Limitations of Gift Giving Research

September 10, 2012

From Economics and Consumer Marketing to Social Psychology, the theory of Gift Giving has seen contributions from a variety of researchers in largely disparate fields. This has resulted in the use of a wide range of methodologies that run the gamut from quantitative mathematical models (where the emphasis is on numerical analysis and statistical proofs) to qualitative analyses such as that of individual memories. Historically there has been much debate as to which type of method is most insightful or which best reflects some objective reality. Contrary to those who advocate for one method over the other, a growing number of researchers are proponents of combining qualitative and quantitative methods in an attempt to get the best of both worlds (Olsen, 2004). It is in this vein that future Gift Giving research should focus. Regardless of whether research is quantitative, qualitative, or mixed, we as reviewers must always be critical of the experimental method, especially in terms of its validity and reliability.

Validity refers to the extent to which results reflect the “reality” of an issue. For example, if a study interviewed a group of individuals and found that each thought the Earth was square, the question must be asked about how valid the findings are: Is the planet Earth really square? Does the population in general believe the world to be square? Reliability refers to whether or not repetitions of identical studies would confirm the same results. For example, if another group of individuals were interviewed would they also be found to believe that the Earth is square?

Linked to these issues are important methodological considerations such as the following:

  • Number of Participants: The more participants there are in a given study, the more likely it is that its findings will apply to the general population. When critiquing gifting research a good rule of thumb is that samples with a size of 30 or more participants have a better chance of identifying relevant trends and findings concerning the general population than those with fewer people. However, it is important not to dismiss studies with less than 30 participants as they can still offer insights worthy of consideration.
  • Participant Characteristics: It is generally accepted that in order to study a population it is necessary to select a subset of individuals who reflect the same characteristics as those found in the general population. For example, imagine you want to know about the Christmas shopping habits of 20 – 25 year old college students who shop at the dollar store next to your building. In this case it is reasonable to study students between the ages of 20-25 who are attend the nearby college and who were recruited while shopping for Christmas gifts at the dollar store next to your building. If, however, the goal is to learn about the Christmas shopping habits of the population of your country then focusing on the aforementioned sample ignores those people in the population who are younger than 20 or older than 25, who are not in college, and who shop differently (if at all). It is for this reason that studies should be carefully scrutinized to assess whether the sample under study reflects the intended population. Further, the number of participants is important here as well, since it may not be possible to represent each sub-group within a population in a small sample.
  • Memory Effects (Forgetfulness, Socialization, etc.): A number of studies relating to Gift Giving have made use of interviews and other forms of participant recollections to inform conclusions. These data sources should be treated with caution since human memory has frequently been found to be malleable and fallible as opposed to being a perfect record of actual events. It is known that we automatically interpret the goings-on around us in a subjective (unique to us) way. While these interpretations are likely already different from what a hypothetical omnipotent observer would describe as an ‘objective reality,’ they are nonetheless encoded in our memory (often with slight variations and omissions). Later when we attempt to recall events we are influenced by all the happenings in our lives since the recording of the memory and by our context (environment, mood, time of day, nearby individuals, etc.).
  • Experimenter Effects (Interpretation, Influencing Actions): Gifting researchers themselves can unintentionally influence experimental results in two main ways: By affecting the actions of participants merely through their presence; and by interpreting results through their own unique subjective filters.
  • Fatigue: As experiments become more complex it is often the case that boredom and fatigue begin to influence results. Researchers and participants who are performing for a prolonged period of time may act differently (slower, less accurately, rushed, etc.) than if refreshed.
  • Attrition: In prolonged studies as well as those which seek to follow-up with participants some time after the initial investigation (E.g., Before and After gifts are given), drop-out rates can become a cause for concern. Specifically, it can sometimes be the case that those who drop out of a study early are similar to each other in some respect, and different from those who choose to stay. As a result, studies that fail to account for the reasons for attrition may miss an important factor and so unknowingly draw inaccurate conclusions.

