Three Motivations For Interpersonal Gift Giving: Experiental, Obligated and Practical Motivations

Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, California State University, Long Beach
Laura J. Yale, Fort Lewis College
ABSTRACT - While consumer researchers and other social scientists have investigated gift giving behavior, there has been a tendency to infer motivations from behavior, rather than to allow receivers to express their self-perceived motivations. This research is an effort to develop three distinct constructs - experiential/positive, obligated, and practical motivations towards giving - and to develop items which measure these motivations.
[ to cite ]:
Mary Finley Wolfinbarger and Laura J. Yale (1993) ,"Three Motivations For Interpersonal Gift Giving: Experiental, Obligated and Practical Motivations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 520-526.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 520-526


Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, California State University, Long Beach

Laura J. Yale, Fort Lewis College


While consumer researchers and other social scientists have investigated gift giving behavior, there has been a tendency to infer motivations from behavior, rather than to allow receivers to express their self-perceived motivations. This research is an effort to develop three distinct constructs - experiential/positive, obligated, and practical motivations towards giving - and to develop items which measure these motivations.


Gift giving has been a field of study in consumer behavior, at least since the mid '70s (cf. Belk 1976, 1979; Sherry 1983). However, the topic has recently received increased attention from consumer researchers. In the last two years, three papers on the topic have appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research (Fischer and Arnold 1990; Garner and Wagner 1991; Mick and Demoss 1990), and scores of articles have appeared in conference proceedings, especially those sponsored by the Association of Consumer Research. Various gift-giving topics have concerned consumer behavior scholars, including satisfaction from giving, the projection of self-concept and concept of the receiver in giving, attributes sought or avoided in gifts, search time and effort of givers, self-gifts, the impact of various demographics on amount spent for a gift, gift giving as a signal in dating situations, and gender orientation and its subsequent impact on gift giving effort (for instance, time spent and amount spent) at Christmas. Moreover, since gift giving is an involving consumer behavior, it is often used as a manipulation in consumer behavioral experiments (cf. Belk 1982; Clarke and Belk 1978).

Rarely, however, have consumer scholars empirically broached the question of why people give, and constructs and measurement items have not been developed to measure givers' self-perceived motivations. Sherry (1983) pointed out that gift giving motivations needed to be better understood, and that naturalistic study was required in order to dig underneath the various dependent and independent variables in consumer research studies which did not seem to address why questions. He and McGrath (1989) spent 6 weeks in situ at two gift shops, and talked to givers about their gift choices. They concluded:

Gift choices by customers are often emotional and intuitive, with prospects - most notably females - often needing to "fall in love" with an object prior to purchase...The object, which is "loved" by at least one of the exchange partners, will form a link between the two individuals (p. 160).

While Sherry (1983), Sherry and McGrath (1989), Wolfinbarger (1990) and Fischer and Arnold (1990) all uncover motivations for giving in their studies, none of these studies was directed at developing and measuring such motivations. Such an effort is warranted as these general motivations are likely to differ between individuals, interact with situational variables of interest, such as occasion and closeness of the receiver, and impact dependent variables such as gift-giving effort expended, the type of gifts bought, and the expressiveness of symbolism likely to be encoded in gifts.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that such motivations are unidimensional. Several sensitive authors have noted the ambivalence often present in the act of giving (Schwartz 1967; Sherry and McGrath 1989; Tournier 1963). It is our expectation that these motivations are multifaceted, and thus the act of giving may reflect several conflicting desires. Based on gift-giving literature (reviewed briefly below) three individual difference variables are suggested as important in gift choice: an experiential/positive attitude towards giving (giving for the enjoyment of giving), an obligated attitude (giving to reciprocate or because of social norms) and a practical attitude (giving to supply practical assistance to the receiver). This paper is an attempt to develop measures to assess these three motivations for giving. Following is a discussion of the literature utilized in developing these measures, a description of the study, and a discussion of the results.


Motivation is "an internal factor that arouses, directs and integrates a person's behavior" in a given set of circumstances in order to achieve some goal (Murray 1964, p. 7). Motives are often divided into utilitarian and hedonic motives. Utilitarian motives constitute desires to achieve functional benefits while hedonic motives are those that are based on emotional, experiential, subjective rewards (Solomon 1992). We believe that motivations can be more successfully measured and related to consumer behavior when they are developed for a particular consumer behavioral context, and thus have developed motivational constructs specific to gift-giving behavior.

