Why saying ‘Sorry’ is more effective than an expensive gift

People often have unrealistic positive expectations of gifts that they give to apologise to someone they’ve harmed. After unwrapping the gift, the recipients often remain angry, even if the giver has opted for the more expensive bouquet or upmarket restaurant. This was the conclusion reached by Laura Straeter, a PhD graduate at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Her research also illustrates that consumers actually appreciate products which are consciously marketed as ‘I’m sorry gestures’ less than similar products given as spontaneous presents.

If you upset or even cause harm to a friend, this not only makes the other person angry but it also destabilises the relationship, according to marketing researcher Straeter. By giving the other person a gift, people hope to restore the equilibrium, reduce the degree of anger and, in so doing, repair the relationship. A series of experiments conducted by Straeter demonstrates that this approach is ineffective.


By means of a questionnaire, 153 people were asked to recall an incident when someone was angry with them, or when they were angry with someone who they knew very well. They were then asked whether giving an iPod or something similar would, at the time, have been sufficient to settle the score and repair the damage. The results made it apparent that those giving the gifts were more positive than the recipients: the recipients were considerably less grateful for the iPod than the generous givers had anticipated.

‘Empathy gap’

According to Straeter, these findings reflect earlier research which made it clear that people underestimate other peoples’ emotions, thoughts and wishes when they do not experience the same emotions themselves. In the literature, this is referred to as the ‘empathy gap’.

In the case of gifts as reconciliation gestures, the giver is underestimating the impact of the other person’s anger and assumes that an iPod, or another present, will be an adequate excuse and resolve the anger. However, that would appear not to be the case.

Apology gift

In another experiment, Straeter considered whether people view presents differently when they are given to apologise. The respondents who were asked to imagine that they were angry at someone evaluated a DVD of a recent movie received as an apology gift less positively than people who received the DVD as a spontaneous gift; furthermore, the former group appeared more inclined to give the DVD away as a gift to someone else.

Consequently, appealing to a recipient’s anger renders a product less attractive, concluded Straeter. It would, therefore, be better for marketers not to present their products as apology gifts, she asserted. Manufacturers of chocolates and cuddly toys, who decorate their products with texts such as ‘I’m sorry’, should take this to heart, added Straeter.

Another experiment demonstrated that the more expensive variations of gifts – a more elaborate dinner, a larger bouquet - are appreciated slightly more. The more expensive the better, whether a gift is given to apologise for harm done or spontaneously. Nevertheless, irrespective of the price, gifts given to excuse certain behaviour are always appreciated less than they would have been had they been given spontaneously.


Is it, therefore, a hopeless exercise for people to give gifts to excuse their behaviour? Not entirely, it would appear. Even if the recipient’s anger isn’t entirely resolved, giving a present will slightly dissipate the anger. However, in conclusion, Straeter pointed out that saying ‘sorry’, the traditional form of reconciliation, was still more effective - and cheaper - than giving gifts.

Download Laura Straeter’s thesis ‘Interpersonal Consumer Decision making’  here.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Ramses Singeling, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at singeling@rsm.nl.


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