Manitoba

An apple for me, some chocolate for you: U of W researcher looks at how gift giving can be an act of sabotage

Even if you have a goal to eat healthy by snacking on apples, a Winnipeg researcher says you won't think about a health-conscious option if you're buying for a friend — you'd rather get them a chocolate cake. And that's in part to make you feel better about your own choices, says the University of Winnipeg's Olya Bullard.

No malice intended, Winnipeg researcher says, but gift-giving is inspired by our own motivations

A University of Winnipeg researcher says her work suggests we are driven by a need to reach our goals — eating healthy, for example — and in giving gifts, we'd willingly sabotage other people to improve our own self-worth. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

Even if you have a goal to eat healthy by snacking on apples, a Winnipeg researcher says you won't think about a health-conscious option if you're buying for a friend — you'd rather get them a chocolate cake. And that may be in part to make you feel better about your own choices.

Olya Bullard, a University of Winnipeg assistant professor in business and administration, studies consumer motivation.

She says we are driven by a need to reach our goals — and we'd willingly sabotage other people to improve our own self-worth.

"When we have an active goal, we have an urgency or a motivation to make goal progress, or at least to perceive that we're making goal progress," Bullard told Ismaila Alfa, host of CBC Radio's Up to Speed.

"If I'm comparing myself to a higher standard, I'm feeling worse about myself. If I'm comparing myself to a lower standard, I'm feeling better about myself."

That's why, she theorizes, if your goal is eating healthy, you'll buy the apple for yourself — what Bullard calls a "goal-consistent" choice. But you'll buy the chocolate cake — a "goal-inconsistent product" — for the friend, in order to feel better about your own "superior" choice.

Motivated by our own goals

Bullard's research suggests we aren't being malicious in such choices — it's simply tied to motivation to meet the targets we've set for ourselves.

Her research involved two groups — one of which was told their goal was to eat healthy, and another group which was told to be "indulgent."

She then examined what people in each group would choose to give to others — healthy food (like an apple) or the "indulgent" food (chocolate cake).

Her experiments, she says, ruled out the idea that people gave chocolate simply because they though the recipient would enjoy it more.

The phenomenon of goal-oriented giving doesn't work in every scenario, Bullard said.

She said a caregiver wouldn't fall into the trap, for example, and would make better choices for the person in their care. People making a decision for a group's benefit also tend to be less goal-oriented in their decision-making, she said.

You're also unlikely to sabotage a decision if you're doing someone a favour — if a friend asked you to buy something at a cafeteria, for example.

"I feel like I'm restricted or bounded by your preferences, so my psychological freedom is restricted," she said.

The research could have significant implications for marketing, she says, and may help marketers, public policy makers and consumers better understand what motivates people.

Bullard's research is now under review.

A previous study she did will be published in a new textbook read by post-secondary business students this fall. That study examined how people are driven by rewards at the start of pursuing a goal, but are driven more by avoiding negative outcomes in the later stages.

Bullard said the effects of this phenomenon can be tempered by a person actively considering the perspectives of the recipient.

This knowledge won't necessarily make you a better gift-giver, however.

"As much as I know things about consumer behaviour, I don't think I'm any better shopper than anybody else," she said, chuckling.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is covering the Manitoba provincial election for CBC Manitoba. He previously has reported on provincial politics and breaking news in Winnipeg, Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Danelle Cloutier and Ismalia Alfa

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