Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Psychology of Gift Giving: Unique and Expensive or Ordinary but Useful?

The holiday shopping season is almost upon us. Black Friday is but a couple of days away. The annual shopping explosion event when you start thinking how close the year is to being over, how you haven’t even thought about what you are going to buy anyone, and how much money you don’t have to spend. Actually, I tend to be a Cyber Monday kind of shopper, but the same tenets hold true.

Gift giving: What do you get someone? Will they like it? What will they give you? Will you like it? Quite frankly, the whole process can be fun but exhausting.

Gifts can be tokens of social relationships, ways that we transmit impressions and feelings to one another. If you boil down the above questions, you are really asking about the attractiveness of gifts. A study in 2005 looked at the attractiveness of a gift seen from the perspective of the giver and the recipient. When you are shopping and picking out a gift, you probably go for something that you find attractive and/or you think the receiver will find attractive. Ultimately, you want your gift exchange to be successful. As a giver, that means you try to take the receiver’s perspective into account. As a recipient, that means you realize that any number of gifts could have been chosen for you and the one you received is what the giver thought you would like best. As with so many social psychology papers, this question of gift attractiveness was broken down into a series of studies.

Study 1: High-quality and unique or ordinary but useful? 
Ideally, you want to choose a gift that is both high-quality but also useful to the recipient. But high-quality usually means expensive. If, as a giver, your shopping list doesn’t include expensive then you have to make a trade-off. Usually this means a smaller, high-quality gift or a larger, more ordinary gift. This first type of gift is nice, and often exclusive or unique. The second type of gift is probably something more useful, something the recipient can use. They found that givers preferred to give expensive, exclusive, smaller gifts. On the other hand, receivers preferred less luxurious, more useful gifts. Makes sense I guess. As a giver, you want to give someone something both you and they perceive as nice. As a receiver, you actually have to live with that gift.

Study 2: What do you expect of your gifts? 
Cultural conventions, we all fall into them. In western societies, a gift should be nicely wrapped, come without a price tag, and arrive on time. The gift itself should be neither too cheap nor too expensive (especially as gifts are often reciprocal). Oh, and cash is only accepted under certain circumstances, usually helping someone pay for something specific (house, car, school, etc.). Receivers are expected to act surprised when they open the gift (even if they knew what it is), to be grateful, and to praise the gift (even when they hate it). This study asked people a series of questions: Gift voucher (gift cards) or cash? Opera or movie tickets? How important is it that a gift be a surprise? Or arrive on time? They found that givers prefer gift vouchers to cash and are concerned about timing, showing that gift givers are more serious about social conventions than are recipients. It’s weird really, because they found that gift givers are most concerned with pleasing the receiver even though the givers are abiding by cultural conventions that don’t do that (see Study 1). Receivers accept cash gifts and claim to not really care if the gift arrives late.

Study 3: Does self-perception or perceptions of others play into gift giving? 
Personally, you prefer the ordinary but useful gift, but you think these preferences are not shared by others. So you end up selecting gifts according to the preferences you think are more widespread among others. "Everybody likes expensive wine so I will buy expensive wine as a gift." They found little support for this self versus others perception hypothesis. Rather, people change their preferences in accordance with their rolls as either givers or receivers.

Study 4: Why are some conventions more important than others? 
It is nice to divide these questions up into studies, but in real life, pairwise comparisons aren’t made. When choosing a gift, givers have to choose between two or more simultaneous options and evaluate potential gifts one by one. Receivers don’t know all of the decision-making that the givers went through to pick their gift or what other gifts they could have gotten instead. This study found that when receivers evaluate a gift on its own they tend to agree with the givers’ preferences and prefer more exclusive gifts.

So what do we take away from a paper like this? Studies 1 – 3 seem to say “Skip the fancy wine and just buy them the comfy sweater.” I tend to agree. Buy something you know they will both love and use. Look at cultural gift giving conventions and choose to step away and consider your friend or loved one’s interests.

Our next topic – Regifiting…you know you shouldn’t but is it really the taboo you think it is?

ResearchBlogging.orgTeigen, K., Olsen, M., & SolÄs, O. (2005). Giver-receiver asymmetries in gift preferences British Journal of Social Psychology, 44 (1), 125-144 DOI: 10.1348/014466604X23428

Read more about gift giving:
Scientific American: "The Psychology Behind Gift-Giving and Generosity"
NY Times: "A Gift That Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself"

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