Study probes science of gift-giving

New research from the Yale School of Management suggests it’s not the thought that counts.

Previous research has shown differences between the taste of gift-givers and gift-receivers. Now, researchers from Yale, University of Southern California and New York University investigated how gift-givers and receivers weigh the convenience and desirability of a gift, demonstrating that gift-givers failed to sufficiently account for the convenience of a gift. The finding reveals one of the few instances when considering the wishes of others leads to a worse social outcome, said Nathan Novemsky, professor at the Yale School of Management and senior author of the paper.

“Previous studies on gift-giving have found a number of systematic biases in givers’ ability to understand what it is a receiver wants,” Novemsky said. “We think we’ve added a new one — we think a fairly fundamental one — that crops up in a lot of situations. [We have] this idea that givers focus too much on the desirability of a gift and don’t think enough about its convenience or its ease of use.”

The researchers administered a series of online surveys about both hypothetical gifts and participants’ actual experiences with gift-giving. In the study, subjects reported the convenience and desirability of a series of gifts that they either gave or received.

For both the past and hypothetical experiences, the researchers showed that gift-givers do not adequately consider the importance of a gift’s practicality. For instance, Novemsky said people would rather give a computer program with lots of features that is difficult to learn, while receivers would prefer a program with fewer features that is easier to learn.

“Givers really want to give gifts that are desirable, and they think that receivers will like them and that will improve their relationship with the givers,” said Ernest Baskin GRD ’16, a Ph.D. candidate at the Yale School of Management and lead author of the paper. “Receivers actually prefer gifts that are slightly more practical.”

Baskin said that while marketing data collected from the surveys may not reflect actual decision-making, the study features actual gift decisions that reinforce the study conclusions. The researchers approached pairs of people in public and asked them whether they would prefer to give or receive a heavy, state-of-the-art pen or a more portable traditional variant. Subject replied they preferred to give the fancy, heavier pen and receive the lighter one.

Cheryl Wakslak, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and co-author of the study, said this study is one of the first experiments in gift-giving from a marketing perspective, while previous research was completed  from an anthropological or sociological standpoint. Wakslak said she sees quantitative studies of gift-giving becoming more common in the near future.

Marketers can take advantage of the results by advertising impractical and desirable products as gifts, while more practical items as objects to be received, she said.

The study appeared in the Journal of Consumer Medicine on March 6.

Comments