Bearing these factors in mind, there is much to think about when reviewing relevant Gift Giving research findings. However, by considering these issues we are able to form opinions that reflect current research, but avoid the trap of blindly following sources that may suffer from a lack of validity or reliability.


The preceding ten sections have reviewed key elements of Gift Giving Research. From predicting what recipients want, defining a perfect gift, and exploring gift value to the giving of experiences and charitable donations, from self-gifts to anxiety and gift failure, and from gender differences to methodological limitations in research, a wide swath of the field has been reviewed. From this it is clear that Gift Giving is a highly complex socio-economic subject which has rightly been investigated by numerous researchers from a variety of backgrounds. Further, despite the rise of in-house proprietary work, future academic investigations are well positioned to undertake the sort of triangulated (a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods as appropriate) multi-disciplinary investigations that are likely to lead to additional revelations. In conclusion, Gift Giving is a broad, fascinating field about which much remains to be discovered.

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Detecting Gift Failure

September 3, 2012

At some point in our lives most of us will give a gift that our recipient does not like. Whether it is a new lawn mower for a mother who wants roses on Mother’s Day, or a dozen red roses for a father who wants a lawn mower on Father’s Day, gifts aren’t always as successful as we may have hope they would be. Unfortunately the extent to which a gift is a success appears to be more of a continuum than a simple good or bad classification. So how do we tell when our gifts have bombed? Catherine A. Roster asked this question in 2006, and came up with some very interesting results (Roster, 2006).

In her article, Roster began by reviewing past findings concerning how gift givers rely on the reactions of their recipients to determine gift success (Wooten, 2000), and how recipients are usually constrained by social expectations and proper etiquette to react positively to a giver’s intent even if the gift is non-ideal (Belk, 1996; Belk & Coon, 1993; Wooten & Wood, 2004). Herein lay a source of conflict since givers appear to rely on recipient reactions to judge success, but many recipients are simultaneously motivated to react positively despite their true feelings for the gift itself. Nonetheless, Roster argues that ultimately moments of truth surface at some point to alert gift givers to the gift’s true success or failure.

How do recipients act?

With respect to how recipients react, Roster references Wooten and Wood’s 2004 model, which likens recipient performances to acts in a play. Acting starts with Elicitation, where gift expectations are presented in the form of hints or lists in an effort by recipients to avoid being labeled as “hard-to-please.” Next, Revelation and Reaction occur as the gift is presented, unwrapped, and inspected, with the goal of showing anticipation and appreciation. Finally, Consumption involves the use or displaying of a gift after the fact so as to convey the recipient’s valuing of either the gift itself, the relationship it represents, or the giver’s intent.

How do givers judge?

Using communication theory (Dittmann, 1972), Roster describes three channels through which givers can judge recipients:

  • Visible: Facial expressions and body language (E.g., Blushing)
  • Audible: Speech content, both verbal and non-verbal (E.g., Tone of voice)
  • Object Language: The placement and use of objects (E.g., Placing a gift on the mantel)

What are the effects of apparent gift failure?

Using interview data from 189 students and their family members, friends, or colleagues, Roster found that gift failure appeared to have had a greater negative impact on future gift exchanges than on relationships themselves when looking at interview scripts holistically. She likened this finding to that of Ruth, Brunel, and Otnes (2004) who found similar results, but extended the findings by asserting that gifts are better at signaling poor relationships than they are at changing the relationship themselves. With respect to her research questions, Roster found that:

  1. The way in which failure was detected (Visually, Audibly, or through Object Language) did not affect outcomes;
  2. The number of ways in which givers reported judging failure were not related to the consequences of a failed gift;
    • Take home point: What mattered was that indicators of failure existed, not the exact number or modality.
  3. Givers were uniquely sensitive to failures by recipients to thank the giver for the gift. Of all the specific visual, audible, and object indicators identified (Visual, Voice Tone, Vocal Concerns, Failure to Thank, Nonuse, and Disposing of the object) only this one was significantly related to negative consequences for the relationship. None of these discrete indicators were related to negative consequences for future gift exchanges;
    • Take home point: Being grateful for the intent behind a gift is more important than being pleased with the gift itself;
  4. Preexisting relationship quality had a significant impact on negative consequences for relationships and future gift exchanges.
    • Take home point: Lower relationship quality as rated by givers, was related to higher ratings of gift failure negative impacts on both the future quality of the relationship and future gift exchanges.
  5. Relationship type was significantly predictive of negative consequences for the relationship (but not for future gift exchanges).
    • Take home point: Gift failure appears to be more likely to impact relationships between friends, colleagues, and in-laws, than to affect closer relationships such as those between immediate family members.
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Anxiety and Gift Giving

