Looking for the perfect gift can be a pleasure and a curse: the joy of picking exactly the right thing vs. the anxiety that you’ve completely missed the mark. Whether to get somebody something luxurious but impractical or something with utility is another common dilemma.
It’s also one that may have unintended consequences: while some practical gifts — those that save someone time, for example — can be appealing and well-received, others may fall short. If you were thinking of getting that special someone a gift with the intention of saving them money, for example, think again — you might end up making them feel ashamed, according to research recently published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
If someone is short on money, it’s possible that a gift designed to help them save more could be well received. But, Alice Lee-Yoon from UCLA and colleagues hypothesise, the opposite is actually more likely to happen: people are likely to feel ashamed of such a gift and see it as an indication of either a lower status overall or a greater differential in status between themselves and the gift-giver.
In the first study, 405 participants were asked to write about a gift they had recently been given: either a gift that they felt was intended to save them time, or one intended to save them money. They then rated how much the gift made them feel guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, proud, brave and good, and ranked their status in society and where they felt the gift-giver would rank their own status.
As expected, recipients experienced greater feelings of shame, embarrassment and other negative emotions when they felt a gift had been given to save them money — gift cards, coupons or memberships, for example — and also believed that the gift-giver saw themselves as higher in status compared to the participant.
A second study looked at real-life gift-giving. Two hundred students were given a $5 Starbucks gift card and instructed to give it to another person within the week. Half of the cards displayed a message indicating the gift was designed to save the recipient time, while the other messages explained the card was designed to save money.
The card included a survey similar to that in the first study for the recipient to fill in. And again, those receiving a gift intending to save money experienced more negative emotions, and believed that the gift-giver saw a greater status differential between the giver and receiver, than those receiving a gift to save time. However, three months later, cards with time saving messages were equally likely to have been redeemed as those with money saving messages.
In a third study participants were asked to imagine coming home after a long day to a friend bringing them dinner from Chipotle, either to save them time or money. They then answered the same questions about negative emotions from the previous study, as well as indicating their experience of resource scarcity — how often had they been short of time or money? Not only did participants again feel more negative emotions when a gift was given to save them money, these were intensified when they had more experience of being short of money. Gifts intended to save the recipient time, however, were not particularly influenced by experience of time scarcity.
A final study looked at whether the intended purpose of a gift could influence decisions about what to buy. The team asked 303 participants to imagine a friend had given them a gift card, this time $30 to spend on Amazon. In the control condition, participants were told their friend was giving them the card with no explanation; in the money stress condition their friend said “I know you’ve been stressed for money”; and in the inadequate money condition said “I know you’ve felt you have had an inadequate amount of money lately”. Participants were also asked how they would use the card — either on a Boston University hoodie or a Harvard University hoodie.
Status, again, seemed to play a large part. Those in the control condition were less likely to buy the Harvard sweater (which was perceived to be higher status) than those in the money stress or inadequate money conditions, and there was a higher power differential in the latter conditions too. How choosing hoodies in the lab would translate to real world decisions, however, is unclear.
Why do gifts fall flat when picked out to save the recipient money? The team suggests that gift-givers may be focusing too heavily on their own perspective, failing to predict the emotional responses that a recipient low on money might experience. This may be particularly true if the giver has never experienced money scarcity themselves.
The team also notes that the effect seen in this study might change over time: someone who felt ashamed in the moment might later appreciate having received a money-saving gift from a friend, particularly if their financial situation changes in some way. But for the time being, you’re probably best off avoiding any mention of money when you next hand over that carefully-selected gift.