Further Findings on Self-Gifts: Products, Qualities, and Socioeconomic Correlates

David Glen Mick, University of Florida
Michelle DeMoss, University of Florida
ABSTRACT - This article reports new quantitative findings on self-gifts from two surveys. The first shows that some product classes (e.g., clothing) are more prevalent as self-gifts in certain contexts (reward versus therapy) and, also, self-gift qualities (e.g., memorable, inexpensive) are differentially associated with self-gift contexts. The second study shows that propensities to engage in self-gift behaviors (e.g., rewarding, cheering up) are correlated with socioeconomic variables such as age, current financial condition, and gender. Results are discussed and future research is suggested.
[ to cite ]:
David Glen Mick and Michelle DeMoss (1992) ,"Further Findings on Self-Gifts: Products, Qualities, and Socioeconomic Correlates", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 140-146.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 140-146


David Glen Mick, University of Florida

Michelle DeMoss, University of Florida


This article reports new quantitative findings on self-gifts from two surveys. The first shows that some product classes (e.g., clothing) are more prevalent as self-gifts in certain contexts (reward versus therapy) and, also, self-gift qualities (e.g., memorable, inexpensive) are differentially associated with self-gift contexts. The second study shows that propensities to engage in self-gift behaviors (e.g., rewarding, cheering up) are correlated with socioeconomic variables such as age, current financial condition, and gender. Results are discussed and future research is suggested.


Understandably, gift-giving theory and research have been primarily dyadic or interpersonal in nature (see, e.g., Belk 1979; Fischer and Arnold 1990; Sherry 1983). A few researchers have noted, nonetheless, that people may sometimes give gifts to themselves (see, e.g., Schwartz 1967; Levy 1982; Mick 1986). Empirical evidence has now begun to appear that not only substantiates self-gifts, but also suggests that the self-gift phenomenon may be widely occurring in American society (Mick and DeMoss 1990a, 1990b; Mick et al. 1991; Sherry and McGrath 1989).

Mick and DeMoss (1990b) define self-gifts as personally symbolic self-communication through special indulgences that tend to be premeditated and highly context bound. Typical of the self-directed messages are celebration, congratulations, or consolation; all are intertwined with self-concepts (how consumers define themselves) or self-esteem (how consumers feel about themselves). Often cited contexts include public holidays (e.g., Christmas) and birthdays as well as situations of success (e.g., graduation, promotion) and failure (e.g., low exam grade, divorce). Mick and DeMoss (1990b) have suggested that self-gifts reflect consumer behavior in some of its most flexible, dramatic, and personally meaningful forms.

Most of the early empirical insights on self-gifts have been qualitative. As Mick and DeMoss (1990b) noted, however, various research approaches will be necessary to understand self-gifts comprehensively, including quantitative inquiries. In this article we report some new quantitative findings on self-gifts emanating from two surveys. The results contribute further foundational knowledge about self-gifts, notably the types of self-gifts acquired (including differences between reward and therapy contexts), the qualities of self-gifts deemed most applicable in four different contexts, and socioeconomic correlates of consumers' propensities to engage in self-gift behavior in eight different contexts. As an additional contribution, moving beyond the exploratory and descriptive nature of past self-gift studies, the surveys also allowed us to test several propositions that Mick (1991) derived from a semiotic analysis of self-gifts.



Data from this first study were collected as part of a previous survey on self-gifts (see Mick and DeMoss 1990b for full details). In that project 392 critical incident reports on self-gifts were collected from a convenience sample of students and non-student adults (n = 287), ages 21 to 82, mostly from the Gainesville, Florida area. Two-thirds of the respondents were asked to describe a personal acquisition "as a reward for having accomplished a personal goal" and then, on a subsequent page, to describe a personal acquisition "to cheer yourself up because you were feeling down." The other one-third of the respondents were requested to describe a personal acquisition "for your birthday" and then another "when you had extra money to spend." These four contexts had been identified through previous exploratory research, with the first two (hereafter called reward and therapy) potentially representing the two predominant contexts of self-gifts. Further rationale for the four chosen contexts and their disproportionate distribution in the survey are discussed in Mick and DeMoss (1990b).

After completing the critical incident reports, respondents answered two scaled items about premeditation and guilt over each reported self-gift (see Mick and DeMoss 1990b). Then all respondents completed a series of adjective ratings regarding the qualities of self-gifts they perceived to be most applicable to each of the four self-gift contexts addressed in the survey (reward, therapy, birthday, extra money to spend). On each of four separate pages, under the heading of a self-gift context, twenty qualities were listed (e.g., practical, inexpensive). Using a 5-point scale, respondents indicated how much each quality applied to the kind of product, service, or experience acquired in the given context. The adjectives were taken partly from Belk's (1979) prior work on dyadic gift qualities and partly from insights generated during our prior self-gift research.

