December 11, 2015 | By Wisconsin School of Business | Back to press releases

New research from Wisconsin School of Business finds gifts and objects can influence the way we perceive ourselves in surprising ways

Seeing an ad for a new, thin, ultra-sleek laptop computer may cause some consumers to feel fat or less attractive. But getting it as a gift may make those same consumers feel a connection with the object they now own, making them feel thinner and more attractive.

A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business finds that the material goods around us might also affect how we look at ourselves. Liad Weiss, assistant professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, together with Gita Venkataramani Johar of Columbia Business School, looked at whether consumers would evaluate their own traits and abilities differently when interacting with different objects, and whether owning the object matters.

“We know that people often evaluate themselves in comparison to others, and our research found that the objects surrounding us—gifts we receive, items we see in ads or purchase for ourselves—may also affect how we see ourselves,” says Weiss at the Wisconsin School of Business. “Our findings suggest that when people acquire an object, they allow its traits to influence the way they see themselves and even how they behave in a meaningful way. It opens up the very real possibility that in giving gifts, we have an opportunity to gently guide people to be more honest, creative, or generous.”

In one of several experiments, a group of people were given the chance to try one of two different 16-ounce coffee mugs; one was tall and thin, the other short and thick. Half of the group received the mug they tried as a gift, creating a sense of ownership. The other half were told they would receive a different mug as a gift, creating a lack of ownership. Participants then completed questionnaires that evaluated how tall they felt and their overall physical self-esteem.

Weiss said gifting the mug to participants led them to assess themselves as having similar traits, with those receiving the taller mug being led to feel taller and those receiving the shorter mugs feeling shorter. The exact opposite pattern was observed for those who did not own the mug, with those trying the shorter mug they did not receive as a gift feeling taller and those trying the taller mug feeling shorter. And feeling shorter or taller, in turn, predicted lower or higher physical self-esteem, suggesting that study participants truly felt less or more positive about their physical appearance depending on which mug they tried and whether they owned it.

A second experiment used headphones, manipulating the brand personality rather than the physical traits of the devices. Half the participants received headphones that were positioned as true and sincere, reproducing sound exactly as it was heard in the recording studio. The others received headphones that were said to artificially enhance the quality of the sound, positioning the objects as somewhat deceptive and insincere. All participants used the same headphones, with half owning them and the other half not owning them, as in the cup study. They were then asked to take a supposedly unrelated study, which gave them an opportunity and motivation to behave insincerely, allowing them to self-report on how well they did in a trivia game that rewarded good performance.

Those who received the headphones as a gift behaved in a manner consistent with the traits of the headphones, with those receiving the enhancing or “insincere” headphones cheating more in the trivia game. The opposite pattern was found among those who did not own those same headphones—they behaved more sincerely and were less likely to cheat.

“There are some very interesting implications here for the holiday gift-giving season,” says Weiss. “First, you can see that picky people may be doing themselves a service by screening the gifts they accept and blocking out undesired traits of products from creeping into their self-image and behavior. At the same time, it suggests a new category of ‘transformative gifts’ that can encourage good behavior and make the recipients feel better about themselves.”

Weiss’s research paper, “Products as Self-Evaluation Standards” will appear in the Journal of Consumer Research.