August 27, 2012

What was I thinking buying this? Do you really think she’ll like it? He already has everything! They are so hard to buy for!

Albeit to varying degrees, gift giving causes anxiety. Regardless of whether we are buying gifts for our romantic partner, siblings, parents, in-laws, friends or coworkers, chances are everyone has experienced some level of anxiety in the process of giving. Research has shown that gifts can be associated with negativity, frustration, and anxiety (Sherry, McGrath, & Levy, 1993).

In an effort to create an expanded model of such anxieties, David B. Wooten used student and faculty interviews from two universities in 2000 to identify commonalities in their qualitative experiences (Wooten, 2000). His work led him to propose Impression Management Theory as an explanatory framework. This theory states that social anxiety is related to both the degree to which people are motivated to make a desirable impression (where a greater desire leads to greater anxiety), and their estimations of success (where lower perceived probabilities relate to more anxiety) (Leary, 1983; See also Schlenker & Leary, 1982). This qualitative research led to the model presented in Figure 1 in which five major factors and thirteen terminal factors are seen as affecting gifting anxiety. Specifically, terminal factors are thought to interact with the five major ones which themselves affect the two primary factors (motivation and probability of success).

The first major factor identified involves high Interpersonal Stakes, which refers to a situation where a gift stands to affect the strength of a relationship or one’s standing in a group. This in turn is affected by the amount of Influence a recipient holds (i.e., whether recipients have control over valued rewards that the giver desires) and the presence or absence of collective situations (Collectivity) where gifts are revealed in the presence of many others. Here greater anxiety is associated with influential recipients and larger audiences.

The second major factor was Evaluative Salience, which represents the degree to which givers are aware of being judged for the gift(s) given. This salience was also found to be affected by Collectivity, whereby the exchange of multiple gifts in the presence of other people leads to concerns regarding comparative worth, as well as by Selectivity, which refers to the increased anxiety caused by recipients with selective tastes and high standards.

Figure 2: A recreation of Wooten’s (2000) expanded model of anxiety in Gift Giving.

Unlike the first two major factors that relate to our motivation to make a good impression, the third, fourth, and fifth major factors (Degree of Uncertainty, Perceived Demands, and Perceived Resources) all refer to the degree to which a gift is likely to be successful. Wooten postulated that uncertainty about a gift, and a disparity between perceived gift demands and resources leads to lower estimates of a gift’s likelihood of success and thus increased anxiety.

Perceived Gifting Demands are problematic when recipient expectations elude gift givers who are then unsure as to what will satisfy recipients. Perceived demand is affected by the following:

  • Collectivity: Group gift exchanges raise anxiety about how gifts will compare with those given by others;
  • Selectivity: A selective recipient is likely receptive to fewer gifts than others and so increases the demands placed on a giver;
  • Perfectionism: Givers who are driven to find only the perfect gift often set in place unattainably high standards;
  • Importance: Occasions of great importance often bring along increased pressure to find a special gift;
  • Formality: Increased event formality is often associated with elevated fears of improper gifts and of breaking the rules;
  • Affluence: Buying gifts for rich recipients can impose tougher demands on the recipient since their needs are fewer;
  • Mutuality: When gifts are exchanged simultaneously, there is greater pressure to find comparable gifts and so demands are elevated.

