Care to Know the Motivation Behind That Gift, Love?

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, February 11, 2008

If you happen to stop by a Victoria's Secret store this Wednesday evening, on the eve of Valentine's Day, you will learn something fascinating about human nature that will tell you a lot about people and relationships.

The lingerie store, of course, will be packed with shoppers. Specifically, male shoppers who have waited until the last minute to buy their sweethearts something for the romantic holiday.

New research suggests that shoppers who wait until the last minute to buy gifts think differently than shoppers who plan ahead. When people give themselves time to consider their purchases, they seem to focus on the positives involved in gift-giving. They think about the happiness of the gift recipient, and such thoughtfulness is likely to boost the happiness of the gift-givers, too -- they feel thoughtful and generous, and they enjoy the anticipation of how their sweethearts will respond.

On the other hand, people who wait until the last minute to buy gifts tend to think in terms of negative consequences. Rather than trying to figure out how to make their sweethearts happy, those Wednesday night Victoria's Secret shoppers are mostly trying to figure out how to avoid the doghouse.

Some recent psychological experiments found that shoppers respond much more to positive messages when they are shopping early, and to negative messages when they put off shopping until the last minute. The research suggests that stores selling Valentine's Day gifts in January are more likely to persuade people to buy when they sell the idea that their products will make gift recipients happy. The last-minute marketing messages, however, are more likely to succeed when they focus on the negative. One pitch by the florist ProFlowers put it this way: "Last-minute lovers that send overpriced leftovers end up in the doghouse!"

"I would notice my husband buying presents on my birthday, but then the present would come a week late," said social psychologist Jennifer Aaker of the University of California at Berkeley, who helped conduct the study that is being published this month in the Journal of Consumer Research. "You would think after seven years of marriage he would have figured out he needed to buy the present a few days early."

Her husband's behavior prompted Aaker to explore what happens in the minds of shoppers who buy early or wait till the last minute. In one experiment, Aaker and her colleagues found that people behaved differently when they were thinking about a summer vacation that was only a few weeks away compared with a vacation that was many months away in the winter. Last-minute shoppers were more receptive to negative messages, but the shoppers who were thinking ahead were more likely to buy airline tickets in response to positive messages.

For the summer vacation, where a purchasing decision had to be made immediately, people were more likely to act on advertising messages that warned of getting stuck at home or being ripped off by waiting even longer: People said they were willing to pay $672 for an airline ticket built around a negative message but only $493 for a ticket that came with a positive message.

For the winter vacation, on the other hand, people were much more likely to respond to messages that suggested the vacation would be enjoyable: They were willing to pay $580 for a ticket with a positive message but only $415 for a ticket built around a negative message.

Cassie Mogilner, a Stanford University graduate student who led the study, said this explains why last-minute Valentine's Day shoppers invariably set the bar low.

"When people feel like they have a lot of time, they become aspirational and confident -- they want to buy the best thing and the best present and think about how they will woo their partner," she said. "As time closes in, they become less confident and their goals become much more minimal."

Mogilner and Aaker said the research underscores the importance of giving yourself time to shop and being able to discern those last-minute advertising messages that target your fear and anxiety.

Aaker says the research has significance that goes beyond Valentine's Day -- it is really about how people are motivated by hope and optimism on one hand and by fear on the other.

Fear can be a highly effective tool for marketers, managers and politicians, but it rarely wins people's hearts. Voters, workers and consumers may heed warnings, but their loyalty will be shallow. To put it another way, you may order a bouquet from ProFlowers this week because you want to avoid the doghouse, but this will not be the start of a relationship involving future ProFlowers orders.

When leaders and advertisers build their campaigns around hope, optimism and other positives, they are more likely to develop relationships that endure, Aaker said: "There is a behavioral commitment that comes from fear-based relationships, but a psychological commitment that comes from hope-based relationships."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company