Self-Gifts and the Manifestation of Material Values

Kim K.R. McKeage, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Marsha L. Richins, University of Missouri
Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
ABSTRACT - Self-gifts have recently emerged as a mode of purchasing for the self that may be linked to both cultural and personal values. This study examines the link between self-gifts and materialism as a personal value. In general, materialists seem to have a greater propensity to give self-gifts than non-materialists. This is especially true for occasions relating to mood management, indicating that self-gift behavior may be particularly linked to the materialistic belief that purchasing and consumption are appropriate and perhaps necessary activities in the pursuit of happiness.
[ to cite ]:
Kim K.R. McKeage, Marsha L. Richins, and Kathleen Debevec (1993) ,"Self-Gifts and the Manifestation of Material Values", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 359-364.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 359-364


Kim K.R. McKeage, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Marsha L. Richins, University of Missouri

Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Self-gifts have recently emerged as a mode of purchasing for the self that may be linked to both cultural and personal values. This study examines the link between self-gifts and materialism as a personal value. In general, materialists seem to have a greater propensity to give self-gifts than non-materialists. This is especially true for occasions relating to mood management, indicating that self-gift behavior may be particularly linked to the materialistic belief that purchasing and consumption are appropriate and perhaps necessary activities in the pursuit of happiness.

"I bought a diamond ring for myself. It made me feel worthwhile, loved, secure. My husband doesn't believe in giving diamond rings, so I had to accept the fact that I had to buy one for myself if I wanted to get all those good feelings.

It was expensive. I did something expensive for me and I did it because I truly feel that I'm worth it. It was always associated with a selfish feeling if I did something for myself rather than doing for other people. So this was a milestone for me to recognize that I could buy myself presents, and expensive presents.

Also, I've nurtured this marriage for ten years, and there are ten diamonds in the ring. There is all this symbolism that makes me feel really good, and successful, like I've succeeded in something and this is a symbol of that success, and I can pat myself on the back for it." C Female, 39



In consumer behavior, we're often concerned with people's purchases for themselves. As indicated in the above account of a jewelry purchase, some purchases for the self are also special, out-of-the-ordinary gifts to the self. While the idea that people give gifts "from me to me" is not new (see Schwartz 1967), researchers have only recently begun to explore the phenomena and its significance. According to Mick and DeMoss (1990b) self-gifts can be considered symbolic communications from one aspect of the self to another aspect of the self. They define self-gifts as "personally symbolic self-communication through special indulgences that tend to be premeditated and highly context bound" (Mick and DeMoss 1990a, p. 328). Self-gifts arise from a variety of motivations and contexts, such as mood management, rewards or inducements, celebrations, and simply to be nice to oneself. The gift itself can be a product, service, or experience, or even the special meaning attributed to something above and beyond what is normally purchased, such as ordering dessert at lunch (Mick and DeMoss 1990a, 1990b).

The giving of self-gifts is encouraged in our culture with avertising and promotion using self-gift themes, such as "the perfect little thank me," (Andes mints), "the perfect recess," (Parliament Lights cigarettes), "sometimes you just have to stop and smell the leather," (the Lexus automobile), and "I just did something nice for myself" (Keepsake Diamond Jewelry). These themes are thought to be effective because they incorporate the values of our consumer culture (Mick, 1991). The relationship between one of these cultural values, materialism, and self-gifts is explored and empirically tested in this research.


Materialism can be considered a value that guides behavior (Richins and Dawson 1992). Ward and Wackman (1971) defined materialism as the belief that possessions and money are important for personal happiness and social progress. It has been characterized as a pursuit of the "good life" rich in material possessions (Belk and Pollay 1985), where success and gratification can be had "with a minimum of effort" (Lasch, 1984, p. 191).

Materialism and self-gifts may be linked in three ways. First, materialism involves some degree of self-centeredness (Fromm 1976; Heilbroner 1956) which includes qualities such as alienation and indifference, narcissism, and lack of concern for others (Fournier and Richins 1991). Several writers have noted materialists' detachment from personal relationships (Beatty, Kahle, and Homer 1991; Mukerji 1983). [But note that Csikzentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) found that cherished objects were generally associated with relationships with people, and that people who disavowed being materialists also tended not to have strong or extensive realtionships with other people.] Materialistic people, upon unexpectedly receiving a sum of money, are more likely to spend it on themselves than others (Richins and Dawson 1992). People high in envy, nongenerosity, and possessiveness, traits associated with materialism, tend to celebrate or do something for themselves when feeling good; those low in these traits tend to share, do things for others, or act joyful in a similar circumstance (Belk 1985). This greater focus on the self by materialists suggests that they would be more likely to give self-gifts than non-materialists.

