German and Canadian Data on Motivations For Ownership: Was Pythagoras Right?

Floyd W. Rudmin, Queen's University
ABSTRACT - To test the Pythagorean hypothesis that women are more sharing than men, gender differences in materialism were sought in re-analyses of 1969 West German university student data and 1986 Canadian adult data. The West German data, taken from the Multinational Student Survey, included two questions on attitudes towards the institution of private property and six scales from Gordon's Survey of Interpersonal Values. Women were found to be more sharing than men, and female gender was distinguished by more favorable attitudes towards private property and by preferences for benevolence over dominance and for independence over benevolence. The Canadian data were from two samples of adults, one school teachers, the other general public. They completed Belk's scales of materialism and 10 scales from Jackson's Personality Research Form. In both samples, women were more generous, more nurturant, and less dominating than men. These findings are discussed in the context of a feminist materialism
[ to cite ]:
Floyd W. Rudmin (1990) ,"German and Canadian Data on Motivations For Ownership: Was Pythagoras Right?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 176-181.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 176-181


Floyd W. Rudmin, Queen's University

[Appreciation is expressed to Dr. David Finlay for granting permission to use MSS data and to the University of British Columbia Data Library for making it available. Neither the authors of the MSS data base nor the UBC Data Library bear any responsibility for the analysis and interpretation contained herein. Financial support was provided by a post-doctoral fellowship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.]


To test the Pythagorean hypothesis that women are more sharing than men, gender differences in materialism were sought in re-analyses of 1969 West German university student data and 1986 Canadian adult data. The West German data, taken from the Multinational Student Survey, included two questions on attitudes towards the institution of private property and six scales from Gordon's Survey of Interpersonal Values. Women were found to be more sharing than men, and female gender was distinguished by more favorable attitudes towards private property and by preferences for benevolence over dominance and for independence over benevolence. The Canadian data were from two samples of adults, one school teachers, the other general public. They completed Belk's scales of materialism and 10 scales from Jackson's Personality Research Form. In both samples, women were more generous, more nurturant, and less dominating than men. These findings are discussed in the context of a feminist materialism


Pythagoras was born in the sixth century B.C. on the Island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. There he studied with Thales and Anaximander, and then went to Egypt and later Babylon for further studies (Vogel, 1966). In addition to mathematics and science, Pythagoras studied Orphic mysticism. This religious philosophy, akin to modern Hinduism, emphasized that all life is a unity, sharing a common divine spirit which is isolated, trapped, and confused in the material world (Cornford, 1912). The goal of life is to rise through successive transmigrations of the soul and to transcend the irrational material world.

At the age of 40, Pythagoras began teaching in Croton, on the southeast coast of Italy. In accord with Orphism, he emphasized social harmony and the equality of all, including women, children, slaves, and animals. His school was communal since private property was seen to foster materialism. Pythagoras also gave public lectures, fragments of which are known through secondary sources (Vogel, 1966). His fourth lecture, addressed to women, argued that women are more just, social, and sharing than men. Pythagoras said of women:

"They must not destroy the reputation they had acquired through tradition and not put the writers of myths in the wrong; on the grounds of their recognition of the justice of women, because they give away clothes and adornments without witnesses when others have need of them, without this trustfulness resulting in lawsuits or quarrels, these poets created the myth that three women had but one eye between them because there was such concord among them. If one was to apply this to men and say that one who had first obtained something could easily part with it and even willingly added something of his own, nobody would believe it. For it is not in the nature of men." (Pythagoras, in Vogel, 1966, pp. 132-133)

As suggested in this passage, that women are more sharing than men may be only a myth, or it may be an enculturated characteristic, or it may be an inherent gender difference in the psychology of property .

Although this might have been "a remarkable psychological insight", as Vogel- (1966, p.133) argues, it received relatively little subsequent attention. Pythagorean philosophy strongly influenced Greek, Roman, and Western thought generally, but the question of gender differences in materialism was raised infrequently, if at all, for more than two millennia. It was not until the development of modern psychology that there began to appear incidental reports of Bender differences in the materialism of young children. William James (1890) started this when he argued that the Self is created- by the act of possession and materialized by the instinct for acquisition, evidence for which should be sought in the natural, unsocialized behaviors of young children.

