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Boxes, bags, bows, headaches (Oh my!)

Gift-buying says a lot about your power to make someone happy
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Ray Gough is lost in a sea of shopping bags at Lloyd Center while he waits for his family to rescue him.

My father-in-law got a water buffalo for his 95th birthday this year. Last year we gave him two goats. We're hoping he sees this as a step up in class.

The gifts are a socially responsible form of giving, courtesy of Heifer International, a nonprofit based in Arkansas. The livestock actually go to families in Third World countries in my father-in-law's name.

But on a more personal level, the gifts also reflect our inability - after years and years and years of trying - to find material gifts that my father-in-law truly wants. So now we give him barnyard animals.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a University of Massachusetts psychologist and author of 'The Search for Fulfillment,' likes the water buffalo idea and says she might consider it some year for her husband.

'He never wants anything,' Whitbourne says.

So count Whitbourne among those who find giving the right gift agonizing, and sometimes, darn near impossible. A big part of the reason, Whitbourne says, is pressure. There is huge pressure on us to find the right gift for a loved one, and cultural messages that add to the pressure, and sophisticated retailers who are pushing our 'Buy!' buttons, adding more pressure.

Jacob Resner of Tigard knows the pressure. He and Nicole Bensching have been going together 2 1/2 years and they're strolling through Lloyd Center on a rainy Wednesday afternoon looking for gifts for each other.

'You want to make sure that you get something that's very them,' says the 27-year-old Resner. 'You show you do know who they are and that you pay attention.'

High stakes, when you consider what it means to give the wrong gift.

'You want it to be meaningful and special,' says Bensching, 23. 'But you don't want it to be extravagant, to where you have to outdo yourself every year.'

That's what makes buying a gift for your significant other like playing craps at the high-stakes table in Las Vegas, says psychologist Whitbourne.

'If you get it right or somebody gets it right with you, it's pretty compelling. … It's like a gambler with a big win. You get that big win, and it's such a thrill, and now you spend the rest of your money and life looking for that same excitement.'

Fraught with meaning

There is a solution, Whitbourne says. After many years of marriage, she and her husband and kids exchange lists.

'I love lists,' she says. 'Please give me a list. Then I have guidance.'

Of course, lists can take some of the romance and spontaneity out of holiday gift giving. But Whitbourne says that can be balanced by including a sense of humor. In her family, the creativity goes into the presentations. Every little thing gets wrapped elaborately. Each gift gets accompanied by a funny tag, an inside out clue to what's inside, for instance.

Still, young couples such as Resner and Bensching may have it the toughest when it comes to gift-giving, Whitbourne says, even if they resort to lists.

'In a new relationship, everything is fraught with meaning,' she says. 'You say, 'I would like some perfume,' and now this poor person has to figure out what perfume you would either like or wear. 'I'd like some perfume' was a test, and now you're failing it.' More pressure.

Even lists can be minefields, Whitbourne says.

'In some ways you could say it's the ultimate behavioral test,' she says. 'If you're judging somebody and want to know how much they love you or can read you, then making a list that's as ambiguous as possible will provide you with that test.'

Whitbourne isn't recommending that. Just providing a warning - if you get an ambiguous list, be wary. Maybe, she says, it can become a starting point for a serious discussion about communication.

But the greatest pressure, Whitbourne says, may be that exerted from the outside by retailers manipulating our emotions to get us to buy more.

'We're all exposed to the Hallmark ads, we're constantly being barraged with images of how happy people are when they get the right gift,' Whitbourne says.

A sense of humor

Eric Anderson doesn't see it that way. Anderson, director of the Center for Global Marketing Practice at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, says the research his center does helps retailers help shoppers.

Some of the latest research out of Kellogg has to do with how a sense of power motivates holiday shoppers. People who feel powerful - with their job or a sense of control over their lives, for instance - don't spend as much on gifts for others.

'When you're feeling less powerful you tend to buy more things,' Anderson says. 'The fact that you're giving away a gift can help you restore your sense of power.'

And we thought holiday gift giving was all about making someone else happy. Richard Wilson, associate director of the center, says Kellogg research has helped define another key psychological distinction - promotion-minded shoppers looking for the best possible gift and prevention-minded shoppers who are afraid of disappointing people.

'They're trying to avoid that look of horror on someone's face when they give the gift,' Wilson says of the latter.

Wilson says retailers are training their salespeople to ask a few quick questions of shoppers right up front to determine which type of shopper they are dealing with, and then to tailor their sales pitches accordingly. The prevention-minded shopper, for instance, not wanting to be left out, might be told that everyone else is buying a certain item. The promotion-minded might like to be first on his block to buy the latest gadget.

Forget buying presents as simple acts of generosity.

'The gift-giving process for many shoppers is as much about the transaction process as it is about the selection,' Wilson says.

Nevertheless, Northeast Portland resident Wanda Wojnowski, taking a lunch break at the Lloyd Center food court, says she's 'going crazy' trying to come up with the right gift for her husband this year. He, on the other hand, usually does well with the gifts he gives her, which might be due to the abundance of clues she admits she gives him.

Wojnowski's husband apparently hasn't been deterred by the fact that one year he hit it out of the park with his Christmas gift. She had told him she wanted a puppy, but she knew that wasn't practical because the couple have 10 cats and travel frequently.

On Christmas morning, Wojnowski was sitting in a living room chair when she saw a toy mechanical dog barking and waddling its way across the floor. The dog came to a stop in front of her, with a box around its neck. Wojnowski found a pair of diamond studded earrings inside the box.

'What a wonderful sense of humor,' Wojnowski says of the presentation, and her husband. 'I wanted a puppy, I got a puppy. And the puppy brought me a beautiful gift.'

A trip to Vegas

So we've got couples who trade lists, and relieve the pressure, and couples who don't, but are risking all in attempts to hit romantic home runs. And then there's Cathy Olson and Bryan Caldwell of Salem, who appear much too relaxed walking around Lloyd Center. They appear to have found the perfect medium.

What they're doing is what they do every year - shopping together without buying. And they're watching each other. Closely. Cathy says she noticed when Bryan said, 'I'd wear that,' while looking at a sweater in one shop. Bryan says Cathy doesn't have to say a word, that he can tell when she's admiring something.

Last Christmas, Bryan gave Cathy jewelry she had admired on their shop-but-don't-buy outing, and Cathy was elated and surprised to get it two weeks later. Not completely surprised, but surprised. She'd admired other items on their outing that she didn't get.

'It works,' says Bryan, of the couple's gifting strategy.

Of course, he and Cathy also bought themselves another holiday gift - a trip for two to Las Vegas. That's cheating.