Research has shown that gift giving ARACELY JIMENEZ/THE STATESMAN

Assistant marketing professor Peter Caprariello has conducted research on the motivations behind gift-giving in romantic relationships. ARACELY JIMENEZ/THE STATESMAN

Peter Caprariello is an assistant marketing professor at the Stony Brook College of Business. Caprariello conducts research on consumer relationship processes, and is interested in various processes affecting how consumers spend money in the pursuit of happiness for themselves and for others.

If you’re at all like me, then when you walk into your local supermarket on Jan. 2, you are bombarded by red and pink messages, loud and clear. Get ready to show your partner some lovin’! Buy candy and chocolates and love! You know what to do! I sure do, you say that Valentine’s Day is approaching. That means dinner dates, gifts and special attention. Thanks a lot, Hallmark! How am I going to get out of this one??

Not everyone is as cynical as me, of course. If you’re like my wife, Valentine’s Day is a joyful occasion. She doesn’t buy into the Don Draper-esque notion that Valentine’s Day is a “Hallmark Holiday.” She gleefully anticipates the opportunity to spend date night with her hubby, to shower him with gifts and to express genuine love and care.

Do either of these perspectives resonate with you? When it comes to Valentine’s Day, are you genuinely excited and happy? Or are you just going through the motions until Feb. 15?

These different perspectives fascinate my research lab. But our interests don’t stop there; we’ve been going one step further, asking questions like: Do partners accurately detect when we are just going through the motions, trying to “get out of jail free?” Or, do partners see us in the best possible light regardless of our intentions? Does accuracy matter? Over the last three years, my lab and I have been diligently trying to answer these questions, specifically with regard to gift-giving.

Here’s how. For Valentine’s Day 2014-2016, we hung flyers around campus recruiting romantic couples. Immediately prior to Valentine’s Day, we surveyed both members of the couple. We first asked how satisfied they were in their relationships. Next, we asked what motivated their own gift-giving, using one measure of obligation motives (an example of an item on this scale is: I’m giving a gift so that I don’t feel guilty) and a separate measure of thoughtfulness motives (I’m doing this because I want to express affection).

Here’s the catch, though. We also asked each person why they thought their partner was giving, using the same scales. In this way, we could compare whether couples were accurately detecting each other’s intentions. Then the couples were free to go about their Valentine’s Day as they would.

A few days after Valentine’s Day, we followed up with our couples. We asked each person, “How happy were you with giving your gift to your partner?”  

We first found that reasons for giving varied. Lots of people sounded like me: Just goin’ through the motions, homie. Lots of people sounded like my wife: I’m expressing love, sweet love! More importantly, we found discrepancies between why people reported giving and why their partners thought they were giving. In other words, people often inaccurately detected their partner’s motives, and inaccuracies were not always charitable. What was going on?

We found that relationship satisfaction was a key predictor of inaccuracy. Regardless of the partner’s actual, reported motivation, satisfied dyad members tended to see their partner as giving to them for thoughtful reasons (he’s all about that love, sweet love!). For dissatisfied couples, perceptions tended to downplay thoughtfulness in favor of obligation (she’s just goin’ through motions, homie!).

Furthermore, inaccuracy mattered. The more you saw your partner as giving out of obligation, independently of their actual, reported motives, the less joy you got from giving! Your relationship dissatisfaction was literally sucking the joy out of giving! Of course, the opposite was also true, and is a far more auspicious story; the more you saw your partner as giving out of thoughtfulness, independently of their actual, reported motives, the more joy you got from giving.

So, the news is neither good nor bad. What it tells my lab is that gift-giving holidays can really affect couples, but that this depends on the relationship’s strength leading into the holiday. Couples at risk are those who may be ignoring their dissatisfaction, trying to muster the strength to get through another holiday, despite internal discord. Conversely, couples that are satisfied, content, and committed are likely to benefit from the holiday.

Which brings us back to my wife and I. Even though my cynical views of Valentine’s Day differ with my wife’s romantic ones, this difference in opinion is not the real deal-breaker. Instead, I should focus on the state of our marriage in the days leading up to the holiday, so that our satisfaction during the holiday best colors our perceptions of each other and our intentions. This way, no matter how cynically I respond to those blazing pink and red messages from Hallmark, I can still respond to my wife in a way that she will see as working well. And that, my friends, is how you get out of jail free!

  • Franco Collina

    Still, if you MUST get your spouse something for this day. Otherwise, regardless of the relationship satisfaction, you’re in the doghouse.