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Dead giveaway

Dead giveaway

Gabrielle Adams of London Business School was part of a team that conducted studies on an awkward situation often regarded as taboo — giving away a gift you received. Feeling guilty? Georgina Peters tells why the team’s findings may surprise, and relieve, you.

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The essential question: what would you do if you received a DVD of ‘Mandy Moore: The Real Story’? Some people, such as American actress Mandy Moore’s parents, might be thrilled. Most people would not, if the group who rated it one of the least desirable of gifts is to be believed. Even so, according to a number of recent studies, people would still hesitate before regifting this DVD.

Regifting — the practice of giving to another person an unwanted or unusable gift one has received— seems logical. However, attics and closets all across the country are crammed with unused gifts, each one probably wrapped in some amount of guilt because the recipients quite simply didn’t want them. The quandary of gifts that people don’t want (but can’t bear to do away with) proves how illogical humans can be and how loath they are to regift.

A poll by Vivastreet revealing that the British public spent £1.7 billion on unwanted gifts last Christmas bears out the magnitude of the problem. According to the data, 87 per cent of the populace received, on average, up to two unwanted gifts worth a total value of £31. Just 22 per cent of those surveyed planned to use the undesirable items as future gifts for others — a small number, and about twice as many as in a study examining the propensity of people to regift items and their feelings about doing so.

A plethora of gifts

Gabrielle Adams, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, and her colleagues — Professors Francis Flynn of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School — conducted five different research studies, all with a slightly different focus, which made clear the reasons for the plethora of unwanted gifts piling up. Their study, ‘The Gifts We Keep on Giving: Documenting and Destigmatising the Regifting Taboo’, will be published in Psychological Science.

“[There is] an asymmetry in beliefs about entitlement: whether receivers are free to do what they please with the gift, or whether givers’ intentions for the gift must be honoured,” says Adams. “Because givers’ obligations have been satisfied once the gift has been received, they are less likely to be concerned with how the receiver chooses to use it…. Receivers, in contrast, may feel that givers’ concerns about the gift linger past the act of giving…. As a result, receivers may believe that givers will feel entitled to determine the fate of a gift, whereas givers disagree.”

This dichotomy between the attitudes of the giver and the receiver of gifts makes people believe that a friend would be less offended if the recipient threw away a gift the friend had given them than if they regifted it. When asked to imagine themselves in the giver role, however, people were much more upset by the idea of the gift being thrown away. So, how to bridge this gap and find homes for the too-small sweaters, second blenders and strange DVDs that pile up year after year?

National Regifting Day

A possible solution is the establishment of a ‘National Regifting Day’. When one study had participants bring in a gift they’d recently received, then asked if they would like to give the gift to a friend, the half who were told it was National Regifting Day were three times as likely to accept the offer to regift as those who were not told of the fictitious holiday. The likelihood of recipients to regift was also heightened when they reviewed sentences reflecting how a giver feels about what happens to a gift they’ve given. This was done by rating the level of agreement with statements such as: The gift giver feels I am entitled to do whatever I want with the gift.

While the willingness to pass on a gift may hinge on many factors — the ill-fitting sweater hand-knit by Grandma holds more sentimental value than the too-small slippers Aunt Jane brought back from holiday — trebling people’s propensity to pass on a gift could have wide-ranging effects. A National Regifting Day might also spur those with newly emptied attic space to buy more. Without the guilt accompanying unused but useful items taking up space, people might buy themselves replacement items they actually want and can use, guilt-free.

Gifting is supposed to strengthen relationships, showing affection and appreciation. Too often, the process is fraught with anxiety on both sides. The giver wonders whether the recipient will like and use the gift; the receiver wonders whether to keep, discard or regift an unwanted, duplicate or unusable gift. Helping people to realise that the giver just wants them to be happy — and celebrating the passing on of gifts with a National Regifting Day — may alleviate some of the stress.

If Regifting Day also benefits retailers by reducing post-holiday return claims and increasing sales, all the better. Whether knowing it can be freely regifted will boost sales of the Mandy Moore DVD remains to be seen.

For more information

Gabrielle S. Adams, Francis J. Flynn and Michael I. Norton, ‘The Gifts We Keep on Giving: Documenting and Destigmatising the Regifting Taboo’, http://www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/adams%20flynn%20norton.pdf

‘£1.7bn Spent on Unwanted Gifts This Christmas’, http://www.w3corporate.com/_docs/press/VS%20press%20releases/UK/111228%20Britain%27s%20Xmas%20Overspend.pdf

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  • AUTHORS

Georgina Peters is a Switzerland-based business author.

Adams is Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School

"London Business School empowers individuals and organisations to perform at their best."

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