We’ve all been there: agonizing over a slew of possible gifts for a friend or a loved one, alighting on the perfect one, only to return several months later to find this rather useful item catching dust on the mantel. So much wasted effort to clutter up someone else’s home.
But the solution isn’t to just throw your hands up in wrath like Agamemnon, taking your gifts back to prove something about your illusion of power over others. Rather, there are some interesting cognitive biases at work, and understanding the problems associated with these biases may help you choose better gifts and negotiate better deals. University of Arkansas assistant professor Daniel Villanova dug into the biases that drive our misattribution of others’ needs and desires for things.
In his article, “More Useful to You: Believing that Others Find the Same Objects More Useful,” Villanova and his coauthor, Ignazio Ziano, explore the self-serving bias that leads us to believe others will have greater use or be more willing to pay for products than we would. Their study focused on American and French consumers, and they found that, in general, people tend to think of others as more materialistic than themselves and therefore more likely to have special need for material goods.
You Are a Nonmaterial Girl, Living in a Material World
Over seventeen studies, Villanova and Ziano probed these questions of usefulness attribution. In their first study, they asked participants about the usefulness of items like Bluetooth headphones, spin mops, fans, and binoculars. The researchers found that people often believe that others will find objects more useful than they would.
The researchers considered, however, that people may be considering typical users rather than others in general, but people are sensitive to that distinction. That is, they do generalize the usability of an object to all others (the yet-to-be users, as it were). To specifically test this, when the researchers asked participants about the perceived usefulness of a new type of blender with “features never adopted by such a blender”, they still estimated that others would find that object more useful than they themselves would. That is to say, people don’t seem to be necessarily using experience to make their determinations or assumptions about past usefulness for people.
What seems to be driving this perception of usability by others is rooted in materialism, the researchers say. In Villanova and Ziano’s studies, people regularly rated others as more materialistic than they believed themselves to be. Further analysis suggests that, though we consider need when assessing others’ use of an item, we also consider the perceived materialism of another person as well because, as the researchers note, we believe materialistic people have special relationships with their objects. And indeed, the more materialistically aligned an item is, the more we overestimate others’ use and need of the item, the researchers say.
This overestimation of others’ materialism then also feeds into our overestimation of others’ willingness to pay for an item. And this overestimation of willingness to pay is further compounded when we perceive the others as being more sophisticated. The researchers believe this may be because we believe the more sophisticated other has more disposable income to spend.
At any rate, these perceptions of others’ materialism seem to be rooted in a self-serving bias where we rate others as more materialistic than ourselves because we think of materialism as a negative trait. That is, we tend to overestimate others’ negative traits and downplay our own.
The self-serving bias then helps explain two of the mitigating factors the researchers found in participants’ estimation of usefulness for others: whether they themselves were an owner of the object in question and the participants’ closeness to the other they were asked to imagine. So, although participants still rated others as being more materialistic than themselves, the researchers found that object owners estimated others would find the object in question equivalently useful as they do.
For example, about half the participants in one of Villanova and Ziano’s studies were iPhone users and the other half were not. When asked about the perceived usefulness of an iPhone for others, both groups rated the cellphone as similarly useful. But when it came to themselves, iPhone users rated its usefulness nearly equivalently to what they believed it would be for another, whereas non-iPhone users tended to downplay the usefulness they would get from the phone.
Similarly, when participants were asked to imagine a range of others (average MTurk user, colleague, neighbor, best friend, family member, and celebrity), the researchers found that the closer a relationship, the less likely someone was to say that the other would find an item useful. The only category that bucked this trend was the celebrity, whom users said they didn’t know well but would nonetheless find the item less useful.
We’re less likely to infect people we know and like with our cognitive biases because we know them as people rather than ideas. And the researchers showed that this case is no different. How we judge the usefulness of items for our friends and loved ones, though, points to a way out of this predicament: better empathy.
Don’t Trade One Vice For Another
Fundamentally, Villanova and Ziano’s research shows that “people exhibit a self-serving bias in perceived materialism.” When we overestimate an item’s usefulness for another, we’re being a little self-centered and trying to present ourselves, even if just to ourselves, in a better light.
And this bias can get in the way of successfully selling something, whether on Facebook Marketplace or as an entrepreneur. When we think people will find an item inordinately more useful than we might, we also overestimate their willingness to pay. You may be pricing yourself out of customers because you’ve misjudged their needs.
This study has far-reaching ramifications for all of our relationships, from business only to our most intimate, personal relationships. Indeed, the researchers emphasize the need to understand others’ values and preferences, especially when we need to make decisions for another.
For example, the researchers suggest during negotiations where hostilities are low, it would likely be more beneficial for both parties to be more open about what they want and are willing to give. We’re otherwise likely to misjudge what the other party needs or would use, and by sidestepping this self-serving bias, we can avoid some of the friction involved in negotiating deals.
We can likewise avoid giving suboptimal gifts when we remember that others don’t necessarily find material goods any more useful than we do. The researchers say their results help support well established findings that experiential gifts, e.g., concert tickets, vacations, or a dinner, are generally much more appreciated. Such gifts can even better foster your relationships.
I always tell my students to remember their readers are much like them to help take some of the guesswork out of their writing process. Villanova’s research proves that advice is far more generalizable to other domains of our lives as well.