Nationality, Materialism, and Possession Importance

Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University
Robert C. Beatty, Mississippi State University
ABSTRACT - The research reported in this paper explored the effects of nationality on consumers’ level of materialism and possession importance. Specifically, an assessment was made of U.S. and Thai consumers’ degree of materialism and the nature of the relationship between U.S. and Thai consumers’ public and private selves and possession importance. The results reveal that Thai consumers tend to be more materialistic than U.S. consumers. Although U.S. and Thai consumers place equivalent levels of importance on the centrality and happiness components of the materialism construct, the Thai consumers tend to place more importance on the success component of materialism. Further, U.S. and Thai consumers differ with respect to the relationship between the extent to which possessions reflect the private and public selves and possession importance. More specifically, U.S. consumers place more importance on possessions that reflect the private self and Thai consumers place more importance on possessions that reflect the public self.
[ to cite ]:
Cynthia Webster and Robert C. Beatty (1997) ,"Nationality, Materialism, and Possession Importance", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 204-210.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 204-210

NATIONALITY, MATERIALISM, AND POSSESSION IMPORTANCE

Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University

Robert C. Beatty, Mississippi State University

ABSTRACT -

The research reported in this paper explored the effects of nationality on consumers’ level of materialism and possession importance. Specifically, an assessment was made of U.S. and Thai consumers’ degree of materialism and the nature of the relationship between U.S. and Thai consumers’ public and private selves and possession importance. The results reveal that Thai consumers tend to be more materialistic than U.S. consumers. Although U.S. and Thai consumers place equivalent levels of importance on the centrality and happiness components of the materialism construct, the Thai consumers tend to place more importance on the success component of materialism. Further, U.S. and Thai consumers differ with respect to the relationship between the extent to which possessions reflect the private and public selves and possession importance. More specifically, U.S. consumers place more importance on possessions that reflect the private self and Thai consumers place more importance on possessions that reflect the public self.

INTRODUCTION

Although materialism is one of the most important values of relevance to the study of consumer behavior, little is known about the construct, particularly on a cross-cultural basis. By using samples drawn from the U.S. and Thailand, we explore Western and Eastern levels of materialism. We also examine Western and Eastern self-concepts and how they relate to the importance placed on possessions.

We begin, however, by reviewing the literature on materialism, nationality and materialism, and possession importance. Based on the literature, we develop hypotheses regarding the linkages among the constructs of nationality, materialism, and possession importance. Next, we will describe the methodology used to meet the objectives of the study. The findings and their implications are then presented and discussed.

Materialism

Although materialism has been defined in myriad ways, most researchers agree that it regards placing a relatively high level of importance on material objects (e.g., Belk 1984; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1978; Rassuli and Hollander 1986; ; Rochberg-Halton 1986; Ward and Wackman 1971). The construct has been described as a way of being, a mind-set, a focus on acquiring and possessing (Rassuli and Hollander 1986). Thus, materialists are those who view possessions and their acquisition as vital to their lifestyle and sense of self (Richins and Dawson 1992). Materialists revere things and the pursuit of things becomes the focal point from which their lives are structured and the orientation of their behaviors (Bredemeier and Toby 1960). According to Belk (1984), materialists are likely to judge their own and others’ success by the quantity and quality of possessions owned (Rassuli and Hollander 1986; Richins and Dawson 1992). Further, materialists tend to value possessions based on cost rather than on satisfactions they yield (Heibroner 1956).

Although several measures of materialism appear in the literature, most are plagued with the lack of commonly accepted standards for scale development (see Richins and Dawson (1992) for a detailed critique). There have been two major approaches to the measurement of materialism. The first type infers materialism from measures of related constructs. For example, materialism has been assessed by the nature of wishes expressed by children and the kinds of jobs they desire when they become adults (Dickins and Ferguson 1957). Some authors have inferred an individual’s level of materialism from personality-test batteries (e.g., Belk 1984, 1985, Burdsal 1975). As another relatively indirect measure of materialism, Inglehart 1981) identified postmaterialistic societies in which individuals emphasize such values as belonging and self-expression instead of material possessions.