Second, materialists tend to define themselves through their possessions. They have a general tendency to define success as the adequacy of one's possessions in terms of amount and quality (Richins and Dawson 1992). Mick and DeMoss (1990b) have noted that self-gifts are also self-defining. In addition, both materialism and self-gifts decline with age (Richins and Dawson 1992; Mick and DeMoss 1992) paralleling a shift from active self-definition to contemplation of relationships as people grow older (Rochberg-Halton 1984, 1986).

Third, materialism is characterized by the belief that purchase and consumption lead to happiness. At a societal level, the pursuit of hedonic fulfillment is part of what Lasch (1978) has called the "therapeutic sensibility," the desire for fleeting and sometimes illusory feelings of health, well-being and psychic comfort. At the personal level, the law of hedonic contrast may require ever-increasing levels of consumption in the pursuit of pleasure (Scitovsky, 1992). Mick and DeMoss (1990b) found that self-gifts tend to result in intense, positive feelings. Therefore, materialists might be particularly prone to engage in this type of consumption as part of their search for pleasure and happiness. Therapeutic self-gifts (those designed to cheer oneself up from depression and boredom), and those designed to maintain a good mood, are linked with management of affect. Excessive consumption of these types of self-gifts has been proposed as a symptom of belief in the link between consumption and happiness (Mick, DeMoss and Faber 1992).

While the general obsession of materialists with mundane consumption might not be expected to affect their propensity to indulge in special purchases such as self-gifts, their pursuit of consumption that will bring happiness and satisfaction should make them more prone to be involved with such purchases. Materialists tend to experience greater negative affect from their purchases, and self-gifts may be one area within which materialists can avoid negative feelings while cultivating happiness and satisfaction.

This suggests that materialists would be more likely to buy self-gifts than non-materialists. It is also possible that materialists might be inclined to give themselves gifts in different contexts or situations than non-materialists. Mick et al. (1992) suggest that materialists might be more likely than non-materialists to buy self-gifts to cheer themselves up. Belk's (1985) finding that persons high in nongenerosity were more likely than people low in this trait to buy things for themselves when they were feeling particularly good or bad supports this point.

McKeage (1992) examined the connection between materialism and context in an exploratory study of materialism and self-gifts. Given a series of hypothetical scenarios similar to the self-gift situations described in Mick and DeMoss (1990a, 1992), respondents described what they would do in a variety of situations. Materialists had a greater propensity to give self-gifts than non-materialists on their birthday, to cheer themselves up, to be nice to themselves, and because they hadn't bought themselves anything in a while. However, the use of specific scenarios in that study precluded generalizing about self-gift behavior in different situations within a particular context (such as to cheer oneself up).

Finally, materialism might influence the type of self-gifts chosen. Materialists value possessions and often attempt to make experiences tangible through acquisitions such as souvenirs and mementos (Ger and Belk 1990). This preference for the tangible may lead materialists to choose self-gifts they can have rather than those they can experience.

This study explores the links between self-gifts and materialism by examining the following research questions:

1. Do materialists have a greater propensity to give themselves gifts than non-materialists? Because materialists are expected to give primarily tangible self-gifts, the analysis for this research question was restricted to objects purchased as self-gifts.

2. Do materialists give themselves gifts in different situations than non-materialists?

3. Do materialists give themselves different items as self-gifts than non-materialists?


Overview and Sample

Data were collected using a self-administered survey. Res-pondents were 51 females and 46 males from various classes at a large public university and a small private college in the northeast. Most participants were single (93%) undergraduates (94%) ranging in age from 19 to 55 (mean = 21.9). They came from 35 majors representing 8 colleges within the university and received extra credit or were entered into a research lottery for their participation. The questionnaire was administered in a laboratory setting during a two week period.


Self-Gifts. Type and context of self-gifts were measured by open-ended questions about an actual self-gift episode. Respondents described the nature of the gift, what prompted the gift, the amount of time spent on the self-gift event, and the monetary cost of the self-gift. The questions were designed to encourage participants to discuss experiences as well as tangible objects as self-gifts. The introductory paragraph emphasized that self-gifts were something you "do" or "buy" for yourself, and this was emphasized twice. The opening question asked "What did you do or buy for yourself." Pretesting indicated that respondents understood that a discussion of either tangible or intangible self-gifts was appropriate.

