Desperately Seeking Certainty: Narrowing the Materialism Construct

Kathleen S. Micken, Roger Williams University
Scott D. Roberts, Northern Arizona University
ABSTRACT - This paper takes up Richins and Dawson’s (1992) call for research addressing the conceptualization of materialism. In doing so it challenges the idea that materialism is a dark side variable. Drawing from consumer behavior literature as well as philosophers, the paper addresses the implications of inferential knowledge for our self concept. It offers the hypothesis that materialism is not so much an orientation to possessions as a preference for certainty, with materialists relying on objects not just as identity markers, but as identity fixers. The paper concludes with propositions about materialism as well as suggestions for testing the certainty hypothesis.
[ to cite ]:
Kathleen S. Micken and Scott D. Roberts (1999) ,"Desperately Seeking Certainty: Narrowing the Materialism Construct", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 513-518.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 513-518


Kathleen S. Micken, Roger Williams University

Scott D. Roberts, Northern Arizona University


This paper takes up Richins and Dawson’s (1992) call for research addressing the conceptualization of materialism. In doing so it challenges the idea that materialism is a dark side variable. Drawing from consumer behavior literature as well as philosophers, the paper addresses the implications of inferential knowledge for our self concept. It offers the hypothesis that materialism is not so much an orientation to possessions as a preference for certainty, with materialists relying on objects not just as identity markers, but as identity fixers. The paper concludes with propositions about materialism as well as suggestions for testing the certainty hypothesis.


Question: which of the following two individuals is a materialist? Person A who owns two cars, the latest in audio and video technology, and who spends a large percentage of income on designer clothes? Or is it Person B who owns a bike, a smallBscreen TV, has just a few changes of clothes (purchased mostly at thrift and discount stores), and a few prized first edition novels? According to popular notions of materialism, the first individual is the likely suspect. But would that judgment be correct? It is the contention of this paper that to truly understand materialism, we must purge ourselves of these popular notions.

Writers and speakers make free and easy use of the term "materialism" (Richins and Dawson 1992). Additionally, discussions of materialism usually carry heavy negative overtones, with the result that materialism is considered one of the dark side variables of consumer behavior. While most research supports such a characterization, some does not. For example, after controlling for social desirability bias, Mick (1996) found that the negative correlation between materialism and selfBesteem disappeared. Thus it is appropriate to heed Richins and Dawson’s call for "additional research to broaden the conceptualization of materialism" (1992, p. 314). They suggest that the relationship between materialism and the self may provide fertile ground.

This paper takes on that challenge. It considers the nature of the materialistic self by turning to both rationalist and empiricist philosophers for epistemological insights. After such an investigation, the paper suggests a narrowedCrather than a broadenedCconceptualization of materialism: that materialists are not motivated by the pursuit of possessions, but rather by a desire for certainty. Such a conceptualization challenges some previous assumptions about materialists and corroborates others. The paper concludes with propositions about materialism, and about its antecedents and consequences, as well as approaches to testing the certainty hypothesis.


The case for a more narrow conceptualization of materialism begins with a return to its roots, to the philosophical school which gave the construct its name. According to philosophical materialism, nothing exists, is real except for matter and its movements, which can be observed (Lange 1865/1925). Perhaps materialists are those who take this notion to heart today.

How do we know who we are?

One of the more prominent themes in the literature about possessions is that people use material objects to construct their self identities and to assess the identities of others. The explanation for this seemingly universal aspect of human nature comes from the philosophers Descartes (1637/1924, 1641/1960), Kant (1929), and Hume (1777/1961), all of whom suggest that knowledge about oneself, like knowledge of the world, is inferential.

How is it that we know our "self"? Descartes surmised that he knew he existed because he could perceive himself thinking: "I think; therefore, I am." Kant, however, objected, saying that Descartes really could not have inferred his existence from observing that he was thinking, because to make that observation, he first had to exist. Nonetheless, Descartes made a valuable contribution in suggesting that we know about ourselves by drawing inferences from empirical evidence.