The second type measures materialism more directly through the use of attitude scales. Richins and Dawson (1992) have done extensive work done in this area. These authors developed a values-oriented materialism scale with three themes. The first theme, acquisition centrality, suggests that materialists tend to place possessions and the process of acquiring possessions at the center of their lives. Materialists with acquisition centrality tend to structure their lives and orient their behaviors around either their possessions or the process of obtaining possessions. The second theme, acquisition as the pursuit of happiness, states that materialists tend to view their possessions and their acquisition as a means of providing the materialist with some level of personal well-being or satisfaction with their lives. Materialists who acquire as the pursuit of happiness view their possessions or the acquisition of possessions as a way to derive pleasure or self-satisfaction. The final theme, possession-defined success, advances that materialists tend to base their own and others’ success on the number and quality of possessions. Materialists with possession-defined success attach some level of social status to themselves and others within society according to pssession quantity and quality. The validation tests revealed that consumers high in materialism desire a higher level of income, place more emphasis on financial security and less on interpersonal relationships, prefer to spend more on themselves and less on others, and are less satisfied with their lives.

Outside the arena of personality traits and values, very little research effort has been expended on linking consumer characteristics to materialism. One study, however, found that women are more sharing and less materialistic than men (Rudmin 1990). The explanation posed by the authors was that for women, material goods constitute a part of social relations, and for men, material goods are used to aid the establishment of power and competitive relations.

A limited amount of research has examined whether some nationalities are more materialistic than others.

Nationality and Materialism

Although much of the research in the consumer behavior literature views materialism as an individual phenomenon, recent research is beginning to expand the view by including the role materialism plays within and across various cultures. One of these studies compared the degree of materialism in the U.S. to the Netherlands, a country whose prosperity equals that of the U.S. (Dawson and Bamossy 1990). The sample was comprised of middle-class households in both countries. The results indicated that levels of materialism were very similar in each nation across the various scales. However, the sample in the Netherlands revealed slightly higher levels of "possessiveness" toward material goods than the American sample.

Another study compared materialistic values among consumers in Europe, the U.S., and Turkey (Ger and Belk 1990). The results revealed that Turkish consumers were simultaneously more materialistic and more generous than American and European consumers. The authors explained that factors unique to the Turkish culture may account for the unexpected findings. Specifically, Turkey has an ancient history of prosperity and perhaps this cultural legacy continues to reveal itself today.

Although there is no published empirical work that compares materialistic values among consumers in Western and Eastern cultures, speculations have been made of Eastern consumers rating higher on materialism than their Western counterparts (Wong and Ahuvia 1995). East Asian consumers, in particular, seem to have an attraction for high image, high status products (i.e., Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton). Indeed, Asia is now the largest market for luxury goods (Far Eastern Economic Review 1990). Further, an analysis of advertisements revealed that Japanese advertising stresses status to a much greater extent than U.S. advertising (Belk and Pollay 1985).

Low and high materialists have been found to like the same number of objects but to differ in the kinds of objects they find significant Richins 1994). Compared with low materialists, high materialists are more likely to value expensive objects, items that convey prestige, and objects that enhance the owner’s goods looks. Given East Asians preference for precisely these types of items, it seems logical to hypothesize that they are more materialistic than U.S. consumers.

In their cross-cultural study on materialism, Ger and Belk (1993) found an emergence of a "world standard package of goods" such that consumers who do not have the items in this package feel deprived. Such sentiments are particularly acute in the less economically developed nations, leading to higher levels of materialism in these countries. These researchers also found a strong correlation between dynamic changes (i.e., economic) and a rise in materialism. Compared to the U.S., Thailand is a less economically developed nation, and is experiencing rapid economic growth (Textor 1995). These findings and observations lead to the following hypothesis:

H1: Thai consumers are more materialistic than U.S. consumers.

Perceptions of Self and Possession Importance

The notion of a relationship between one’s self and one’s possessions has been intuitively appealing for years (e.g., Gardner and Levy 1955). It has even been suggested that this relationship is the most fundamental and influential fact of consumer behavior (Belk 1988).

The importance of a possession is based on the meaning attached to the item by the owner. Possessions have a private meaning in that they are used "...as markers to remind ourselves who we are" (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988, p. 531). They characterize the personal values and beliefs of the owner (Richins and Dawson 1992). Thus, we actually derive our sense of self from our possessions. Possessions also have a public meaning in that they are used to express our sense of self to others. Possessions convey our connection to others and help express who we think we are (e.g., Levy 1981; McCracken 1986). Similarly, the self can be divided into two parts. One’s private self is comprised of emotions, desires, personal values, memories, impulses, etc. On the other hand, one’s public self is based on social roles, family relationships, national or ethnic affiliations. In other words, the public self is the persona presented to others (e.g., Markus and Kitayama 1991; Wong and Ahuvia 1995). Regardless of any external influence (i.e., culture), it seems logical to expect that a positive relationship will exist between the importance placed on a possession and the meaning (both private and public) attached to the possession. In other words, the more a possession reminds ourselves who we are and conveys who we are to others, the more important and valued that possession becomes. Thus,

H2: For both U.S. and Thai consumers, there will be a significant positive relationship between the public and private meanings attached to a possession and possession importance.

