Have the Gift of Giving?

Are you sure you’re a great gift giver? If you’re shopping for more than one person, you may not be.

JC Penney Professor Dr. Robyn LeBoeuf and co-researcher Dr. Mary Steffel, a former Post-Doctoral Fellow at Warrington and now an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, found that consumers who shop for multiple recipients tend to bypass gifts that those recipients would most likely enjoy. Instead, consumers favor giving different gifts to those recipients.

LeBoeuf and Steffel offer an example of someone giving magazine subscriptions to two friends. Both are avid sports fans, but one has a minor interest in technology. Instead of giving them both subscriptions to sports magazines, the giver might give one of the friends a sports magazine and the other a technology magazine despite the fact that the second friend would have rather received the sports magazine. The researchers suggest that had the giver shopped for each friend individually, both would most likely have received the sports magazine.

LeBoeuf and Steffel labeled this behavior “overindividuation,” where “givers may pass up gifts that they believe would be better liked by one or more recipients in favor of giving different gifts to each recipient.” What makes this phenomenon even more interesting is that the givers are trying to be thoughtful in choosing unique gifts, yet are not selecting the best gifts for the recipients.

LeBoeuf and Steffel conducted six experiments where shoppers selected gifts for one or multiple persons with one gift pre-tested to be more appealing than the other possible gifts. When participants shopped for one person, they were more likely to choose the most appealing gift. When participants shopped for multiple recipients, they were more likely to not select the most appealing gift and choose different gifts for each person. This happened even when the gift recipients did know each other and could not compare gifts.

“We find that people were better at choosing the most appealing gifts when they first stopped and thought about what each recipient would like the most,” LeBoeuf said. “This seems to help them focus on the recipients’ preferences, rather than on differentiating the recipients from each other.”

The study, “Overindividuation in Gift Giving: Shopping for Multiple Recipients Leads Givers to Choose Unique but Less Preferred Gifts,” appears in this month’s edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.