How Receiving Gifts Can Impact Your Self-Image

Once in a while you read something that reminds you how weird the human brain really is. Get ready for your “Really?!” moment of the day: An object you receive as a gift might actually affect your self-esteem and self-image positively or negatively, depending on what that object is.

We know that, as human beings, we compare ourselves to other people constantly—whether we’re aware of it or not. Research by Liad Weiss, assistant professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, and Gita Venkataramani Johar of the Columbia Business School showed that we also compare ourselves to the inanimate objects that surround us, and whether or not we own these things can dictate how they make us feel about ourselves.

What we give people can actually influence how they see themselves and behave,” Weiss said to Rewire. “So we can think of a whole industry or a whole concept of inspirational gifts: ‘I want to nudge someone in a certain direction, I want a spouse to be more honest with me, so I basically should buy a product that is highly associated with truthfulness and honesty and give it to them.’ They will likely start to associate honesty with themselves.”

receiving gifts
To discover this, the researchers did two studies—one about coffee mugs and one about headphones. For the coffee mug study, they split a group of people into four. Two of the four groups were given coffee mugs to keep—one group’s mugs were short and thick, the other group’s tall and thin. The other two groups were lent the same short and tall mugs but were told they would be receiving a different mug later.

Lo and behold, the group that was given the tall, thin mug to keep reported feeling taller and thinner after the study, but the group that was only lent the tall, thin mug felt the opposite—they reported feeling shorter and chubbier by comparison. The same went for the groups that got the short, squat mugs. The ones who owned the short, squat mugs felt short and squat. The ones who were told the mugs didn’t belong to them reported feeling tall and slender.

What does this mean? Our gifts to one another might have more meaning than we thought (or want, maybe). The research suggests you can actually illicit a certain psychological response in someone when you give them a present. (This phenomenon applies when you give yourself a gift, too, Weiss said.) It might explain why your mom or best friend are so picky or hard to buy for—maybe they don’t like surrounding themselves with things that give them weird feelings about themselves.

If you’re picky in the gifts you’re accepting, you take more control and you avoid being influenced by the stuff that you own, so that might not be such a bad thing,” Weiss said. “One way to think about it is people who are picky have a very specific way in which they see themselves and they don’t want to allow external factors to impact that so much.”

receiving gifts

It also means ownership can change how we feel about the things in our life. A fast, sleek car we see on the street might make us feel dumpy by comparison, but owning the car allows us to take on the qualities of the car. Through ownership, you create an association between yourself and an object that somewhat morphs that object into an extension of yourself.

The researchers also found you can influence the actions of someone via gift giving through their headphones study. Four groups of people were given the same headphones, but told two different things about them (just like in the mug study, two of the groups were lent the headphones, the other two owned them). Half of the participants were told the headphones were made to perfectly reproduce music as it was recorded in the studio. The other half was told that the headphones artificially enhanced music.

Afterward, everyone played a trivia game they thought was unrelated to the study. The people took on the qualities of the headphones they were given, with the people who were told the headphones artificially boosted the music more prone to cheat at the game. The ones who were only lent the headphones behaved in the opposite way.

Now that you know all this, you can tackle your holiday shopping very scientifically. Choosing a sweater for a friend who just went through a bad breakup? Perhaps pick a sunny yellow one. Is it your sister’s goal for 2017 to get more organized? A pretty planner could be in order. And maybe stay away from coffee mugs.

receiving gifts

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.