Because Eastern and Western cultures place different emphases on public and private selves and because of the evidence relating self to possession importance, there is reason to suspect that the nature of the linkage between the types of selves and possession importance will vary according to culture. Hence, we agree with Wong and Ahuvia’s (1995) argument that Eastern and Western conceptualizations of self play a significant role in determining the way materialism operates cross-culturally.

Conceptualizations of self have been proposed by Markus and Kitayama (1991) and Triandis (1989). According to Markus and Kitayama, there are two aspects of self: the independent self, which is associated with Western cultures, and the interdependent self, which is commonly found in Eastern cultures. The independent and interdependent selves correspond with Triandis’ private and collective selves, respectively. The independent self, also known as separate, autonomous, individualistic, etc., is based on the belief of the inherent separateness of distinct individuals (Wong and Ahuvia 1995). The corresponding private self refers to one’s feelings, motivations, and thoughts. Thus, the behavior of the individuals who place emphasis on the independent or private self is guided by their preferences, personal values and convictions, and other internal traits.

The interdependent, collective, or relational self is based on the underlying connectedness of human beings to one another. For those with a dominant interdependent self, one’s identity is grounded in one’s familial, cultural, and social relationships. The corresponding collective self focuses on how one is viewed by others (i.e., family). It follows, then, that the behavior of idividuals who place emphasis on the interdependent or collective self is guided not by self-knowledge, but rather self-in-relation to specific others in particular contexts.

As mentioned previously, material possessions serve the basic function of either reflecting the owner’s self-identity or communicating the owner’s connection to others. In the case of conspicuous possessions (i.e., jewelry, car, home, clothing, etc.), it seems likely that possession importance would relate more to the private self for those from individualistic cultures and that possession importance would relate more to the public self for those from collectivistic cultures. In other words, U.S and Thai consumers are expected to differ with respect to the relationship between the extent to which possessions reflect the private and public selves and conspicuous possession importance. More specifically,

H3: The relationship between the private self and conspicuous possession importance will be stronger for U.S. consumers than for Thai consumers.

H4: The relationship between the public self and conspicuous possession importance will be stronger for Thai consumers than for U.S. consumers.

TABLE 1

DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS OF U.S. AND THAI SAMPLES

METHOD

Possessions

To select the specific product categories, consumers in a pilot study from both the U.S. and Thailand were asked to identify their most "visible" or conspicuous possessions. Although there were one or two individuals who listed possessions such as pets, there was a high level of agreement among the respondents that five types of possessions were most visible: car, house, clothes, jewelry, and furniture.

Sample

The two consumer samples were chosen from major metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Thailand, specifically Dallas and Bangkok. During a one-week time period in the U.S. and another one-week time period in Thailand, trained interviewers selected respondents from two mid-scale shopping malls. The malls were chosen because of their appeal to middle-socioeconomic customers. The selection of the sample was based on the procedures introduced by Sudman (1980). Specifically, the field researchers were stationed in different mall entrances, and their location changed every three hours. Interviews were conducted at different times of day to prevent potential cyclical bias. Special efforts were made to ensure that sample selection was not based on interviewers’ judgments. Interviewers were instructed to draw a systematic sample from among the shoppers at the entrance. Specifically, a selection rule was instituted (and supervised) by which individuals were counted as they passed from a specific direction (e.g., left to right) to a certain point in the corridor (about 50 feet from the interviewer), and every nth person was selected. The number of people to be skipped was set according to a predetermined measure of shopping traffic at each location. As Sudman (1980) argued, these procedures cannot ensure "full" protection against interviewer selection bias, but they can help greatly to reduce it.

