May 09, 2014

    See world through Mum's eyes when buying gift

    WHEN selecting a gift for Mother's Day, or any other occasion, don't try to be "thoughtful".

    Choose the gift the recipient will like best. Don't confuse what you know with what she feels.

    That may sound obvious, but it isn't. A growing body of psychological research suggests that gift givers pay too much attention to the inputs of gift selection - the price, how much trouble they went to, what they got for other people - and too little to what they know about what's likely to make the recipient happy.

    This work shows that "people tend to be egocentric when making choices for others and that they often fail to recognise that their own perspective may differ from the perspective of those for whom they are choosing", wrote Mary Steffel of the University of Cincinnati and Robyn LeBoeuf of the University of Florida in a recent article in the Journal Of Consumer Research.

    Consider one of their experiments. Participants read Facebook profiles describing either one or two imagined cousins (Steph and Sarah).

    One was supposed to be from the mother's side of the family, the other from the father's, making the two less likely to know each other. The profiles included a list of each cousin's favourite movies.

    All of Sarah's were animated films. Five out of seven on Steph's list were also animated; the other two were science fiction/fantasy movies.

    Participants were then given a list of 10 movie DVDs in six genres, including the Pixar animated hit Up and two science fiction/fantasy movies.

    Some participants were asked to choose a DVD for Steph's birthday after reading only her profile; a second group picked a DVD for her after reading both profiles; and a third group was told to select DVDs as birthday presents for both cousins.

    Those choosing gifts for both cousins were told explicitly that they could give them the same movie.

    Three parallel groups were asked simply to predict which movie Steph or both cousins would use a gift certificate to purchase on their own.

    Both cousins' lists showed they liked animated films most, making Up the best bet for a successful present. That's also the film the vast majority of people in all three prediction groups - including 75 per cent of those predicting for both cousins - imagined that Steph would choose for herself.

    But when it came to choosing gifts, people acted differently. As long as they were picking a DVD only for Steph, more than 80 per cent still went for Up.

    But a mere 43 per cent of those selecting presents for both cousins gave Steph the animated movie she was most likely to enjoy.

    They paid more attention to what made her different from Sarah than they did to what she liked. They let the irrelevant circumstances of shopping for a second person trump what they knew about her taste.

    Trying to be "thoughtful", it seems, leads people to be thoughtless.

    Testing that conclusion directly in another experiment, Dr Steffel and Dr LeBoeuf found that participants, given more time and encouraged to shop "thoughtfully", did worse than those given limited time and told not to "overthink" the decision.

    "Givers may, paradoxically, get worse gifts the more they try to be especially thoughtful, as their focus on giving individuated gifts may make them lose focus on getting the best-liked gifts," they wrote.

    This research has the faults of most psychology experiments. It draws broad, if tentative, conclusions from a relatively small sample - only 168 participants - and it's limited explicitly to the United States. The authors noted that gift-giving customs could affect results elsewhere.

    But it rings true. It's hard to see the world through other people's eyes - even when we're buying them gifts.