Whereas gifting demands decrease our perceptions of the likelihood of giving a successful gift by imposing restrictions on the range of acceptable gifts, gift giver Uncertainty causes us to doubt our gift selection in instances where we don’t know what is required of us. The degree of uncertainty is affected by Mutuality (when we don’t know what the other person will get for us), Novelty (when we haven’t been exposed to a particular gifting situation before and so don’t know how to act), Unfamiliarity (when we don’t know the recipient very well), and Dissimilarity (when giver and recipient are different in ways relevant to gift selection, making it risky for the giver to choose something based on personal taste).

Finally, Perceived Gifting Resources refers to givers feeling as though they do not have sufficient resources to meet gifting demands and therefore worrying about failing to receive satisfactory reactions. Perceived Resources are affected by Gifting Capacity (being unable to afford successful gifts) and Confidence (doubting one’s own abilities).

So what now?

Given that there are at least 13 processes that influence gift giving anxieties, it appears as though giving is an inherently anxiety-inducing process. Unfortunately, solutions to these problems were largely beyond the scope of Wooten’s article. Nonetheless, progress has been made. For example, gifting has been facilitated by improved communication technologies, such as smart phones that allow individuals to quickly and easily discuss gift ideas, clarify demands, and pool resources via services like Facebook, Givebuttons, and Paypal.

Having read about all these sources of anxiety do you think you’ll approach your next gifting experience differently?

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Gender Differences in Gift Giving: Research from the 90’s

August 20, 2012

The Christmas shopping season is a busy time of the year for retailers and shoppers alike. Historically, Christmas shoppers have been the subjects of choice for consumer researchers interested in uncovering the fundamentals of gift giving. Two authors in particular, Eileen Fischer and Stephen J. Arnold, took advantage of the Christmas hustle and bustle in 1990 to investigate how women and men give gifts differently (Fischer & Arnold, 1990).

To begin, the two reviewed past research such as Cheal’s work (1987; 1988) that identified women as primary gift givers due to their greater focus on showing love, and their own findings that women feel a greater obligation associated with Christmas gift giving than men do. Further, they reviewed how men who purchase few Christmas gifts tend to describe their reasons for giving in terms of materialistic values rather than communal ones, and that they tend to buy themselves more gifts (see: self-gifts).  They conclude their review by mentioning Caplow’s (1982) assertion that gifts bolster relationships (familial and social), by discussing Rodenthal’s (1985) findings that the maintenance of social ties (especially familial ones) is perceived as “women’s work,” and by summarizing a variety of findings concerning how Christmas gifts focus on children who are also traditionally seen as the primary responsibility of women (Bernard, 1981; Chodorow, 1978).

This review is important because it forms the basis of the three concepts that Fischer and Arnold use in their comparison of Christmas shoppers:

  1. The biological sex of an individual determines the socialization they receive while growing up. This means that the fundamentals upon which we form our opinions as adults are instilled in us when we are young.
  2. Gender-Role Attitudes represent an individual’s level of agreement with traditional roles and behaviors associated with each sex. This is interpreted as varying between traditional (conforming to norms) and egalitarian (believing in non-traditional roles and behaviors).
  3. Gender Identity refers to the degree to which individuals identify with feminine (e.g., compassion) or masculine (e.g., aggression) traits, with those in the middle labeled androgynous.

What did they find?

By reviewing interviews with 299 individuals and creating regression models it was found that men and women differed significantly on the number of gifts given (women gave to an average of 12.5 people whereas men gave to 8), when shopping starts (women started in October, men on average in November), time spent (women spent an estimated 2.4 hours per recipient while men spent only 2.1 hours), gift cost (women spent on average $62.13 per person while men spent $91.25), and reported gift success (10% of women’s gifts were known by them to have been returned as compared to 16% of men’s gifts).

When attitudes towards Gender Roles were considered, more egalitarian men were found to buy gifts for a larger number of people and to spend more time shopping than both traditional men and equally egalitarian women. Egalitarian women were found to spend significantly less time shopping and to spend more money per gift than more traditional women and equally egalitarian men. This was interpreted as meaning that egalitarian views were associated with opposing changes in behavior for men and women, with non-traditional men becoming more involved in gift giving while non-traditional women became less involved.

