To Know Me Is to Know My Stuff

Perhaps it might be safer to draw conclusions with other types of people. After all, Belk says, the most materialistic people and young people living through increasingly "commodified childhoods" often can give themselves self-definitions through their possessions.

Changing Habits

Still, object profiling might fail with very young kids, especially if you haven't talked to them in awhile.

"I'm not exactly sure it [a child's toy preference] is often reflective of one's personality, but more reflective of one's interests. These interests for children will change over time," says Jeffrey Derevensky, a professor of applied child psychology and psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, who has worked as a marketing consultant to toy companies.

"If a child plays with toy trucks or toy fire engines when he's young, it's not predictive that he'll grow up and become a fireman," Derevensky says.

Children aren't the only ones subject to change. Adults suddenly can change hair, clothes, tastes and possessions during transformative events such as a graduation, a divorce or a midlife crisis, Belk says. People also can change gradually, he adds.

"As we get older, relationships and gifts mean something to us because of who they're from rather than what they are," says Belk, whose specialty is consumer behavior and people's relationships with their possessions.

But though people can change, it can be a bad idea to think you can change them with a gift, experts say. If you give them a treadmill, a fancy suit or a book with personal improvement in mind, the recipient might conclude you think they're too fat, too slovenly or too dumb.

Psychology of Situations

Other social situations also play into a gift's symbolism. An extravagant or intimate gift can be fine for a lover, but a boss or an acquaintance might suspect ulterior motives.

Tatzel believes possessions and gifts can say so much that she suggests dating services might be more successful by matching people through the products they prefer. But possessions and gifts also can highlight incompatibility.

"It could be something they really don't like," Tatzel says. "That could be a signal that it [a budding friendship or romance] is not going to be a good fit: You think, 'Why in the world would they get me that awful thing?' You can develop bad feelings between people on the basis of gifts that would seem to be insensitive."

Sometimes, it may be wiser to keep emotional distance.

"That's why gift baskets were invented," Tatzel says.

For the most personal gifts, marketing tricks may be no substitute for the insight intimacy brings.

"Even a furtive glance at a store window is something that, if we're really paying attention to somebody, we should pick up on," Belk says.

"Gift giving in that ideal context is almost magical wish fulfillment," he adds. "The gift giver ideally knows without our saying … what we want by looking deeply into our heart and knowing better than we'd know ourselves.

"Perhaps this gets started, this magical motif, fairly early in childhood," Belk says. "I guess you can see that same myth being enacted with children's wishes that Santa will bring them some wonderful object."

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