How to buy a well-liked birthday gift

Often times, we need to buy gifts for other people. Birthdays, Christmas, weddings, and anniversaries are just some examples of situations in which we buy gifts for others. In those situations, many people have difficulties selecting a gift. We might believe that we do not know the person well enough to choose a good gift, or we might think that we need to know what the receiver of the gift needs in order to select a gift that will be appreciated. Fortunately, recent research has provided a solution to this problem: simply select a gift that reflects your personal taste or interests.

People’s difficulties in buying gifts for others are based on the assumption that a perfect gift fits a receiver’s interests or needs. Indeed, both common knowledge and research suggest that receivers like to receive gifts that they asked for (e.g. on a wish list), or gifts that fit their main interests. Yet, this raises difficulties when receivers haven’t prepared a wish list, or when givers do not know the receiver very well. One solution in such situations could be to give a gift that fits the giver’s main interests. Would a gift that reflects the giver’s main interests be appreciated by receivers? Because there was no clear answer to this question (no one had really looked at how a fit between the giver and the gift would influence receiver’s appreciation of the gift), we addressed it in our research.

To find an answer to the question of whether receivers appreciate gifts that have some fit with the main interests of the giver, we undertook four studies with a variety of respondents: students from Erasmus University Rotterdam, US residents recruited on Amazon Mechanical Turk and Dutch adults. In our studies, respondents read a scenario that described how they either received a gift that reflected a main interest of the giver (e.g., a mug from the Louvre museum in Paris from a giver who is passionate about France), or received a gift that did not reflect a main interest of the giver (e.g., a mug from the Louvre museum in Paris from a giver who went on holiday to Paris once). After the scenario, respondents answered five questions about how much they appreciated the gift. They also indicated on three questions how much they perceived the gift to be related to the giver’s personality.

The findings of our studies suggest that respondents appreciated gifts that reflected a main interest of the giver more than a gift that did not reflect the main interest of the giver. Gifts that had some narrative information attached, such as a picture of Paris from somebody who loves Paris, or a CD from an avid music fan, meant more to the receiver than a gift that had no personal connection at all. This effect was stronger when receivers perceived the gift to be more strongly related to the giver’s personality. However, the findings also revealed that this reflective aspect of the gift has to be a main interest of the giver. Simply giving a souvenir from a country that you visited once and will never visit again would not be appreciated.

Why would it be the case that receivers like gifts more when the gift fits the main interests of the giver? Researchers have noted that people like consistency between their personalities and their behaviors. People tend to make both large and trivial decisions in ways that fit with their self-image. Whether they are choosing a career or buying a detergent, they try to behave in ways that somehow fit their sense of themselves. Moreover, not only do people appreciate consistency in their own selves and behaviours, they also like to see consistencies in the selves and behaviours of other people. In fact, people like to see others acting in character even if they do not like the qualities of those others. This tendency for consistency can also be found in our gift giving studies: receivers like to see givers act consistently, such that givers buy gifts that fit their selves.

Interestingly, the finding that receivers appreciate gifts that fit with the main interests of the giver seemed to be true regardless of whether receivers liked the giver. In one study we tested what happened when receivers would receive a gift from a person that they did not like. The results showed that, even when receivers did not like the giver, they still preferred to receive a gift that reflected the main interests of the giver.

In sum, it seems that even in situations where you do not know or do not like the receiver, you will end up giving a nice gift when you select something that really fits you. After all, you know yourself a lot better than you know them. For retailers and marketers, our findings also suggest that marketers should encourage consumers to buy gifts for others that consumers would like to receive themselves – perhaps among products that consumers have bought in the past.

This blog is based on the paper Give Me Your Self: Gifts are Liked More When They Match the Giver’s Characteristics, written by Gabriele Paolacci, Laura Straeter and Ilona E. de Hooge, and published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 3, July 2015, p487-494. DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2015.01.006

Ilona de Hooge

About Ilona de Hooge

Ilona's research focuses on emotional experiences. She takes a look at how emotional experiences (e.g., shame, guilt, authenticity, nostalgia, emotional involvement) play a role in marketing and consumer behaviors such as advice taking/giving, cooperation, prosocial behavior, gift giving, online purchases, food preparation and food waste. She published multiple papers on these topics, and is working on many new projects.

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