A few of the qualities related to propositions about self-gifts developed by Mick (1991). He suggested that, compared to self-gifts in the extra money context or the therapy context, self-gifts as rewards or on birthdays (a personal holiday) would more likely be sought for their temporal durability, i.e., to continue physically existing in the person's life or remaining mentally salient. His argument was based on the reasoning that rewards are sought as testaments to effort and achievement, while birthday gifts are usually chosen to befit a very special (once a year) personal occasion. Hence, consumers should desire self-gifts in those contexts that are more likely to last physically or otherwise remain memorable. Mick (1991) also proposed that reward and therapeutic self-gifts represent consumers' attempts to uplift themselves (self-esteem, moods, etc.). Thus, he suggested that, compared to extra money self-gifts or birthday self-gifts, reward and therapeutic self-gifts are more likely to be sought for their perceived inspiring quality.




The critical incidents were content analyzed according to the type of product, service, or experience mentioned as the self-gift. This analysis was conducted independently by two doctoral students using a pre-established list of potential types of self-gifts. Coding agreements occurred in 86% of the cases; disagreements were resolved by a third judge.

Of the 392 reports, 134 were rewards, 145 were therapeutic, 39 concerned birthdays, and 74 concerned extra money to spend. Key cross-tabulations were constructed for types of self-gifts in relation to the self-gift contexts. Cross-tabulations involving the birthday and extra money contexts were generally less reliable due to low cell frequencies in light of the lower number of self-gift incidents reported in those contexts. Thus, only the cross-tabulation involving reward and therapy contexts is reported. As suggested by Mick and DeMoss (1990b), these may represent the two predominant contexts for self-gifts.

To determine whether the self-gifts varied according to the 20 qualities (Qs) across the four different self-gift contexts (Cs), a series of analyses were performed. First, the interaction of Qs and Cs was tested and found to be highly significant (F = 21.8, p < .0001). Then the simple main effects of the four contexts (Cs) were tested for the 20 qualities and all were statistically significant (p's < .05), with the exception of one quality ("simple"). Post hoc Tukey comparisons were then performed on the remaining 19 qualities to test for significant differences between self-gift contexts.


As Table 1 shows, across all four contexts the most frequently cited self-gifts were clothing, fast-food/grocery food, non-fast-food restaurants, music products (e.g., tapes), personal care services (e.g., hair styling), recreational products (e.g., tennis racquet), and electronic equipment (e.g., radio). As Table 2 shows, compared to the therapy context, the reward context was more likely to involve clothing, non-fast-food restaurants, recreational products, and travel, and less likely to involve music products, fast-food/grocery food, personal care services, and entertainment outside the home (e.g., movies).

A few qualities of self-gifts were shared among self-gifts across the four contexts (see Table 3), these qualities being exciting, fun, and satisfying; taken together they substantiate the indulgence and specialness of self-gifts (see Mick and DeMoss 1990b). Several of the qualities varied across the contexts examined. Compared to the other contexts, among the qualities especially applicable to reward self-gifts were inspiring, memorable, and lasting; by comparison, less applicable qualities to this category were unusual and silly. Among the qualities especially applicable to therapy self-gifts were inspiring and relaxing; these self-gifts were less likely to be practical, prestigious, memorable, elegant, perfect, irresistible, or lasting. By comparison, the qualities more applicable to birthday self-gifts were memorable, fashionable, thoughtful, perfect, and lasting; they were less likely to be inexpensive or relaxing. The quality perceived more applicable to the extra money context was inexpensive, with practical and irresistible comparatively higher as well; the less applicable qualities were inspiring, memorable, magical, and warm.






The results of study one are insightful, though it must be acknowledged that they are based on a convenience sample. With this limitation in mind, it appears that some types of self-gifts are more prevalent overall, though there is obviously considerable variety in self-gift selections since nearly one out of every four fell outside of the main prespecified categories appearing in Table 1. Also, some types of self-gifts are more likely to be acquired depending on the specific self-gift situation. When consumers are rewarding themselves (as opposed to cheering themselves up) they are more inclined toward clothing, non-fast-food restaurants, travel, and recreational products; whereas when they are cheering themselves up, they are more likely to select fast food/grocery food, personal care services, music products, or outside entertainment (Table 2). These findings make some intuitive sense and align with prior insights on self-gifts. That is, in reward contexts consumers are probably more likely to feel they deserve something special due to an achievement (Mick and DeMoss 1990b), thus they favor self-gifts like travel or pleasant full-service restaurants. On the other hand, in therapy contexts consumers are more likely to be seeking expedient relief or escape from life's problems (Mick and DeMoss 1990b); thus, these self-gifts are often just temporary diversions such as fast food restaurants and out-of-home entertainment.

