Under the Hood

Gifting Is More About Triggering Enthusiastic Reactions Than Long-Term Satisfaction

People tend to aim for strong immediate reactions such as surprise and delight when choosing a gift for someone, new findings suggest. This inclination persists even when other gift options are likely to bring more long-term satisfaction.

The study titled "The Smile-Seeking Hypothesis: How Immediate Affective Reactions Motivate and Reward Gift Giving" was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. 

Anyone who has spent time on the internet has likely come across reaction videos on YouTube. Given their popularity, it seems that we just really enjoy watching other people respond to something that induces shock, surprise, excitement, etc.

"Our findings suggest that the pleasure that we can derive from others' display of emotions is more powerful than previously considered," said lead author Adelle Yang, a researcher at the National University of Singapore.

In their new study, Yang and co-author Oleg Urminsky from the University of Chicago decided to examine the act of people giving gifts to someone. When choosing what to give, they believed that we are influenced by the "big reveal," i.e. the immediate reaction the recipient would display. In other words, whether or not they are actually satisfied with the gift takes a backseat.

For the first experiment, 357 participants were assigned to be a gift-receiving couple or one of the couple's gift-giving friends. They were given the option between two similarly priced mugs — while one was personalized, the other came with an ergonomic design. Participants were asked to rate the options, predict the reaction they would elicit, and also predict recipient satisfaction.

Though they predicted equal satisfaction for both, givers preferred the personalized mugs since they anticipated a stronger emotional response from the couple. But receivers did not show a preference for one option over the other.

The second experiment involved 295 participants in romantic relationships who were asked to make a choice among similarly-priced Valentine's Day gifts. Once again, givers tended to opt for gifts like a bouquet which would elicit the strongest immediate reaction rather than options that would deliver long-term satisfaction.

Interestingly, the researchers found, whether or not the giver could witness the recipient opening their presents was a key factor. The preference for gifts with a "wow" factor diminished when participants were told they won't be seeing their reactions.

Furthermore, when asked about their real-life experiences, people reported that they would be most satisfied with gifts like books or money. However, as givers, they are not inclined to giving such presents as they do not trigger a strong immediate response.

"These discrepant preferences are surprisingly 'stubborn,'" Yang said. "In this and other ongoing research, the data suggest that givers often report a different preference when imagining themselves as receivers, but that did not change their preference as givers."

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