Rotman Executive Summary

How to perfect your gift giving, according to research

Episode Summary

Research tells us we're probably not as good at gift giving as we'd like to think. Assistant professor Cindy Chan joined the Rotman Executive Summary podcast to explore the science behind better gift exchanges, how we approach the process asymmetrically, and how presents can actually change - and improve - our relationships. This is an episode you'll definitely want to unwrap ahead of the holidays.

Episode Notes

Research tells us we're probably not as good at gift giving as we'd like to think. Assistant professor Cindy Chan joined the Rotman Executive Summary podcast to explore the science behind better gift exchanges, how we approach the process asymmetrically, and how presents can actually change - and improve - our relationships. This is an episode you'll definitely want to unwrap ahead of the holidays. 

Show notes: 

[0:00] How confident are you in your gift-giving game? 

[0:55] Meet Cindy Chan, an expert in gifts, experiences and relationships.

[1:15] Social norms make gift giving a complex dance. 

[2:49] Gifts play a role in a system of reciprocity in our society and play a part in building an strengthening our relationships. 

[3:44] What are the three stages of gift giving?

[5:25] Gift giving is asymmetrical - take gifts given out of guilt. 

[6:44] To give better gifts, stick to wishlists. 

[7:53] Think about desirability versus feasibility.

[8:30] As a giver, remember the gift isn't about you. 

[9:07] To really build or strengthen relationships, give the gift of experiences. 

[9:35] The emotions we feel while enjoying that experience is what's socially connecting. 

[10:44] Bonus: The giver doesn't even need to participate in the experience for it to work. 

[11:20] That being, shared experience that help you learn, grow or experience something new - typically an active experience - are more socially bonding when shared with another individual. 

[12:15] Always remember feasibility versus desirability, and keep the recipient's age in mind as well. How people define "happiness" changes as they get older. 

[13:00] Ultimately think about what you hope to achieve with the present. 

[13:24] "If you're looking to foster relationship with someone, give an experience rather than a material thing. Give an experience that is emotionally evocative to consume. And if you can share that experience with someone, give them something that's active to share so that you can you know, grow together and as a result grow closer together." 

Episode Transcription

Megan Haynes: When it comes to buying presents, do you feel confident in your ability to “land” the gift? You know this item will elicit a squeal of delight and oohs and ahhs? 

Or are you the type who stresses over whether the recipient will love the gift? Will they use it? Is it something they want? If it’s the thought that counts, have I given it enough thought? 

Cindy  Chan: Gift givers sometimes feel anxious about gift giving, right? We want to make sure we choose the right gift, that we don't offend the recipient, that, if we're giving a gift in a group setting that people think is an acceptable gift to give. And one thing that people stress about is money, how much do we spend on a gift.  So we as givers may think that more expensive gifts are better, and that there's a strong correlation between how much you spend on a gift and how much the gift will be appreciated by the recipient. However, the research has shown that recipients are appreciative of gifts irrespective of how much they cost.

MH: That’s Cindy Chan, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough, with a cross-appointment to the Rotman School of Management. She studies the role of experiences, emotions and gifts in shaping our relationships with one another. And she understands that gift-giving is nuanced, complex and sometimes fraught. 

CC: There are different social norms that guide gift giving both across cultures and within cultures. So for example, in Japan, there are very strong norms about what to give to whom, how the gift itself should be given and wrapped. In some cultures and countries, such as China or Vietnam, the norm of giving money in the form of lucky money and red envelopes is much more socially acceptable than it might be in other cultures where it might be frowned upon or a little bit taboo to give money. And, there are norms around different holidays. So you might give a certain type of gift for valentine’s day that is appropriate, that might feel inappropriate to give for a birthday — like a bouquet of roses. And it may be ok to give a bouquet or roses to a spouse or loved one or partner, but feel a little weird to give that to a client.

MH: So is there a way to make gift-giving less stressful? What the role do gifts play in our society and relationships, and how can we improve our gift-giving game? 

Welcome to the Executive Summary, I’m Megan Haynes, editor of the Rotman Insights Hub.  

Musical interlude

MH: Holidays. Birthdays. Weddings. Anniversaries. Retirement parties. Thank you gifts. I’m sorry gifts. Thinking of you gifts. 

There are any number of reasons to give out a present to people in your life. But what role exactly do gifts play in our relationships with others? 

CC: Researchers have argued that gift giving contributes to a system of reciprocity and exchange in our society. 

