Now that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, you may be worried about picking out the perfect gift for your partner. Is it something he will like? Will she be disappointed by your efforts? And how is a partner’s response to your gift related to thoughts about the future of your relationship?
This seems like a straightforward question. Gifts reflect how well you know your partner and signify if you have similar tastes in things (and there’s lots of research showing that similarity predicts liking and attraction); if I pick something for you that you like, it is a signal that we are compatible. But as with most things in life, it’s not that simple…
To test the impact of gift quality on relationships, researchers had each member of a heterosexual romantic couple separately rank the desirability of $20 gift cards from 12 different stores or restaurants.1 For example, if I were a participant in this study, I would have ranked a $20 card from the Apple Store as my first choice and a $20 card from Walmart as relatively low. Later in the study, participants were given the chance to pick one card as a gift for their partners (without knowing the partners’ rankings) and were told that their partners had selected a card for them. Here’s where the researchers got clever: half of the participants were told that their partners chose to give them their top-ranked gift card choice (e.g., my partner selects the Apple store card for me; the “desirable gift” condition). The other participants were told that their partners chose to give them a low-ranked or unappealing card; 11th out of the 12 options (e.g., my partner gives me the Walmart card; the “undesirable gift” condition).
After being told which gift their partners selected for them, participants reported on two aspects of their romantic relationships: how similar they think they are to their partners and if they thought the relationship would continue into the future (“how long do you think you will date your partner?” and “what is the likelihood you and your partner will get married?”).
You might suspect that the results are straightforward: those participants in the “desirable gift” condition should report more similarity and be more optimistic about the fate of their relationships, right? Sort of. Men responded in the predicted direction; when guys received the gift they wanted, they reported more similarity and were more positive about the future of their relationships. Women, however, showed the opposite pattern of results: they actually reported more similarity and positivity when they received the undesirable gifts from their boyfriends.
Although they didn’t directly test this explanation, the researchers suspect that this seemingly counterintuitive finding for women is due to the importance that they place on their relationships as part of their self-concept. Past research as found that women, compared to men, are more likely to define themselves in terms of their romantic relationships.2 The authors of this study suggest that if women especially value their relationships, they are motivated to engage in “defensive processes” to protect themselves and their relationships in the face of threat. By inflating the ratings of their relationships when they receive a bad gift, women shield themselves from negative information about their relationships (e.g., that my partner doesn’t know me well). “My relationship must be really good if it can withstand this crappy gift my partner is giving me!”
So, what’s the take home message for the women and men out there? Ladies, choose your Valentine’s Day presents wisely because a bad gift can negatively impact your man’s perceptions of the relationship, but a good gift can make him think the relationship has a strong future.
To the guys out there, we’re not going to say that you should intentionally go out and get your girlfriend a crappy present; that’s just mean. But this should take some of the pressure off when if you’re knocking yourself out over finding the perfect present for her. It’s probably not as important as it seems.
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1Dunn, E. W., Huntsinger, J., Lun, J., & Sinclair, S. (2008). The gift of similarity: How good and bad gifts influence relationships. Social Cognition, 26(4), 469-481.
2Cross, S. E., Bacon, P. L, & Morris, M. L, (2000). The relational-interdependent self-construal and relationship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 791-808.
Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.