Sherry (1983) has written that gift-giving motivations may range from altruistic (maximize satisfaction of receiver) to agonistic (maximize personal satisfaction). Not coincidentally, the existence of these two motivations for giving (altruistic vs. agonistic) have been posited and debated in academic discussions of gift giving, with giving out of obligation or to obligate others generally being believed to be the motive for giving (cf. Bourdieu 1977, 1979; Caplow 1982, 1984; Cheal 1988; Levi-Strauss 1965; Mauss 1954). However, a unidimensional "spectrum" view, with positive motivations on one end, and obligated, self-interested motivations on the other end, may be misleading, as Sherry and McGrath (1989) noted that gift shoppers often express ambivalence about choosing gifts. Therefore, the two factors (an obligated and an experiential/positive attitude) are posited to represent two distinct motivations, rather than opposite ends of a spectrum. An experiential/positive attitude towards giving, or giving to show love, is primarily a hedonic motive, while giving out of obligation can reflect both hedonic (giving to avoid guilt) and utilitarian motives (giving to obligate someone else).

A third conceptually distinct motivation considered is the orientation towards giving practical gifts. Functional gifts are given in order to provide the receiver with practical assistance, and thus the motivation is primarily utilitarian. While such gifts predominate for rites of passage such as weddings (Devere, Scott and Shulby 1983), there are some types of givers who tend to give such gifts, regardless of the receiver or occasion (Belk 1979). Following is a more complete discussion of each of these motivations.


An experiential/positive orientation toward giving is reflected in the fact that these givers (1) give a great deal of thought and effort to gift selection, (2) enjoy choosing gifts and (3) feel that gifts are a way of showing love and friendship to receivers. The popular press generally offers articles every gift-giving season on choosing gifts, and generally focuses on expressing positive attitudes. For instance, Barbara Bertocci, writing for the Reader's Digest, offers the following advice: (1) Be sure the gift has special meaning to the recipient, and ask yourself what is important to the recipient (2) be alert for a gift the recipient may want without realizing it (3) offer your time and talent (4) don't wait for a special occasion because it shows people you really care (1991).

Barnett (1954) writes of the "carol philosophy" expressed in the novel A Christmas Carol (Dickens 1843), pointing out that the book's continued popularity is in part due to the enduring appeal of the book's theme that individual selfishness leads to misery, while brotherhood, kindness and generosity are rewarded. The same theme is apparent in O'Henry's "Gift of the Maji," in which Dell sells her long hair to buy a chain for her husband Jim's heirloom watch, while Jim sells his watch to buy tortoiseshell combs for her hair. Nevertheless, social scientists have been less quick than novelists and journalists to focus on this theme in giving. Recently, however, Cheal (1988) has offered a softer interpretation of gift giving than most other scholars. He separates interpersonal giving (between 2 people) from intergroup giving (between representatives of groups) and uses this as a basis for pointing out the former giving relationship belongs to the sphere of our domestic private lives, where caretaking activities are a focus (the "moral economy"), while the latter belongs to the marketplace (the "political economy"). One of the manifestations of this moral economy is the desire to give to others as an expression of love for them (Cheal 1988).

Giving to others in some sense allows us to include those others in our extended selves (Belk 1988). In support of this idea, Beatty et al. (1991) discovered that across both Oriental and American students, those who reported warm relationships with others as their most important value were more likely to perceive that they exerted more effort than did others in gift giving. These "warm" givers most likely perceive a link between themselves and the giver, and between themselves and the object given. Appadurai (1986) argues that economic exchange of commodities tends to dissolve links between persons and things; gift giving behavior, it can be argued, restores and creates these links. Similarly, Sahlins (1972) writes that the material flow of gifts "underwrites and initiates social relations" (p. 140).


Giving because one feels obligated is behavior which is motivated by compliance with the social norm of giving. Obligated givers (1) experience guilt if they don't give, (2) give because of others' expectations and, (3) feel they must reciprocate when they have received a gift. In fact, manipulative, self-interested giving is possible insofar as receivers feel they must conform with the social norm of reciprocation.

