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Why objects can be more meaningful gifts than experiences

Research on our “most special possessions” has a lot to teach us about gift giving.

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Americans will spend around $655.8 billion this holiday season, much of it on gifts for the special people in their lives. Most will be spent on items that will grow obsolete within a short time — sweaters soon to be threadbare, electronic devices soon to be replaced, kitchen tools never used.

Lately, many articles have suggested an antidote: Buy experiences, not objects. And it’s true — there’s robust evidence that we typically find more happiness in experiences than in things.

But I wouldn’t write off giving material possessions entirely. Some physical gifts matter deeply.

That’s because they serve a critical function: They help us remember.

Shop with this question in mind: What would be saved in a fire?

Physical objects can be so valuable because they “carry part of the past with them,” John Sutton, a cognitive philosopher at Macquarie University in Australia, explained to me in an email.

One theory for why objects can jog our memories is called “extended” or “distributed” cognition. It’s the simple idea that the environment around us helps us think. Extended cognition explains why it’s easier to remember childhood memories when surrounded by childhood friends. Those friends are a portal to accessing the memory. Same goes for cherished objects.

“Sometimes the memory traces in our brain are enough to bring the past back to mind,” Sutton, who studies extended cognition, wrote. But other times it’s not enough. Context, friends, and physical objects can all jog our memories.

And those memory cues can become prized possessions.

In the 2000s, British psychologists Gregory Jones and Maryanne Martin ran a series of three simple studies, in both Europe and the United States, essentially asking participants, “If you could save one object from a fire, what would you save?”

The answer was clear: “When people choose among the objects in their everyday life, the dominant characteristic of the objects on which they place the greatest value is the capacity to evoke memories,” Jones and Martin wrote. Things like photographs, jewelry, ornaments, and childhood toys won out over laptops, clothing, cars, and other high-value items.

Anything can become a memory cue. But the more personal, and more distinctive, the better.

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Studies show that even arbitrary, nonessential objects can become powerful cues for memory. Which goes to show it’s not just priceless family jewels or heirlooms that make for memory cues; they can be anything imbued with meaning.

Earlier this year, psychologists Todd Rogers and Katherine Milkman published a paper demonstrating this neatly.

Participants were brought into the lab and were told they’d have the opportunity to donate $1 to charity at the end of the study. All they had to do was take a paper clip out of a bowl as they left the lab. The participants then spent an hour on tasks (unrelated to this particular study). When the tests were done, would they remember to donate?

The manipulation in the experiment was super simple. Half the participants saw this instruction at the beginning: “To remind you to pick up a paper clip, an elephant statuette will be sitting on the counter as you collect your payment.”

That’s it. The participants who got this reminder and saw the elephant were much more likely to remember to pick up the paper clip than the participants who didn’t get the instruction. Subsequent experiments replicated this effect and found that the more distinctive the cue, the more powerful the memory boost; a plush alien is more distinctive than a placard, for example.

Other research finds that if an object is strongly associated with one memory in particular, it makes for a more salient cue. This specificity “makes it much more likely that encountering the cue will spontaneously bring the memory to mind,” Celia Harris, a cognitive scientist also at Macquarie, wrote me.

After the paper published in May, I asked Rogers what he thought the results said about the relationship between object and our more important memories. Namely, I asked: Do you lose access to the memory if the object that cues it goes away?

"Some theorists have argued that there can be no memory (or even identity) without cues prompting memories that are associated with them," Rogers wrote back. “When we sold my childhood home, my mother was not mistaken when she felt like she was ‘losing' memories of our family growing up. She was losing the cues that could trigger those memories.”

When objects are lost, it’s not that memories are lost forever. What you lose is opportunities for spontaneous reminiscence: those times when you catch a keepsake in view and suddenly a memory floods your mind.

“When I moved from Scotland to Australia, I wore a couple of my dad’s shirts until threadbare,” Sutton wrote. Why? It made him feel close to home. The shirt was close to him. And so was access to the memory.

The most important objects we own connect us to others

So the objects we receive as gifts can play a critical role in our lives. But not all objects in our possession are special: Many of us own a lot of stuff not at all worth saving in a fire.

In the early 1980s, Norte Dame sociologist Eugene Halton did a survey of 80-plus middle- and lower-class families in the Chicago area, painstakingly detailing the objects in their living rooms, and then asking a basic question: “What are your most special possessions?”

The rich and poor homes had obvious differences in what they owned, reflective of their wealth. The rich families had more pieces of artwork, for instance. “But when you ask people what their most special objects are, a lot of the class distinctions dropped out,” Halton told me. “And other things came in, such as family photographs that aren’t necessarily expensive.”

The special objects were those centered on life events or people — wedding rings, portraits, inherited candlesticks, and so on. Around 40 percent of the most meaningful objects in a home were either gifts or inherited.

“People will buy the kinds of props that the culture tells them they need to have for their [socioeconomic] class,” he says. “But when it comes to what is meaningful, those props will drop out. We suggest we don’t really need those props.”

Gifts can become some of the most important items in a person’s life. That’s why gift giving is so hard. But the payoffs are strong.

It’s hard to synthesize this research into a definitive gift guide. (I also recognize that not every gift needs to become a lifelong treasure. If you need good wool socks, it’s nice to have someone buy them for you.) But there’s a basic principle you can take to the store: How might this item help create a memory for the recipient? If you can make the connection, the gift’s value rises. And you’ve got a shot at making it worthy of saving in a fire.