Buyer beware

Buyer beware

What happens when the perfect gift for a friend is just not you?

Two university researchers warn shoppers to beware of gifts that cause them to feel uncomfortable about their own identity; the "I'll give you this, but I don't like it" mentality. Such purchases can spur gift givers to spend more money trying to regain their emotional balance.

We Are What We Buy

The guilty pleasure of buying something just because it makes us feel better is one symptom of the link between purchasing and personal identity. What we purchase is an expression of ourselves, so much so that selecting a gift can feel like interpreting a Rorschach test.

Photo of Susan M. Broniarczyk teaching a class
Susan M. Broniarczyk Courtesy photo

Morgan K. Ward, an assistant professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University, and Susan M. Broniarczyk, a marketing professor at the McCombs School of Business, demonstrated in their study that gift givers experience actual discomfort when purchasing a gift that runs counter to their own self perception. This discomfort is magnified when the recipient is a close friend or family member because loved ones are an important part of our own self-concept.

"Longhorn football fans who had to purchase a Texas AandM coffee mug for a close friend would actually hold the mug away from themselves as they approached the checkout counter," Broniarczyk said. Similar reactions were seen in purchases that displayed political, religious, cultural or ethical (e.g., environmentalist) implications.

Buying Something Extra to Soothe the Pain

What the researchers noticed next provides fair warning to holiday shoppers who find themselves in the position of buying a distasteful gift.

"After purchasing a gift that runs counter to their own preferences, buyers were more likely to ameliorate their discomfort by choosing something for themselves that reinforced their personal tastes," Broniarczyk said. "A father buying that hip-hop CD for his son might find himself very attracted to the Keith Richards autobiography on his way to the checkout."

If shoppers find themselves arriving home with as many personal purchases as they have gifts for others, they might consider whether they are over-compensating for the emotional stress of gifting.

Broniarczyk suggests that shoppers look for other ways to bolster their own identities. Writing a personal note or choosing a personalized wrapping paper is another, less expensive way to say, "Here is your gift, but don't forget who I am."

"It's Not Me, It's You: How Gift Giving Creates Giver Identity Threat as a Function of Social Closeness" is a forthcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research, by Morgan K. Ward, assistant professor of marketing at the Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University, and Susan M. Broniarczyk, the Sam Barshop Centennial Professor of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin.

This blog post originally appeared on McCombs Today.