Wondering what present to buy for a friend? Material VS. Experiential

Many people find themselves procrastinating while trying to decide what present to buy for a friend, family member, or someone else. This article highlights various studies that explore what kind of purchases and gifts provide the most happiness to people. This will help you decide if you should get a material present or an experience-based one. 

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What leads to more happyness, experiential or material purchases?

Before looking deeper into gift psychology. Let's explore how people value their purchases to understand what brings the most happiness. In one study, half of the participants had to describe the most recent purchase that had cost them at least 100 dollars while the other half had to describe an experiential purchase. 

Material purchases were often described as clothing and jewelry while experiential purchases were often mentioned as concert and sporting event tickets. After remembering their recent purchase, participants had to answer various questions about the happiness that came from the purchase and if they had any regret making it. 

The results of the study showed that people that mentioned an experience as their latest purchase over 100 dollars, were way happier with their purchase and they more often didn't regret making it compared to people that reported a material purchase. 

A follow-up nationwide study explored various factors that could make people prefer material purchases over experiential ones. It showed the same conclusion as the previous study. In most cases, people prefer experiential purchases over material ones.

There was one factor that made people prefer experiential purchases less and it was having a low income. But even then, happiness derived from an experience-based and a material purchase was very similar. These results were replicated in various psychology and marketing studies. 

Why does it happen?

Studies show that:

  • After making a material purchase, people spend more time thinking about what could have been a better purchase. The opposite is the case for experiential purchases. This can lead to less happiness with material purchases.
  • With material purchases, social comparison can reduce happiness. For example, you buy an expensive TV and a friend of yours mentions that he just bought the same TV with a 20 percent discount. This will devalue your purchase and create a social comparison. With experiential purchases, people are often inclined to share their experiences and talk about them with friends, family, or coworkers, which brings happiness. Experiences are subjective and internal, they are harder to compare.
  • Memories become more positive over time. We tend to forget the bad parts of the memories (frustration, cold) and remember the good parts more with age. That's one of the reasons why we enjoy experiential purchases and gifts more. We enjoy sharing photos, reliving them, and creating positive memories. 
  • Bad purchases or gifts of experience last longer in memory compared to bad gifts or purchases. We tend to forget the bad material purchases or gifts that we had received.
  • Most experience-based gifts and purchases are better at generating memories than material-based ones. This leads to more happiness over a longer period of time. Memories help us define our intensity. 

By looking at various studies we can see that experiential gifts have many benefits and are most of the time better gifts compared to material gifts. 

When getting a material present makes sense

To help us investigate this question, we'll look at a study from 2020 that explores how a child's age affects what kind of presents he enjoys the most. In the study, 3 experiments were performed that involved rating material and experience-based gifts that cost the same amount and doing similar tasks. 

The results of the study showed that children aged 3-12 enjoy material gifts more than experiences as gifts. During the experiments, they picked more material-based gifts as the ones they would prefer, and the gifts that they had remembered as the best ones were more often material ones as well. 

The opposite was discovered for children over 12 years of age. They picked experience-based gifts as the ones they prefer more in all three of the experiments. The reason it happens is related to cognitive development and memory. Scientists discovered that child's memory capabilities relates to how much he enjoys the experience-based gifts. That's why as children grow older, they switch from enjoying material gifts more to enjoying experience-based gifts more. 

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