The interviewers were instructed to intercept individuals until they each had 25 consumers who met the screening requirements (there were 4 interviewers in each country). The screening requirements, which were asked by the researchers, were as follows: (1) the individual had to be a native of the country in which the interview took place, and (2) the individual had to have been the primary decider for the each of their five visible possessions. Those meeting these two screening requirements were asked to participate in the study. Of the 100 consumers who were asked to participte in each country, 82 from the U.S. and 85 from Thailand agreed to complete the survey. Table 1 provides a summary of the sample characteristics. The data in Table 1 indicates that the two national subsamples are comparable with respect to their demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. However, the chi-square value and subsample percentages for marital status suggest that there is a greater proportion of Thais who are married.

Measures

The questionnaire was comprised of measures of four primary constructs: materialism, possession importance, the extent to which the possessions reflect the private self, and the extent to which the possessions reflect the public self.

The materialism scale developed by Richins and Dawson (1992) was used in this study. As described previously, this eighteen-item, values-oriented scale has three components: possession-defined success, acquisition as the pursuit of happiness, and acquisition centrality.

The first step taken to develop measures for the other three constructs was to make an exhaustive list of scale items based on previous research (i.e., Belk 1985; Holbrook; Prentice 1987; Richins and Dawson 1992; Wheeler, Reis, and Bond 1989; Triandris 1994; Wong and Ahuvia 1995). The six-item possession importance scale included elements such as the importance placed on the item, how dear the possession was to the consumer, etc. The scale for measuring the extent to which a possession reflects the private self had 7 items, including those relating to the extent to which the possession expresses who the owner is, symbolizes the owner’s personal values, fits with his or her tastes, etc. The public self scale had 10 items, including those which related to the extent to which a possession fits with one’s profession, social roles, the image one wants others to have of him or her, etc.

In both countries, each of the three lists was screened by 3 consumer behavior graduate students, 3 marketing faculty, and 6 consumers outside the academic environment for items that were redundant, ambiguous, irrelevant, or omitted. After several screenings, 5 items were retained for the possession importance scale, 6 for the reflection of private self scale, and 6 for the public self scale. A seven-point Likert scale was used for each of the items. Using a time interval of 13 days and a sample of 18 consumers from the U.S. and 20 from Thailand, the test-retest reliability was .91 and .89, respectively. To help prevent social desirability bias that would result from respondents addressing the measures in a manner to make themselves look favorable, the items were mixed together and stated in neutral terms where possible.

To check the dimensionality of the measures, three different factor analyses with a principal component analysis were performed. The results of the factor analysis on the materialism items appear in the top portion of Table 2. Using a scree test, three factors were retained with eigenvalues greater than one. The results show that 15 of the 18 items loaded above .30 on one of the three factors. Although the factor loadings are different, the items generally loaded in the same factors as they did in Richins and Dawson’s (1992) study. Both American and Thai materialism scales achieved excellent internal consistency (alphas of .86 and .83, respectively).

The second part of Table 2 reveals the factor analysis results for a possession’s reflection of the self. The results show that 10 of the 12 items loaded on two factors: (1) reflection of the private self, and (2) reflection of the public self. Consistent with the research of others (e.g., Belk 1985; Holbrook; Prentice 1987; Richins and Dawson 1992; Wheeler, Reis, and Bond 1989; Triandris 1994; Wong and Ahuvia 1995), a possession reflects the private self when it expresses owners’ tastes, preferences, and the way they actually see themselves. On the other hand, the locus of control is external when a possession is perceived as reflecting one’s public self. That is, a possession reflects the ublic self when it expresses owners’ familial and social relationships and when an emphasis is placed on the perceptions of others. American and Thai scales achieved adequate internal consistency with alphas of .79 and .68,respectively. Finally, the third part of Table 2 shows that 4 of the 5 possession importance items grouped into one factor with an eigenvalue greater than one. The possession importance scale achieved acceptable reliability in the case of both American (.81) and Thai (.73) samples.

As mentioned previously, information such as sex, marital status, and age was also collected. The occupation and education information for each respondent was collected in a manner that facilitated calculation of the Hollingshead two-factor index of social position (Hollingshead and Redlich 1958).

