Materialism and Self-Indulgences: Themes of Materialism in Self-Gift Giving


Kim K.R. McKeage (1992) ,"Materialism and Self-Indulgences: Themes of Materialism in Self-Gift Giving", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 140-146.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 140-146


Kim K.R. McKeage, Department of Marketing, University of Massachusetts at Amherst



The 1980s have been called the decade of materialism in the United States. However, the U.S. did not suddenly emerge as a material culture; the 1980s were a culmination of decades of materialistic pursuit. As early as the first half of the nineteenth century, de Tocqueville (1981/1&35-40) commented on Americans' avid pursuit of material well-being. Contemporary social observers describe a similar state of affairs (see, for example, Fox & Lears, 1983; Polley, 1986; and Daun, 1983).

The signs of materialism include self-absorption (Fournier & Richins, 1991, Beatty at al., 1991) to the exclusion of others (Schimail, 1974; Mukerji, 1983) and a desire for immediate gratification (do Tocqueville, 1981/1835-40; Lasch, 1984). In addition, possession comes to be valued over other goals (Csikzentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1978; Daun, 1983) such as personal development, relationships with others, and the work ethic: the ascension of materialism as a central value-may shape the nature of other values (Gurin, 1960; Cheal, 1986). Material objects also represent success and status in contemporary U.S. culture (Dawson & Bamossy, 1990; Jackson, 1979; Richins & Dawson, 1992). Thus, materialists make use of tangible objects to signify success (Fournier & Richins, 1991, Belk, 1985).

Because material objects have become so important in our society, people tend to amass more and more objects. These accumulations of objects lead to a great deal of "noise' (Cheal, 1987) in any attempts to use these objects to communicate. Thus, people need more and stronger signals to break through the noise in order to communicate effectively (or, indeed, at ail). This paper proposes that sed-gifts, as special purchases rich in symbolic meanings, are one type of powerful self-communication device that materialists may utilize to break through this noise. Seif-gifts are unusual in the respect that their messages are directed primarily at the self. Thus, communication is direct and receipt of the message is more likely than with communication with an external recipient. Rather than rely on appropriate understanding and feedback from an external party, self-gifts can be used to reinforce oneself.


How might materialism manifest itself in specific consumption behaviors that will yield symbolically rich collections of goods? An interesting phenomenon that may be related to materialism is giving gifts to the self. Mick and DeMoss (1990a) have defined self-gifts as "personally symbolic self-communication through special indulgences that tend to be premeditated and highly context bound." (p. 328). In addition, Mick (1991) noted that self-gifts arise, in part, from a person's values which, in turn, are influenced by one's cultural background.

There are three reasons to believe that self-gifts might be a manifestation of materialism. First, materialism has been associated with self-centeredness (Fromm 1976; Heilbroner 1956). Self-centered qualities popularly associated with materialism include alienation and indifference, narcissism, and a lack of concern for others (Fournier and Richins 1991), as well as detachment from personal relationships (Beatty, Kahle, and Homer 1991; Mukerji 1983) [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 relationships with other people. See also Douglas and Isherwood (1979) for an anthropological perspective on the role of goods in maintaining social relationships.]. A manifestation of this self-centeredness is that materialists, upon unexpectedly receiving a sum of money, are more likely to spend it on themselves than on others (Richins and Dawson 1992). In a similar vein, those high in traits associated with materialism, namely envy, nongenerosity, and possessiveness, tend to celebrate or do something for themselves when they feel good while 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 utilize possessions in self-definition. Materialists have a general tendency to define success in terms of the amount and quality of one's possessions (Richins and Dawson 1992). Mick and DeMoss (1990b) also noted the self-defining nature of self-gifts. Additional evidence of this link is the fact that both materialism and self-gifts decline with age (Richins and Dawson 1992; Mick and DeMoss 1992), indicating a shifting concern from active self-definition to contemplation of relationships as people grow older (Rochberg-Halton 1984, 1986).

Third, materialists believe that happiness can be gained from purchase and consumption. Mick and DeMoss (1990b) found that seif-gifts result in intense, positive feelings. In addition, two specific types of self-gifts seem directly related to mood management: those designed to cheer oneself up in the face of loneliness, depression, and boredom (therapeutic self-gifts) and those designed to maintain a good mood. Indeed, Mick, DeMoss and Faber (1992) proposed that excessive consumption of therapeutic self-gifts is a manifestation of the materialistic belief in the link between consumption and happiness.

In addition to a general propensity to give themselves gifts, materialists would be expected to focus on material objects as appropriate gifts to themselves. As defined by Mick and DeMoss (1990a), self-gifts can include not only objects but activities, purchases for others, or partial purchases. Because materialists use objects to make experiences tangible, they would seem more likely to bestow objects as gifts rather than cultivating experiences.

This paper reports on a research project designed to investigate this possible link between materialism and seif-gifts. The project was designed to explore the following research questions:

1. Are materialists more likely to give self-gifts than non-materialists?

2. Do materialists have different seif-gift experiences than non-materialists? In particular, do materialists show a greater concern with themselves, utilize self-gifts in solf-definition, and seek happiness through self-gifts to a greater extent than non-materialists?