Working with this idea of inferential knowledge, Kant (1929) explained that we can never know our "real" selfCwhat he termed our "noumenal self"Cbut that we can know our phenomenological self. That is, I know myself by perceiving my own acts of perception. My self is not something I come to know in isolation. Knowledge of self is mediated over time by physical cues in the world.

If we know ourselves through our perceptions, what do w know about our selves? We return to Descartes for an answer. A contemporary, Gassendi, took Descartes to task for thinking that a person’s mind could be thought of as pure rationality: "Tell me frankly, do you not derive the very sound you utter in ... saying [I think; therefore, I am] from the society in which you have lived? And, since the sounds you utter are derived from intercourse with other men, are not the meanings of sounds derived from the same source?" (Mumford 1970, p. 82).

Culture and society, then, set the guidelines for knowledge. What we know of our selves and of others is a constructive enterprise (e.g., Berger and Luckmann 1967), constructed by the people and institutions of the culture in which we live. One of the meaning systems we create is our "selves." Further, our possessions hold and fix that meaning by being "objective manifestations of the self" (Belk 1988, p. 159). People learn about themselves as they observe themselves acquiring, using and discarding possessions. As Solomon (1983) notes, material objects are "a potent information source from which to draw inferences" about oneself and others (p. 322). "As the self is dressed, it is simultaneously addressed" (Stone 1962, p. 102).

The uncertainty of inferential knowledge

Both Hume and Descartes, however, cautioned that inferential judgments (inductive reasoning) can never be certain. Yet, as Goffman (1959) notes, our lives are subject to the "inescapable requirement" that we act on the basis of inferential knowledge. Thomas makes the point quite forcefully, "It is ... highly important for us to realize that we do not as a matter of fact lead our lives, make our decision, and reach our goals in everyday life either statistically or scientifically. We live by inference" (quoted in Volkart 1951, p. 5).

What are the implications of "living by inference"? It means that we can never be certain of our judgments about self, about other people, about our world. We make inference from the sample to the whole, deriving generalized conclusions from the evidence of specific instances. While we may have confidence in such conclusions, we can never be certain.

Desire for certainty and materialism

Thus we are faced with Hume’s famous "problem of induction." Yet what people would most like to be certain of is themselves, who they are. In an attempt to fix identity, people may come to rely on material objects simply because they are material. Such a tendency is well documented in other aspects of human behavior. Douglas and Isherwood (1979) explain that the most effective rituals, those which have a strong intention to fix meaning, involve material artifacts (p. 65). Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989) note that in an attempt to understand the sacred, we objectify it. By representing the sacred in a physical object, "the sacred is concretized" (p. 7). Similarly for the self: our "fragile sense of self needs support, and this we get by having and possessing things" (Tuan 1980, p. 472).

Materialists, then, may have a preference for certaintyCa preference which finds reflection in concrete representations of self. Other signs, such as emotions and memories, can be ambiguous and ephemeral, and, hence, subject to misinterpretation. Material possessions, on the other hand, evoke more constant responses (within a community of shared meaning) and can be more permanent. [We do not deny that there can be considerable uncertainty connected with physical things. Relative to emotions and memories, however, the meaning of material goods is more stable and certain.]

Solomon (1983) offers a similar perspective. Drawing on the theory of symbolic self completion (Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982), he suggests that when people are uncertain about or uncomfortable with their role, they are more likely to use goodsCexternal cues which can be validated by othersCto establish their position. He provides the example of young males who appropriate "macho" products to "bolster developing and fragile masculine selfBconcept" (p. 325). Material objects "stand for" the desired selfBconcept. This use of goods is successful when others recognize the objects’ meanings and impute them to the individuals in question.

Thus, we use goods to show ourselves and the world who we are. We ascribe meaning to goods to make material our intangible values. As McCracken said, "the premises of our existence are the premises of our existence" (1988, p. 132). Or, as they say in LA, "you are what you drive."

So far, then, it has been posited that people construct their identities, in part at least, with the aid of material objects. An explanation for reliance on these objects has also been developed. The conclusion is that materialism may be thought of not as an orientation to possessions but to the concrete and the certain. At this point, it would be proper to ask if this conclusion is warranted. The next section examines some empirical evidence.