MH: When I get a gift, I often find a reason to return the gift. Think mutual exchanges of presents over birthdays. 

CC: And other people have talked about gift giving as a form of social communication. And that's because gifts have this symbolic or expressive value. They can convey to someone something about what we think, what we feel and how we care about them. 

MH: And in Cindy’s view, a gift isn’t just a symbolic or transactional process. 

CC: A gift is something that we give someone to express that we care about that relationship. We give gifts to people who are important in our lives, and with whom we have relationships that we want to foster and grow. Whether that's a family member, a new friend, a new potential mate, a client, we give gifts to people who we care about is how I think about gift giving at its core.

MH: Ultimately, it’s a way to build or strengthen a relationship. And if you think of most gift exchanges, they boil down to three steps. 

Step one; the giver thinks about what to get the recipient. 

Step two: the actual gift exchange. 

Step three: the receiver hopefully uses or consumes the gift. 

At each of these stages, the relationship has the potential to be altered, and impacts the giver and receiver slightly differently. Take the first stage, when the giver is thinking about what to get the recipient.

CC: In the part leading up to the gift, a lot of this is going to affect the gift giver. They're putting the effort into choosing a gift, they're reflecting on their relationship with them.

MH: In the second stage — the exchange — well, just think of how nice it is to get a present. 

CC: And there are a lot of positive emotions that may arise at that point. In some of my research, we found that emotions such as surprise, happiness, gratitude are frequently mentioned.

MH: Finally on the last stage, when the recipient is using or consuming the gift, they now have an opportunity to reflect on their relationship with the gift giver. 

CC: It could strengthen the relationship. Ideally, it would. Or in some cases, if it's poorly received, then it could damage the relationship. Now for the most part, gift recipients are fairly appreciative and so it's less common to see a gift cause the demise of a relationship. But of course, we've all heard these stories about gifts gone wrong and bad gifts. And so that certainly happens from time to time. 

MH: Three stages, and at each stage, our relationship with the other person has the potential to be altered. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? 

Well, Cindy’s research shows that gift giving can be a bit asymmetrical — how you see the relationship changing as a gift giver, might be different from how the receiver perceives it. 

Take gifts given out of guilt.

Cindy gives the example of a wife who brings home a present to her partner after they’ve taken on more than their fair share at home while she deals with a busy period at the office. Cindy’s research shows that when the wife gives the present out of guilt, the wife feels she’s repaired or strengthened the relationship; but that feeling isn’t necessarily mutual. 

But reframe that same gift-giving opportunity to one of thanks rather than guilt, and the partner may have a different reaction. 

CC: So in my research I've shown that recipients often prefer a gift that expresses gratitude acknowledging that they've gone above and beyond. And as a result, they would feel closer as a consequence of receiving that gratitude gift compared to a gift expressing guilt.

MH: Effectively, even though gift giving can change a relationship and be social connecting, the gift giver and receiver both think about that role of the present a little differently; and this is where a lot of our problems come in. 

Musical interlude

MH: It can absolutely suck when you hand over a gift, expecting a massive smile or an expression of glee, only to get a polite "thank you
 instead.  We’ve all missed the mark when it comes to giving presents, and research has some suggestions on how to avoid those missteps in the future. Let’s start with a simple one. Give them what they ask for… 

CC: Researchers have shown that you are tempted to go off registry, particularly if you're close to the recipient, but that recipients actually would prefer to receive exactly what they asked for. So I would say that if someone is dropping hints, or telling you exactly what they want as a gift, you should feel okay, as a gift giver, to give them that gift and not be so worried about it not conveying that you're thoughtful. 

MH: We tend to want to veer off registry or wishlists because we want to show the gift recipient we know them, we understand them, we’re being thoughtful. But that can actually have the opposite effect on a relationship — they’ve told you what they want; you ignored their request. 

CC: And there's even that saying, "It's the thought that counts." It literally drives how we think about gift giving. That being said, this often comes at the expense of giving a gift that will be better liked by the recipient.

MH: Cindy also cautions that people need to think about the desirability versus feasibility of a present. Givers tend to prioritize how desirable a gift is — that Michelin-rated restaurant on the other side of town sounds fab. In comparison, receivers tend to have different priorities. 

CC: How easy is it for me to consume this gift? How well does this gift fit into my life? Is it something that I can use often or frequently. Is it something that's easy for me to redeem? So they might actually prefer gift certificate to a really great restaurant that's in their neighborhood, rather than one that requires them driving an hour and a half.