For example, in children's collecting behaviors, Kline and France (1898) found that more girls than boys collect things. Wiltse and Hall (1891), Burk (1900), Whitley (1929) and Witty and Lehman (1931; 1933) all found that girls' collections reflected social attachments and personal achievements, while boys' collections had a more competitive quality, reflective of games, conquests, and trading. McElwain (1937) found that girls were more individualistic in their choices of possessions. In children's development of personal pronouns and possessive behavior, Cooley (1902) reported that his daughter was more advanced than had been her older brother, but attributed that to birth order rather than to Bender. In a study of preschool children, Dawe (1934) found that boys quarreled more than girls and that most quarrels, particularly for boys, were about possessions.

In the past five decades, the psychology of material relations has developed extensively. However, this is not commonly recognized because the research is dispersed among isolated sub-fields and disciplines. [ See bibliographies by Rudmin (1986) and Rudmin, Belk and Furby, 1987.] Gender differences in the psychology of property, ownership, and possession have yet to be the focus of much attention, despite the importance of this topic to the moral, political, and economic concerns of the feminist movement. The purpose of the present report is to explore two existing data bases for Bender differences in materialism, with the hope that such re-analyses might contribute to the development of a feminist theory of materialism. The perspectives and values of both genders need representation if a coherent and useful understanding of the psychology of property is ever to be developed.


The first study examined Bender differences in attitudes towards the institution of private property for a sample of West German university students. The data come from the Multinational Student Survey (MSS). This was a collaborative questionnaire survey of sociopolitical knowledge, attitudes, and values in 17 nations (Iversen, 1969). The target population was male university students, aged 22 to 24. However, the German researchers fortuitously collected responses from both sexes, and hence their data are suitable for an exploration of Bender differences.

The respondents were 65 German students from two different universities. However, only 43 had complete data on the variables of interest here. The mean age was 23, with a range of 20 to 28. The sample was almost evenly divided between the sexes, 22 women and 21 men. Although this is admittedly a small sample, it does have the conservative virtue of making statistical significance less likely to occur. The original research questionnaire, translated into German, consisted of 190 multiple-choice questions, 14 demographic questions, and 5 open-ended interview questions. Of these, the present study examined two questions on attitudes towards the institution of private property and the 90-item Survey of Interpersonal Values (SIV) (Gordon, 1976).

The two property questions were separated among 47 other questions on sociopolitical values:

"The institution of private property is a sound basis on which to build a society which fulfills the needs of its members."

"The acquisition of private property is based, in the final analysis, too much on force, fraud, and violence."

Scoring was on a 7-point scale, from strongly agree (value 1) to strongly disagree (value 7). To allow both questions to represent measures of preference for private property, the first question was reversed by subtracting its score from 8.

The SIV measures interpersonal values of Support, Conformity, Recognition, Independence, Benevolence, and Leadership. It has 30 triads and uses a forced-choice preference paradigm in which respondents must choose one of the statements in each triad as most important to themselves and one as least important. Such scales are ipsative (i.e. negatively intercorrelated) because accumulating points in one scale necessarily limits accumulation in other scales. On the positive side, the forced-choice design tends to reduce acquiescence and social desirability contamination (Mueller, 1985). Also, the SIV is considered robust for cross-cultural use (Hofstede, 1976).

On the negative side, ipsativeness confounds multivariate analyses. Therefore, an alternative scoring procedure was devised to minimize negative intercorrelations (Rudmin, 1988a). Usually, the SIV is scored by counting the number of times each scale is preferred over the other scales. In any triad, the scale item chosen as most important is scored 2 because it was preferred over the other 2 items. The scale item chosen least important is scored 0 because it was not preferred over any other scale. The undesignated item in the triad is scored 1 because it was preferred to the least important item. Because SIV scores represent preference decisions, an alternative scoring procedure is to tabulate preferences specifically for the paired options. For six scales, there are 15 preference pairs (e.g. Independence preferred to Support, Independence preferred to Benevolence, Independence preferred to Conformity, etc.), which if labelled with the SIV scale initials are: IS, IB, IC, IL, IR, SB, SC, SL, SR, BC, BL, BR, CL, CR, and LR. A preference score is incremented by one each time the first scale is preferred over the second. The total scores for each of the 15 scale pairs are divided by the number of times the preference pair is offered on the SIV. This ranges from 2 for SR to 9 for IR. The labelling of preference pairs can be reversed by using complementary scores (e.g. LC = 1 - CL). Whereas the six SIV scales have a mean intercorrelation of r=-.20 for random data (Hofstede, 1976), the 15 preference pair scores have a mean absolute intercorrelation of only r = .05 (Rudmin, 1988a).

