12/09/2014 05:39 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

It's Not the Thought That Counts. It's the Present!

For Nicole Bailey it wasn't the 1992 year planner - a holiday gift from her grandmother - that was the surprise; but the fact that it was 2002. To add insult to injury, she also received a charm necklace that year - with the letter 'L' on it!

At first glance the AMC Theatre gift-card Eleana Woods received from her aunt held the promise of a great night out. But on arrival at the movie house the card turned out to be a hand-me-down with $2.00 remaining; hardly enough to cover the sales tax and gratuity on a box of popcorn.

With the holiday season rapidly approaching and with it the age-old challenge of selecting gifts that hopefully register joy rather than horror on the faces of recipients, it's probably worth reviewing what researchers who study the fine art of gift giving, such as Harvard psychologist Francesco Gino, have discovered. When studying such issues Gino and her colleagues will be sure to take account of the points of view of both the givers and receivers. A pattern invariably emerges. Despite many people's claims to be skilled at choosing the perfect gift, those on the receiving end often have a different tale to tell.

It would appear that if studies like these can be relied upon, (which they can by the way), then the old adage of 'it's the thought that counts' is in question.

Put bluntly, it's not the thought that counts at all. It's the present.

Examples abound. Last year someone sent me an especially tragic list of holiday gifts genuinely given by husbands to their wives. The list included a mop, a pair of windshield wipers, a set of rechargeable batteries (in assorted sizes in case you were wondering), a can of tyre shine and a worm farm! This last gift is particularly bewildering when you consider that, unlike a $5 bouquet hastily procured from the gas station on Christmas Eve; someone likely put time, effort and thought into purchasing it.

See. I told you it's the present and not the thought that counts!

So do these studies that bemoan the frequent haplessness of our gift-giving efforts offer any useful insight in to what might actually spread some joy? They do, but the findings are not exactly ground-breaking. Regardless, they do offer up a single gift-giving strategy that stands the best chance of producing delight in the eyes of the receiver simultaneously minimising the likelihood of you having to duck as soon as they remove the wrapping.

Ask people what they want and buy it for them.

But won't taking this unimaginative approach risk reducing people's appreciation and happiness for what you have bought them, even though they asked for it? It turns out not. Professor Gino reposts that in her studies receivers reported that they were much happier and more appreciative when they received something that they had previously said they would like.

Of course this presents an entirely new challenge for gift givers. Instead of fretting about what gift to buy the trial is how to arrange for people to tell you what they want in a way that at least maintains a veil of mysteriousness. Perhaps the best strategy is to be on lookout for the tell-tale signs of dog-eared pages in magazines that have been "casually" left lying around the house, or, as one gets closer to the 25th, even heavier hints.

Whatever your strategy, by making sure you buy a gift from their list rather than yours should be enough to ensure that it doesn't end up on, in the trash, or, worst of all, as your gift from them next holiday season.