Regarding Gender Identity, it was found that more communally-oriented men and women (those who would be considered more feminine) began shopping significantly earlier than those with more masculine traits. Further, communal men spent significantly more time shopping for each person than did other men, and communal women reported fewer gifts as having been returned or exchanged.

Based on these and a number of additional findings, Fischer and Arnold conclude that those with more feminine gender identities tend to be somewhat more involved in gift giving, that those whose attitudes support doing “women’s work” (e.g., egalitarian men and traditional women) are more involved in gift giving, and that regardless of the other factors studied it still appears as though women are generally more involved in gift giving than men.

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Self-Gifts: Let’s Reward Ourselves!

August 13, 2012

We buy gifts for our parents, siblings, pets, significant others, co-workers, teachers, doctors, and even in-laws. Amidst all of this giving, after all the hard work we put into finding that perfect gift, it’s comforting to know that we often buy ourselves gifts too. Not only do we self-gift, but research has shown that we do so at every chance we get!

As summarized in a chapter from Otnes and Beltramini (1996), and in a more recent article by Heath, Tynan, and Ennew (2011), the fathers of self-gifting research, Mick and DeMoss, originally identified 8 reasons why people give themselves gifts:

  1. Reward for personal accomplishment
  2. To cheer oneself up
  3. To celebrate a holiday
  4. Just to be nice to oneself
  5. To relieve stress
  6. To maintain a good feeling or mood
  7. When there is extra money to spend
  8. To provide an incentive towards a desired goal

In 1991, Mick classified these occasions into four types of self-gifts: Puritanic (rational rewards usually involving successfully completing a task); Romantic (doing or buying something just to please oneself); Therapeutic (indulgence in order to counter negative feelings); and Holiday (indulgence based on public and private occasions) (Mick, 1991). Additional research found that women are more likely to buy therapeutic and romantic self-gifts while men buy puritanical ones (Mick & DeMoss, 1992), and that clothing is the leading product class for self-gifts (McKeage, Richins, & Debevec, 1993)

From this, a preliminary conceptualization was created whereby researchers argued that self-gifts often involve careful thought (even if they aren’t explicitly planned for ahead of time), that they can be any product (tangible or otherwise), and that they fulfill a desire beyond our daily needs. They were defined as, “Personally symbolic self-communication through special indulgences that tend to be premeditated and highly context-bound” (in Otnes & Beltramini, 1996).

More recently, while revisiting why we buy self-gifts, Heath, Tynan, & Ennew (2011) interviewed 10 women and 4 men, finding evidence for the following reasons for self-gifting:

  • Therapeutic/Compensatory: Indulging as a means of feeling better or to compensate for feelings of loneliness or abandonment. It was found that this is the most common form of self-gifting among women and that it sometimes occurred as a means of participating in social interaction (where shopping with friends was desired more than the tangible gift to be bought);
  • Escaping: Indulging in order to distract from one’s problems.
  • Loving Oneself: Self-gifting in order to raise or reinforce one’s self-image. This was often associated with image-related product purchases such as clothes, shoes, and accessories.
  • Rewarding: Rewarding oneself for an accomplishment either after completion or as an incentive. This type was equally associated with both genders and was cited as a way of showing others appreciation for their support by including them in the commemoration of the accomplishment.
  • Celebrating Special Times: Self-gifting due to an occasion such as one’s birthday, religious holidays, etc.

Finally, Heath et al. list the types of self-gifts they observed which included social activities (e.g., going out for dinner and drinks, holiday trips, or weekend getaways) and purchases of image-related goods and services (e.g., clothes, cosmetics, trips to the hair salon, etc.).

It’s clear then that we give ourselves many different types of gifts for many different reasons, and that these indulgences play an important role in improving our hectic lives regardless of whether things are going well or aren’t, by aiding in our celebrations or by helping us cope.

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Factors That Unconsciously Affect Charitable Donations: Terror Management Theory

August 6, 2012

Does a fear of death motivate people to donate to charity? Terror Management Theory postulates that the ever-present fear of death in each of us has direct effects on the decisions we make. Of the many papers available concerning this theory, one interesting article has investigated effects that are relevant to gifts and giving.

