Emory professor explains why we get — and give — such bad Christmas gifts

A pedestrian strolls by the giant Christmas wreath hanging above the front doors at Georgia Pacific in downtown Atlanta earlier this week. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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A pedestrian strolls by the giant Christmas wreath hanging above the front doors at Georgia Pacific in downtown Atlanta earlier this week. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Forget “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Hands-down the most annoying refrain of the holiday season is someone whining,”What do you want for Christmas?”

(Followed closely by your own falsely sincere “Thanks, I love it” for that “Fruitcake of the Month” club subscription).

The most wonderful time of the year? Puh-leeze. There’s a reason Santa stress-eats cookies at every single house.

"It's the time when people are going to send the least amount of signals about what they want, leading you to have to try and decide," said Morgan Ward, an assistant professor of marketing at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. "It's high anxiety-creating, especially because you're not just doing it for one person. You're doing it for 15 people, maybe.

"And you have to hit it right every single time!"

RELATED: Sad! Here are this year's "most unwanted" Christmas gifts by state

Ward has done extensive research on the psychology behind gift giving. So naturally we turned to her to find out why Christmas presents so often bomb (our words, not hers).

Even — especially? — the ones from those we hold nearest and dearest.

If your very best friend since junior high gives you a complete set of cookware when she knows you only use your oven for storing sweaters, Ward said, there could be an explanation for that.

“It’s a relational motivation, where the giver thinks, ‘We are super close and I have insight into you, so my present will be even better than what you’d choose for yourself,” said Ward, who hit on this fascinating research area when, as a soon-to-be-married PhD. candidate, she wondered why certain close friends and relatives ignored the gift registry she’d labored over creating and gave other wedding presents instead. “We’ve run studies where the recipients get to say what they want and the givers choose either that or something else, and the closer they feel to the recipient, the more likely they are to diverge (from the requested gift).”

On the other hand, at least when it comes to Christmas, people often don’t come right out and say what they really want. As hard as it may be for anyone who’s ever witnessed a December mall parking spot brawl to believe, we might be a little too nice for our own good.

“We get some credit interpersonally when we say this time of year is not about getting gifts, it’s about being grateful,” said Ward. “These aren’t the times when when we’re allowed to explicitly say, ‘I need a dishwasher.’”

So when are we allowed to say that?

“Where we’ve had the best luck with people staying on the gift registry (suggestions) are weddings and housewarmings,” Ward said about her research. “Those are events that are really about creating a home or a life. So it’s an appropriate time to be explicit and ask for things.”

One possible solution could be Christmas gift registries, aka the grownup’s version of a child’s letter to Santa. But Ward, whose next area of research will be what happens when someone gives a “bad” gift, isn’t so sure.

“Receiving a gift from someone where you know they’ve put in the emotional work to come up with it does strengthen relationships,” she said. “Creating a guide gets away from that and creates a system almost of payment and quid pro quo. So I don’t think everything should be that way.”

In other words, (fake) smile and enjoy that Fruitcake of the Month.

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