KNOWLEDGE: Gift givers are concerned about the desirability of their gift, not how useful it is

Gift givers care more about the desirability of their gifts; gift receivers care more about how ‘feasible’ the gift is.

Paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, June 2014.


Ernst Baskin, doctoral candidate, Yale School of Management, Yale University

Cheryl J Wakslak, assistant professor, Marshall School of Business, University of California

Yaacov Trope, professor of psychology, New York University

Nathan Novemksy, professor of marketing, Yale School of Management, Yale University

A) Main findings and conclusions

When people give gifts they are more influenced by how ‘desirable’ the gift is, giving weight to ‘central’ factors such as quality and cost, but not always taking into account the receivers’ preferences. Gift receivers value ‘feasibility’ (ease of use, convenience etc) of the gift more than desirability. Although gift giving is a trade-off between desirability and feasibility, givers choose gifts high on desirability even though receivers would prefer they didn’t.

Construal Level Theory

The study’s authors use Construal Level Theory (CLT) to explain their findings.

CLT describes the relationship between ‘psychological distance’ from objects and events and how people think about them – in either an abstract or concrete way [Trope and Liberman 2010].

The paper argues that gift givers have a relatively high “psychological distance from receivers”: they are imagining the receiver using the gift, whereas receivers don’t imagine the giver buying the gift for them ­– they only focus on their own consumption of the gift.

In practical situations, this might mean that the giver chooses an expensive restaurant that is quite hard for the receiver to get to – because they imagine the receiving enjoying the restaurant; whereas the receiver might prefer a slightly less good restaurant that is easier to get to.

The authors tested and confirmed their predictions with eight separate studies that asked participants to imagine giving gifts to or receiving gifts from a friend in various situations. Among the findings were:

Givers did not choose gifts based on “accurate insights into their friends’ preferences”; receivers thought feasible gifts showed that givers cared more about them than if they were given desirable gifts

Givers expect highly desirable gifts to have better social consequences than they actually do; receivers were happier if they got feasible gifts

When choosing gifts, people adopt a more abstract mindset, identifying actions in terms of their more abstract ends (why the gift is going to be used), whereas receivers are in a ‘concrete’ mindset focusing on the means (how the gift is going to be used)

Encouraging givers to think about their own preference – getting them to think about they type of gift they would want to receive – can shift their perspective and change their ‘construal level’ (essentially making them think more concretely).

B) How can this be applied to fundraising practice?

These studies look at gift giving relationships between two individuals, not donations to charity.

However, the authors say that that they hope their research will encourage further research into the CLT effects in other interpersonal “arenas”. They cite as examples employer/employee relationships, romantic relationships and group dynamics, though donor/charity is an area to which a CLT approach could be applied, as is lender/recipient though microfinance initiatives such as Kiva.

The authors also say their paper suggests marketing strategies for marketers of products or services where the competitive advantage relates to feasibility rather than desirability. In such cases, they say that marketers should seek to encourage low-level construal of items by encouraging givers to imagine themselves using the gift.

Possible application to events and major donors

Perhaps an understanding of CLT would be useful in the context of charities with large numbers of high net worth individuals (HNWI) who prefer to raise money through events, which can be costly in terms of the money required to stage them and the staff resources they take up, leading to “unnecessary excessive expenditure for the more lavish events” [Weber 2004].

Understanding why some donors insist on giving through the medium of a big fundraising event (including initiating and organising the event) rather than donating the money directly could be analysed in terms of the desirability and feasibility of the gift.

HNWI may view the glitzy event as much more desirable. However, from the charity’s perspective, a donation is much more feasible. Charities seeking to move away from an events-dominated HWNI paradigm towards a donation-led major donor programme could seek to lower the construal level of HNWIs – who would most likely have a high construal level and be thinking abstractly about the bigger picture – by involving them in some way in planning fundraising activities, or simply asking them to imagine what it is like to be a fundraiser and what types of donations they would like to receive.

If you have any suggestions or ideas on how to apply these ideas to fundraising practice, please leave a comment or email us.


Baskin, Ernst; Wakslak, Cheryl J; Trope, Yaacov; Novemksy, Nathan (2014) – ‘Why Feasibility Matters More to Gift Receivers than to Givers: A Construal-Level Approach to Gift Giving‘, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 41, No. 1 (June 2014), pp. 169-182

More information:

Construal Level Theory on Wikipedia.

Abstract v concrete mindsets are measured using the Behaviour Identification Form tool.


Trope, Yaacov and Liberman, Nira (2010) – ‘Construal Level Theory of Psychological Distance’, Psychological Review, Vol 117, No 2, pp440-463

Weber, Daniel (2004) – ‘Understanding charity fundraising events’, International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, Vol 9 Issue 2, pp122-134


This summary is presented for information only and its publication on the Rogare website implies neither endorsement nor criticism by the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy or Plymouth University of this research, which has been previously published in a peer-reviewed journal or released by an academic institution.

For a full understanding of the research and its implications, interested parties are advised to consult the original research.

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