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What inspires people to act selflessly, to help others, and to make personal sacrifices? Each quarter, this column features one piece of scholarly research that provides insight on what motivates people to engage in what psychologists call “prosocial behavior” — things like making charitable contributions, buying gifts, volunteering one’s time, and so forth. In short, it looks at the work of some of our finest researchers on what spurs people to do something on behalf of someone else.
Your husband says he wants a woodworking router for his birthday but you really think he'd be more impressed with a pair of 50-yard line football tickets. Guess again.
When it comes to gift giving, most people are simply not paying enough attention to what others want. They miss the boat by ignoring direct requests, wrongly assuming that going a different route will be seen as more thoughtful than getting something she specifically said she wants.
"We can strengthen our relationships by giving thoughtful gifts to those we care about, but we often lack the insight to do it well," says Frank Flynn, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In a new study that builds on his previous work on gift-giving Flynn continues to identify puzzling problems with this well-meaning practice.
Five experiments reported in an article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explored the role of explicitness in gift giving. Together, the studies examined whether gift recipients were more appreciative when presented with gifts they requested than those they didn't request, and whether gift givers noticed this important difference. In the first study, survey participants reported on their actual experiences receiving and giving wedding gifts from a registry versus gifts that the wedding guests had identified on their own. In a second study participants imagined a scenario in which they either gave a birthday present to their spouse who gave them a list of potential options or they were the birthday gift recipient providing a wish list of their own.
Findings revealed that recipients appreciated receiving items from their wish list more than unsolicited items, and perceived the requested items to be more thoughtful and considerate. But in direct contrast, the givers thought that recipients would be more impressed with unsolicited items. This apparent disconnect between gift-givers and gift-recipients may strike a chord with many of us. Flynn notes that many married couples have an anecdote about a wedding gift that was off the registry — and totally off the mark.
"The strange thing is that this breakdown between givers and receivers happens all the time, even though most people have been both givers and receivers often in the past, and therefore they should have some understanding of the other party's perspective," observes Flynn, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior. He coauthored the study with Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
In a third investigation, participants actually chose and received gifts from others. Recipients were asked to create an Amazon.com "wish list" containing 10 products such as books and electronics within the $20 to $30 price range. Some givers were asked to select a gift from that list for the person, while others were instructed to generate a gift idea in a similar price range on their own.
Similar to the findings of the first two studies, gift recipients in this lab setting appreciated the gifts they requested more than those they did not. They also rated such gifts as more thoughtful and personal compared to those that givers chose spontaneously. Again, however, gift givers did not accurately predict such preferences.
A fourth study showed that when recipients were explicit about one particular gift they would prefer to receive, gift givers were more accurate in predicting that they would appreciate that gift more than an alternative, unrequested gift. "Givers seem to be relatively more receptive to a specific suggestion than to a list, which may be important for us to note if we want to give others clear advice on what gifts to get for us," says Flynn.
A fifth study further showed that recipients actually appreciated money more than any item they initially requested — even though givers assumed money would be the least favored gift.
The research shows that going the extra mile to be more thoughtful can actually backfire, if being thoughtful means ignoring others' direct requests. Sticking to what people say they want will elicit stronger feelings of thanks. "In the business context," says Flynn, "this means, for example, listening carefully to what the customer or your employees tell you they want and not trying to guess instead.
The work emerges from Flynn's previous research on misperceptions in gift giving. In another study, he and colleagues found that although most gift givers assume a more expensive present will be more appreciated, recipients don't appreciate expensive gifts that much more. This translates to the business insight that companies do not necessarily have to be extravagant in rewarding employees for a job well done. Salespeople need to understand how customers respond to their offers. Negotiators need to predict how parties will react to concessions in order to resolve conflicts.
Extrapolating further into the prosocial behavior arena, Flynn's other work reveals that people overestimate how likely it is that others will come to them for help, and underestimate how willing others will be to help them if they request it.
Taken together, Flynn's research affirms that asking leads to more of what you need — as long as the other person is willing to take your request at face value. "In any setting, business or personal, it's best to let the other person tell you what they want. Don't try to mind read."