Several of the results about qualities of self-gifts lend support to Mick's (1991) propositions about temporal durability and inspiration in self-gifts. For example, as he suggested, reward self-gifts are apparently more likely to be selected for their ability to inspire the individual, perhaps toward further achievement behavior. They are also more likely to be selected for their memorable and lasting qualities, as Mick also suggested, probably to serve as a reminder of the past accomplishment or victory. As he also proposed, therapy self-gifts are also sought for their inspiring quality, perhaps to restore one's sense of self-worth, but they are not as sought for the quality of memorableness or lastingness since the memory related to the self-gift is probably negative. In contrast, birthday self-gifts are not sought as much for their inspiring quality as for their memorability and lastingness, as Mick also suggested.



This study was part of a statewide (Florida) consumer survey that is conducted monthly by the Bureau of Economics and Business Research at the University of Florida. The survey is taken by telephone, with respondents contacted through a probability sampling procedure based on random digit dialing. In essence, we were given the opportunity to include a limited number of self-gift items that could be formatted to a telephone survey method.

One major gap in the understanding of self-gifts concerns which types of consumers are more inclined to engage in varied self-gift behaviors. To gain some initial insights on this matter, within the constraints of the telephone survey method, we constructed eight separate items on the extent to which consumers are inclined to acquire products, services, or experiences for themselves in specific self-gift contexts. Respondents replied with a number from 0 (Never) to 8 (Very Often). The stem for each item was: "In the past when you have acquired products, services, or experiences for yourself, how often have you felt you acquired them ...." and this was followed by one of the following eight phrases:

(1) to reward yourself

(2) to cheer yourself up

(3) because it was a holiday

(4) to relieve stress

(5) as an incentive to reach a personal goal

(6) because it was your birthday

(7) just to be nice to yourself

(8) because you had extra money to spend

These eight contexts were identified based on focus group discussions and prior qualitative survey research (Mick and DeMoss 1990a, 1990b).

Seven socioeconomic variables (routinely measured by the bureau in its surveys) were highlighted as potential predictors of the propensity to engage in self-gift behavior:

current financial condition compared to a year ago (worse, same, better)

education level

marriage status (currently married or not)


whether anyone else lives in the same household with the respondent (no/yes)

income level


These predictor variables were selected based on prior research or for strictly exploratory purposes. For example, based on Belk's (1988) work, Mick (1991) proposed that older individuals should have lower propensities to engage in all forms of self-gift behavior; in general, older individuals are thought to be less concerned with acquiring new things, as compared to younger to middle age individuals, because they are more focused on their existing memory-laden possessions. Mick also proposed that people with better financial conditions may be more inclined to engage in all forms of self-gift behavior, especially for the genre of self-gifts he termed Romantic (which includes self-gifts just to be nice to oneself and when one has extra money to spend). Also according to Mick, since the expectations and norms for gifts are highly established for holidays (public and private), in those contexts the propensity for self-gifts may be less impacted by current financial condition, i.e., consumers may be more likely on holidays to override any reluctance for self-gifts due to diminished financial conditions. Finally, Mick also proposed that people with less available intimate relationships (e.g., not currently married, living alone) should have higher overall propensities to engage in self-gift behavior (as a replacement for the missing interpersonal gift-giving in their lives), most especially for holiday contexts.



Analysis & Results

Multiple regression analysis was used to determine whether the socioeconomic descriptors were predictive of the propensity to engage in the eight different self-gift behaviors.

Approximately 500 individuals participate in the statewide survey each month, though due to refusals on certain questions (e.g., income), the sample in our study was 398. Among them, 158 were males and 240 were females, with an average age of 46 (range 19 - 88). Table 4 shows the regression models for each of the eight separate contexts of self-gift behavior and the set of socioeconomic predictor variables.

Results show that the amount of variance explained by each model is low, R2s ranging from .04 to .10. These multiple coefficients of determination are probably attenuated by the range restriction resulting from the single item measures; this is an issue over which we did not have complete control since we were limited in the number of dependent variable items we could insert in the survey, and the independent variable measures were established by the survey bureau.