Cronbach alpha coefficients of reliability for the SIV were: Independence .65, Support .80, Benevolence, .84, Conformity, .78, Leadership, .82, and Recognition .31. Thus, with the exception of Recognition, which was dropped from the analysis, the SIV scales represent coherent constructs, even when translated into German and administered to a small sample. Finally, because the two property questions were significantly correlated (n=43, r=.38, pc.01), they were summed as a two-item scale of preference for the institution of private property.

An examination of the data for gender differences found that women valued Leadership less than did men (n=43, t=-2.55, p=.01; r=-37, p<.01), and in particular, women preferred Benevolence to Leadership more than did men (n=43, t=2.33, p<.05; r=.34, p=.01). One of the Benevolence items directly asked whether or not it is important "to share my belongings with others", and women chose this item more frequently than did men (nJ13, t=2.11, p<.05; r=31, p<.05). These gender differences remained statistically significant even after partialling out any age effects.

Multiple regression showed that female gender correlated (R=.' 2, p<.01) with preference for Benevolence over Leadership (beta=.50), with preference for private property (beta=.33), and with preference for Independence over Benevolence (beta=.18). As a discriminant function, these three measures alone correctly distinguished 77% of the females and 67% of the males.

These data and analyses do support the Pythagorean hypothesis. Sharing was more typical of women than of men. The reason for this appears to relate to the fact that the women more strongly preferred Benevolence to Leadership as an interpersonal value. Whereas the Benevolence scale of the SIV was defined as "doing things for other people; sharing with others; helping the unfortunate; being generous" (Gordon, 1976, p.l), the Leadership scale emphasized interpersonal dominance, "being in charge of other people; having authority over others; being in a position of leadership or power" (Gordon, 1976, p. l ). Thus, in rejecting Leadership and choosing Benevolence, women prefer the care of people to the control of them.

However, it is most important to emphasize the implications of the multivariate analysis. As characteristics which reliably distinguish women from men, preferring caring to control goes along with positive attitudes towards private property and with preferring autonomy to caring. To state it most forcefully and thus set forth an hypothesis for challenge, discussion and research, it would seem that women have higher regard for the institution of private property, not for the dominance opportunities it allows, but for the benevolence and, to a lesser degree, independence opportunities.

It may seem that such interpretations are too broad for so small and so unique a sample, and for so post-hoc an analysis. However, a study of MSS data for only male university students in 15 societies found a preference for dominance to be the strongest and most replicated correlate of favoring private property (Rudmin, 1988b). Much more remote and therefore stronger support comes from the literature on gender differences in wishes. Wilson's 1939 study of U.S. university students, Wheeler's 1963 study of Australian adolescents, and Winkley's 1982 study of British school children all found that females wish less for having power and money, indicating rejection of dominance, and wish more for philanthropic activities, pets, and benefits for relatives, and for opportunities, accomplishments, and scholastic achievement, indicating preferences for benevolence and independence. That females have more of a preference for private property gains some support from the finding by Dixon and Street (1975) that girls have a greater frequency of identifying possessions as part of themselves, and by Kline and Prance's (1898) and Furby's (1976) findings that, when asked, girls mention more possessions than do boys.


