On December 24th, 2019 we learned about

Research shows wrapping paper works for and against our enjoyment of gifts

No matter how personal, useful or exciting a gift may be, it can surely be made even better with the right wrapping to cover it all up. Even if the recipient barely takes the time to ponder what’s hidden inside before tearing the package open, that extra moment of anticipation can feel quite momentous. This feeling of joyous acquisition is apparently learned during childhood, and is the experience many of us try to recreate for others when we carefully measure, cut, tape and tie up a present. Weirdly enough, there’s a chance that all this effort may backfire slightly, possibly diminishing the enjoyment of the gift itself. In the right circumstances, it turns out its possible to wrap a gift too well.

Pioneers of packaging presents

The concept of wrapping up presents is stretches back at least a few hundred years. While items would have been done to protect them in transit to their new owner, many cultures have also embraced the idea of wrapping gifts to make them more exciting, opulent and simply special to the recipient. Korean bojagi and Japanese furoshiki were reusable cloth wrappings, possibly dating back to at least the fourteenth century. In the west, decorative paper, ribbons and lace were used to dress up gifts in Victorian England, possibly to go under some newly-imported Christmas trees.

Decorative papers and lace weren’t available to everyone, so many people made due with manila and tissue paper to adorn their presents. As long as the gift was hidden, it seemed there was little reason to worry so much about the appearance of paper that was only going to be discarded once the gift was opened. This idea held out until 1917, when a stationery store in Kansas City, Missouri was forced to offer “fancy French paper” designed to line envelopes as a substitute for their depleted stock of tissue paper. It turned out that the extra visual flair this fancy paper offered was greatly prized by shoppers, leading to the explosive growth of the wrapping paper industry and the Hallmark company that grew out of that store. With people now spending $2.6 billion a year on decorative paper, it would seem that the presentation of gifts is just as important as the gifts themselves.

Setting expectations about gifts… and givers

It turns out that all that paper probably does count for something, and not just because of how much of it ends up in landfills if it can’t be recycled. Companies have known for years that more attractively packaged products not only sell more than their dumpier competition, but people generally report that they’re of higher value as well. It might seem like a frivolous trick, but it’s hard to resist the implied superiority of a product that comes in a sharp-looking box, bottle or wrapper. Beyond the enjoyment of the gift, in certain circumstances gift wrap has even been tied to how recipients rate their relationships with the givers, but don’t pressured to slather your gifts in extra bows and ribbons just yet.

In experiments at the University of Nevada, researchers found that expectations surrounding how gifts are presented is anchored by the degree of intimacy a giver has with a recipient. If the two people have a well-established relationship, gift wrap is used strictly to set expectations about the gift itself. What’s more, the more careful and perfect the wrapping, the higher the recipient will set their hopes for the item inside, often leading to a degree of disappointment, a situation known as expectation disconfirmation. Slightly more shabbily-wrapped gifts were more likely to exceed recipients’ expectations, and be enjoyed more as a result. This is of course great news for anyone with butterfingers, as they can rest assured that while some crumpled corners and wrinkled ribbon won’t impress their friends, they’ll leave the door open for the actual present inside to really shine in the recipient’s eyes. Researchers found that these effects were strong enough to even make Miami Heat fans more appreciative of unwanted Orlando Magic merchandise.

For less established relationships, the standards are a little tougher. Rather than use the quality of gift wrapping as a reference point for the gift, people were found to use the wrap as a metric of the entire relationship. Study participants reported feeling that a carefully wrapped package indicated that the giver thought more highly of the recipient, while sloppy packages were signs of the opposite. So when getting to know someone, it seems like it might be worth splurging on a gift wrapping service if you don’t want to send someone the wrong message about what you think of them.

So in the end, it seems like it’s good to provide attractive wrapping on your presents, but think carefully about your audience before you spend too much time perfecting your wrapping. In as sense, it’s still the thought, or at least the effort made to crease and tape paper, that really seems to count.

Source: Presentation Matters: The Effect of Wrapping Neatness on Gift Attitudes by Jessica M. Rixom, Erick M. Mas, Brett A. Rixom, Journal of Consumer Psychology

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