RESULTS

To determine whether consumers’ nationality has a significant effect on their level of materialism, planned comparison tests were performed across nationalities after averaging consumer scores. As can be seen in Table 3, there is a significant difference between U.S. and Thai consumers in their level of materialism. In support of H1, Thai consumers scored higher on overall materialism. Data in Table 3 show that Thai consumers are significantly higher than U.S. consumers on the meaning attributed to success. That is, Thais tend to focus on possessions or material objects when defining success. Consistent with the writing of Wong and Ahuvia (1995), this finding reveals that East Asians tend to place a relatively high degree of importance on other people’s perceptions and on the maintenance of their own status. On the other hand, data in Table 3 indicate that U.S. and Thai consumers do not significantly differ on the centrality and happiness components of materialism. This finding suggests that consumers in both cultures place equivalent levels of importance on owning "nice" objects and on acquiring objects.

To investigate the relationship between the extent to which a possession reflects the private or public self and possession importance, several multiple regression analyses were performed. The correlation between the two predictors is low (r=-.09, p=.19); thus, collinearity was not considered a problem. Following other researchers (e.g., Churchill et al. 1976), factor scores were summed to arrive at a consumer’s overall possession importance score.

The standardized regression coefficients for thirteen regression models are presented in Table 4. The first part of the table presents the results of regressing private and public selves on general possession importance across all consumers. For the total sample, the two values account for 19 percent of the variance in possession importance. The second part of the table shows that the extent to which possessions reflect the private and public selves has a significant impact on possession importance for both U.S. and Thai consumers, thus supporting H2.

It was hypothesized further that the associations between private self reflection and possession importance will be greater for U.S. consumers than for Thai consumers and that the associations between public self reflection and possession importance will be greater for Thai consumers than for their U.S. counterparts. The difference between the U.S. (.31) and Thai (.15) private self coefficients is significant (t=2.28, p=.05); the same holds true for the difference between U.S. (.17) and Thai(.32) public self coefficients (t=2.05, p=.05). Further, Chow test (Chow 1960) results indicate that the set of coefficients in the regression for U.S. consumers is significantly different from the set of coefficients in the regression for Thai consumers (F=2.89, p<.05). These results provide overwhelming support for H3 and H4.

To understand better the nature of the relationships between private and/or public self reflections and possession importance, the possessions were analyzed separately for both ntionalities. As can be seen in the third part of Table 4, the U.S. private self coefficients are particularly strong for consumers’ homes, furniture, and jewelry. On the other hand, the Thai public self coefficients are particularly strong for consumers’ cars, homes, clothes, and jewelry. These findings are consistent with those of other researchers in that the nature of the self that is "sampled" in consumption behavior must be placed in a cultural context to be adequately understood. Further, these findings suggest that product category moderates the relationships between private and public self reflections and possession importance.

CONCLUSIONS

Although the emphasis placed on materialism and possession importance is noteworthy from a consumer behavior perspective, very little research has examined these constructs cross-culturally. The purpose of the current research was twofold: to explore U.S. and Thai consumers’ level of materialism and to determine the nature of the relationship between U.S. and Thai consumers’ public and private selves and possession importance.

In general, Thai consumers were found to be more materialistic than U.S. consumers. More specifically, Thai consumers place significantly more importance on the success component of materialism than their U.S. counterparts. However, nationality appears not to have a significant effect on the other two materialism components, centrality and happiness. While Thais appear to have a greater tendency to use the number and quality of possessions as vehicles to indicate or represent their social status or success, they are similar to U.S. consumers with respect to placing importance on acquiring possessions and to viewing possessions as a means of providing some level of personal well-being. Compared to Thais, U.S. consumers place more importance on possessions that reflect the private self. Conversely, Thais place more importance on possessions that reflect the public self. In sum, the findings were as hypothesized and supported past research on the meaning of self, the dependent and interdependent selves, and on the individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

TABLE 2

FACTOR ANALYSIS ON MATERIALISM, REFLECTION OF PRIVATE AND PUBLIC SELVES, AND POSSESSION IMPORTANCE

TABLE 3

MEAN FACTOR SCORES BY NATIONALITY

TABLE 4

REGRESSION RESULTS

Although the results of this study provide some insight into the impact of culture on consumers’ level of materialism and possession importance, the results should be viewed with some caution due to two major limitations. First, only one scaleCalbeit valid and reliableCwas used to measure materialism. Thus, future research might use different and/or combined materialism measures. Further, because the East Asian sample used here was selected from Thailand, future research might draw consumers from other East Asian nationalities, such as Japan and Korea. It would be interesting to discover if research relying on alternative materialism scales and samples drawn from different East Asian nationalities would find basically the same kind of relationships among culture, materialism, and possession importance as reported in this study.

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