Further support for the Pythagorean hypothesis was sought in post-hoc analyses for gender differences in two samples of Canadian adults who had completed a questionnaire on materialism (Rudmin, 1988c;d). The first sample consisted of 102 public school teachers attending university summer session. The mean age was 34, with a range of 24 to 55; 64 were women and 38 were men. The second sample consisted of 38 men and 35 women recruited in a car ferry queue. Their mean age was 41, with a range of 21 to 76. In both samples, respondents had been eliminated if they were younger than 21 or if they had incomplete data on the variables of interest:

Both samples completed Belk's (1984; 1985) scales of materialism and 10 scales from Jackson's (1984) Personality Research Form (PRF). The scales of materialism consisted of Possessiveness (9 items), Nongenerosity (7 items), Envy (8 items), and a combined measure of Materialism (24 items). These were rated on a 5-point Likert scale from strongly disagree (value 1) to strongly agree (value 5). The 10 PRF scales were Abasement, Affiliation. Autonomy, Change, Defendence, Dominance, Nurturance, Order, Social Recognition, and Desirability. Each of these consists of 16 true-false items.

Cronbach alpha coefficients of reliability for the materialism scales for the teachers and ferry passengers respectively were Possessiveness .26, .37; Nongenerosity .68, .54; Envy .51, .09; and the combined Materialism scale .57, .48. Alpha coefficients for the 10 PRF scales for the two samples were Abasement .39, .51; Affiliation .80, .78; Autonomy .75, .61; Change .56, .61; Defendence .72, .72; Dominance .79, .84; Nurturance .61, .64; Order .89, .89; Social Recognition .69, .64; and Desirability .51, .53. Thus, with the exceptions of the Possessiveness, Envy, and Abasement scales, which were deleted from further analyses, the measures used were coherent for the two special samples under study. In both samples, Possessiveness items 8 and 9, and Envy item 2 had negative item-total correlations, suggesting that these three items should be carefully examined in future revisions of the materialism scales .

To be conservative, only those findings are reported which were statistically significant in both samples. Data on the semantic similarity of 24 verbs to the verb "own" were collected in this study (Rudmin, 1988d), but are not reported here because the analysis is too complex and the results too weak. However, the search for gender differences in the materialism and personality scales found that females expressed less Nongenerosity in the teacher sample (n=102, t=-198, p=.05; r=-.19, p<.05) and in the ferry sampe (n=73, t=-3.13, p<.01; r=-.35, p<.01). Females showed less Dominance in the teacher sample (n=102, t=-2.81, p<.01; r=-.27, p<.01) and in the ferry sample (n=73, t=-3.71, p<.01; r=-.40, p<.01). Females showed more Nurturance in the teacher sample (n=102, t=2.97, p<.01; r=.29, p<.01) and in the ferry sample (n=73, t=4.66, p<.01; r=.48, p< 01). Partialling out age and social desirability effects did not reduce any of these gender differences.

Multiple regression showed that female gender correlated in the teacher and ferry samples (R=.40, p<.01; R=.60, p<.01) with Nurturance (beta=.19; .39), with Dominance (beta=-.29; -.32), and with Nongenerosity (beta=-.16; -.14). As a discriminant function, these three measures alone correctly distinguished the gender of 69% of the females and 68% of the males in the teacher sample, and 84% of the females and 77% of the males in the ferry sample. Autonomy was not a significant correlate of either Nongenerosity or gender.

Thus, the Pythagorean hypothesis was again supported. The women in these two samples did report themselves as more sharing than did the men. And again, it appears that this is due to the tendency for women to prefer caring to controlling. However, the weak finding in the MSS study that Independence (here Autonomy) contributed to gender differences in materialism was not replicated.

It should be noted that Belk (1984) did not find a gender difference on the Nongenerosity scale. However, other studies have reported that females are more sharing than males. For example, in a study of preschoolers in the U.S., Eisenberg, Bartlett and Haake (1983) found that girls were more likely than boys to share spontaneously and in response to requests. In another study of preschoolers, Eisenberg and Giallanza (1984) found that low dominance girls did an unusually high amount of sharing compared to other children. In a study of French preschoolers, Werebe and Baudonniere (1988) found that girls more frequently offered to share objects among themselves than did boys among themselves. In a review of the psychological literature on altruism, Krebs (1970) concluded that "adult males were found to act less altruistically toward highly (versus lowly) dependent others, especially if they seemed threatening. Altruistic females acted more altruistically toward highly dependent others" (p.298). These reports do support the Pythagorean hypothesis.