Propensity to give self-gifts was measured by adapting a scale used by Mick and DeMoss (1992). The focus of the measure was on the contexts or motives for self-gifts, and it was useful for determining the situations in which respondents were most likely to give themselves gifts. However, it cannot assess how frequently respondents give themselves gifts. [Wording for the Mick and DeMoss (1992) measure is as follows: "In the past, when you have acquired products, services, or experiences for yourself, how often have you felt you acquired them..." followed by a list of 8 contexts or motives they had identified in prior research as leading to self-gifts.]

Mick (1991; also Mick and DeMoss 1990a) noted that the propensity to give self-gifts could be measured by eliciting subjective estimates of past behavior, and that approach was used here. After the open-ended questions, respondents were asked "How often do you buy something special for yourself" followed by 11 previously identified self-gift situations (Mick and DeMoss, 1990a; 1992). The nine-point response scale ranged from never (1) to very often (9). [Because materials are expected to give mroe material, but not necessarily more experiential, self-gifts, this measure was restricted to purchased items to provide a valid test of research question 1.] The aggregate response to these items was taken as a measure of the overall propensity to give self-gifts, while each individual context was examined for differences in self-gifts across three levels of materialism.

Reliability analysis revealed that a self-gift "because it was something you needed" had a low item-total correlation (.30). While Mick and DeMoss (1990a) included this item, it is not consistent with the scale in this study. One possible reason for this inconsistency is that the item wording calls attention to its lesser degree of "specialness" in comparison with the other items, causing respondents to consider it differently from the others. Since the intent in this study was to aggregate these items to indicate overall propensity to give self-gifts, and not to distinguish between self-gifts and more mundane purchases for the self, this item was dropped from further analysis. Reliability for the remaining items was .83 (mean = 49.2, standard deviation = 14.2).

Materialism. After describing their self-gifts and responding to the propensity scale, participants completed Richins and Dawson's (1992) material values scale. This scale assesses three aspects of materialism often discussed in the literature: centrality of acquisition in one's life, the role of acquisition in the pursuit of happiness, and the role of possessions in defining success. It has been shown to possess adequate reliability and validity when used with adult respondents, but has not been used previously with college students. A principal components analysis was performed to assess its suitability for this population. The analysis yielded a factor structure similar to that reported in Richins and Dawson (1992). [Factor scores are not reported here but are available from the authors upon request.] Coefficient alpha was .89, similar to that obtained on adult samples. The scale mean was 58.0, higher than that reported by Richins and Dawson (1992) for adults.




Demographic Correlates and Propensity to Give Self-Gifts

Prior to addressing the research questions, the association between the propensity to give self-gifts and demographic characteristics was assessed in an attempt to replicate earlier findings. Consistent with prior research, the propensity to give self-gifts was negatively related to age (r = -.20, p < .05). In addition, females showed a significantly greater propensity to give self-gifts (mean = 53.6) than did males (mean = 44.2; t=3.42, df = 11.7, p < .001). The other demographic items showed no significant relationship to the propensity to give self-gifts.

The first research question asked whether materialists have a greater propensity to give tangible self-gifts than non-materialists. The correlation between the summated propensity scale and materialism was .30 (p < .01), indicating that more materialistic students had a greater propensity to give themselves tangible gifts.

Self-Gift Contexts

The second research question concerns the situations or contexts in which people give themselves gifts. Given that materialists are more likely to give themselves gifts than are others, does this tendency apply to some or to all self-gift contexts? Information from two sourcesCthe open-ended questions and the propensity scaleCwere used to address this issue.

The open-ended questions asked respondents to describe a specific episode, including what prompted the self-gift. Respondents were divided into terciles based on materialism scores. The motives for self-gifts reported by respondents in the high and low terciles are given in Table 1.

The most frequent responses involve wanting or needing as a primary motivation. Forty-three percent of the sample purchased the item because they wanted novelty, wanted that specific item, or believed it was needed. Other frequently-mentioned motives are rewarding oneself for an accomplishment and cheering oneself up. The self-administered format could not discern whether respondents gave self-gifts solely out of necessity or desire, or whether there was some other precipitating condition, such as an opportunity to reward or cheer themselves.

While the sample size precluded statistical comparisons of high and low materialists' responses to the open-ended questions, the propensity scale items allow for such comparisons. Respondents indicated how often they buy something special for themselves in each context. Table 2 shows the responses of the three groups on these items.

