New Study Explores Psychology Of Giving Wedding Gifts Researchers found when buying wedding gifts, people closest to the recipient often diverge from the registry to express their unique relationship. But this leaves the recipient less happy.

New Study Explores Psychology Of Giving Wedding Gifts

New Study Explores Psychology Of Giving Wedding Gifts

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Researchers found when buying wedding gifts, people closest to the recipient often diverge from the registry to express their unique relationship. But this leaves the recipient less happy.

ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Wedding gifts are displayed.
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images


It's June - wedding season, and maybe you're going to one or two or maybe more. And there are some things to think about if you are - first of all, travel, maybe what you're going to wear. And then there's the gift - choose from the registry or go rogue.

Well, NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam wondered what that choice might tell us about human nature. He is here to talk more. Hey there, Shankar.


CORNISH: So why the registry? What intrigued you about that choice?

VEDANTAM: Well, it turns out that there are conflicting forces within our society. We want the gifts that we give to please the people getting married, but we also want the gifts to reflect well on us. And this can produce some tensions.

I was speaking with Morgan Ward. She's a marketing professor at Southern Methodist University. She told me she got the idea for a study because of something that happened as her own wedding day approached. She had created a wedding registry, but for some friends choosing gifts from the registry wasn't good enough.

MORGAN WARD: As the wedding approached, people asked me what it was that I would like. And I thought it was kind of funny given that I had spent all this time creating a list of exactly that.

But the people who didn't want to purchase from the registry are those who were closest to me. And it was clear that those people wanted to buy something that was special and different. And they clearly wanted to signal something.

CORNISH: So the idea is I'm your close friend. I want to get something extra special, and the registry is somehow not special?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. If you're buying a gift off the registry that anyone else could have bought, how does that make you special? How does it signal that you know something about the people getting married that nobody else does?

Ward found that her closest friends were the ones who were the most likely to improvise gifts rather than buy from the registry. One friend, for example, knew that Ward liked origami.

WARD: I had one woman give me a few hundred dollars folded into origami birds. But the problem with it is if you want to use the money, you have to dismantle the gift. It was like please destroy this gift if you actually want to do something as materialistic as you use the money for something you need.

CORNISH: That's great. What did she actually do with this origami bird?

VEDANTAM: She did the rational thing. She dismantled it and spent the money.



CORNISH: So when she looked into whether her experience was unique, what did she find?

VEDANTAM: Well, Ward and her adviser Susan Broniarczyk conducted a series of experiments, Audie, that found that close friends are indeed more likely than strangers to buy things that they think we want or need rather than simply listen to the preferences that we've expressed ourselves.

They also found interestingly that when gift-giving is anonymous, when volunteers give gifts anonymously, this effect disappears, meaning close friends are now OK with buying off of a registry. In other words, when our close friends depart from a registry, they say they're doing it because they know what we really want more than we know ourselves. But if that was the case, they should still buy those gifts when they're giving anonymously.

The fact that they don't suggests the real reason close friends depart from the registry is to send a signal to us, to the world, maybe even to themselves that they have a special relationship with us and the unique gift is an advertisement for that special relationship.

CORNISH: All right. Do we know they're wrong, though? I mean, did Morgan Ward ask whether the gift recipients liked these gifts?

VEDANTAM: She did, and in fact she finds something deeply ironic.

WARD: We actually looked at whether or not recipients were happy with those gifts. And we found as - as was my experience as well - that they weren't as happy especially when the giver was a close friend. And I think people do get sort of disappointed when their close friends don't listen to their preferences. You know, it's a little bit offensive (laughter).

VEDANTAM: So here's the irony, Audie, close friends don't listen to our preferences because they want to signal to us that they are close friends. But doing that sends us exactly the wrong signal. We say, you of all people ought to respect who I am and what I say I want instead of signaling to me that you know what's best for me.

CORNISH: Yikes. I will issue some formal apologies...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...After I get off the line with you. Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Audie.

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