The Science Behind Gift Giving

There’s a science to gift giving, with new research suggesting that giving an experience rather than a material item can strengthen a relationship.

The new study from Cindy Chan, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Management and the Rotman School of Management, finds experiential gifts are more effective at improving relationships from the recipient’s perspective.

“The reason experiential gifts are more socially connecting is that they tend to be more emotionally evocative,” said Chan. “An experiential gift elicits a strong emotional response when a recipient consumes it — like the fear and awe of a safari adventure, the excitement of a rock concert or the calmness of a spa — and is more intensely emotional than a material possession.”

The research, co-authored with Cassie Mogilner, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management, looks at how relationships between a gift giver and recipient were affected across four separate studies.

While past research focused mostly on how much recipients enjoy certain gifts, the new study explored the “pro-social consequences” of gifts — or how effective gifts are in building relationships, the researchers explained.

“Often the focus is only on whether someone likes a gift, rather than focusing on a fundamental objective of gift giving, and that is fostering relationships between giver and recipient,” Chan said.

She notes it is important to explore the “effectiveness” of gift-giving because the typical household spend about two percent of its annual income on buying gifts. Gifts are also important opportunities to nurture relationships, she added.

Yet, according to the new research, 78 percent of respondents reported most recently buying material gifts rather than an experience.

Those considering material gifts can also highlight the experience it provides, Chan said. Giving a friend a CD of music that reminds them of a concert enjoyed together can mimic the same effect as the experience of the concert itself.

In one of the studies, Chan found that emotionally evocative gifts can also strengthen relationships. Emotional material gifts like a joke-of-the-day calendar, a framed photo, or jewelry engraved with a loving message can be very effective gifts in that regard.

So what advice does she have for gift buyers ahead of the holiday season?

“Consider someone’s favorite hobby or something new they’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “Marketers should also package experiential gifts in a way that makes it easier for recipients to consume them so they don’t have to be tied to using the gifts by a particular day or time.”

The research fits into a broader body of research that suggests using discretionary spending for experiences rather than more material possessions. Chan points to honeymoon registries that allow people to buy a dinner, scuba lessons or chipping in on airfare as examples.

“People often struggle with the challenge of choosing what to give someone,” she said. “If you want to give them something that will make them feel closer to you, give an experience.”

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Source: University of Toronto
Photo: An experiential gift like concert tickets or passes to an aquarium, may help build a stronger relationship than giving a material item. Credit: Ken Jones.