Here’s Why Messily Wrapped Presents Are Sometimes Better Than Neat Ones

published Dec 21, 2019
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Who doesn’t appreciate a beautifully wrapped gift, with crisp folds, washi tape, and maybe some ribbon or twine? As much time and care as it represents, a neatly wrapped gift doesn’t necessarily make people happier than a haphazardly wrapped one. That’s good news for those who are tired of wrapping gifts!

Researchers from the University of Nevada and Vanderbilt University recently published a paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology about three experiments they conducted to find out how important neat wrapping is to gift recipients. One of the study’s three authors, Erik M. Mas, summarized their findings in Fast Company.

“Consumers in the U.S. spend billions of dollars a year on wrapping gifts, in most cases to make their presents look as good as possible. This includes money spent on paper, boxes, ribbon, and pretty bows,” Mas wrote. 

“Two colleagues and I wondered whether all that time and effort is actually worth it. Does a beautiful presentation actually lead to a better-liked gift? Or is it the other way around?”

In their first experiment, researchers recruited a group of 180 university students for a Miami-based study. When the students showed up, they received, as a supposed thank-you for their participation, a coffee mug with the logo of either local NBA team Miami Heat or rival team Orlando Magic. (Thanks to a previous survey, researchers already knew all the students were fans of the Heat and not the Magic.) Half of the mugs for each team were neatly wrapped while the other half were wrapped like you might quickly wrap a treat for your dog when it’s feeling left-out on Christmas morning. 

“After unwrapping, participants evaluated how much they liked their gifts,” wrote Mas. “We found that those who received a sloppily wrapped gift liked their present significantly more than those who received a neatly wrapped gift—regardless of which mug they got.”

The reason, supported by the team’s next experiment, was that neat wrapping sets the bar for a present high while sloppy wrapping does the opposite. In the second experiment, everyone received the same gift (earbuds), and were asked to rate: 1) their expectations of how much they would like the gift before they opened it, and 2) their actual satisfaction with it after opening. Again, those whose presents were sloppily wrapped were happier with their gifts.

There is a caveat to all of this, though. With their third experiment, researchers wanted to find out whether people’s attitudes about wrapping were the same for presents received from close friends and those received from acquaintances. They found that while haphazard wrapping led to greater satisfaction with gifts from friends, it was the opposite among acquaintances.

“This occurs because these participants used the wrapping as a cue to how much the gift-giver values their relationship—rather than to signal what’s inside. Neat wrapping implies the giver values their relationship,” wrote Mas.

So if you’re not great at wrapping, don’t worry about it with your family and friends—they know it’s the thought (and well-chosen present) that counts. With your boss or the team you manage, though, a little extra effort will show that you care.