Let Us Eat and Drink, for Tomorrow We Shall Die: Effects of Mortality Salience and Self-Esteem on Self-Regulation in Consumer Choice

This paper, by Rosellina Ferraro, Baba Shiv, and James R. Bettman published in the Journal of Consumer Research (2005) presents an experiment that looked at the effects of mortality salience (thinking of one’s own death vs. thinking of a visit to the dentist) and self-esteem (holding virtue in high regard vs. considering it unimportant) on the making of charitable donations and intent to engage in socially conscious behaviors. The authors found that, of those who held virtue as a high source of self-esteem (i.e., those who felt it very important to lead a virtuous life), those who were thinking of their own mortality were more likely to decide to give to charity, contributed significantly more to a charity, and had significantly greater intentions to engage in socially conscious behaviors than those who were thinking of a trip to the dentist. For example, the amount donated to a charity by those who valued virtue was $65 (out of a possible $200) when reminded of their own mortality, but only $34.50 for those with similar opinions but who were instead reminded of a painful trip to the dentist (a difference of $30.50).

These results were reversed for those who did not value virtue as being central to their own self-esteem. For these individuals those reminded of their own mortality donated less than those who were thinking of their dentist. Further, the mortality-focused low-virtue participants were significantly less likely to engage in socially conscious behaviors (E.g., driving their SUV more often in the upcoming year instead of driving less to protect the environment). Ferraro et al. argue that this represented less self-regulation and greater indulgence for topics that were not central to the participants’ self-esteem. This also explains the results for those who greatly valued virtuosity since they can be seen as self-regulating and acting in a way that represents the things they believe (by making donations and acting conscientiously).

The authors conclude that people are less likely to indulge themselves in ways that conflict with values central to their estimation of self-worth when thinking of their own mortality. Further, they find that this is specifically true for fears relating to death, and is not found when people are anxious about other topics (such as dental pain, public speaking, social exclusion, or failing exams). For those of us who actively donate it is an interesting thought experiment to consider the effects that fears have on our decision making process.

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Giving Experiences: Must All Gifts be Tangible?

July 30, 2012

Have you ever wanted to go for a ride in a hot air balloon, dive on the Great Barrier Reef, or go heli skiing in the Swiss Alps? What about sailing on a rented yacht for a day, or driving in a Lamborghini? What would you say if upon opening a mysteriously wrapped present you found a card inviting you to do just that?

In 2007 Professor John Clarke from The Business School at Oxford Brookes University published an article that reviewed the practice of giving and receiving these types of intangible experiential gifts (Clarke, 2007). In this exploratory study, which consisted of ten interviews with Oxford Locals and Marketing Directors from large UK experience companies, Clarke found four factors related to experiential gift giving behavior:

Surprise: Clarke claims that while surprise contributes positively for many types of gifts, gifts of experiences allow for even greater surprises. Not only can the surprise of an experiential gift be amplified by wrapping just as with physical gifts (E.g., a card in a wrapped box), but it is also more difficult for a recipient to attach expectations to an experience than to a physical product. Also, Clarke discusses how production (the occurrence of the event) cannot be separated from consumption (the recipient’s participation in the event). This means that the event will unfold with a lack of donor control, as the recipient is experiencing it. Clarke presents anecdotes of how this can lead to particularly memorable (positive or negative) outcomes.

Suspense: Another trait common in experiential gifts is the notion that suspense may be built alongside surprise. In other words, the gift can be presented but not revealed; the “what” and/or “where” of the experience can be withheld until the experience is about to begin. For example an activity can be revealed (going on a boat), but not the location (and vice versa).

Sacrifice: While physical goods often require sacrifices in terms of time and money, experiential gifts can require even more since not only can costs be high, but much time is also required in finding an appropriate experience, planning and organizing it, and then more often than not participating in it. Clarke notes, however, that such sacrifices can be reduced when purchasing experience gifts from commercial vendors instead of planning them individually. He also notes the potential for unwanted experiential gifts to backfire such as when a recipient feels forced to spend time (and occasionally money) participating in an experience they don’t enjoy.