The following sections discuss the procedure used, measurement issues, the results of the study, and implications and limitations.


Overview and Sample

Respondents completed one of three forms of a questionnaire. Participants were 193 students (102 females, 84 males, 7 did not indicate gender) recruited from a variety of classes at two schools in Now England, a large public university and a small private college. Most subjects were single (183) undergraduates with ages ranging from 18 to 45 (mean = 21.3). They came from 35 different majors, representing 8 different colleges. Respondents received extra-credit and/or wore entered into a research lottery for their participation. The number of subjects completing forms one, two and three wore 67, 65, and 61 respectively. The questionnaire was administered to groups of students in a laboratory setting during a two week period. After completing the survey, respondents were thanked and informed that debriefing information would be available after ail participants had completed the questionnaire.


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 self-gift behavior. That approach was combined in this study with hypothetical scenarios designed to elicit rich accounts of people's typical self-gifts. Nine scenarios were constructed which protests revealed elicited a high degree of identification and interest from respondents. Each version of the final form contained three of these scenarios.



Each scenario was followed by a question designed to elicit the likelihood that the respondent would give a self-gift in such a situation, using a nine-point Likert type response scale anchored at 1 = 'not at all likely' and 9 'quite likely.' Respondents were then instructed that if they answered 'Not at all likely' to skip the rest of the questions for that scenario and go on to the next page. The remainder of each page asked what respondents would do or buy for themselves, how much time would be spent planning and carrying out the self-gift activity, whether it would cost any money and, if so, how much. Following the three scenarios, respondents completed the 18-item materialism scale from Richins and Dawson (1992) and a few demographic items.

The scenarios were constructed from a variety of self-gift contexts previously discussed in Mick and DeMoss (1990a, 1992). The primary goal in writing the scenarios was that they be realistic and evocative of the self-gift contexts already identified in the literature, while being particularly relevant to the students who were the intended respondents. Ten scenarios were originally constructed, with the goal of having each participant respond to five scenarios. Protesting revealed that respondents grow bored after the third scenario, and that not all participants identified with the specific holiday chosen in one scenario (Christmas), Therefore, the holiday scenario was abandoned and the three forms of the questionnaire were selected.

Materialism. After responding to the scenarios and describing their self-gifts, 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. The scale has boon shown to possess adequate reliability and validity when used with adult respondents, but it has not been used previously with college students and analyses were carried out to assess its suitability for this population. Reliability analysis indicated that one of the items exhibited a low item-total correlation (.25) and that alpha would improve with its deletion, but the gain was not considered significant and the entire 18-item scale was retained with a final reliability of .86. Principal components analysis of the materialism scale yielded a factor structure rather dissimilar from that reported in Richins and Dawson (1992), and so no subscale analysis was attempted. The mean score on the material values scale was 57.5 (std. dev. = 10.3), which is higher than that reported by Flichins and Dawson (1902). In general, it would appear that students are a bit more materialistic than the adult population responding in that study.


Likelihood of Giving Self-Gifts

Analysis of the likelihood of giving a self-gift in different situations was undertaken in order to investigate whether materialists seem to have a greater propensity to give self-gifts, and to what extent any differences are situation-specific. The correlations between materialism and the likelihood of giving self-gifts in each situation are reported in Table 2. In most cases, the correlations were above .15 and positive. Thus, materialists had a greater likelihood of giving self-gifts for their birthday, when they were depressed, when they were feeling good, just to be nice to themselves, and because they hadn't done anything nice for themselves in a while. The correlation for self-gifts as a reward for accomplishing something important was in the expected direction but not significant. In the three cases where there is a negative correlation between the likelihood of giving a self-gift and materialism, the correlations were small (less than . 10) and did not approach significance.



There does not seem to be a generalizable pattern of results between those situations where there is a positive correlation between the likelihood of giving self-gifts and materialism, and those where there is a negative correlation. This may be due to the wording of the scenarios, which were designed to elicit reports of behavior in specific circumstances rather than across a wide variety of situations in each particular context. That is, it may be that there is no relationship in these particular situations, but that there would be across a wide variety of situations involving, for example, incentives.

Types of Self-Gifts Given

Table 3 lists the categories of items mentioned as self-gifts most frequently by those low and high in materialism. The categories were derived from content analysis of the responses for the entire sample, and the responses were tabulated for the groups denoted high and low in materialism.



In general, there are many similarities between the two groups. Clothing and food items were the most frequently listed item for both groups, and engaging in activities was also popular. High and low materialists mentioned roughly the same number of items in each context: the total number of items mentioned was 115 for low materialists versus 129 for high materialists. In addition to similarities in frequently mentioned items, there was also a great deal of similarity in infrequently mentioned items. Both groups mentioned electronics items only once, and then only as an incentive to accomplishing something. Both groups also mentioned trips very seldom, and purchases for someone else were mentioned only once, by a low-materialism respondent.

There are also notable differences between the groups. Those high in materialism mentioned automobiles five times, solely in the context of a reward for getting an important job. