Carnegie Mellon University

Gift Giving Research

December 13, 2017

Tepper School Research Analyzes Sentimental Value and Its Influence on Holiday Gift-Giving

Research finds that sentimentally valuable gifts cause pause for consumers.

New research from the Tepper School of Business suggests that the fear of giving the wrong gift is holding gift givers back this holiday season.  

The research by Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing, along with co-author Julian Givi, Tepper School Ph.D. student, suggests that when faced with the choice to give a sentimental gift or one that is less personal, givers tend default to a superficial option to avoid uncertainty about how the gift will be received.

Ironically, recipients’ preferences skew toward receiving more personal gift options, those high in sentimental value.

Factors that impact the gift exchange process

“We conducted several studies to understand what factors contribute to givers’ fears of missing the mark. What we found was that ultimately, givers are not listening to receivers. Although receivers desire personal gifts, givers are hesitant because of uncertainty about how an emotionally-associated item will be received,” said Galak. “This is a real problem for consumers this holiday season. When givers give into their own anxiety, they deprive others of enjoying the intent of true gift-giving.”

The researchers found that there are several factors that positively impact the gift exchange process, such as the occasion when the gift is exchanged and giver-receiver relationship types:

  • More sentimental occasions, such as a going away party, increase the likelihood of receiving a more emotionally tied item;
  • There is a positive correlation between the likelihood of gifting emotionally associated items and the strength of the relationship between gift givers and receivers;
  • Gift givers who have had success taking a risk point to a higher likelihood of choosing a sentimental item.

Utility and practicality rule the day

The paper, titled ‘Sentimental Value and Gift Giving: Givers’ Fears of Getting It Wrong Prevents Them from Getting It Right,' by Julian Givi and Jeff Galak, (DOI) appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Volume 27, Issue 4 (2017), published by Elsevier.

The paper found that regardless of various instances when sentimentally affiliated gifts were more likely to be shared with recipients, low-risk and preference-matching items (without emotional ties) were preferred by givers — even when the receiver favored the more personal gift item. 

“We’ve found that despite factors that may prompt consumers to give more personal gifts, they continue to default to the superficial item,” said Givi. “For example, a recipient may prefer a framed photograph of himself and his friends attending a memorable sporting event that featured his favorite team, but the giver is likely to lean toward gifting a shirt with the team name and logo.”

“Regardless of how much a receiver would prefer the emotionally-charged gift, we found that utility and practicality rule the day for gift givers,” Galak noted. “The benefits or usefulness of a superficial gift outweigh the risks of giving a present that may not be well-received, but also unfortunately, takes away from the happiness of person receiving it.”