Sharing: Finally, gifts of experience are often sharable, which Clarke claims allows for the expansion of horizons or nurturing of relationships. For example, donors can participate in the experience or spectate, they can create events that allow recipients to share an experience with a significant other, or they can organize events where recipients participate with others (such as when driving at a race track with other gift recipients).

The Take Home Message
Clarke concludes that the suspense and sharing aspects of an experiential gift, especially sharing, make these gifts potent alternatives to traditional tangible gift giving. He mentions the work of Van Boven and Gilovich (2003) who state that experiential purchases are more likely to make individuals happy since they are “more open to positive interpretation, are more central to a person’s identity, and possess greater social value in … fostering strong social relationships.”

For those of us looking to find the perfect gift, Clarke provides us with four qualities worthy of our attention. When giving the gift of an experience, whether it is a romantic dinner for two, or white water rafting in the Rockies, we would all do well to maximize suspense and surprise. Either way, we are likely to benefit from having taken the time to create a memorable experience and sharing in it.

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The Value of Gifts: What Makes a Successful Gift?

July 23, 2012

Figure 1: A conceptual diagram of gift value. (Larsen & Watson, 2001)

What is it about a gift that makes it special? Does it matter why it was given? Is it better to be spontaneous, or is gift giving outside of formal occasions a recipe for disaster? Chances are that most of us have spent a great deal of time at some point in our lives trying to figure out this whole Gift Giving concept, probably in order to find the perfect gift for someone we care about. Luckily for us, so too have many researchers, and their decades long efforts have revealed that a whole lot more goes into a gifts value than first meets the eye.

In 2001 Derek Larsen and John J. Watson from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand set out to condense past research into a model of gift value. (Larsen & Watson, 2001) Figure 1 summarizes their conclusions.

The two begin by describing how gift giving is a shared experience where both participants are aware of each other’s outward evaluations. Next they describe the four dimensions that they have found play a role in how a given gift is judged: Economic Value; Functional Value; Social Value; and Expressive Value.

Economic Value is fairly self-explanatory, referring to the value that the market places on the gift, and is affected by factors such as scarcity, monetary price, and the existence of alternative suppliers (Belk & Coon, 1993).

Example: Which one of the following gifts has the highest economic value?

1: Kobo Vox – More Info
2: Alienware Gaming Laptop – More Info
3: Perpetual Calendar (Grey/Silver) – More Info
4: Rainbow Glockenspiel – More Info

Functional Value was defined by Sheth, Newman, and Gross (1991) as an object’s perceived usefulness in terms of being able to practically serve a purpose.
Example: Which two of the following gifts are highest in functional value?

1: The Hunger Games Trilogy Box Set – More Info
2: Knork 20 Piece Flatware Set – More Info
3: Dyson DC25 Multi Floor Vacuum – More Info

4: MLB Santa Hat Philadelphia Phillies – More Info

Social Value refers to the fact that gifts can be used to create, maintain, reformulate, or sever relationships. Larsen and Watson note that the placement of emphasis on either Social or Economic values plays a big role in the appropriateness of a gift. For example, they review an anecdote from Belk and Coon (1993) about how it is socially acceptable to take someone out to dinner in order to build a relationship, but that it is less acceptable to take someone out to dinner explicitly in exchange for a late night rendezvous.

Example: Which of the following gifts are generally associated with high social value and what type of relationship are they best suited for?

1: Grand Corporate Gift Basket – More Info
2: Emerald Rosetta Ring – More Info
3: David’s Cookies Little Drummer Boy Basket – More Info

4: Tool Kit II – More Info

Expressive Value refers to the notion that each gift we give ends up conveying parts of our self-identity because gifts are always judged in the context of the person giving them. This means, for example, that someone can reinforce their own identity by giving specific types of gifts.

