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This Is Why We Still Struggle to Give the Perfect Gift

McCombs researcher Susan M. Broniarczyk explains why registries and wish lists don’t actually make it easier to shop for those you care about.

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Gift giving can be stressful. That is one reason gift registries are a multibillion-dollar industry. This holiday season many consumers will create gift registries and wish lists to help people buy the gifts they want and need. But do these lists actually make gift giving less stressful?

Susan Broniarczyk

Susan Broniarczyk. Associate Dean for Research, Susie and John L. Adams Endowed Chair in Business and Professor of Marketing Administration.

“These wish lists would appear at first blush to solve the gift-giving issues, but they create new sociological and psychological issues,” said Susan M. Broniarczyk, the associate dean for research at UT Austin’s McCombs School of business.

Her research on consumer behavior — “Ask and You Shall (Not) Receive,” published in the Journal of Marketing Research and co-authored with Morgan Ward (McCombs Ph.D. 2010), assistant professor of marketing at Emory University — found that givers feel conflicted when buying from a registry.

Gift giving is a symbiotic activity, so although close others want to please the gift recipient, they are also especially invested in their relationship with the recipient. Buying a gift item from a registry ensures exactly matching the recipient’s preferences but hinders signaling the special bond they have and how much he or she values the recipient.

But isn’t it the thought that counts?

“In a series of experiments, we found that close (vs. distant) gift givers were more likely to diverge from a registry,” said Broniarczyk. “This choice was not an altruistic effort to find a “better” gift, however, but rather an effort to signal the value of that relationship. As a result, ironically, distant gift givers are often more successful in pleasing recipients with gift choices, as they are less motivated to relationally signal and more likely to buy a gift registry item.”

Research shows gift givers who go out on their own often miss what the recipient really wants.

“Gift givers assume they will receive credit for a thoughtful gift, but research has shown gift recipients infrequently expend mental energy to reflect on thoughtfulness when they receive a good gift,” she explained. “Instead, gift recipients are more likely to engage in additional mental processing when they receive a bad gift, reflecting on lack of giver thoughtfulness (i.e., What were they thinking???).”

What if they ask for something you just can’t stand?

Ward and Broniarczyk also found buyers have an especially difficult time purchasing gifts that conflict with their own identity even if it is what their friend really wants.

“We characterize this type of gift as “it’s you, not me,” Broniarczyk said.

In one set of studies, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, UT Austin students were faced with choosing a gift from a registry for a close friend who also attended UT or a rival school, Texas A&M. All of the gifts on the registry were emblazoned with the respective school symbols of a burnt-orange Longhorn and “Aggie Maroon.”

“While making the gift choice, the givers who had to purchase the rival Texas A&M gift were more likely to exhibit physical signs of discomfort such as chewing on their lip, averting their eyes, fidgeting and crossing their arms,” said Broniarczyk. “When asked to bring the gift to the check-out area, Longhorn fans purchasing a Texas A&M gift would place the gift farther away from themselves — an expression of the threat of this identity-contrary gift.”

[[Read More: Buying gifts that make them uncomfortable can spur gift givers to spend more money trying to regain their emotional balance.]]

What are some tips that can help everyone feel good about both buying and getting gifts?

Broniarczyk recommends both the gift giver and the gift receiver think about these potential conflicts during the holiday season.

For gift givers, she recommends to customize items purchased from a registry. Maybe write a custom note or choose a personalized wrapping paper.

For gift receivers, she suggests including options that carry overt relationship signals on your registry or wish list. Some more personal gift choices will increase the likelihood of receiving preferred products from close friends.

A good choice could be experiential gifts (e.g., restaurant, spa, movie, or travel certificate). These types of gifts foster stronger relationships than product gifts, she said, and even more so if the giver and recipient do the activity together.