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Gift-giving advice: U of T research finds better to give something that you also own

New research finds that if you give a gift that you may own yourself, a recipient may be more likely to appreciate it (photo by AxsDeny via Flickr)

The next time you’re about to buy a gift, consider picking the same thing up for yourself – new research suggests your recipient will end up liking the gift more.

Research by U of T and the University of Wisconsin-Madison looks at the effects of owning the same item in a gift-giving context. Gifts like wool socks, mugs, staplers and headphones were considered more likable, thoughtful and considerate if a message was attached saying, “I hope you like the gift. I got myself the same gift too.”

It turns out the effect comes down to something called “companionizing,” say researchers, who published their findings in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“People enjoy and get some benefit in sharing with other people,” says Sam Maglio, an assistant professor of management of U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, who co-authored the research with Evan Polman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

“If you can foster a sense of social connectedness and similarity, the recipient won’t just see a gift, they will see a reminder of sharing something in their relationship with the giver.”


Sam Maglio is an assistant professor of marketing at U of T Scarborough (photo by Ken Jones)

Polman says people like “a companionized gift,” feeling close to the giver.

“The fact that a gift is shared with the giver makes it a better gift in the eyes of the receiver,” says Polman. “They like a companionized gift more, and they even feel closer to the giver.”

The researchers controlled for factors like cost, telling the recipient how much effort was put into the gift and also letting the recipient know about the gift’s online customer rating.

“Those didn’t really have an effect above and beyond the control. Instead, it seems to matter more to recipients that they shared the gift with the giver,” says Maglio. 

But for the gift to be appreciated, there is a narrow window of time in which sharing can occur. If you want to give someone a gift you bought for yourself last year for example, it won’t work. Another study showed that a third-party connection also won’t work, like using the same gift you gave another friend or family member.

“The positive effect you get with sharing is small but robust,” says Maglio. “It’s a reliable and consistent boost under the right conditions, at the right time, and between the right people.”

So what does this mean for gift buyers?

There are some established psychological theories to keep in mind, notes Maglio. One is the idea of mere similarities, that is our tendency to enjoy similar things with others, like sharing the same initials or birthday to create a social bond. And gift buyers can avoid the need to spend more money or go after a highly rated gift on Amazon.   

At the end of the day, the most important thing is figuring out what gives you the most bang for your buck. 

“If what you care about most is the recipient liking the gift, get them something that reminds them of you and a similarity you share with them,” he says.