Men and women react quite differently in the short-term to receiving good and bad gifts.
Buying Christmas presents is hard work: hard on the feet, hard on the bank account and hard on the emotions.
Sometimes it feels like a lot of work for little reward.
Those nearest and dearest assume you know them well enough to buy a decent present, so that getting it wrong reflects badly on the relationship.
Psychological research on how gift-giving affects relationships hints at this no-win situation.
Studies suggest that good gifts only affirm similarity between couples, and so do little for the relationship.
Poor gifts, though, may lead people to question their similarity with each other, thereby damaging the relationship.
Studies tend to focus on how gifts affect perceived similarity because finding a ‘kindred spirit’ is thought central to successful relationships and reliably predicts relationship satisfaction (Murray et al., 2002).
But research by Elizabeth W. Dunn at the University of British Columbia and colleagues, published in the journal Social Cognition, suggests that men and women react quite differently in the short-term to receiving good and bad gifts (Dunn et al., 2008).
Gifts to strangers
To test their theories, Dunn and colleagues set up two experiments, each with a twist in their tail.
In the first experiment participants (students at the University of Virginia) were sat down to chat with a new opposite sex acquaintance for four minutes.
After this they were asked to select a gift for their new friend from a list of gift certificates for a variety of stores and restaurants.
The idea was that each participant then looked at the gift chosen for them and evaluated their perceived similarity with the other person.
Here’s the twist: before the experiment each participant had been asked to rank the gift certificates in the order they themselves would like to receive them.
Then the experimenters simply fed these preferences straight back to participants as though they had come from their new acquaintance.
Half the participants were told the other person had chosen their top choice, and the other half their last-but-one choice.
This created two conditions: those who got what they wanted and those who didn’t.
When the experimenters looked at the ratings of perceived similarity, the results showed a marked difference in how the men and women had reacted to good and bad gifts.
Men who got the gifts they wanted perceived themselves as more similar to the gift-giver, suggesting the better gift would have the expected positive effect on the relationship.
Women, though, seemed to be relatively unaffected by whether the present was good or bad.
This is a rather puzzling finding: shouldn’t good gifts also increase perceived similarity – and so liking – for women just as the men?
A possible solution to this puzzle emerged in the second experiment.
Gift-giving in established relationships
Instead of participants who hadn’t met before, the second experiment involved men and women who were already in (heterosexual) relationships.
Otherwise the experiment was almost identical, with the same twist that each received what they had indicated were their own best (or worst) gifts.
The only difference was…
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