In general, social scientists have tended to assume motivations for giving, and more often than not, this motivation is assumed to be the creation of obligation for the receiver to reciprocate with gifts, or be permanently indebted. The creation of obligation was central to Mauss' (1954) study of gift giving in primitive societies. Similarly, Barnett (1954), in his analysis of Christmas gift giving from the 1800s to the 1950s in the United States, comments on a similar phenomenon, calling it "pseudo-giving" and a "polite form of bribery." Levi-Strauss (1965, 1969), Bourdieu (1977), Firth (1983), Gregory (1982) and Moschetti (1979) all emphasize the theme that the voluntary appearance of gift giving is in reality an illusion. Recently, consumer behavior scholars Garner and Wagner (1991) have joined the cynics, concluding from the finding that gifts are a "luxury good," that gifts are used to "buy" social interaction.


A practical gift-giving motivation is reflected in the giver's perception that especially useful gifts that receivers need are the best kind to buy. For practical gift givers, the primary motivation for giving is to provide practical assistance to receivers. This rationale can be understood as partially motivating the use of various rites of passage as gift-giving events as these gifts are often given largely to support the creation and regeneration of households. In fact, in Canada, many brides and grooms indicate in their invitations that "presentations" will be accepted. This notation means that money (perhaps the most practical of gifts) is preferred to presents; during the wedding reception, guests line up and hand the couple envelopes with money as they go through and congratulate the couple (Cheal 1988). In Japan, weddings in particular, but other gift giving events as well, are likely to draw money from most givers (Johnson 1974). This money is given to defray the cost of the wedding reception and is scaled to the perceived expense of the reception.

Sherry and McGrath's (1989) study of 2 upscale gift shops shows that the shops' strategy was to sell gifts that are not practical, with one promotional brochure reading "everything you don't need, can't afford, but can't live without." Popular literature on gift giving often offers advice against giving particularly practical gifts, with the prototypical bad practical gift being a man giving his wife a kitchen appliance (Browning 1990). Moreover, Sherry and McGrath (1989) believe that we invest expressive gifts with greater symbolic value than utilitarian gifts. Nevertheless, practical gifts such as Cross Pens for retirees, blenders and toasters for brides, and dictionaries for graduates are a prominent feature of gift occasions.


Forty one attitudinal items were investigated in order to develop these constructs. These items were based on several sources: (1) extant gift-giving literature (2) three prior gift-giving questionnaires which included attitudinal items (3) open ended responses of respondents in a role playing experiment when asked why they would choose a particular gift item (4) an earlier questionnaire constructed by Beatty (1990). A special effort was made to include items which it was felt would be representative of the three constructs. Moreover, many reverse scored items were included, but do not appear in the final scales, as their semantic content was not judged by respondents to have equal but opposite meanings to their counterparts. Items appeared on a seven point semantic differential scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Respondents were 159 undergraduate marketing students at a major Southern California University. Results of the analysis must be interpreted somewhat cautiously, as Hair, Anderson and Tatham (1991) suggest 4 to 5 as many observations as scale items as a conservative rule for factor analysis; the ratio in this study is 3.9:1.


The original 41 items were pared to 15. Items were dropped from analysis based on the following criteria: (1) An item did not load on any factor which, as indicated by the scree plot, should be retained for analysis; (2) An item loaded strongly on multiple factors, and thus failed to adequately discriminate one construct from another; (3) A tabulation of responses for the item indicated that the results were heavily skewed to one end of the scale, indicating that the item did not discriminate between constructs; (4) A cutoff of .30 was used in deciding which items to retain (Hair et al. 1991).



Because the purpose was the identification of constructs rather than data reduction, principle axis factoring (common factor analysis) was utilized as the method of factor analysis (Hair et al. 1991). The rotated solution (Varimax rotation) appears in Table 1. The questionnaire items utilized appear in Table 2. Both the scree plot and eigenvalues indicate that a three factor solution is appropriate. Forty-eight percent of the variance is explained by the three factor solution.

A further check of the solution is provided by reliability analysis. Cronbach's alpha was calculated for each of the constructs. For the seven items making up experiential/positive motivations, the alpha was a strong .82. Reliability for the five items making up the obligation scale also had a strong alpha of .75. For the last item, practicality, the alpha was .68, indicating further need of development. Table 3 portrays correlations between factors. Only experiential and obligated attitudes were related, but the correlation, though significant, was low (r=-.20, p<.01). The three constructs, it can be concluded, represent different factors.


