TORONTO -- As you head deep into the crowded mall or frantically click through a dizzying array of choices from a dizzying assortment of online sellers, it’s discouraging to realize that about one-third of gift recipients return at least one holiday present. Some surveys say that number is closer to half. And then there are the untold gifts that find their way into a drawer or the back of a closet, never touched but frequently thought of with disappointment or exasperation by the receiver.

Can science point the way to finding the right gifts?

Gift-giving may seem too personal, heartfelt, and artistic a pursuit to apply a lens of science, but research points to ways to make Christmas giving an uplifting experience for both giver and receiver. digs into this science – from sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and psychologists – to help you out this holiday season.

Do: Choose carefully

Over the past two decades, much research has been undertaken on the mismatch between givers and receivers when it comes to gift giving. Though gifts are typically given with the best of intentions, scientists have found recipients become annoyed if a gift does not match their preferences, potentially weakening the relationship between giver and recipient. “At best, a poorly chosen gift will irritate the recipient, and at worst, it may drive the giver and recipient apart,” found research published in 1999.

So, you know, no pressure.

Do: Stick to a wish list

You may think it boring or lazy to get someone something they have directly expressed wanting. After all, who doesn’t love a surprise? Well, it turns out many of us. You were trying to be imaginative and put in effort, but researchers at Stanford University found that going the extra mile to be more thoughtful can actually backfire.

In a series of five experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that recipients appreciated receiving items from their wish list more than unsolicited items, and perceived the requested items to be more thoughtful and considerate. But in direct contrast, the givers thought that recipients would be more impressed with unsolicited items.

They also found that recipients appreciated money more than any item they initially requested, even though givers assumed money would be the least-favoured gift.

Don’t: Gift charitable giving to those you don’t know well

In this season of excess, donating to a charity in a recipient’s name seems like the perfect idea where everyone gets to feel good about themselves. But researchers have found that gift givers don’t accurately predict the appreciation for these types of gifts, especially among those they don’t know very well.

In the 2015 report published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions, the researchers found that casual acquaintances often feel slighted by socially responsible holiday gifts, because givers “focus more than recipients on the symbolic meaning of such gifts.”

“In such instances, a recipient may perceive a gift as saying more about the giver than about the giver’s commitment to the relationship, causing perceived relationship commitment to suffer.”

The researchers say that has implications because “givers have the most to gain from distant others, in terms of strengthened relationship quality, by making better gift choices.”

Don’t: Create unrealistic expectations

We’ve all bought a gift in desperation that we know isn’t the best. The temptation may be to try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear by dressing up the less-than-stellar item with beautiful bows and fancy wrapping paper. But researchers at Yale University found that raising expectations through positive moments early in an experience, such as elaborate presentation of a gift, make evaluations of an unattractive gift less positive. So keep expectations to a minimum. If the gift isn’t great, the wrapping shouldn’t be either.

Do: Be sentimental

When faced with a choice about being sentimental or being practical, many people will choose the practical over fears of getting it wrong, research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2017. Yet recipients more often reported they wanted the emotion or nostalgia-driven gifts.

In one study exercise, researchers made gift givers choose between giving a friend a large framed high-quality photo of their favourite musician or a smaller, lower-quality framed picture of the two friends taken on a fun, memorable day. The choices were the same price. Though recipients generally preferred the more sentimental photo, most givers chose to give the more superficial gift of the musician’s photo. In other words, “givers’ fears of getting it wrong prevent them from getting it right,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Don’t: Break the bank

It may be comforting when you’re thinking about that dreaded January credit card bill to know that researchers have found that the price of a gift doesn’t predict recipient satisfaction. Investigators at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University determined that while gift-givers believe a more expensive gift conveys a higher level of thoughtfulness, those receiving the gifts didn’t associate gift prices and their actual feelings of appreciation. “Taken together, these findings cast doubt on whether gift-givers can draw on their personal experience as gift-recipients in order to identify meaningful gifts for others.”

Do: Go with a gift card

Gift cards have a reputation for being an uninspired present, but for the 13th year in a row, they are the most popular item on wish lists, requested by 59 per cent of those surveyed by the National Retail Federation this year.

Researchers have found that givers preferred tailored gifts, like a gift card to the recipient’s favourite store, but recipients favoured more versatile options, like a credit card gift card that could be used anywhere. The scientists concluded that may be because givers focus on distinctive traits, whereas recipients look at their diverse wants and needs.

Do: Consider an experience

Givers typically opt for material gifts, but recipients derive more happiness from experiential gifts, like tickets to a concert or sporting event. Givers may opt for material gifts because they are traditional, less risky, have immediate pay-off when opened, require less knowledge of the recipient or are thought to last longer.

But research out of the University of Toronto published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2016 found that “experiential gifts produce greater improvements in relationship strength than material gifts, regardless of whether the gift giver and recipient consume the gift together.” The research also concluded that consuming experiential gifts evokes stronger emotion than consuming material ones, which strengthened the relationship.

“This research offers simple guidance: to make your friend, spouse, or family member feel closer to you, give an experience,” the researchers advised.

Do: Share yourself in your gifts

The most effective gifts to build closeness between the giver and the receiver are those that reflect the giver. In other words, if you have a favourite book, a beloved scarf or a go-to bottle of wine, give that as a gift. Researcher at Simon Fraser University and the University of California, San Francisco were surprised to find that “both givers and receivers report greater feelings of closeness to their gift partner when the gift reflects the giver.”

Do: Give gifts that last

Gift-givers primarily focus on the moment the gift is opened, a phenomenon some researchers called the “smile-seeking” motive, but recipients are more interested in how useful and versatile a gift will be, according to research published in 2016 in Current Directions in Psychological Science. The researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Indiana University found that givers and receivers have different perspectives on what makes a gift valuable. “Givers interpret that to mean that the gift will make the recipient feel delighted, impressed, surprised, and/or touched when he or she receives and opens it, whereas recipients find value in factors that allow them to better utilize and enjoy a gift during their subsequent ownership of it.”