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Giving the Gift of an Experience this Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching. While many people are looking forward to showing their partners how much they are loved by exchanging gifts, others are filled with anxiety in trying to pick out the perfect item. You can hardly walk down the street without being bombarded by store windows featuring giant people-sized teddy bears and equally large heart shaped boxes of chocolate. For those in relationships, picking out the perfect present is of utmost importance, as the gift ideally symbolizes our love for the other person. This is because “gift-giving involves both the objective value of a gift and the symbolic meaning of the exchange.”1 Before making your final decision between jewelry or something practical like a pair of winter gloves, consider giving your partner an experience.

While picking a tangible item may seem like the standard approach, we can often go wrong with material gifts, as we may pick an item in the wrong size, color, or style.2 This can be both upsetting to the gifter and the receiver. This scenario demonstrates that the gifter may not know important information about the receiver such as color preference or size, and puts the receiver in the position of having to pretend that the item is perfect or run the risk of exchanging it without his/her partner finding out. Having to buy a material item can also be problematic when shopping for the person who seems to have everything. You don’t want to buy the person something he/she already owns, and would feel bad selecting something that he/she doesn’t actually want.

Purchasing an experience, such as a day at the spa, a cooking class, tour, or bike riding adventure may solve any concerns you have when it comes to focusing on the ‘right’ material gift. As an added bonus, research reveals that experiences make people happier than material items.3 Qualitative research which set out to examine the experience giving gift experience through 52 in-depth interviews demonstrated that gift receivers not only value the gift given, but also experience gratitude for the thought that went into making the selection.2 First, selecting an experience that the receiver will enjoy shows a great deal of thought and effort. This leads to more appreciation from the receiver than when choosing a gift randomly off of a wish list. The selection of experiences enables the gift giver to be creative and demonstrate more intimate knowledge of the receiver. Also, rather than having to pick out a specific item, you can base your choice of gift on knowledge of the recipients’ passions and his/her likes and dislikes.2 More creativity and effort can also be embedded into presenting the experience gift, as intangibility allows for a clever presentation and revelation. 

Second, focusing on giving an experience addresses the problem of what to get a person who appears to have everything. Even if a person has already taken a cooking class, perhaps they have not had this same experience with you, thereby altering the event in a meaningful way. These gifts are recalled positively, as both the giver and the receiver are able to create new, happy memories.2 Finally, quality time is embedded in experience gift-gifting, as the present itself opens up the possibility of sharing the experience. Many gift givers recalled during the interview that the receivers, when presented with an experience, chose to take the gifter along, creating a joint experience. This can enhance the quality of your relationships as “sharing is deemed important by both donors and recipients as it is used to expand personal horizons and to nurture relationships.”

So now that you know that people would rather receive experience gifts and that experiences demonstrate a more intimate level of knowledge about the receiver, where might you look for such gifts? Below is a list of websites that allow you to search by location and type of experience to perfectly tailor the gift for your loved one: 

 Good luck gift shopping and enjoy your new experiences!

1Zhang, Y., & Epley, N. (2012). Exaggerated, mispredicted, and misplaced: When ‘it’s the thought that counts’ in gift exchanges. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), 667-681.

2Clarke, J. R. (2006). Different to ‘dust collectors’? The giving and receiving of experience gifts. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 5(6), 533-549.

3Van Boven L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1193-1202. 

Dr. Marisa Cohen

Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.


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