Perception of Holiday Shopping and Gift Receiving

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Gift giving and receiving provides insight into receivers' spending habits and relationships, according to a symposium that will be offered in February from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Exchanging gifts can reveal what givers think about themselves and others, according to a symposium titled “The Psychology of Gift Giving and Receiving.” The presentation will be offered at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Convention in Long Beach, California in February 2015.

In one poll on 2013’s Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving when many shoppers flock to stores for deeply discounted sale – shoppers were surveyed about their habits. The researchers learned that shoppers were found to be less motivated, and likely to use effort reducing strategies when choosing gifts for picky people (which were 39 percent of gift receivers). However, the research demonstrated that there was a benefit to being a picky recipient: givers were more likely to buy an item the picky receiver specifically requested.

The researchers of another study were intrigued about the perception and spending of gift cards. They found that gift cards seem to be in the ideal realm for picky gift giving — they have the flexibility of cash but are given and meant to be spent as gifts, sometimes in a particular store.

“While gift cards technically could be used to buy mundane things like textbooks or paper towels, we find that this feels like a misuse of the card,” explained lead researcher of this prong of the study Chelsea Helion, PhD. “When paying with a gift card, people forgo buying everyday items in favor of buying indulgent items.”

When individuals receive a gift card, Helion and her colleagues found, they were more likely to spend the card on luxury items. Spenders felt more justified in buying something out of the ordinary with their gift cards; the items would not have otherwise been purchased with credit cards or cash.

In a separate study of personalization of gifts, researchers found givers tended to choose gifts that were personalized to the recipient, but were less versatile than what the recipient expected. The recipients of gift cards sometimes found the cards to be so specific it led to them not being spent at all. Instead of more general gift cards, sometimes cards for specific stores are best.

“Givers tend to focus on what recipients are like rather than what they would like,” lead researcher Mary Steffel, PhD, explained. “This can lead them to gravitate toward gifts that are personalized but not very versatile.”

In a final study, researchers analyzed the differences between receiving experiences versus material gifts. The researchers found the best way to make a friend, spouse, or family member feel closer to the gift giver was to give an experience. It didn’t make a difference whether the experience was consumed together — either way, improvements in relationship strength were noted.

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