The Psychology Behind Wrapping Paper
𝐆𝐫𝐫𝐥𝐒𝐜𝐢𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐬𝐭, scientist & writer
Dec 20, 2010 · 5 min read
What does gift-wrapping do — for the recipient? Is all this effort worth it for the recipient? For example, do recipients actually like gift-wrapped presents more than unwrapped gifts?
B esides bright lights, my favourite thing about the holidays is w rapping gifts. I love covering a boxed gift with coloured papers (or even with plain brown paper bags). I get tremendous satisfaction from folding the paper so it makes precise corners and I especially enjoy decorating the wrapped gift with bows, ribbons and toy flowers and birds, christmas ornaments or other decorations. I also enjoy wrapping unusually shaped objects. Perhaps my favourite thing to do is to place the wrapped gift inside a series of wrapped boxes, so the eventual discovery of the item inside is postponed for as long as possible. I enjoy wrapping gifts so much that I sometimes think I should open a small business that focuses specifically on doing this.
But what does gift-wrapping do for the recipient? Is all this effort worth it for the recipient? For example, do recipients actually like gift-wrapped presents more than unwrapped gifts?
According to a study published in 1992 by Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, it appears so. To test this question, Dr Howard designed a series of experiments to test his basic hypothesis: a gift-wrapped item influences the recipient to have a more favourable attitude towards owning the gift item.
In one experiment, 45 university students were asked to evaluate four products in exchange for a free gift. Even though they thought they were evaluating the four products, they were actually evaluating the free gift they received in return for evaluating the four products.
Their gift? A sheepskin bicycle seat cover.
In this experiment, half of the subjects were given their bicycle cover in the manufacturer’s plastic bag, whilst the other half received their gift wrapped in blue-and-white paper with a matching ribbon and bow. The subjects were then asked to rate their gift on three nine-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).
In a second experiment, 82 different university students received their bicycle seat cover either wrapped or unwrapped. But this time, some students were led to believe that the gift was meant for them while others thought that it was meant for someone else. Those recipients who thought the gift was for them were happier with it when it was wrapped. Those those who thought the gift was for someone else didn’t care whether the gift was wrapped.
Yet another experiment tested whether the perceived “quality” of the wrapping paper itself affected the subjects’ attitudes towards the gift. In this experiment, another 60 university students were given either wrapped, unwrapped or “non-traditionally wrapped” gifts (wrapped in brown packaging paper with neither ribbons nor bows). Probably not surprisingly, the nicely wrapped gift was the favourite, while the unwrapped gift was the least favourite. Even the plain brown paper wrapped gift was preferred over the one that was not wrapped at all.
So why do we care about wrapping paper? Answering this question is complicated, but the author argues that gift wrapping is a visual signal that is associated with happy events in a person’s life.
“Gift wrapping, through repeated pairing with joyous events in people’s lives, has utility in cuing [ sic] a happy mood which, in turn, positively biases attitudes,” wrote Dr Howard.
“These results are consistent with an encoding specificity view of mood retrieval and a mood maintenance explanation of attitude formation,” Dr Howard continued, rather cryptically. “The encoding specificity view was supported by finding stronger effects of gift wrapping on mood retrieval in conditions arguably present when the relation between gift wrapping and happy mood was established in the lives of subjects, such as the receipt of a personal gift [and] the receipt of a gift wrapped in traditional gift-wrapping paper.”
The study subjects’ positive moods were supported by finding parallel effects of gift wrapping on mood and attitude and by finding greater effects of happy mood strengthened the subjects’ attitude towards the gift. These results are consistent with the premise that the happier one’s mood, the more that one seeks to maintain that state of mind by developing of favourable attitudes toward owning the gift received.
I’ve published various incarnations of this essay during previous holiday seasons and several questions occurred to my readers and me as we discussed these findings: Is a gift from a close friend or relative likely be viewed more positively than the same gift coming from a stranger, regardless of whether it was wrapped or not? Does wrapping affect mood when the giver is giving him- or herself the gift? Since wrapping a gift represents additional effort, what effect does this have when the gift is from a friend or relative compared to a gift from a stranger? What effect does a crap wrapping job or the lack of ribbons/bows have on the recipient’s mood? Is the recipient’s mood affected if they know what the gift item is before unwrapping it?
Howard, D. (1992). Gift-Wrapping Effects on Product Attitudes: A Mood-Biasing Explanation. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 1 (3), 197–223 DOI: 10.1207/s15327663jcp0103_01 [PDF]
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Originally published at The Guardian on 20 December 2010.What does gift-wrapping do — for the recipient? Is all this effort worth it for the recipient? For example, do recipients actually like gift-wrapped presents more than unwrapped gifts? Besides bright…
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