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Research Finds Gift Givers Too Focused On "Wow" Factor

Vacuum cleaner may be ideal Christmas gift

by Carnegie Mellon University
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gift-givingResearch by Jeff Galak and co-authors shows that while gift givers tend to focus on the moment of exchange when selecting a gift, gift recipients are more focused on the gift's long-term utility or practical attributes.Photo credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Gift givers often make critical errors in gift selection during the holiday season, most notably putting too much emphasis on the actual moment of exchange, according to new research from Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business and Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.

The research by the Tepper School's Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing—along with co-authors Elanor Williams of the Kelley School, and Tepper School PhD student Julian Givi—shows that while gift givers tend to focus on the moment of exchange when selecting a gift, gift recipients are more focused on the gift's long-term utility or practical attributes. 

"We studied many existing frameworks from research in this area, trying to find a common ground between them. What we found was that the giver wants to 'wow' the recipient and give a gift that can be enjoyed immediately, in the moment, while the recipient is more interested in a gift that provides value over time," Galak said. 

"We are seeing a mismatch between the thought processes and motivations of gift givers and recipients. Put another way, there may be times when the vacuum cleaner, a gift that is unlikely to wow most recipients when they open it on Christmas day, really ought to be at the top of the shopping list as it will be well used and liked for a long time," Galak explained.

The researchers found that this differential focus on the moment of exchange and the desirability of the gift showed up in a number of different ways. For instance, some gift giving errors included:

  • Giving unrequested gifts in an effort to surprise the recipient, when, in fact, they are likely hoping for a gift from a pre-constructed list or registry;
  • Focusing on tangible, material gifts, which are likely to be immediately well received, when, in fact, experiential gifts, such as theater tickets or a massage, would result in more enjoyment later on; or
  • Giving socially responsible gifts, such as donations to a charity in the recipient's name, which seem special at the moment of gift exchange, but provide almost no value to recipients down the road

The paper, titled "Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give But Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving," will be published this month in "Current Directions in Psychological Science," a journal from the Association for Psychological Science that publishes research related to language, memory and cognition, development, the neural basis of behavior and emotions, various aspects of psychopathology, and theory of mind.

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The paper also makes recommendations for those hoping to choose better gifts, advising them to better empathize with gift recipients when thinking about gifts that would be both appreciated and useful. 

"We exchange gifts with the people we care about, in part, in an effort to make them happy and strengthen our relationships with them," Galak said. "By considering how valuable gifts might be over the course of the recipient's ownership of them, rather than how much of a smile it might put on recipients' faces when they are opened, we can meet these goals and provide useful, well-received gifts."