As you go shopping for Christmas presents this holiday, bear in mind that buying the wrong gift for a man could put your relationship with him in jeopardy, whereas buying a bad gift for a woman is far less dangerous.
That's according to Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues who asked dozens of participants to rate their preference for twelve different stores, and to then choose a gift for their partner, in the form of a chance to win vouchers from one of those stores.
The researchers fixed the results so that half the participants were told their partner had chosen, as a gift, the chance for them to win vouchers from their favourite store, as indicated earlier (i.e. a good gift), whereas the other half were told their partner had chosen for them the chance to win vouchers from their least favourite store (i.e. a bad gift).
When the experiment was conducted with research partners who'd only met for four minutes, the results were as you might expect. Both the men and women who received "bad gifts" rated their research partner as less similar to themselves, compared with the recipients of a "good gift".
Past research has shown that perceived similarity with a partner is associated with greater relationship satisfaction - we like to think our partners are similar to us. So this first study shows the potential harm that receiving a bad gift can do by damaging that sense of similarity.
Intriguingly, when the experiment was repeated with romantic partners, a gender difference emerged. As before, compared with male recipients of a good gift, male recipients of a bad gift subsequently rated their romantic partner as less similar to them. They also rated the prospects for the future of their relationship more negatively, saying, for example, that they would be less likely to get married! By contrast, compared with female recipients of a good gift, female recipients of a bad gift actually rated their romantic partner as more similar to them and they rated the outlook for their relationship as more rosy.
What was going on? The researchers think their findings are consistent with the tendency for women to act as guardians of relationships, and that their positive reaction to the receipt of a bad gift was a form of psychological defence against the disappointment of receiving a dud present.
"That is, in response to the relational threat posed by receiving a bad gift from a partner, women may be more motivated than men to protect their sense of similarity to the gift-giver," the researchers said, adding that this reflects "the broader tendency for women — more than men — to guard relationships against potential threats."
Elizabeth W. Dunn, Jeff Huntsinger, Janetta Lun, Stacey Sinclair (2008). The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gifts Influence Relationships. Social Cognition, 26 (4), 469-481. DOI: 10.1521/soco.2008.26.4.469. Via PsyBlog.