Beyond the values inherent in the gifts themselves, the value of a gift giving experience is moderated by the relationship between giver and receiver which has a direct impact on additional factors such as a gift’s Cost (in terms of money, time, and effort sacrificed), Appropriateness (whether the gift is ‘right’ for the recipient), and the Context in which an exchange occurs (where and when, for what reason, and in what manner).

So what does this mean for me?

In reviewing the literature, Larsen and Watson developed 6 proposals that we at GiveButtons think are worth keeping in mind:

  1. The type of gift given is a reflection of the type of relationship. As the relationship becomes more intimate, the gift is more likely to draw on expressive value;
  2. In general, gifts with higher costs [both economic and otherwise, such as time, effort, etc.] will be more highly valued;
  3. In general, gifts given at formal occasions (obligatory) will be less valued than spontaneous gifts;
  4. Enhanced presentation and packaging will be associated with higher levels of psychic effort and thus be more valued;
  5. Gifts given in relationships characterized by higher levels of commitment and longer durations will have higher costs (financial and psychic) associated with them;
  6. There is a relationship between culture and cash gifts such that it is more acceptable to give cash gifts for a wider variety of occasions in individualistic [western] cultures.

This post is a summary of a journal paper by Derek Larsen and John J. Watson published in the journal Psychology & Marketing in 2001. The article features a great depth of analysis and is worth reading if you found this topic interesting. The article is available for purchase here. (Larsen & Watson, 2001)

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What do They Want: Why is it so Hard to Buy Gifts for Our Loved Ones?

July 16, 2012

In 2006 Assistant Professor Davy Lerouge and Professor Luk Warlop, from Tilburg University and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven respectively, investigated the effects of familiarity on our abilities to accurately predict the gifts that our partners really want (Lerouge & Warlop, 2006). From the first (of three) experiments the authors found that similarity and accuracy were linked, with increased similarity between partners’ preferences associated with greater accuracy. Further, when couples displayed different individual preferences, it was found that preference ratings were more accurate when they thought they were interacting with a stranger than when they thought they were judging their partner. This led to the conclusion that people may rely on general and stereotypical information when predicting a stranger’s preferences which is more telling of actual preferences than the more specific information used when guessing a familiar person’s preferences.

In a second experiment, the authors looked at the effects of feedback by providing half of a new set of couples with feedback on their target’s actual preferences following each prediction (as in the first experiment), but no feedback for the other half. Results seemed to match those from the first experiment, but also showed that when feedback was not present prediction accuracy was affected only by the similarity between partners’ preferences, and not by familiarity (whether they thought they were rating a stranger’s or their partner’s preferences). Three explanations were presented:

  1. People have so much information about their partners that they become overconfident and fail to use new information (such as feedback about actual preferences) when making decisions;
  2. People listen to feedback about their partner’s preferences, but don’t bother remembering it because they try to fit it in with what they ‘already know;’
  3. People listen to feedback and remember it, but it gets confused with other information stored in memory when the time comes to make a decision.

The final experiment looked at familiarity, similarity, and feedback in greater depth by providing participants with an opportunity to learn their target’s preferences, make predictions, and then complete a memory test. From the results it appeared as though one’s familiarity with a target does not affect attention paid to and learning from feedback, but that it does relate to problems with retrieving preferences from memory when making predictions.

Everything considered Lerouge and Warlop conclude that people seem to put an emphasis on pre-stored partner information rather than specific information about their partner’s preferences. They suggest that this could be due to a preference for retrieving pre-stored rather than recent information about their partner. They also note that the effects of familiarity are second to those due to similarity. When similarity between preferences is high, people appear to focus more on their own attitudes to predict their partner’s. However, when similarity is low, and especially when feedback exists to provide relevant information, then familiarity negatively affects prediction accuracy.

How similar are you and your partner? Try taking our quick similarity survey to see how similar you and your partner really are. Remember, research shows that similar attitudes are related to accurate predictions of product preferences.

This post is a summary of a journal paper by Davy Lerouge and Luk Warlop published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2006. The article delves deeper into the effects of familiarity on prediction accuracy and presents experimental results that are worthy of review. The article is available for purchase here. (Lerouge & Warlop, 2006)

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