Wharton's Cassie Mogilner has conducted some interesting research on gifting behavior. Her work has implications for managers thinking about how to reward their employees with small tokens of appreciation for the work they have done. Mogilner finds that experiential gifts foster stronger emotional connections between the giver and the receiver than material gifts do. Here's her description of one experiment that she conducted:
We conducted a study in which undergrads, as our participants, come in with a friend. We assigned one person to be the gift recipient and one person to be the gift giver. Among the gift givers, we gave them $10 and told them, ‘Go out and buy a gift with this money for your friend here.’ We told them either to buy an experiential gift or a material gift. The gift recipient wasn’t aware of our instructions, they just 10 days later received this gift that their friend had given them. You can’t buy a ton with $10, but you saw some examples of the experiential gifts that people gave. They bought them a ticket to the local movie theater or a Chipotle gift certificate versus material gifts like a pint glass, a teddy bear, socks. And we found that the gift recipients who received the experiential gift felt more connected to the gift giver. Again, I will point out that they didn’t like the gifts any more, but they did feel more connected. Our argument is that a big goal of gift giving is not just to give a liked gift, but to foster relationships.
With this research in mind, think about offering a gift certificate to dinner or tickets to a ballgame to one of your hard-working employees for a job well done. Perhaps that small token of appreciation may be a more effective way of expressing your gratitude than offering them a material gift.