Opinion

Three Questions: Prof. Nathan Novemsky on Gifts and Resolutions

Behavioral science has enriched the study of economics, marketing, and finance, but the real test is whether it can help you run the holiday gantlet. Yale’s Nathan Novemsky explains how to use behavioral research to give better gifts and follow through on New Year’s resolutions.


What does behavioral research say about how to choose gifts that will delight our loved ones? 

There are many findings in behavioral science about how to give better gifts. Here are a few: Consider not wrapping or wrapping more modestly because our research shows that very attractive wrapping raises expectations and leads to receivers being less happy with their gift than if it were wrapped less attractively or not wrapped. Other behavioral science shows that you would be well served to focus less on price and the difficulty of attaining the gift, since receivers pay little attention to these factors. Instead our research shows that you should give gifts that are convenient to use, even if somewhat less attractive, as receivers value convenience more than gift givers and value gift attractiveness less than givers.

After the holidays are over, many will adopt, and then abandon, New Year’s resolutions. Does the research suggest methods for making resolutions stick?

Two key elements to sticking to resolutions: 1) Form a habit, which means try to perform your new behavior at the same time and in the same place each time you do it. If you do this, the context in which you perform that behavior will become a cue to remind you to do the new behavior and help you to form a habit (leaving yourself reminders also helps as you get into a groove). 2) Precommit in some substantial way—this could be a public declaration to friends and family or even using a website like Stickk.com to make a financial commitment to yourself.

Do these insights have applications for us as employees or managers?

Sure. New Year’s resolutions are relevant not just at home, but also at work! The same advice can be used by employees and employers looking to change routines in the workplace. Public declarations at work can have a big impact, especially when they come from someone in charge. Commitment devices are also very effective in the workplace.

Professor of Marketing