Why you may want to surprise a loved one with a small gift

A study showed that a gesture of appreciation can have big benefits

Remember those commercials that used to encourage us to “reach out and touch someone” with a phone call? They may have been on to something.

Research in the Journal of Psychology and Social Personality earlier this year showed that people in your social circle are highly appreciative of texts, emails or small gifts.

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“Despite wanting to reconnect, many people are hesitant about doing so,” the researchers said on Kudos, a website that helps researchers globally showcase their ideas and progress. “This research suggests that their hesitations may be misplaced, as others are likely to appreciate being reached out to more than people think.”

The data came from experiments where college students wrote a note to people they hadn’t been in touch with for a while, using paper, a brief text, or an email message. Similar experiments with non-student participants included people bestowing a small gift, not just a note.

“We kept finding that people underestimated how much their reach-outs were appreciated,” the researchers said. The level of appreciation reported by responders escalated in proportion to how surprised they were to be contacted.

When the reaching out happens in an expected context, without an element of surprise, the researchers found those reaching out typically had an accurate idea of how much the responder would appreciate their gesture or gift. “Thus, it’s really these unexpected reach-outs that people appreciate much more than we expect,” the researchers said.

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This is good news in an age when loneliness is reaching its peak, particularly for older adults.

According to a University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging, 56% of adults polled, all of them ages 50-80, reported that they felt isolated at least some of the time, compared to 27% pre-pandemic in 2018. And 48% of the adults surveyed said they felt more isolated than they did before the pandemic.

One boost might come from old friends reaching out, especially if the communication comes as a surprise.

Lead study author Peggy Liu, associate professor of Business Administration in the Marketing and Business Economics Area at the University of Pittsburgh, said people should work to overcome any qualms about getting in touch.

“When I find myself hesitating to reach out to someone with whom I want to reconnect, I think it’s useful to think about these research findings and remind myself that other people may also want to reach out to me and hesitate for the same reasons. I then tell myself that I would appreciate it so much if they reached out to me and that there is no reason to think they would not similarly appreciate me reaching out to them.”

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