We’ve all been in a situation where we can’t decide on what to give a friend or a loved one. We’ve all been worried about fitting in the social group while still wanting to be different. And each of us has been concerned about how missing out on certain social outings may influence our status within a particular group.

Assistant Professor Cindy Chan’s research focuses on exactly these areas.

Chan, who works in the marketing area of  the Department of Management at UTSC and is cross-appointed to the Rotman School of Management, studies consumer behaviour and the role of emotions, experiences, and consumer choices in fostering social relations.

Chan graduated with undergraduate degrees in psychology and business, and later worked in the advertising industry for a number of years before coming to The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to pursue her PhD.

“A lot of the research was done on individual decision-making, and how we choose things… in isolation, but so much of what we do is social — we consume with other people, we make decisions with other people, we go shopping with other people, we buy things for other people,” said Chan in an interview with The Varsity.

Chan’s desire to understand the social world of consumers evolved into her dissertation and, later on, into her own research projects.

Research process

Chan said that all of her research is interconnected: “Across my research… the underlying or key areas or themes that you see come up are experiences, gift-giving, and emotion.”

Even though she has no standardized systematic approach, Chan tries to incorporate real-world evidence and controlled lab experiments.

For example, in her research she often turns to online surveys, observations, and field experiments. She also collects data from people all over Canada and sometimes even all over the world.

According to Chan, her research on gift-giving has received the most attention. This is no wonder, since her paper on gift-giving can practically act as a guide to choosing presents.

In Chan’s 2016 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, she and her co-author Cassie Mogilner conducted various studies to investigate how experience-based gifts are perceived versus material gifts.

In one of the studies, 200 participants were given coffee mugs to give to someone they knew. Chan and Mogilner wanted to know how framing the coffee mug as either an experiential or material gift changed how the gift was perceived. To do this, the coffee mugs were either inscribed with “my coffee time” or “my coffee mug.” The goal of this experiment, according to the paper, was to determine how the receivers would respond to receiving a coffee mug, a material possession, versus an experience, the chance to share a coffee with the gift-giver.

The researchers found that recipients felt their relationship with the gift-giver was strengthened to a greater extent when the coffee mug was framed as an experience, rather than gifting the coffee mug as a material object.

The paper concluded that this research could guide gift-givers in deciding what kinds of gifts to purchase, and that experiential gifts strengthen relationships to a greater extent than material gifts.

“To work on topics that I can learn from… that I can apply in real life is a lot of fun,” said Chan.

When it comes to conducting research, Chan said that she is “[not] on the faster side of the scale among researchers.” She notes that even in cases when the data she collects might not support a certain hypothesis, she believes that she can learn “just as much” from setbacks.

Ongoing projects

Chan’s current projects include two research papers on the “fear of missing out” (FOMO).

In one of her ongoing projects, she focuses on how social media affects one’s enjoyment of a social experience, as well as how missing out on social group experiences can cause people to become anxious about their belonging to a social group.

Chan is also looking at how brands use social media to promote their events, and whether or not that elicits a FOMO in people.

“That [research is] a lot of fun, because we are working on it while we see people [feeling] it in real life, or we see people talking about it in the news,” said Chan.

Impact of the research

Chan hopes that her research will help people strengthen their relationships: “I think if I can help people make decisions that help strengthen the relationships with other people, that, to me, is rewarding.”

She said that her research, especially on gift giving, has helped and impacted her life and the lives of her family, as it changed their perceptions of the holidays and buying gifts. It can help others struggling to make decisions about choosing between material and experiential as well.

Chan also encourages students interested in research to give it a try because the opportunities are endless — there are many questions that are still unanswered and many questions that can be approached from a different perspective, using different methodologies.

“If someone is curious about something, and they can find an answer to it in the research, that might be something worth pursuing.”


Editor’s Note (4:42 pm): This article has been updated to correct Chan’s position, PhD alma mater, and the name of the journal where she published her research.