Research Spotlight: Wrapping it up

Holiday gift towerDo recipients like gift-wrapped presents more than unwrapped gifts? It appears so, according to a study published in 1992 by Daniel Howard, professor of marketing in SMU’s Cox School of Business. Howard designed a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that a gift-wrapped item influences the recipient to have a more favorable attitude toward owning the gift itself.

In one experiment, 45 participants were asked to evaluate 4 products in exchange for a free gift – a sheepskin bicycle seat cover. Even though they thought they were evaluating the products, they were actually evaluating the free gift they received in return for their time. Half of the subjects received the seat cover in the manufacturer’s plastic bag, while the other half received it wrapped in blue-and-white paper with a matching ribbon and bow.

The subjects were then asked to rate their gift on three 9-point scales, ranging from undesirable to desirable, from bad to good and from foolish to wise. Those test subjects who received the gift wrapped bicycle seat cover gave it a higher overall approval rating (7.14) than those who received it unwrapped (6.06).

Another experiment tested whether the perceived “quality” of the wrapping paper affected the subjects’ attitudes towards the gift. Sixty participants were given either wrapped, unwrapped or “nontraditionally wrapped” gifts (wrapped in brown packaging paper with neither ribbons nor bows). The nicely wrapped gift was the clear favorite, while the unwrapped gift was the least favorite. Even the gift wrapped in plain brown paper was preferred over the one that was not wrapped at all.

Howard argues that gift wrapping is a visual signal that is associated with a happy event in a person’s life. “Gift wrapping, through repeated pairing with joyous events in people’s lives, has utility in cueing a happy mood which, in turn, positively biases attitudes,” he wrote.

Read more about Howard’s research from the Living the Scientific Life blog.