The Psychology Behind Wrapping Paper [Reprise]

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Besides bright lights, my favorite thing about the holidays is wrapping gifts. I love covering a boxed gift with colored papers (or even with plain brown paper bags), I get tremendous satisfaction from folding the paper so it makes precise corners and then I especially enjoy decorating the wrapped gift with bows, ribbons and toy flowers and birds, christmas ornaments or other decorations. I also enjoy figuring out how to wrap unusually shaped objects. However, my most favorite thing to do is to place a wrapped gift inside a series of wrapped boxes, so the eventual discovery of the gift inside is postponed for as long as possible. I enjoy wrapping gifts so much that I sometimes think I should open a small business that focuses specifically on doing this.

But what does gift-wrapping do for the recipient? Is all this effort worth it for the recipient? For example, do recipients actually like gift-wrapped presents more than unwrapped gifts?

According to a study that was published 15 years ago by Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, it appears so. To test this question, Howard designed a series of experiments to test his basic hypothesis; a gift-wrapped item influences the recipient to have a more favorable attitude towards owning the gift item.

In one experiment, 45 university students were asked to evaluate four products in exchange for a free gift. Even though they thought they were evaluating the four products, they were actually evaluating the free gift they received in return for evaluating the four products.

Their gift? A sheepskin bicycle cover.

In this experiment, half of the subjects received their bicycle cover in the manufacturer's plastic bag, while the other half received it wrapped in blue-and-white paper with a matching ribbon and bow. The subjects were then asked to rate their gift on three nine-point scales, ranging from undesirable to desirable, from bad to good and from foolish to wise. Those test subjects who received the gift wrapped bicycle seat cover gave it a higher overall approval rating (7.14) than those who received it unwrapped (6.06).

In a second experiment, 82 different university students received their bicyle seat cover gift either wrapped or unwrapped. But this time, some students were led to believe that the gift was meant for them while others thought that it was meant for someone else. Those recipients who thought the gift was for them were happier with it when it was wrapped. However, interestingly, those who thought the gift was for someone else didn't care at all whether the gift was wrapped.

Yet another experiment tested whether the perceived "quality" of the wrapping paper itself affected the subjects' attitudes towards the gift. To do this, another 60 university students were given either wrapped, unwrapped or "nontraditionally wrapped" gifts (wrapped in brown packaging paper with neither ribbons nor bows). Perhaps not surprisingly, the nicely wrapped gift was the favorite, while the unwrapped gift was the least favorite. Even the non-traditionally wrapped gift (in plain brown paper) was preferred over the one that was not wrapped at all.

So why do we care about wrapping paper? Answering this question is a little more complicated, but the author argues that gift wrapping is a visual signal that is associated with a happy event in a person's life.

"Gift wrapping, through repeated pairing with joyous events in people's lives, has utility in cuing a happy mood which, in turn, positively biases attitudes," wrote Howard.

"These results are consistent with an encoding specificity view of mood retrieval and a mood maintenance explanation of attitude formation," Howard wrote, somewhat cryptically. "The encoding specificity view was supported by finding stronger effects of gift wrapping on mood retrieval in conditions arguably present when the relation between gift wrapping and happy mood was established in the lives of subjects, such as the receipt of a personal gift [and] the receipt of a gift wrapped in traditional gift-wrapping paper."

The study subjects' positive moods were supported by finding parallel effects of gift wrapping on mood and attitude and by finding the mediational effects of happy mood on attitude strengthened as subjects felt happier. These results are consistent with the premise that the happier one's mood, the more that the one seeks to maintain that state through the development of favorable attitudes toward owning the gift received.

This study was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 1992.


Daniel J. Howard (1992). Gift-Wrapping Effects on Product Attitudes Journal of Consumer Psychology, 1 (3), 197-223 DOI: 10.1207/s15327663jcp0103_01 [abstract and PDF].

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I have frequently used "nontraditional" wrappings--newspaper, brown packing paper, and suchlike. I have thought about using, but I don't recall ever actually doing it, clear plastic cling wrap. I don't recall this ever making the least bit of difference in the appreciation of the gift. Of course, the one factor that the described test couldn't allow for is the personal nature of the gift. Who the gift comes from and why is a large part of our reaction to a gift--an impersonal reward has very little emotional value, so little cues like giftwrap can dictate responses that in a more personal setting would be very minor.

Since they're making the association between wrapping and happy memories of gifts, I'd be interested to see if there's still the same effect for people who have strong negative associations with gift-receiving (a small percentage, but not terribly unusual). In my own anecdotal sample of one, I'd say there still is a positive feeling with giftwrap, even though my overall anticipation of and reaction to gifts tends to be negative.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 15 Dec 2009 #permalink

Same question about bows.
I don't use bows on presents because I am inherently klutzy and the alternative, stick-on bows, look cheesy. Does the absence of an attempt at tying a bow denigrate the gift?

OT: grrlscientist, you might want know about this comment by blf on Pharyngula that references blf's problems seeing your blog.

Here I thought this post was gonna be about lingerie.

the lingerie as gift wrap idea is one that deserves experimentation. not sure how/if i will report my results, but the idea does have strong appeal. ;)

thanks joffan for bringing blf's comment to my attention. i wondered where he disappeared to, and his comment has motivated me to join PZ on the noise machine.

Nice post. But I'm wondering if the higher approval rating might actually have more to do with not wanting to offend the gift giver (in this case, the research scientist). Going through the trouble of actually wrapping the gift signals that more effort and money (and probably thought) went into the process, the magnitude of which increases as the wrapping gets more and more elaborate. If someone went through all that effort for you, would you really want to give the actual gift a low score? But if it were meant for someone else, then you wouldn't necessarily be offending the giver by not ranking it high.
It may not be the driving force behind the findings, but I'll bet it plays a large role.