The mean frequency of giving self-gifts was greater among high materialists in every context, and significantly different in six contexts. The difference between the two groups was most striking for the context "have extra money to spend;" there were also large differences for the contexts of "cheer yourself up" and "feeling good" and "just to be nice to yourself." These findings are consistent with McKeage's (1992) analysis of materialism and self-gift contexts with two notable differences. She found materialism and self-gift propensity to be related in only three (rather than six) contexts. Also, the birthday context was significant in that study, but not here. The inconsistencies may be attributed to the different types of measures used. McKeage (1992) asked respondents to indicate the likelihood of giving themselves a gift in specific scenarios, while the present study attempted to capture more general behavior given a precipitating context or motivation (e.g., having extra money to spend).



While the results show that materialism is related to an overall propensity to give self-gifts, this result is not consistent across all of the self-gift contexts. Different reasons may exist for this inconsistency. In the context of birthdays or holidays, the propensity to give self-gifts was low for all groups, possibly indicating that the expectation of gifts from others moderates the inclination to give self-gifts stemming from materialism. For rewards or stress relief, cultural habits of affect management may lead to fewer individual differences in values. Untangling the effects of social expectations and personal motivations would require further research.

Types of Self-Gifts

The third research question concerns the relationship between materialism and the type of self-gifts. The open-ended question at the beginning of the survey solicited respondents' descriptions of a single self-gift. The question was worded to include both material self-gifts and activities that are a self-gift. Table 3 lists the types of items mentioned. Consistent with earlier studies (Mick and DeMoss 1992), clothing and other adornments were frequently mentioned. Musical media were also popular self-gifts.

Because materialists are possession oriented and tend to tangibilize their experiences, it was suggested that they would be more likely than others to choose material self-gifts and less likely to choose activities or experiences. However, only four respondents chose to discuss explicit experiences as self-gifts. In addition, while materialistic respondents were more likely to mention trips (which are activity-related) as a self-gift, many of them discussed the purchase of the tickets or consumption-related activities of the trip, such as shopping and dining out at their destination. Also, trips are experiences that can be readily tangibilized through photographs and souvenirs. However, the relationship of materialism to experiential consumption awaits further study. This study provides only preliminary evidence for speculation on the relative propensities of materialists and non-materialists to consume intangible self-gifts.

The monetary cost and time involved for the self-gifts of those low and high in materialism were also examined. While respondents high in materialism spent more time planning and carrying out their self-gifts and more money ($493 versus $169) than low materialism respondents, neither of these relationships was significant. With respect to the latter finding, it is possible that the generally restricted income of the college student sample limited the amount of money available for self-gifts. A test of the relationship between materialism and the cost of self-gifts would be more valid in a population with more discretionary income.


The results lend preliminary support to our expectations regarding the relationship between materialism and the propensity to give self-gifts. In particular, materialism was related to a propensity to buy self-gifts when one has some money to spend, is feeling good, or wishes to cheer oneself up. The latter relationship confirms Mick et al.'s (1992) speculation that materialists use self-gifts to generate positive feelings. It is also consistent with the notion that materialists perceive consumption as a means to increase happiness and other positive feelings.



The study is limited in using a college student population. Future research using more diverse populations would be useful for generalization. The scale used to measure the propensity to give self-gifts is also exploratory in nature. It is a self-reported, retrospective measure and does not tap attitudes about giving self-gifts. Further conceptual and methodological refinements are needed. For example, propensity to give self-gifts could be conceptualized as a behavioral intention preceded by attitudes towards gifts to the self, and an appropriate scale may be developed. Such a task, however, was beyond the scope of the present study.

Future research might also explore the impact of self-gifts on consumers' affective responses. While materialists believe that possessions bring happiness, Richins, McKeage and Najjar (1992) found that materialists experience a variety of negative emotions about their purchases. Comparisons could be made between the affective responses of those high and low in materialism, both in terms of the nature of those responses and their duration. Also, since materialists tend to be self-focused, future research might examine affective responses to self-gifts versus gifts given to others.

The implications for materialism in experiential consumption also need to be explored, including self-gifts consisting of activities and experiences that are intangible, such as services. Materialists' participation in shopping as a leisure activity could also be investigated. Historically, materialism has been conceptualized as involving consumption of tangible objects, but as the United States increasingly moves towards a service economy, experiential aspects of materialism in the pursuit of "the good life" deserve investigation.


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