakers. But buying presents for the rest of your family can be stressful and time-consuming, whether you’re shopping for your partner, mom, nephew, or sister-in-law you’re not super close with. Questions may run through your head while you shop: How do I get them something they’ll like and actually use? How much money should I spend on them? Should I buy a gift card or get them a tangible gift?

Here's a new approach to gift-giving that'll help you figure out more easily what to buy: Start with yourself and what you want. Thought of something? Now buy it for someone and then buy the exact same thing for yourself. And here's the critical part: Tell the recipient that. New research that was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that it'll make the recipient happier with their present.

Hundreds of study participants rated how likable, thoughtful, and considerate they would find gifts (like staplers, umbrellas, wool socks, and headphones) without any additional context. They also rated how likable, thoughtful, and considerate those presents would be if the giver wrote a note along with the present that said something like, "I hope you like the gift. I got myself the same one too!" Participants rated a present more highly when the giver also bought one for themselves. Interestingly, this effect was true even among givers and receivers who weren't close friends or relatives, so you can use this strategy even if you don’t know the person that well.

The study authors refer to this practice as "companionizing." Lead author Evan Polman, a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says, "The fact that a gift is shared with the giver makes it a better gift in the eyes of the receiver. They like a companionized gift more, and they even feel closer to the giver."

One key point is that the ratings weren't as high when gift-givers said something like, "I hope you like this present. I got the same thing for myself a few months ago." The effect is greatest when you buy something for yourself at the same time that you're buying it for the other person.

The next time you need to buy a gift, being selfish can be a good thing. Maybe you want to pamper yourself with some new beauty products, or upgrade to a real camera, or take it easy with a week of meal deliveries. Giving someone something that you're into can deepen your connection—all the more reason to treat yourself a little when shopping for others.