Support for the narrowed conceptualization

This conceptualization is consistent with the findings reported by Richins and Dawson (1992) and Richins (1994). In the earlier study, Richins and Dawson asked respondents to rank the four List of Values items (Kahle et al. 1986) which were most important to them. After dividing respondents into terciles based on their materialism scores, the authors assessed the relative rankings (see Table 1). They report that high materialists were more likely to value "financial security" and less likely to value "warm relationships with others."

Viewed through the lens of the certainty hypothesis, however, the data suggest a different inference: high materialists do in fact prefer certainty, though not at the expense of family or other relationships. Both family and financial security are among the top three most often mentioned values for high materialists. And while "warm relationships with others" is ranked fourth, it is tied with "financial security" in both terms of percentages and median rank.

Additional support may be found in Richins’ (1994) more recent investigation of valued possessions. Three findings merit consideration. First, as the certainty hypothesis would predict, high materialists’ most valued possessions represent the self to others. Low materialists, on the other hand, tended to select items to which they had some sentimental attachment, and/or items which represent ties to other people. That high materialists did not identify possessions which symbolize relationships is not prima facie evidence of their lack of interest in them. Rather, when asked to identify important possessions, all respondents identified about the same number of items (between two and three). Consistent with a need for identity fixers, high materialists first name items relating to self. Not being so constrained, low materialists have more "degrees of freedom" and can list possessions with other meanings.

Second, the important possessions of high materialists tend to be assets which are publicly visible. The meaning of such items is more immediately apparent and available to members of the community; the meaning of sentimental items is more idiosyncratic and often unavailable to those not directly connected to the memorialized relationship or incident. Hence the meaning is less clear, less concrete, less certain.

Finally, the finding that high materialists’ valued possessions had a higher economic value than those of low materialists is consistent with Douglas and Isherwood’s (1979) observation that the stronger the desire to fix meanings, the more expensive the goods associated with a particular ritual will be.

Implications of the narrowed conceptualization

Kahle (1983) says that our values result from our learning to successfully adapt to our physical and psychological environments. In an environment fraught with uncertainty,some may adapt simply by "dealing with it," while others seek objective symbols to fix meaning. If such is the case, then materialism need not carry such a negative connotation and materialists need not be a vilified group. Differences between high and low materialists simply represent different approaches to living in an uncertain world. Similar distinctions are well known in the consumer behavior literature. One analogous example is the differentiation between visualizers and verbalizers (Childers et al. 1985, Holbrook 1986). All individuals process information received from stimuli. Visualizers are more receptive to and more easily remember information presented in a visual format. Verbalizers, on the other hand, are more attracted to the written or spoken word. Each approach to stimuli sensitivity and information processing simply represents a different, yet not superior/inferior, orientation.

Overall, then, it might be said that in the search for certainty, materialists have taken the construction of identity to its logical extreme. In a desire for certainty about self, they continue to rely on and require the feedback which comes from others. One approach to ensuring the desired feedback is through the possession and use of objects whose meanings are unambiguous. While some people have minimal need for such external validation, materialists seem to need more. As Belk has suggested, "This apparent attempt to use the acquisition of material goods to buoy selfBimage ... seems notably materialistic" (1985, p. 272). This preference for certainty may extend to other areas of life as well, with high materialists desiring material/concrete representations of relationships, of success, etc. It may be that there is a materialism continuum, anchored at one end by high preference for certainty manifested in concrete representations of self and anchored at the other by less preference for certainty and a lower need for concrete representations of the important aspects of one’s life.

With such a narrowed conceptualization, a low materialist is not better than a high materialist. High materialists do not necessarily neglect their relationships with other people or neglect spiritual matters in favor of material concerns. Certainly, some materialists may neglect their family and friends, but so may some low materialists. Nothing inherent in this definition makes a materialist a citizen of the dark side.




Reflecting a preference for certainty which finds expression in the desire for concrete meaning fixers, possessions are undeniably important in the lives of materialists. Hence this conceptualization is consistent with Richins and Dawson’s definition that materialism represents a mindBset regarding the relative importance of objects in one’s life (1992, p. 307). It also is consistent with their more specific ideas that possessions occupy a central role in our lives and as such being critical to happiness and to feelings of success.