Table 4 shows that age is negatively associated with each self-gift propensity without exception; older individuals in this sample are less inclined to engage in self-gift behavior. Current financial condition is positively related to every self-gift propensity. However, the propensity for self-gifts on holidays (in general) and on birthdays are not more strongly associated with current financial condition, as compared to the other self-gift contexts. In addition, those respondents who were not currently married did not have any higher self-gift propensities, while those who lived alone (no one else in the household) had higher propensities only for reward and therapeutic self-gifts.

The results also indicate that females are more likely to engage in self-gift behavior in therapeutic and nice-to-self contexts, whereas males are more inclined in situations where the self-gift serves as an incentive to reach a goal. Education was negatively related to the propensity for self-gifts on holidays or to relieve stress. Income itself was unrelated to any of the self-gift propensities.


The results from study two are provisional due to the fact that the dependent and independent variables were all single-item measures. Quite simply, the reliability of the measures is not known. However, to the extent that the results have some trustworthiness, the probability sampling procedure enhances their generalizability. Still, some will question altogether the appropriateness of using a telephone survey to study self-gifts. However, it is our continuing conviction that a multimethod approach to self-gifts is necessary to comprehend thoroughly the various facets of this phenomenon, particularly for building and testing self-gift theory (cf. Mick and DeMoss 1990b).

The results of study two are informative and partly supportive of Mick's (1991) propositions about consumers' propensities to engage in self-gift behaviors. Older respondents did report lower propensities to engage in self-gift behaviors. However, whether this finding is truly suggestive of an aging-related phenomenon, as implied by Belk (1988), or instead a specific cohort-related outcome (i.e., the older generation at this time may be less indulgent and more ascetic) cannot be resolved by these cross-sectional data. The results also showed that those with better financial conditions are generally more likely to engage in all self-gift behaviors, as Mick (1991) predicted, though this relationship was not strongest for public holiday and birthday contexts as he proposed. Given that self-gifts are forms of consumer indulgence that reflect intensive participation in a consumption-oriented and economically stratified American society, the financial condition findings can be interpreted in terms of the exercise of social and consumer power by those currently privileged within the existing socioeconomic structure (cf. Sahlins 1972).

With respect to other results, living alone does seem to predispose consumers to a higher propensity for reward or therapy self-gifts, though not for other self-gifts, as Mick also suggested. Women reported higher propensities to engage in nice-to-self and therapeutic self-gifts, perhaps because they are more likely to use dyadic gift-giving as a means to express empathy or sympathy for other people (Cheal 1988). Men, on the other hand, are socialized to be more competitive and achievement-oriented, rather than human relations-oriented, and this gender difference seems to emerge in the males' higher propensity to use self-gifts as an incentive to reach a personal goal. Whether these differences will dissipate as women increasingly enter male-dominated arenas (e.g., career paths), and if men adopt more of the traditional women's roles, remains to be seen.


This article contributes additional knowledge about self-gifts by reporting quantitative findings from two large scale surveys. In the first study certain products were seen to be prevalent self-gifts overall, while some were significantly more likely to appear in certain self-gift contexts (e.g., clothing as reward self-gifts, fast food/grocery food as therapeutic self-gifts). Also in study one, qualities of self-gifts were seen to vary depending on the self-gift context (e.g., inspiring reward self-gifts, relaxing therapeutic self-gifts, thoughtful birthday self-gifts). In the second study, the propensities to engage in eight self-gift behaviors were seen to vary negatively with age and positively with current financial condition. In a subset of contexts these propensities were also correlated with gender, education level, and whether the person was living alone. Taken as a whole, these findings tell us more about (1) which types of self-gifts are preferred overall, and between two predominant contexts; (2) which qualities are applicable to self-gifts in four major contexts; and (3) which types of consumers (based on socioeconomic criteria) have higher propensities to engage in different self-gift behaviors.

More research is needed on the types and qualities of self-gifts in such contexts as public holidays (e.g., Christmas, Valentine's Day), when relieving stress, when establishing an incentive to reach a goal, and when just doing something nice for oneself. Basic research is also needed to compare types and qualities of self-gifts with those of dyadic gifts in similar situations (e.g., birthdays, rewards, therapy) and with dyadic gifts differentiated by the relationship of receiver to donor (e.g., whether the receiver is part of the donor's extended self; see Belk 1988). Also, other individual differences besides socioeconomic factors could be considered for their ability to predict propensities for self-gift behaviors (e.g., personality traits such as need for achievement or self-esteem).

Self-gifts have been a relatively little understood phenomenon within consumer behavior, though their manifestations in everyday American life seem widespread. Using multiple methods while developing and testing both a priori and emergent propositions seems a fruitful strategy for ascertaining this phenomenon. Although a detailed understanding and general theory of self-gifts remain yet at a considerable distance, some first steps have been taken in that direction.


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