Last holiday season, Americans dropped more than $8 billion on unwanted presents, according to one survey by And 52% of recipients admitted to getting at least one holiday gift they really didn’t want. Why is it so hard to get gift-giving right?

Julian Givi, PhD, studies the science of gift-giving. Here are five mistakes he says you’re likely making and his suggestions for upping your game…

Mistake #1: Focusing too much on the Big Reveal. Givers often prioritize wowing the recipient in the moment the gift is exchanged. Reality check: Recipients place more value on how much they will use and enjoy a gift.

Mistake #2: Believing that expensive gifts are valued more than simple ones. Givers focus on the cost and/or popularity of a gift because they think those gifts are more likely to make the recipient happy. It feels much riskier to give a collection of family recipes in a bound book or restore Dad’s old typewriter. Reality check: Sentimental gifts that pack an emotional impact often are the more reliable choice because they make recipients feel cared for and nostalgic.

Mistake #3: Thinking material goods are more valuable than experiential gifts. Reality check: While an Apple Watch makes a bigger immediate impact than tickets for you and the recipient to attend a concert, studies show that experiences are prized more highly. Helpful: If you give a material gift, write a note explaining the context to the experience the recipient will have with your gift—“I hope this mug will help you enjoy your morning coffee ritual!”

Mistake #4: Thinking your gift must be unique. You want to be remembered as giving gifts that really stand out. Reality check: Recipients often view unique gifts negatively because it’s what you think they should want, instead of less distinctive gifts they’d prefer. Example: If a loved one liked the bottle of wine you got her as a holiday gift last year, give her the same wine again this year. It will make her happy, and you’ll be regarded as thoughtful, rather than uncreative.

Mistake #5: Asking the recipient what he wants for a gift. Reality check: While this approach can work depending upon your relationship, it takes a lot of the fun out of gift-giving. Plus, most recipients feel uncomfortable asking for specific gifts. To find out what a recipient wants: Ask friends and family what gift would make the person happy…and listen carefully for “semi-requests”—when the person mentions an item that he would like to have at the mall or while watching TV, make a mental note of it.

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