The fifteen items suggested by the analysis of study one were retained. Because the scale representing practicality had reliability of only .68 in the previous study, one item was added to the analysis, making a total of 16 items. As before, items appeared on a seven point semantic differential scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Respondents were 225 staff at a major Southern California University. The group was fairly diverse: ages ranged from 22 to 78 with 41 being average, and 40 being the median; 1.4% had household incomes under 19,999, 25% had incomes between 20,000 and 34,999, almost 20% had incomes between 35,000-49,000, 35% had incomes between 50,000 and 75,000, and 20% had incomes of 75,000 or more. Education ranged from high school graduate or less (5%), to some college (34%) to college graduate (35%) to graduate degree (25%). Fully 73% of respondents were female.


Again, principle axis factoring was utilized with Varimax rotation. The loadings for factors appear in Table 4. All 16 items loaded as expected. Forty five percent of the variance was explained by the three factor solution. Looking at the scree plot, explained variance drops off sharply after the third factor.

A further check of the solution is provided by reliability analysis. For the seven items making up experiential motivations, the Cronbach's alpha was .78. For the 5 items making up the obligation scale the alpha was .79. The four items making up the practical scale had a reliability of .83.

Discriminant validity between factors is shown in Table 3. There are no significant correlations between positive and obligated or between practical and positive attitudes. However, there was an unexpected moderate and significant positive relationship between practical and obligated attitudes (r=.29, p<.001). Nevertheless, the correlation is low enough to consider the two motivations to be different constructs. Also, this correlation did not appear in sample 1, suggesting either differences between the two samples, or the fact that this correlation may be coincidental.


The following are results predicted by gift-giving researchers with respect to the three variables. Women are disproportionately involved in the "moral" domestic economy and are thus more likely to have an experiential

motivation for giving. This expectation was borne out (Mf=37.5; Mm=34.7, p=.001.)

Older women, in their roles of keepers and teachers of tradition, are more likely to give out of social obligation. However, sex was not related to the feeling that one was obligated, while age was actually inversely related to the feeling of giving out of obligation (older respondents expressed less of a feeling of obligation) (r=-.19, p=.001). Perhaps the norm of giving is stronger among these older respondents, and they are less likely to experience giving as an obligation, but rather as a socially appropriate and desirable event.

With respect to practical gifts, popular literature has suggested that men are more likely to give practical gifts, while Caplow's findings (1982) are consistent with the notion that men give more practical gifts. Tannen (1990) notes that men tend to play the role of problem solver with respect to interpersonal relationships, while women tend simply to provide emotional support, a notion consistent with the idea that men are more likely to buy practical gifts. However, men were only slightly more likely than women to express a preference for giving such gifts (Mf=17.3, Mm=18.6, p=.09).





Based on Cheal's (1988) case analyses, and on the common sense notion that those with less money would focus more on utilitarian rather than symbolic giving, it was expected that lower income givers would be more likely to express practical giving motivations; however, no relationship was found between income level and practical motivations. However, another element of socioeconomic status, education, was found to be related to practicality of giving, with college graduates and post-graduates less likely to report a preference for giving practical gifts, as compared to those with less education (Mg=17.1, Mng=18.6, p=.04). Predictive validity at this point is moderate, and is hampered by the fact that there have been few theoretical and empirical findings concerning gift-giving motivations.


This study represents the culmination of a series of studies aimed at the development of measures which would reliably and validly measure these three gift-giving constructs of interest. The three constructs of interest, experiential, obligated and practical motivations have been shown to be three relatively distinct attitudes which are measurable utilizing the 16 items extracted in these studies. This research effort buttresses the notion that more positive, experiential attitudes and more (negative) obligated attitudes are not necessarily at opposite ends of an attitudinal spectrum, which supports Sherry and McGrath's (1989) and Tournier's (1963) observations about the existence of ambivalence in gift-giving attitudes.



