It's Gift-Giving Season! New Study Says How You Wrap Your Gifts Can Influence Expectations

mbg Editorial Assistant By Jamie Schneider
mbg Editorial Assistant
Jamie Schneider is the Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen with a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan. She's previously written for Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.

Image by Nataša Mandić / Stocksy

Welcome to gift-giving season, when every social gathering for the next couple of months is accompanied by gift receipts and ribbon. While I love receiving gifts (who doesn't?), I debatably love giving gifts even more—call me a sap, but there's nothing quite like seeing a loved one's face light up as they peel open their curated packages. I'm not alone, as research has shown that altruistic behaviors (such as gift giving) are associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity.

That being said, I want my friends and family to love their gifts as much as I love giving them. That's why this new study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology is especially relevant and interesting this holiday season. It says that in order for our gifts to create the most joy, we might have less? 

These researchers wanted to determine whether the wrapping of a present can influence expectations and satisfaction with the gift. To do this, they gave gifts to a sample of Miami Heat fans (not a random demographic—the gift was either an official Miami Heat or Orlando Magic mug).

The participants opened their gifts and rated how satisfied they were with their mug. Regardless of whether the mug represented their preferred basketball team, the participants had more favorable attitudes toward the sloppily wrapped gifts than the neatly wrapped gifts. Meaning, if a gift was wrapped neatly, they had higher expectations that weren't met by the mug they got.

But these researchers weren't done. They tested another experiment to see whether gift wrapping could influence recipients' attitudes toward the same item. These participants were given images of either a neatly or sloppily wrapped gift and were told to rate their expectations of what was inside. When they saw the gift (a pair of JVC earbuds), they rated again whether the gift met their expectations. Lo and behold, these scientists got the same results: People had higher expectations for the neatly wrapped gifts, but lower attitudes toward them after opening. 

"When we receive a gift from a friend, we use the wrapping as a cue about the gift inside and form expectations," lead author of the study Jessica Rixom, Ph.D., says. "If it's wrapped neatly, we set high expectations, and it's hard for the gift to live up to those expectations." 

So we shouldn't wrap our gifts too neatly—noted. But Rixom and her team still weren't done. They then conducted a third experiment, one that would measure whether the relationships involved in the gift exchange could also influence the expectations and attitudes toward a gift. 

What they found was incredibly interesting. Apparently, when relationships are less established (such as with an acquaintance or co-worker), the neatness of gift wrapping matters, as the recipients viewed how well the gift was wrapped as representative of how the gift giver values the relationship. This means that if gifts are wrapped nicely, the acquaintance will get the sense that the relationship is important and will like the gift more. 

So what can we glean from this study? Basically, your friends don't want you to try as hard, at least in terms of the wrapping. Lopsided bows and basic packaging will yield a better gift experience for them than immaculate gift wrap and calligraphy. 

On the other hand, if there's a bit more ambiguity involved in the relationship, you may want to utilize your best wrapping skills—the paper could serve as a cue to how you value the relationship.

Rixom agrees: "If someone is questioning whether a gift is desirable for a friend and they try to make it more appealing by wrapping it well, this strategy may backfire in the end," she says. "On the other hand, it may be wise to go the extra mile with wrapping when giving a gift to an acquaintance."

So, the question becomes: Should you pay for that extra gift-wrapping service when you buy a product at the store? It may do you some good to take a moment to reflect on your relationship with the recipient—if it's a close friend, perhaps a paper bag will do? 

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