This holiday season, in addition to giving the usual Christmas gifts to loved ones, I will be participating in two gift exchanges: one with a small group of close friends and one with all the cousins on my mother’s side of the family. I am looking forward to both but, as usual, I am finding it challenging to think of a gift that will suit all of the people in attendance at each event.
Two studies, one published in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy and a second in the Journal of American Academy of Business suggest, however, that I should not be worried about the type of gift I wish to give so much as I should be worried about my relationship to the recipient.
In a recent study, Parsons et al. (2011) examined what kind of gifts people prefer receiving and, more importantly, from whom they prefer receiving them from. They surveyed 250 people about their most recent gift-receiving experience. These surveys sought to establish the level of symbolic, experiential and functional benefits that were conveyed by each gift. They defined symbolic gifts as being fashionable, exclusive, well-known, traditional, recognized, conservative and prestigious. Experiential gifts were fun, unusual and exciting, while functional gifts were useful and, well, functional.
They found that, from the recipient’s point of view, the benefits of a gift depend on the relationship of the recipient to the gift-giver.
When the gift-giver was a close family member or friend, the participants demonstrated a marked preference for gifts with symbolic and functional benefits as opposed to experiential benefits. In fact, the closer they were to the gift-giver, the more likely they were to prefer gifts with symbolic benefits.
If, on the other hand, the participants were close to the gift-giver but had no known them for a long time, they showed a preference for functional presents.
Liao et al. (2006) did not ask about past experiences but rather presented each of the 356 participants with one of eight scenarios and asked them to respond. Here, gifts that were given by a group of people were more likely to elicit a positive response from a recipient than a gift of equal value that was given by an individual. The recipient views an individual’s gift as a single gain, whereas a gift that is given to the recipient by multiple people represents multiple gains because the present is collected from several people.
This study also looked at a recipient’s reaction to a gift as a function of the recipient’s relationship to the gift-giver. The researchers found that a joint-gift’s value increased when it was given by a group of close friends or family members as opposed to being given by distant relatives and acquaintances.
What About Giving Money as a Gift?
Liao et al. (2006) found that one should avoid giving monetary presents to close family members or friends, regardless of whether the present is given by a group or by an individual, as they were not viewed positively. Monetary gifts that were given by distant individuals got a more positive reaction when they were given by a group of people than when they were given by a single person because the joint gift-giving mitigated any feelings of unease in the recipient.
The Art of Giving
Both these studies demonstrated that the type of relationship a recipient has with the gift-giver is important when it comes to the recipient’s reaction towards a particular gift.
In order to make this as clear as possible, I made a diagram entitled The Art of Gift-Giving:
I hope that helped!
Parsons, A., Ballantine, P., & Kennedy, A. (2011). Gift exchange: benefits sought by the recipient International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 31 (7/8), 411-423 DOI: 10.1108/01443331111149851
Liao, Shuling, & Yu-Huang, Huang (2006). The Effects of Individual and Joint Gift Giving on Receipt Emotions Journal of American Academy of Business, Cambridge, 10 (1)