Gifting Happiness: The Social Advantage to Experiential Gift-Giving
T he need to belong references the fundamental motivation of human beings to be accepted, whether that is as a member of a social group or within even more intimate interpersonal relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. It is precisely because human beings hold such strong desires for belonging and social connectedness that maintaining good-quality interpersonal relationships is an essential factor in living a longer and happier life. Well-established research shows that strong social ties enhance psychological well-being, which, in turn, reduces the risk of poor physical health and mortality (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010). This finding is related to the role of social support, provided through good-quality interpersonal relationships, in acting as a buffer from the adverse physiological effects of acute stressors (Pietromonaco & Conlins, 2017). Experimental studies provide causal evidence as to the buffer role of social support, for instance, the presence of a close support provider during a stressor buffers individuals from the cardiovascular reactivity of increased pulse rate and blood pressure (Pietromonaco & Conlins, 2017).
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Furthermore, a romantic partner’s caring verbal support has been shown to reduce the release of the primary stress hormone in the brain – the cortisol reactivity to acute laboratory stressors (Pietromonaco & Conlins, 2017). This evidence demonstrates the importance of forming and maintaining strong social ties, which helps provide support in times of adversity and non-adversity alike. Feelings of intimacy and attachment, as previously discussed to be linked to positive health outcomes, are sparked through social interactions in which individuals come to feel understood, accepted, and cared for (Conlins & Feeney, 2004). This can include the specific social support interactions previously noted in this paper, as well as the general emotional and physical intimacy shared outside of specific support contexts. Amongst other forms of intimacy, this involves good-quality shared experiences, physical affection, and general companionship. Effective prosocial spending, or “good” gift-giving, is one such essential relationship maintenance behaviour. Although designed to strengthen interpersonal relationships, effective prosocial spending even has intrapersonal benefits on the gift-giver themselves.
But Are All Gifts Created Equal?
The following paper will compare the effects of giving material gifts (e.g., jewelry or clothing) versus giving experiential gifts (e.g., concert tickets or cooking classes) on both the gift-giver and the gift-recipient. Recent research from the Journal of Consumer Research argues that experiential gifts produce greater improvements in relationship strength than material gifts, regardless of whether the gift giver and the recipient share the experience of the gift together or not (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). In testing the primary hypothesis that recipients of experiential gifts will feel more socially connected to their gift giver than recipients of material gifts, the researchers recruited 224 gift givers to participate in their gift giving study and provided them with $10 to spend on a gift for a friend within three days. The gift givers were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions that determined the type of gift they were allowed to purchase: shared experiential gift, non-shared experiential gift, or non-shared material gift. Recipients of shared experiential gifts (M = 0.15, SD = 0.85) and non-shared experiential gifts (M = 0.09, SD = 0.75) reported feeling more connected to their gift giver, as result of the gift, as compared to those who had received a material gift (M = -0.27, SD = 0.64; both ps < .05)
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The social advantage of giving experiential gifts, in being more socially connecting than material gifts, was present even in a follow-up study with participants who were instructed to recall their experiences receiving either material or experiential gifts (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). Receiving an experiential gift over a material gift, again, resulted in a greater change in the participants perceived social connection with the gift-giver (Mexperiential = 0.72, SE = 0.07 vs. Mmaterial = 0.52, SE = 0.07; F(1, 520) = 6.83, p = .009). The social advantage of gifting experiences, demonstrated within this study, cannot be attributed to greater perceived thoughtfulness by the gift-recipient or even the recipients simply liking the experience gift better than the material. The shared experiential gifts, non-shared experiential gifts, and material gifts did not differ in how thoughtful recipients perceived them to be (F(2,107) = 0.17, p > .84). A similar pattern of results was found when investigating how much the recipients liked the gifts, through the self-report measure, it became clear that the recipients did not differ in how much they liked the gift based on the gift-type condition (F(2, 107)=0.17, p >.84).
If the experiential gifts are no more thoughtful or well-liked than the material gifts, why then, are they consistently more socially connecting? The leading theory is that the underlying mechanism for social connectedness is emotion, particularly, the intensity and valence of emotions experienced during gift consumption between material and experiential gifts. While material and experiential gifts elicit similar amounts of emotion during a gift exchange, experiential gifts elicit more intense emotions during the gift consumption as the recipient lives through an event (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). For instance, the recipient could feel gratitude whether they are gifted an expensive wallet or a concert ticket to see their favourite band. Although the recipient will likely feel very little while using that wallet in their daily life, the concert will elicit a greater valence of excitement and amusement emotions. Although people are more inclined to give material gifts, a tendency that is consistent with the perception of gift-givers that physical objects leave longer lasting impressions, such an inclination is misguided. While much of the research discussed in this paper thus far has focused on the differences between material and experiential gift consumption, hedonic differences occur between gift types even before gift consumption (Kumar et al., 2014). Waiting for experiences generally, tends to be more pleasurable than waiting for possessions – the anticipatory consumption of experiential gifts comes from the premise that savouring is the positive utility derived from the anticipation of future consumption (Kumar et al., 2014). In line with this consumer research: consider gifting an experience that will allow for anticipation on behalf of the gift-recipient, not only will it be more pleasurable than material goods during the act of consumption - but before it as well. .
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