Where are the differences? We would not agree that simply acquiring goods is as central to materialism as the Richins and Dawson definition seems to suggest. Neither do we agree that materialists pursue happiness through acquisition. Rather in the pursuit of certainty, they appropriate possessions as signs of self; as uncertainty is accordingly lessened, the materialist finds happiness. Similarly, we would want to reverse Belk’s statement that "at the highest levels of materialism ... possessions ... provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in life" (1984, p. 291). It is not possessions themselves which provide this satisfaction, rather it is the diminution of uncertainty which possessions make possible.

Validation of this narrowed conceptualization of materialism will require research. At this point what can be said is that the proposed conceptualizationis consistent with definitions which have been suggested by others. The contribution of this approach is that it provides an explanation for why possessions are important to materialists. Propositions about materialism, and its antecedents and consequences, which flow from this conceptualization are presented next.

General propositions about materialism

Proposition 1: Having a lot of "stuff" does not make one a materialist. Conversely, having few possessions is not prima facie evidence of not being a materialist. In contemporary industrialized societies, a high level of material consumption is not uncommon. As Bond (1992) points out, he has acquired the latest in audio and video technology, not to mention several appliances. Yet he is not a materialist. "If [a possession] is something you enjoy, or something which saves mere drudgery, then it is life enhancing beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt. It is a genuine good for its possessor and to deny that would be mere hypocrisy" (p. 164).

Proposition 2: Deriving satisfaction, even happiness, from possessions is not necessarily materialism. Possessions are important and meaningful. We use them to communicate to others who we are, to symbolize our selves, to identify ourselves with or distinguish ourselves from groups. Accordingly, possessions are essential elements in our lives. The distinction between high and low materialists is that for the high materialist these markers carry considerably more importance (centrality) because of their ability to chase away the terrors of ambiguity.

Proposition 3: Consuming in pursuit of status is not a necessary precondition of materialism. According to Mason (1981, 1992), acquiring possessions to communicate status (social recognition and esteem) is ubiquitous, even in economically poor societies. Yet he acknowledges that not everyone has this desire to consume for display. If one’s sense of self does not incorporate social status, that person would not desire concrete meaning fixers which symbolize social position.

Propositions about the antecedents of materialism and its nomological network

What remains to be determined is why high materialists have this preference for certainty, why they are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We offer five additional propositions about the antecedents of materialism and the nomological network which surrounds the construct. It is important to note that some of these propositions could just as easily be attached to the nomological network being built around the existing conceptualization of materialism.

Proposition 4: A preference for certainty may develop as a consequence of an insecure or stressful childhood. People who grow up in a nurturing, safe environment are said to have a secure base from which to develop into confident adults. Individuals who did not have such certainty may continue to seek it as they mature. Findings from both Csikszentmihalyi and RochbergBHalton (1981) and Rindfleisch, Burroughs and Denton (1997) suggest just such an hypothesis.

Proposition 5: High materialists are less likely to be selfBactualized. Mick (1996) has demonstrated that materialism and selfBactualization are inversely correlated, even accounting for social desirability bias. Hayakawa (1968) establishes the link between selfBactualization and certainty when he indicates that fully functioning persons can accept and successfully deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and the unknown. Further, Ellis (1983) postulates that "emotionally mature individuals accept the fact that ... we live in a world of probability and chance, where there are not, nor probably ever will be ... complete certainties" (p. 3). We suspect that high materialists are less likely to meet such descriptions.

Proposition 6: High materialists are lss likely to be creative. Common to both selfBactualization and creativity are characteristics such as confidence, flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity, (Runco, Ebersole and Mraz 1991). In seeking certainty, high materialists are less likely to be willing to "break out of the box" since that entails a willingness to venture into the unknown, something they are seeking to avoid.

