When a gift threatens your identity
Perhaps this holiday season you dug deep into your well of generosity to buy a close friend a gift that was at odds with your own belief system. You know: a stuffed elephant for that Republican buddy, when you're a die-hard Democrat. Or a meat-lovers' cookbook when you're a strict vegan.
You may have felt, upon making your purchase, a need to set things right by reaffirming your own identity. Maybe you kept your distance from that stuffed elephant at the checkout counter or bought yourself a cookbook, too, though one of the vegan variety.
Your behavior would be perfectly normal, according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Through a series of five connected studies, marketing professors at two Texas Universities found that when people bought gifts for friends that expressed the friend's social identity but that were contrary to the gift-buyer's identity, the gift-buyer took steps to reestablish his own identity by shunning the gift or buying himself something that shored up his own identity.
The experiments focused on products expressing fealty to university or political affiliation.
The study concludes:
Our research investigates how the purchase of an identity-contrary gift can cause an identity threat. Because close relationships are integral to an individual's sense of self, givers are motivated to choose gifts that match recipients' preferences, but are threatened by presenting a gift that challenges their own self-concept. These studies show that people who experience an identity threat are motivated to make subsequent product choices that bolster their shaken self-images in order to restore important self-concepts. Further, we add to the existing literature on the relationship between products and consumers' identities, and illuminate how products can serve as both a mode of personal expression and a threat to an individual's self-concept.
It's quite a long and detailed study -- 21 pages before the notes and charts -- describing what strikes me as a very common phenomenon, though one I'd never recognized before. As one whose political and religious affiliations vary from those of most of my friends, I'm constantly in the position of doing something I feel is right for them while also protecting my own turf. I just hadn't noticed I was doing it.
How about you? Does this research ring true?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
| December 27, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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