The science of gift giving: U of T research on the best kind of present to receive

From spas to safaris, new research shows giving an experience can build a stronger relationship
Experiential gifts are more effective at improving relationships, according to a new study by Cindy Chan, an assistant professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management. Photo by Ken Jones

If it’s better to give than to receive, U of T research shows that it’s better to give an experience than a thing.

New research by Cindy Chan, an assistant professor in U of T Scarborough’s department of management and the Rotman School of Management, finds experiential gifts are more effective than material gifts 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,” says Chan, an expert on consumer relationships.

“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 UCLA Anderson School of Management, is published online in the Journal of Consumer Research and looks at how relationships between a gift giver and recipient were affected across four separate studies.

Read more research from Chan

While past research has focused mostly on how much recipients enjoy certain gifts, this research is unique in that it explores the pro-social consequences of gift consumption, or how effective gifts are in building relationships.  

“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,” she says. 

Chan says exploring the effectiveness of gift-giving is important because households spend approximately two per cent of their annual income on buying gifts, and gifts are also important opportunities to nurture relationships. Yet researchers found 78 per cent of respondents reported most recently buying a material gift instead of an experience.

Those considering material gifts can also highlight the experience it provides, notes Chan. Giving a friend a music CD 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 and marketers ahead of the holiday season? 

“Consider someone’s favourite hobby or something new they’ve always wanted to do. 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,” she says.

The research also 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 prime examples.

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


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