The Science of Gift Giving: Experiences Mean More Than Stuff

Giving an experience to enjoy, rather than a material item, can strengthen and nurture your relationship with the recipient.

Figuring out what to get family and friends for the holidays can be one of the most frustrating things about this time of year. But if you're really stuck on what to give, science can help you decide.

A new study from the University of Toronto Scarborough shows that giving an experience, rather than a material item, is more effective at improving your relationship with the recipient.

Lead researcher Cindy Chan, assistant professor at U of T and an expert on consumer relationships, explained that experiential gifts incite more emotion than material items because the person receiving the gift has a strong emotional response when they consume it.

"Material and experiential gifts are both likely to elicit emotion during a gift exchange," Chan told Seeker. "But experiential gifts should elicit more intense emotion during gift consumption as the recipient lives through an event. A recipient likely feels very little while using a wallet, yet may feel amused and delighted while attending a comedy show."

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Chan and her team conducted four different studies that looked at how different gift-giving scenarios affected the relationship of the giver and the recipient. This was one of the first studies to look specifically at how effective a gift can be at building relationships.

"Most of the relationships [we observed] were close - spouses, family members and close friends," Chan said. "We observed the relationship-strengthening effect of experiential gifts across these different relationship types."

But if you're wondering whether you should get your boss or hairdresser an experiential gift this year, just make sure it suits the type of relationship you have with them.

"Across the board, experiences seem to bring greater happiness than material goods," Dr. Timothy Bono, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told Seeker. "What's key is that the exact type of experience be tailored to the kind of relationship you have with that other person, as well as their individual tastes. You wouldn't want to give a weekend getaway to a bed-and-breakfast to your single tax accountant, or front-row NFL tickets to your 16-year-old babysitter who hates football."

An experiential gift also doesn't have to cost any more than you would normally spend on someone. "You can put the money you would have spent on a material item toward an experience they will be able enjoy," Bono added. "Regardless of how much it costs, you're still offering them something to look forward to, an opportunity to spend time with other people, and memories they'll look back on for years to come."

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On the other hand, experiential gifts may not be best suited for everyone you know. Those who are more materialistic might not have the same level of appreciation for an experience-based gift.

"People for whom materialism is part of their personality value tangible, status-bearing gifts over experiences," Bono said. "Still, there are opportunities to increase the happiness that someone gets even from material gifts by making them unique and personal. Material goods that are hard to find, or that carry special significance for the receiver are excellent choices."

Chan's research aligns with this idea as well. "In one study, recipients reported feeling more connected to their gift-giver when the experiential aspect of a material gift was highlighted," she said. "A gift-giver could, for example, remind the recipient about the hours of music-listening pleasure they would enjoy from a new set of speakers. Another study found that material gifts that were emotionally evocative also strengthened relationships. So, emotional material gifts such as jewelry engraved with a loving message could also be an effective gift."

This advice isn't exclusive to the holiday season either. Chan points out that honeymoon registries, for example, are becoming increasingly common in lieu of traditional wedding gifts. Guests can contribute to the couple's airfare, hotel or surf lessons on their newlywed getaway, rather than buying them a toaster.

The research clearly points to gifting experiences rather than material items, but Bono advises to keep everyone's uniqueness in mind when deciding what to give them. "It's all about knowing the receiver's personality and what they value."

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