The Psychology Behind Wrapping Paper [Reprise]

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Besides bright lights, my favorite thing about the holidays is wrapping gifts. I love covering a boxed gift with colored papers (or even with plain brown paper bags), I get tremendous satisfaction from folding the paper so it makes precise corners and then I especially enjoy decorating the wrapped gift with bows, ribbons and toy flowers and birds, christmas ornaments or other decorations. I also enjoy figuring out how to wrap unusually shaped objects. However, my most favorite thing to do is to place a wrapped gift inside a series of wrapped boxes, so the eventual discovery of the gift inside is postponed for as long as possible. I enjoy wrapping gifts so much that I sometimes think I should open a small business that focuses specifically on doing this.

But what does gift-wrapping do for the recipient? Is all this effort worth it for the recipient? For example, do recipients actually like gift-wrapped presents more than unwrapped gifts?

According to a study that was published 15 years ago by Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, it appears so. To test this question, Howard designed a series of experiments to test his basic hypothesis; a gift-wrapped item influences the recipient to have a more favorable attitude towards owning the gift item.

In one experiment, 45 university students were asked to evaluate four products in exchange for a free gift. Even though they thought they were evaluating the four products, they were actually evaluating the free gift they received in return for evaluating the four products.

Their gift? A sheepskin bicycle cover.

In this experiment, half of the subjects received their bicycle cover in the manufacturer's plastic bag, while the other half received it wrapped in blue-and-white paper with a matching ribbon and bow. The subjects were then asked to rate their gift on three nine-point scales, ranging from undesirable to desirable, from bad to good and from foolish to wise. Those test subjects who received the gift wrapped bicycle seat cover gave it a higher overall approval rating (7.14) than those who received it unwrapped (6.06).

In a second experiment, 82 different university students received their bicyle seat cover gift either wrapped or unwrapped. But this time, some students were led to believe that the gift was meant for them while others thought that it was meant for someone else. Those recipients who thought the gift was for them were happier with it when it was wrapped. However, interestingly, those who thought the gift was for someone else didn't care at all whether the gift was wrapped.

Yet another experiment tested whether the perceived "quality" of the wrapping paper itself affected the subjects' attitudes towards the gift. To do this, another 60 university students were given either wrapped, unwrapped or "nontraditionally wrapped" gifts (wrapped in brown packaging paper with neither ribbons nor bows). Perhaps not surprisingly, the nicely wrapped gift was the favorite, while the unwrapped gift was the least favorite. Even the non-traditionally wrapped gift (in plain brown paper) was preferred over the one that was not wrapped at all.

So why do we care about wrapping paper? Answering this question is a little more complicated, but the author argues that gift wrapping is a visual signal that is associated with a happy event in a person's life.

"Gift wrapping, through repeated pairing with joyous events in people's lives, has utility in cuing a happy mood which, in turn, positively biases attitudes," wrote Howard.

"These results are consistent with an encoding specificity view of mood retrieval and a mood maintenance explanation of attitude formation," Howard wrote, somewhat cryptically. "The encoding specificity view was supported by finding stronger effects of gift wrapping on mood retrieval in conditions arguably present when the relation between gift wrapping and happy mood was established in the lives of subjects, such as the receipt of a personal gift [and] the receipt of a gift wrapped in traditional gift-wrapping paper."

The study subjects' positive moods were supported by finding parallel effects of gift wrapping on mood and attitude and by finding the mediational effects of happy mood on attitude strengthened as subjects felt happier. These results are consistent with the premise that the happier one's mood, the more that the one seeks to maintain that state through the development of favorable attitudes toward owning the gift received.

This study was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 1992.


Daniel J. Howard (1992). Gift-Wrapping Effects on Product Attitudes Journal of Consumer Psychology, 1 (3), 197-223 DOI: 10.1207/s15327663jcp0103_01 [abstract and PDF].

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christie -- i love wrapping gifts, so i don't view it as hard work (well, maybe it's difficult at times, but "work"? naw!). anyway, if you live in NYC, feel free to ASK me to wrap all your holiday gifts!

I'll bet your birds looooove your gift wrapping the most! As in loving to tear the paper to shreds and munch the bows and sparkley things.

Cats *really* love gift wrapping.

By Roger the Shrubber (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

Did they consider that gift-wrapping allows the recipient to put off knowing what the gift is, and therefore enables them to sustain longer the hope that it will be something they really want?!

Nice review of the article. I was just asked by a colleague here at SMU, who informed me of this blog, about the relevance of the study results in today's market. I suspect that in difficult economic times the aura of gift wrapping is likely to have an even stronger effect on moods and hence on liking of the gift provided. So, wrap those presents especially nice this year!

By Dan Howard (not verified) on 05 Dec 2008 #permalink

I wonder what the results would be if they tried the experiments in a country without a tradition of gift wrapping like Russia... Are we conditioned to like gift wrapping?

Doesn't it seem simpler to say that recipients are happier with wrapped items because it implies that the giver took more time with the gift, therefore implying to the recipient that he/she is important to the giver?
Just wondering.

My father is hopeless. If he's wrapped something, it's generally in a reused plastic bag that he got the groceries in at the supermarket.

My mother's gift wrapping OTOH often looks like it should be framed and hung on the wall. She normally uses brown paper, but she does pencil drawing, mostly botanicals, occassionally fruit or sea shells, so once the gift is wrapped she will draw gum leaves and flowers, wattle, etc on it. Doing it after the gift is wrapped means that the picture is always centred and fits prefectly around wherever the ribbons go as well. She may also use a large gum leaf as the card and write on it with gold or silver pen.

I tend to look at the piles of torn crumpled paper going into the bin and think what a waste, so I prefer to wrap in something reusable. Most of my family sew and do patchwork and other crafts, so cotton fabric (either plain or xmas prints) will be used for something. Big awkward things can be wrapped in a large square of cloth and tied up like a plum pudding. I have used tea towels (dish cloths?) rolled around things and tied up like a bonbon (cracker). I sometimes make drawstring bags, which the recipient can then use for storing trinkets, craft projects, ballet gear, etc. My less crafty in laws will often give wrappings back to me to "use next year".

By eleanora. (not verified) on 06 Dec 2008 #permalink

I recieved _a_ "wrapped" present this year. Lovely Daughter placed my (couple of pounds) of specialty coffee beans in a gift bag, tucked in some tissue paper and dat's dat.

I was so coffee-deprived at the time, I can't recall a thing about the bag or even color of tissue paper. COFFEE!!!! What a GLORIOUS Christmas present! *heh*

Other than that, everything else to me under the tree came in UPS or Fedex boxes, so they were nicely wrapped, IMO.

Now, the gifts to Lovely Daughter, Son&Heir ("heir" cos he gets to care for my decrepit ole carcass when I'm too old and feeble to d so) and my Wonder Woman were all in lovely gift wrappings of various kinds, even when LD, S&H (no, not "shipping and handling") and WW already knew what was behind the curtain.

All the "outfamily" presents (save to valued co-workers) were nicely wrapped by UPS. *heh*