Published: 06 May 2016

The joy of opening a box

Surrey lecturer Dr Yuansi Hou explores how the mere process of opening a box can instigate feelings of pleasure – even if you already know what’s inside.

The simple pleasure of opening a gift is something we get to enjoy time and time again from infancy to old age. What’s not to love about opening a present?

But what if we already know what’s inside? And what if the box we’re opening is shabby, see-through, or even empty? Is the pleasure just as palpable then? Is it merely the exploratory behaviour, rather than the actual present, we enjoy? Dr Yuansi Hou of SHTM and fellow researchers set out to explore how the mere process of opening a box, or seeing a box being opened, can instigate feelings of pleasure and even influence reactions to its contents, by conducting five experiments.

These experiments carried out different scenarios of presenting participants with a box containing a series of objects, from attractive commemorative coins to less attractive postage stamps depicting a large, hairy spider. In some cases the box was already open, while in others they watched the box being opened. Some were already familiar with the object, having been shown a picture of it, while others had no idea what was in the box. The researchers also experimented with different boxes – some opaque, some transparent, some elegant, some plain.

The results showed that the objects were regarded more favourably when the participants watched the box being opened than seeing them in an already open box, no matter if the box was elegant, plain, transparent or opaque.

One exception to this was the postage stamp depicting a spider. This experiment was carried out on participants who admitted a disliking of spiders – half of them were shown a picture of the stamp beforehand, while the other half weren’t. They were then shown a video of an opaque box containing the stamp either being opened or open already. Results showed that when the stamp was unfamiliar (they weren’t shown a picture of it beforehand) their reaction was surprise, which polarised their negative reaction towards it. They also favoured the stamp less when they saw the box being opened, whereas participants familiar with the stamp evaluated it more favourably when they saw the box being opened. This shows that the effect of the box being opened when the product was familiar was due to the enjoyment of the opening process, not to surprise.

Hou et al. concluded that people are more attracted to a product when they observe the box being opened than when they encounter it in a box that is open already. Two sources of affect appear to account for these findings. First, the revelation of the box's content elicits surprise when people do not know what was in the box, and the arousal associated with this surprise can increase the extremity of their reactions to the product. This was apparent in the spider stamp experiment – when the stamp was unfamiliar, the surprise elicited by revealing it polarized evaluations. When the stamp was familiar, however, surprise did not play a role – it was the opening process that elicited enjoyment, having a positive effect on evaluations of the stamp.

Read the full paper.

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