Proposition 7: High materialists are likely to be high selfBmonitors. People who make a conscious attempt to vary their selfBpresentation have been termed high selfBmonitors (Snyder 1987; Snyder and Gangestad 1986). They are especially attuned to external clues about how to act appropriately in each situation. Being guided by their own attitudes and ideas , low selfBmonitors, on the other hand, pay less attention to such information. Uncertainty about self might lead one to search out environmental cues. In fact, Richins (1994) found that high materialists were more conscious of design, beauty and other appearance features than were low materialists. Thus, while not all high selfBmonitors are high materialists, the converse may be true.

Proposition 8: High materialists may prefer certainty in other areas of their lives. In discussing the standardization which has become the hallmark of chain stores and franchises, Ritzer (1993) explains that such entities thrive because of their predictability. In emphasizing order and consistency they help negate some of the inherent ambiguity and uncertainty of life. Accordingly, high materialists may prefer goods with wellBknown brand names over store brands, be more willing to purchase extended warranties for appliances and cars, and the like.


Finally we offer two approaches to testing the certainty hypothesis. The first is derived from value theory and is a more holistic approach. The second is suggested by Hofstede and is more direct.

Value theory tests

Richins and Dawson’s (1992) value perspective seems to have been accepted by consumer behavior scholars. Thus in proposing a way to test the certainty hypothesis, it would be appropriate to turn to value theory.

Inherent in the concept of values is the idea that people are rarely guided by just one. Instead, values are hierarchically arranged in an overall system (Allport, Vernon and Lindzey 1960, Rokeach 1973). Further, there is a centralBperipheral dimension to value structures, with the hierarchy ranging from the most to the least centrally held values (Vinson, Scott and Lamont 1977). Within the hierarchy, there may also be clusters of values.

Clearly, one value does not stand alone. Instead, it is an integral part of a larger system and should be considered along with others, at least those in its cluster. Pitts and Woodside (1983) make the point quite forcefully: "The theory of value systems would seem to require that researchers examine the total system rather than single values ... [which] are salient only in the context of the entire value system" (p. 38). Rokeach and BallBRokeach (1989) raise the same concern: "What is missing from many discussions of values ... is the notion of value systems or hierarchies" (p. 775).

We would agree with Richins and Dawson (1992) that measuring a value with a single item (as is the case with the Rokeach Value Survey or Kahle’s List of Values) is unsatisfactory. Value theory also points to the disadvantages of comparing individuals on the basis of only one value. In the early stages of materialism theory development it made sense to concentrate on the value itself. Now it is time to expand the investigation. For while an individual may score high on materialism, other values such as relationships, security, or social recognition may also have significant explantory power. As Micken (1992) notes, however, while this idea of testing values makes theoretical sense, it may be difficult to operationalize.

Hofstede’s approach

The concept of uncertainty avoidance was introduced by Hofstede (1980) as a cultural measure. His theoretical discussions are quite consistent with the ideas presented here. For example, his basic premise is that uncertainty "is a basic fact of human life with which we try to cope .... Ways of coping ... belong to the central heritage of societies and they are transferred and reinforced through basic institutions like the family, the school, and the state" (p. 153, 154). While he does not mention material goods as a coping device, the meaning of goods is determined to some extent by the basic institutions he identifies. One possible approach to measuring individual preference for certainty, then, may be to adapt some of his scale items. While some of Hofstede’s items are very closely aligned with the workplace (e.g., whether one has a preference for working in a specialist position versus a managerial position), others are less so and may be profitably used in other settings. For example, items relating to the avoidance of competition, resistance to change, being rulesBoriented, and a tendency toward agreement may all serve as measures for this concept.


We would conclude with Richins (1994) that the relationship between materialists and meaning is provocative. She suggests three potential explanations of this relationship: that high materialists have a greater need for meaning, that their lives have less meaning, or that they may be more capable of obtaining meaning from possessions (p. 532). The discussion here suggests that something akin to the latter hypothesis is warranted, especially as it applies to meaning about the self. If Kant is right, that we can only know our phenomenological self, then high materialists are those who search among the phenomena for concrete representations of self. Objects become not just identity markers, but identity fixers. Accordingly, materialism is not so much an orientation to possessions as a preference for certainty which is reflected in the desire for concrete meaningBfixers.


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