It is common to describe the institution of private property as a manifestation of dominance and an instrument of power (Schlatter, 1951). This has been well expressed by prominent men in the history of psychology:

"The idea of power is, partly at least, the foundation of our attachment to property" (Dugald Stewart, 1829, p.410).

"My power is my property. My power gives me property. I myself am my power and through it own my property" (Max Stimer, 1971, p.80).

"The feeling of possession and the exercise of power, without immediate reference to other ends, is a first-rank pleasure" (Alexander Bain, 1880, p.145).

"In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression of one of its instruments" (Sigmund Freud, 1930, p.50).

"Status symbols, therefore, express a very general aspect of their owners -their power to control others" (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, 1981, p.31).

That dominance is an aspect of possession and ownership, and that dominance is much more characteristics of one gender than the other, suggest that there might be other perspectives of material relationships that are being overlooked (Rudmin, 1988c). Pythagoras pointed to the easy sharing of possessions by women as an alternative to the socially divisive and defensive property ethos of men. From the evidence presented thus far, it seems that indeed women are more sharing than men, are less dominating, and yet are still favorable towards private property and possessions.

Following the lead of Gilligan (1982), it might be speculated that women's attitudes towards property and material relations are more socially contextual than men's. Whereas the social aspect of property for men is power, for women it is specific relationships. For men, property as power is socially divisive and abstract, as George Mead argued:

"Abstractness is given to the social relation involved in property through associating it with hostility. Previously property was a concrete social relation. The abstract property relation came into marriage and slavery through bringing in the outsider, one who had no rights in the group, no personality that gave him or her a place in the group . . . Abstractness always carries with it a degree of hostility. The attitude of the possession of money is an attitude of hostility toward all the rest of mankind. Money is for anyone who cares to seize and hold it. Its very abstractness puts the possessor in the attitude of defense . . . The abstractness of the relation of property always carries with it hostility just in proportion to the abstractness" (Mead, 1982, pp.87-88).

Gender differences in the possession of money are important for the proposal that female materialism is contextual. As the wish literature has shown, for men, money is power and it is desired as such. Women do not seem to value money or seek it in the same way. Dittmar (1989) examined gender identity-related meanings of personal possessions and found that women identify with financial assets significantly less than do men. In a pilot study on Cree concepts of ownership (Rudmin, 1988c), a women was asked about which of the things that she owns did she feel least ownership; she answered, "Money". Indeed, money is property in the abstract, impersonal, decontextualized, unreal, except for its power which is most appealing to male possessiveness. Sartre (1956) aptly describes this:

"Money represents my strength; it is less a possession in itself than an instrument for possessing . . . it is evanescent, it is made to unveil the object, the concrete thing; money has only a transitive being. But to me it appears as a creative force: to buy an object is a symbolic act which amounts to creating the object. That is why money is synonymous with power" (Sartre, 1956, pp.143-144).

Rather than money and other possessions of prowess, women value and identify with property that is connected to personal and specific social relationships and events. (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Dittmar 1989). And the use of possessions for altruistic purposes, is not an abstract moral ideal but socially situated. For example, Birch and Billman (1986) found that preschool girls share food differentially, favoring friends over acquaintances, whereas boys' sharing behavior was not influenced by their personal relationships. Boys tend to share after they feel competent and in control (Staub and Noerenberg, 1981). However, Furby (1978) has argued that sharing can be an alternative means of social competence and control. Furthermore, as Dewey (1976) has argued, true altruism must be ad hoc and inadvertent, that is contextual and situated, that is, the altruism for which Pythagoras praised women:

"There is an altruistic paradox as well as a hedonistic one. The hedonistic paradox is that a man cannot secure happiness as the end unless he forgets it. He must forget it and devote himself to the thing in hand in order to be really happy. So here on the altruistic side, before he can really do good to others, he must stop thinking about the welfare of others; he must see what the situation really calls for and go ahead with that" (Dewey, 1976, p.214).

As Gilligan and Attanucci (1988) have argued, if there are gender differences in social psychological phenomena, then it is important to explore and elaborate those differences in order to truly understand the phenomena and their implications. This paper has shown that there are gender differences in the psychology of material relations. They are not mythical. On that Pythagoras was right. Whether they are enculturated or inherent is a question that may be difficult, if not impossible, to answer.


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