When Holiday Gift Giving Offends the Giver

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When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts — especially when the gift you’re giving runs counter to your own strongly held ideals. Could you stomach buying Glenn Beck’s latest book for your uncle, even though you worship at the altar of Colbert? Could you be a good sport when your niece requests a fur-lined hoodie, while you spend weekends handing out leaflets for PETA?

How people compensate for giving gifts that conflict with their personal views is the subject of a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research. In a series of experiments, Morgan Ward, an assistant professor of marketing at the Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, and Susan Broniarczyk, a professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at University of Texas at Austin, studied the behavior of two groups that adhere to a die-hard sort of tribalism — college sports fans and political junkies — after buying gifts for the other side.

What they found is that when participants make an offending purchase for a close friend, they considered it a threat to their identity. To make up for it, they subsequently seek products that reaffirm their beliefs or affiliations.

In one experiment, Longhorns fans from the University of Texas were asked to choose gifts for an imagined close friend from a gift registry. Participants were told that the friend either went to their own school or the rival school, and their presents were to be chosen from registries that contained school paraphernalia emblazoned either with the UT logo or that of arch-rivals Texas A&M (home of the Aggies).

Researchers found that while sports fans were making gift selections for the rival team, they showed physical signs of discomfort and disapproval. They tended to purse their lips, avert their eyes from the item and cross their arms. At checkout, they held their purchases away from their bodies.

Following the unpleasant task of paying, Longhorn fans were offered either an expensive silver pen or a cheap plastic pen printed with the Longhorn logo. If they had originally purchased a Longhorn item, they felt confident in their identity and tended to choose the attractive silver pen, researchers found. But those who bought Texas A&M items were much more likely to select the cheap Longhorn pen in an attempt to reestablish their sense of identity.

In an experiment involving people from opposing political parties, researchers came up with similar results. Democrats asked to select a Republican gift (items decorated with elephants) for a close friend were subsequently more likely to accept a free subscription to the New York Times over the more conservative Wall Street Journal. Republicans in the same situation chose the Journal. (This result may be somewhat less meaningful, however, since the papers are of roughly equal stature, and each group may have simply preferred the one that hewed more closely to their own politics.)

“Because close relationships are integral to an individual’s sense of self, givers are motivated to choose gifts that match recipients’ preferences, but are threatened by
presenting a gift that challenges their own self-concept,” wrote the authors. “These studies show that people who experience an identity threat are motivated to make subsequent product choices that bolster their shaken self-images in order to restore important self-concepts.”

So buyer beware: a gift that contradicts your worldview might cost you. While you’re at the bookstore getting Glenn Beck’s Common Sense for your uncle, you might as well grab a copy of The Audacity of Hope for yourself.