— We've all heard stories about the bad art, tacky sex books and bounced checks some people offer up as wedding gifts. But in the realm of unexpected wedding surprises, Amy Creel may have a leg up on the competition.
"We had a very fancy, high-end wedding where we got all the traditional gifts — crystal, china, silver," says Creel, a 44-year-old director of sales and marketing from Ashton, Md., who was married in October 1996. "But a friend of mine who had a really offbeat sense of humor gave us a fake leg. Apparently, she and her husband had bought this old house and discovered this guy's leg — with his name on it — up in the attic. Why they decided to turn it into a wedding gift, I don't know."
Thanks to a new study published in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, we now have a better idea of why people give offbeat, off-the-registry wedding gifts — and how their friends and family members truly feel about them.
"I think our motive as gift givers is usually a genuine one — we're trying to be special and different and thoughtful," says Francesca Gino, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of the paper. "But the reality is, the recipients who ask for something they really want might be upset if we give them something different."
In other words, stick to those wedding registries and wish lists, folks.
In a series of studies, Gino and her colleagues showed that gift recipients were more appreciative of the gifts they explicitly requested on their wedding registries or birthday wish lists than ones that came out of left field, even though the gift givers assumed a surprise gift would be considered more thoughtful.
"We've all been in the position of being the recipient of gifts and we've also been in the position of being gift-givers," says Gino. "What's interesting is that we forget about our own experiences when people tell us what they want. As givers, we tend to be too egocentric. We look at what we like and assume by default that the recipient will like the gift as much as we do."
Interestingly, the one surprise gift that people actually do appreciate is money.
"We found that givers believe that the recipients won't appreciate receiving money, but in reality, gift recipients feel the opposite," says Gino. "They do appreciate money as much as a solicited gift. Money is tangible and they can use it to buy one of the gifts they want."
Does this mean that when it comes to gifts, "the thought" no longer counts? Gino says no.
"It's still true that we really appreciate that [people] went out of their way to give us something that could stay with us forever," she says. "But if we spend time preparing a wish list or coming up with specific requests, paying attention to those requests is a good idea. Otherwise, you end up with a lot of objects that are eventually regifted because they're not appreciated."
Gino says she's even regifted some of her own wedding presents, even though she felt guilty about it.
Regifting doesn't always work, though, particularly when the gift is too specialized — for instance, a wooden leg. In that case, Gino says you usually have to hang on to it, which is what Creel and her husband have done for 15 years.
"I definitely felt a little embarrassed when I opened the leg," says Creel. "I remember thinking, 'Not cool,' and was glad that most people went with the registry. But as I've gotten older, my feelings have changed. I now have a certain fondness for the leg. We have it on display and it's become a conversation piece. I may even pass it along to one of my daughters when they get married."