MH: All of this is to say, sometimes gift givers forget that the gift is about the receiver.

CC: So there are many studies documenting this asymmetry between givers and recipients when it comes to gift giving. This often happens because we are poor at perspective taking sometimes. It’s hard for us to take the perspective of another person and think about exactly what they might like or what their feelings are in a moment. 

Musical interlude

MH: So how can we build better relationships through gifts? Cindy’s research is pretty clear: give experiences. 

CC: So when it comes to gift giving, a lot of the types of gifts that first come to mind for people tend to be material things. They often are what fill suggested gift lists around the holidays. In my research, I find that if you’re looking to strengthen a relationship with your recipient, that experiential gift are more effective at doing so. One of the underlying mechanisms that we've identified is the emotions that one feels when you consume the gift. 

When you consume an experiential gift, that experience tends to be more emotionally evocative, more emotionally intense than when you consume a material gift. So for example, going to see a Broadway show may elicit a variety of emotions that are maybe stronger than when one wears or uses a piece of clothing or jewelry or using an electronic gadget that was received as a material gift. So this emotionality seems to be a key driver of the effect. We know that strong relationships are ones in which emotions are experienced and shared.

MH: So, whether it’s a Taylor Swift concert, tickets to see a beloved hockey team or rock climbing lessons, it’s that evocative, intense emotion that doing the activity allows that’s socially connecting.

For folks stuck on giving an item that can be unwrap and held in their hands, Cindy says to consider material items that are more experiential in nature — a board game perhaps or a commemorative vinyl of their favourite band.

Importantly, her research says you — the gift giver — don’t even need to be there for the experience to strengthen the relationship. So go ahead and skip the hockey game if you don’t enjoy sports, and don’t feel like you have to risk your knees for that rock climbing class; the effect is the same. 

CC: This surprised us a little bit. We thought that it had to be that if you share an experience with the recipient that will be better than if you don't. And we found this to not be a robust finding… that actually if you give a recipient an experience that you don't share with them, that those gifts were still socially connecting.

MH: That being said, Cindy’s recent research has focused on how the type of activity you do with another person can help improve a relationship. While not specifically tied to gift giving, it’s worth keeping in mind in that context: 

Active experiences — think going for a hike or taking a cooking class — tend to be what’s called self-expansive, and as a result can be more socially connecting when shared with another person than a passive one, such as watching a movie together. 

CC: So in the literature, we have people that looked at types of experiences that expand your sense of self, they change your perspective on the world, how you see yourself as a person, you may feel you've grown as a person after an experience, or that you've learned something new. These experiences, when shared with another person tend to make you feel closer. This person has been part of the self growth experience. And as a result, you've sort of integrate that person more into your sense of self.

MH: It’s important to remember the feasibility that Cindy talked about earlier; perhaps skip the white-water rafting adventure for your sister who just gave birth or the weekend getaway for a friend caring for an ailing parent. And consider the age of the recipient as well. 

CC: People who are younger tend to be more future oriented. And as a result, they tend to define happiness more in terms of excitement. So if you're thinking about giving some gift to someone who's younger, and you want them to experience happiness when consuming your gift, then think about a gift that elicits excitement.

MH: In comparison, for older individuals, “happiness” is in the here and now, and tends to be built more around the idea of calm —  perhaps consider a spa day or a foray onto a golf course.

That’s not to say that a new purse or weed trimmer isn’t a good idea — especially if it’s something the recipient explicitly asked for. But ultimately, think about what you hope to achieve with the present.

CC: I think it may depend on what your, I’m gonna say outcome of interest is. Are you prioritizing giving them a gift that will be well liked? Or are you prioritizing, giving a gift that you think will build your relationship? 

If you're looking to foster relationship with someone, give an experience rather than a material thing. Give an experience that is emotionally evocative to consume. And if you can share that experience with someone, give them something that's active to share so that you can grow together and as a result grow closer together.

Musical interlude

MH: This has been Rotman Executive Summary, a podcast bringing you the latest insights and innovative thinking from Canada's leading business school.  

Special thanks for assistant professor Cindy Chan. We’ll be back in a few weeks with assistant professor Shreyas Sekar to talk about the very real risk of fake reviews. 

This episode was written and produced by Megan Haynes. It was recorded by Dan Mazzotta, and edited by Avery Moore Kloss.   

For more innovative thinking, head over to the Rotman Insights Hub, and subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, Apple or Google Podcasts. 

Thanks for tuning in.