Material or Experiential Gifts – Which Are Best?

Align your choice with your gift giving objectives.

Posted Dec 24, 2015

It’s the perennial end-of-year gift challenge: Should you give colleagues, friends, and family members experiences, such as a cruise on the bay, or objects, such as a festive cap to wear on any future cruises on the bay?

As with so many choices, how you should resolve the object or experience dilemma depends on your gift giving objectives.

Research in the cognitive sciences has previously indicated that the best options are the experiential ones, that they will directly boost happiness levels more than objects received. Experiential gifts also have the advantage of not adding to clutter in homes and offices (unless they result in lots of souvenirs), which means they don’t increase the stress people experience in those lived environments.

Recently, Cassie Mogilner spoke with Knowledge at Wharton (“The Science of Gifting, How to Pick a Better Present”), about the findings of a study she did with Cindy Chan that is being reviewed for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research (“Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Relationships Than Material Gifts”). They report that the gift of an experience increases social bonds between the gift giver and receiver. As Mogilner details, “when recipients receive an experience, regardless of whether they share in that experience with the gift giver, they feel more connected to the gift giver as a result of it, compared to receiving a material gift.” 

This effect isn’t tied to how much people like the gifts given, as Mogilner further describes, “We see that in people who have received an experiential gift versus material gift, there’s actually no difference in liking. People like material gifts just as well as experiential gifts. They also view experiential gifts as no more thoughtful. But the thing that seems to be driving the effect is the emotion that gets evoked when you’re consuming the gift. It’s beyond the emotion you feel during the gift exchange, like when you open the present. It’s really the emotion that gets evoked when you’re attending the concert, when you’re eating the dinner, versus when you’re wearing the sweater or the Apple Watch.”

There is, however, recently released research indicating that there can be pluses to giving a material gift. Weidman and Dunn, in a study (“The Unsung Benefits of Material Things”) to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, report that, gifts of objects provide pleasure to recipients on a different schedule than experiential ones. When study participants were asked to think about Christmas gifts they received, Weidman and Dunn found that “material and experiential purchases deliver happiness in two distinct flavors: Material purchases provide more frequent momentary happiness over time, whereas experiential purchases provide more intense momentary happiness on individual occasions.”

Want to bond with someone? An experiential gift seems the way to go. Not looking to build social links? Then think about the timing and intensity of your desired “happiness doses.”