A further contribution of this effort is a concession of sorts to givers in allowing them to express their perceived feelings and motivations about giving, rather than to have these motivations deduced or (perhaps) imposed by scholars. Motivations for interpersonal gift-giving are complex, and, not surprisingly, are not monolithic in the sense that they are not driven completely by self-interest, or completely by other-interest. Hopefully, this effort represents one small step in demystifying why people give, as the givers have been allowed to express their own self-perceived motivations.

These concepts and items may serve well as predictors and covariates in gift-giving studies. For example, motivations for giving are probably the causal link between gender orientation of givers and gift giving effort discovered by Fisher and Arnold (1990), as it would be expected that more feminine givers are more likely to express experiential, positive attitudes towards giving. If such relationships were found, nomological validity for these scale items would begin to be established.

Moreover, it is likely that these individual difference variables impact symbols chosen. In an exploratory study wherein subjects were asked to identify a recent gift-giving experience and then asked to answer a series of open-ended questions regarding why the gift was given, what communication was intended, and what was expected in return, Goodwin et al. (1990) found support for the notion that, when giving was perceived as obligatory, gifts were less likely to express recipient or donor identities (to be symbolic of the giver and receiver), and less likely to communicate feelings (to be emotionally significant). In addition, givers with more obligated attitudes would be expected to choose more conventional gifts, as such gifts are generally easier to select and buy than other types of gifts. Moreover, those givers with more practical orientations would perhaps be likely to choose less emotionally significant and individualized gifts, and more conventional gifts. On the other hand, givers with more experiential motivations would be expected to select more emotionally significant and individualized gifts for receivers.

Also, in addition to expending less effort in symbolic enhancement of gifts, those whose motivation for giving is obligation may spend less money on gifts. This prediction is consistent with the finding that givers spent more on flower purchases perceived as voluntary as opposed to those perceived to be obligatory (Scammon, Shaw and Bamossy 1982).

The few gift-giving studies undertaken in cross-cultural contexts indicate differences in giving attitudes (Green and Alden 1988; Jolibert and Fernandez-Moreno 1983). For instance, Japanese givers seem to feel more obligated and less positive about giving than do American givers (Witkowski and Yamamoto 1991). The development of these attitudinal scales and applications in other cultures should allow a deeper understanding into the differences between cultures in gift-giving attitudes and behavior.

An understanding of these variables could lead to segmentation strategies for gift marketers, especially if such attitudes are reliably related to demographic variables such as sex and income. For instance, the Sherry and McGrath (1989) study seems to indicate that among upper middle class women, there are positive attitudes towards giving, and a desire to buy emotionally significant and individualized gifts, and to avoid buying practical gifts. Knowing the attitudes of the target market can lead to more effectively choosing products and advertising copy for different segments.


Further validation of these scales is required. With respect to nomological validity, we have speculated that these motivations will be useful in predicting several kinds of outcomes, but we have only offered limited empirical support. Further research utilizing these scales is necessary in order to establish their predictive power.

Moreover, content validity would be enhanced if judges were employed to rate consistency of items with definition of the constructs. Also, members of a sample could be asked open ended questions as to why they give, and these responses could be coded and correlated to responses on scale items. Test-retest reliability should be employed to determine reliability across time. Criterion-related validity would be determined by comparing scores on dimensions with more direct measures. For instance, positive givers would be expected to give more gifts than others. Practical gift givers should report a higher percentage of practical gifts actually given than do other givers.

Importantly, discriminant reliability is limited as none of the constructs were compared to existing constructs that may measure similar motivations. An experiential/positive attitude toward giving may be related to possessiveness and generosity (Belk 1985). This dimension may also be related to Tellegen's scales concerning positive (agentive and communal) emotionality (1985). Giving because of perceived obligation may be related to Noller et al.'s social conformity scale (1987). Giving practical gifts may be related to Hogan's prudence scale (1986). In short, future scale development must focus more concertedly on content, predictive, and discriminant validity.


We have argued and presented evidence that motivations for giving are multifaceted. Furthermore, although there are likely to be situational variables such as occasion and closeness to the receiver which would impact these motivations, we have posited that givers also have general orientations towards giving and that these general orientations may differ between givers. Moreover, we have developed scale items in order to measure these motivations in giving. Such development should facilitate gift-giving research by enabling researchers to allow givers to express their self-perceived motivations for giving. This development is especially useful if these self-perceived motivations are shown to have power in predicting gift-giving behavior.


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