Why your close friends always buy you such crummy gifts

SMU researchers examine why your close friends always buy you such crummy gifts.


By Christopher Ingraham

Let's do a thought experiment.

Say you have this close friend — let's call him Chris. He's a really cool guy — funny and smart and handsome and all that — and you've been best friends since forever ago. And one day, Chris decides to up and move to a new house — probably someplace random like Minnesota or wherever, but the where of it doesn't matter.

presentTo celebrate his move, Chris throws a housewarming party, and because he needs a lot of new stuff for his house such as lamps and plates and maybe a clock, he creates an online gift registry somewhere so you can buy him what he needs and not pick out some lame thing he will never use.

Now, Chris has impeccable taste and he's always going on and on about how much he loves modern minimalist stuff — sleek clean lines, no frills, etc. And you want to get him a table lamp for his new place, because you saw the perfect one online the other day, all sleek and modern looking and you absolutely know he'll love it.

So you open his gift registry just to double-check what's on there and sure enough there's a table lamp, but it's not what you expected at all. . . 

This is the dilemma at the heart of a fascinating series of experiments to be published soon in the Journal of Marketing Research. According to Morgan K. Ward of Southern Methodist University and Susan M. Broniarczyk of the University of Texas at Austin, people typically cite two primary motivations in picking out gifts for others: They want to choose something the recipient will like, or they seek to "signal relational closeness with gifts that demonstrate their knowledge of the recipient."

But as in the thought experiment above, these two goals can sometimes be in conflict: What happens when the gift you give isn't necessarily the gift your friend wants?

To suss this out, Ward and Broniarczyk gathered a group of about 90 undergraduate students, designating half of them as gift-givers and half as gift recipients. They asked the students to identify their three closest friends within the group. Then, they assigned half of the givers to a recipient they were close friends with, and the other half to recipients they knew less well.

They had the recipients browse through a selection of lamps online and choose the one they liked best -- this top choice was added to a "gift registry" for that student. Then, the givers were tasked with picking out a lamp for the recipients. They were able to choose from five lamps, one of which was indicated as the lamp the recipient registered for.

Ward and Broniarczyk found that only 23 percent of gift givers went off-registry when buying for someone they weren't particularly close to. But among the group of students who were buying for someone they'd indicated as one of their three closest friends, a whopping 61 percent ignored the recipient's preference and chose a different lamp.

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