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‘Tis Better To Give Than To Receive

Published: July 15, 2015

The stress of gift giving and getting in romantic relationships is the stuff of scholarly research to Marketing’s Hieu Nguyen.

Nguyen uses attachment theory in his research to help explain why some people consider giving gifts a pleasure while others find doing so uncomfortable. The central notion of attachment theory, he explained, is that individuals develop attachment orientations based on the quality of their interactions with primary caregivers during infancy. These attachment orientations underlie how individuals interact with others later in adulthood.

Research has identified four attachment orientations varying along two dimensions—attachment anxiety and avoidance.

Those who are low on both anxiety and avoidance dimensions are securely attached individuals. They are trusting, have a positive self-view and have no problem relying on romantic partners. They often report high satisfaction in relationships. Anxiously attached individuals are those who are high on anxiety and low on avoidance. They tend to be easily overwhelmed by negative feelings, are insecure, anxious and often worried that their romantic partners don’t love them as much. They try to seek proximity to relationship partners and have a negative self-view. Avoidant individuals are those who are low on attachment anxiety but high on avoidance. They tend to be skeptical, aloof and play down negative emotions. They are not comfortable relying on relationship partners and prefer to take problems into their own hands. Lastly, fearful-avoidant individuals are those high on both anxiety and avoidance dimensions. They tend to have mixed feelings about romantic partners and often hold a negative self-view. They seek proximity but also feel uncomfortable relying on relationship partners. Research in psychology has found that about half of the population are securely attached while the other half belong to one of the other three attachment orientations.

In 2011, Nguyen published in the Journal of Business Research “Romantic Gift Giving as Chore or Pleasure: The Effects of Attachment Orientations on Gift Giving Perceptions.” Using vignettes and self-reports, he and co-author James Munch of Wright State University found that gift givers’ attachment orientations influence the pleasure and/or obligation of gift giving and that this link is mediated by the giver’s self-esteem and relationship satisfaction.

Extending these findings, in 2014 Nguyen and Munch published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior “The Moderating Role of Gift Recipients’ Attachment Orientations on Givers’ Gift Giving Perceptions.” This research explores how the gift recipient’s attachment orientation interacts with that of the giver in shaping the giver’s perception of gift giving.

“If I am a very anxious person and you, as the recipient, are a very secure person, the anxiety of gift giving I often feel in general might be lessened because I feel less insecure and safer with you,” explained Nguyen. “When one person is anxious and the other is avoidant, they are caught in this ‘hide and seek’ type of relationship which is very frustrating for both. This might attenuate the level of obligation the anxious giver feels because gifts have symbolic meanings and they might use gifts as a way to secure their relationship, and in the meantime the recipient keeps pulling away. This causes a lot of stress to the anxious giver and they might see gift-giving as an obligation rather than pleasure.”

For avoidant people, Nguyen’s research found that they enjoy gift giving less than secure givers.

“To them, it’s not a pleasure. But they don’t see it as an obligation, either,” he said. “The reason is that they tend to keep a distance between themselves and their romantic partners. So, to them, gifting is not necessary. If gifting is not necessary, they don’t see gift giving as an obligation.”

Nguyen argues gift-giving tension could be lessened if merchants understood the underlying emotional needs of people with different attachment orientations.

“When you shop for a gift, the gifts are usually displayed according to category. You can go to the electronic section or the greeting card section,” he said. “When I shop for a gift, I go through a lot of stress because I’m not always sure what message this gift might communicate. But what if I could go to a store where the gifts were displayed by meaning? If I’m just starting to date someone, I don’t want a gift that says, ‘I want to spend my life with you.’ What I want is a gift that says, ‘I really like you and I want to get to know you better.’ If gifts were displayed by what they communicate, I think that would save consumers a lot of stress and time.”

Nguyen’s interest in attachment theory has led him to explore the role of attachment in other marketing contexts. In 2011, he published with Douglas Grisaffe of the University of Texas at Arlington in the Journal of Business Research “Antecedents of Emotional Attachment to Brands.”

“Consumers form deep attachment with not only with humans but also inanimate objects, including brands,” he said. “I talked to subjects who said they had a special bond and deep connection to certain brands. They said it was hard to explain but they felt insecure without that brand. My co-author and I identified the different pathways through which consumers form emotional attachments with brands. Emotional attachment is the most durable form of customer loyalty.” Since its publication, this research has been cited by more than 50 scholarly articles and included in advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi’s online brand resource Lovemark Campus.