Share This Page
Evan Polman

Want to Give the Perfect Gift? Buy One for Yourself, Too

by Evan Polman Thursday, July 27, 2017
A white bow sits atop a UW-wrapped package

PHOTO: JEFF MILLER/UW-MADISON

Your mom’s birthday is a week away and you’re wracking your brain for ideas on what to give her, only to come up with…a gift card?

If that scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Gift giving can be a challenging, often high-pressure experience. Whether the gift is for a close family member or an acquaintance, the stakes are high to get the right thing. With the advent of online shopping and the mind-boggling array of choices found both in cyberspace and in stores, it’s not surprising that shoppers turn to giving gift cards to remove the anxiety and uncertainty from the process.

Companionizing—when a gift is liked more because the giver bought the same item for herself—may be a solution. 

My co-author, Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough, and I proposed this notion of companionizing to build on the work of Fritz Heider (1958). Heider founded the idea of the unit relation, that two or more people with something in common will feel more connected to each other than they might have otherwise. Two Badger alumni, for example, have a unit relation regardless of their graduation years and therefore will feel a connection to each other. 

Our research took the unit relation idea and applied it to gift giving: Is a gift liked more by the receiver because the giver also bought one for herself?

Past research has examined similar parallels with consuming experiences. Ours is unique because we looked at how people feel when they share something material—if the person has the same mug as a character in a movie, for example.

Evan Polman

Assistant Professor of Marketing Evan Polman

To test our theory, we conducted six lab experiments with a wide range of different gifts. For each experiment, we used two groups. The first group was instructed to imagine someone giving them a gift with an enclosed message expressing the giver’s hope that the gift would be liked. The second group was given the same instructions, only the enclosed message was a dual one: expressing hope that the recipient liked the gift, but also that the giver bought one for herself.

The “companionizing effect” held throughout all six experiments. Participants in the companionized groups liked their gift more than those in the non-companionized group. They also felt more similar to the gift givers and felt closer to them than those in the non-companionized group.

Here are three other findings from our study.

  • Factoring in other factors: We tested other variables to see whether the companionizing effect was really just due to something else—a higher quality gift, or maybe the giver knew the recipient better than someone distant or simply put more effort into choosing the gift. The results still showed that the unit relation was the defining factor, that the recipient is sharing something with the giver.
  • Balancing: We found that if you receive a gift you dislike from someone you like, confusion ensues. Psychologically, it seems to create an imbalance that the receiver wants to internally reconcile. We discovered that people use one of two strategies: They either tend to like the person less because that person has given them something they disliked, or they end up liking the gift more. The latter scenario occurs more frequently.
  • Companionizability: Some gifts are not as inherently companionizable as others. For example, if you’ve given something that’s already a great gift, you’ll hit a ceiling. It won’t receive a boost from companionizing it. The not-so-great gifts, on the other hand, tend to benefit from companionization. 

Companionizing no doubt has its limits. However, when used as a practical tool, not only can the giver forego the gift card but a win-win scenario is created: Both parties have a new item they like and the recipient feels closer to the giver.

Read the paper “Mere Gifting: Liking a Gift More Because It Is Shared,” published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Evan Polman is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business.