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Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.
What inspires people to act selflessly, help others, and 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.
In this quarter’s column, we look at a common gift-giving practice: giving away a present you don’t really want. “Re-gifting” is generally regarded as a taboo, but is this practice really as offensive to the original giver as people think? And is there a way to shift cultural norms so as to promote this sort of gift recycling and reduce the trashing of perfectly good items?
In a recent paper, my colleagues Gabrielle Adams, Michael Norton, and I closely examine the psychology of re-gifting. Across several studies, we find a clear disconnect: Receivers believed passing a gift on to someone else would be more offensive to givers than givers actually reported feeling. Receivers in fact thought that re-gifting was as bad as throwing a gift in the garbage, while givers saw the trashing of their presents as significantly more offensive than giving them away.
The asymmetry between givers and receivers held across the board in several studies. In one, participants envisioned either giving or receiving gift cards, and then re-gifting them. In another, they imagined that they had recently given or received a wristwatch as a graduation gift, and they then reported their feelings about scenarios in which the gift was either granted to another or thrown away.
In a third study, we found an explanation as to why givers and receivers have different perceptions of the offensiveness of finding new homes for unwanted presents. We involved participants in a simulation of gifting and re-gifting with unappealing gifts, and then assessed their beliefs about who had the right to do what with the gifts. We found that although receivers felt givers should have a say in what happened to their gifts, givers actually felt that receivers had the full right to do whatever they liked with a present. Put differently, receivers seemed to believe that gifts come with strings attached whereas givers disagree. It’s this belief that leads to them to assuming that re-gifting is more offensive than givers actually feel it is.
Can regifting be made to seem more acceptable? Apparently, yes. In a final pair of studies, participants were more likely to give away personal gifts if they were informed that it was “National Re-gifting Day.” Destigmatizing re-gifting in this way increased receivers’ feelings of entitlement as to what they could do with their gifts. This served to correct their perceptions so that their beliefs about the offensiveness of re-gifting decreased and came more into alignment with the beliefs of givers.
Future research should explore the role of relationship closeness in reactions to re-gifting. Receivers might fear that close friends are more likely than acquaintances to be offended by re-gifting, but it is also possible that receivers feel better about re-gifting gifts from close friends because they assume that people who care about them would want them to use their gifts in any way they choose.
In addition, the impact of relationship closeness on re-gifting may depend on the type of gift in question. In our studies, skews in beliefs about re-gifting arose with both “good” and “bad” gifts –– but gifts vary on other key dimensions, such as whether they are concrete goods and services or more symbolic gifts that convey love and status. While re-gifting concrete items (gift cards and DVDs) may be tolerable to givers, re-gifting symbolic gifts—for example, a hand-sewn scarf—may be more likely to offend givers because it sends a stronger signal that receivers do not value their relationship with the givers. When symbolic gifts are given to close rather than more distant friends, re-gifting may have even more negative consequences.
On a practical level, our results suggest a simple solution to increase re-gifting. Givers should encourage receivers to use gifts freely, perhaps even telling them that passing the presents along would not be offensive. This would not only increase gift recycling behavior, it would also reduce unnecessary guilt experienced over such behavior. And as we head into the holiday present-giving season, that may be a welcome gift, indeed.
The study, “The Gifts We Keep on Giving: Documenting and Destigmatizing the Re-gifting Taboo, by Gabrielle S. Adams, Francis J. Flynn, and Michael I. Norton, appears in Psychological Science 23(10), 1145 –1150.
More groundbreaking research about prosocial behavior will come in the Winter quarter.
- By Frank Flynn, Professor of Organizational Behavior and The Hank McKinnell-Pfizer Inc. Director of the Center for Leadership Development and Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business
- Marguerite Rigoglioso