The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

The Presenter's Paradox: When Less is More

Experience one positive event at a time.

For many of us, the holiday season entails giving and receiving gifts. If you were on the receiving end, I invite you to reflect on how any gifts given to you made you feel in light of the findings of a recent line of research, soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research. And if you were on the giving end, I invite you to reflect on how any gifts given by you made the recipients feel.

In a series of studies, Kimberlee Weaver and her colleagues showed that recipients appreciated an expensive gift more than the same expensive gift when coupled with a less expensive one.

Makes little sense, right? More should be better, especially in a materialistic world.

But these researchers showed that gift-givers evaluate the worth and impact of what they give by adding up the worth and impact of individual gifts, whereas gift-receivers evaluate what they get as a whole, in effect averaging together the worth and impact of the individual gifts. On average, an expensive gift and a modest gift are less impressive than the expensive gift alone. They dubbed this phenomenon the presenter's paradox, and it provides food for thought and not just about literal gifts.

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Recipients and presenters apparently have different mindsets, and they may not understand the perspective of the other. Weaver and colleagues discussed the implications of their research with respect to law, negotiation, and public policy. 

As a college teacher, the holiday season for me always coincides with the end of the fall semester, when I talk to students who did not do as well as they wished in classes I teach. They usually offer explanations, which I take seriously, but the more explanations a student offers, the more likely I am to hear them as mere excuses. One good explanation is enough and certainly better than a good one followed by two or three not-so-good ones!

On a more positive note, consider how we savor positive events of all sorts, not just holiday gifts. Suppose more than one good thing happens at a time? Hooray for us, but do we average them together or sum them? The research by Weaver and her colleagues suggests that we would be better served by summing up their impacts. That may be difficult to do, so a more practical suggestion - one that squares with research on savoring - is to experience one positive event at a time and not get distracted by others.

Reference

Weaver, K., Garcia, S. M., & Schwarz, N. (in press). The presenter's paradox.  Journal of Consumer Research.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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