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Study Explains Pitfalls in Gift Giving

Research by Professor Nathan Novemsky and Yale SOM doctoral student Ernest Baskin helps to explain why we give bad gifts.

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research explains why we give bad gifts, even when we make an effort to select the perfect gift that the recipient will love.

According to the study, co-authored by Nathan Novemsky, professor of marketing, and Ernest Baskin, a doctoral student in marketing at Yale SOM, both gift givers and gift receivers focus on the receiver when thinking about a gift. However, givers and receivers evaluate gifts differently. The study reveals that gift givers prefer to give more desirable gifts, while receivers prefer to receive more practical gifts.

“Ironically, gift giving is one of the rare occasions when focusing on someone else backfires,” says Novemsky. “The tradeoffs that gift givers make between choosing a desirable gift and a practical gift are not in line with what gift receivers actually want.”

In a series of eight classroom studies and an additional field study involving friends giving gifts to each other, the authors measured the tradeoffs between desirability and practicality in gift giver and gift receiver preferences.

The authors use the example of a gift giver who knows the gift receiver loves Italian food and has to choose between a restaurant gift certificate for a well-rated restaurant that is an hour away versus a somewhat lower-quality restaurant that is five minutes away.

The research shows that the gift giver will choose the fancier restaurant, while the gift receiver would prefer to receive a gift certificate to the restaurant that is closer to their house.

The authors also studied the social motivations of gift givers. They found that in giving fancier gifts, gift givers want to show they care, make the receiver happier, and give a gift that is well-liked.

“Gift givers expect highly desirable gifts to have better social consequences than they do,” says Novemsky. “They are more likely to show they care and make the receiver happier with a practical gift.”

“Why Feasibility Matters More to Gift Receivers than Givers: A Construal-Level Approach to Gift Giving” is forthcoming in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. Other authors are Cheryl J. Wakslak (University of Southern California) and Yaacov Trope (New York University).

Department: Research