UF Researcher: Self-Centeredness Plays Role In Holiday Gift Exchange

Published: December 19th, 1996

Category: Business, Florida, Research

GAINESVILLE — The apparent selflessness of holiday gift-giving is more likely to be a selfish ruse to make the presenter look thoughtful, considerate or loving, a new University of Florida study finds.

“Making the right impression is a major concern in bestowing gifts, and more than anything else people want to be looked on as being thoughtful’ or considerate,’” said David Wooten, a UF marketing professor who surveyed 1,674 Floridians this fall.

Seventy-three percent of the respondents said it was important to make the right impression when choosing a gift, with thoughtful’ and considerate’ topping the list of desired impressions, he said.

Concern about one’s image when giving gifts is more of an issue with casual acquaintances and even strangers than with family and close friends, Wooten said.

“We’ve all heard the old adage about first impressions being the most lasting,” he said. “Since unfamiliar people know little about us, there is a greater potential to make an impression. And since we don’t know the person, or their likes and dislikes, we don’t know what kind of gift would be most likely to impress them.”

Wooten said he was not surprised to find gift-giving so closely tied to self-image because so many social constraints have developed around the practice.

“People are afraid of giving too much or not giving enough based on what someone else has given them,” he said. “An even worse scenario is not giving a gift at all to someone who has given one to you. So there is a lot of anxiety to this concern about balanced giving.”

After “thoughtful” and “considerate,” the most commonly desired impressions when giving gifts were to be perceived as loving, caring and giving. Many people also indicated they wanted to be seen as having an exemplary relationship with the recipient. Such responses included being seen as “a good friend,” “great father” or “the best grandmother in the world.” Less common was the need to be seen as “creative” or “inventive” in gift selection, he said.

“I was surprised by the self-centered nature of so many of the responses, but it’s consistent with a lot of other research and reveals that we’re very much an individualistic culture,” Wooten said.

Unlike other researchers, Wooten uncovered no signs of the so-called “dark side of giving” where people develop anxiety about the obligations associated with the practice.

He also doesn’t think last-minute shopping necessarily increases anxiety about getting the right gift to make the giver look good. People who wait until the last minute to shop may be less likely to be concerned about making an impression in the first place, he said.

Wooten also said other research shows gender may play a part in explaining some of these differences. Men tend to spend less time and effort selecting gifts than women, he said, and it shows because one study finds fewer of the gifts women gave were returned by their recipients.

It has been suggested that men’s lack of interest in and even animosity toward gift-giving — men make the most complaints about the practice –may be because they think gift selection is women’s work, he said.

The impressions people wish to make vary with different holidays, said Wooten, but even holidays when traditional gifts are given can provoke anxiety. Although flowers and candy are traditional Valentine’s Day gifts, not everyone may be comfortable following these practices if they feel uneasy about assuming a romantic role or if they think creativity or spontaneity contribute to romance, he said.

The current survey was conducted as part of UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research’s monthly survey for September and November. Wooten plans to conduct the next phase of his research around Valentine’s Day, focusing on what characteristics of recipients make gift-giving difficult.

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Cathy Keen

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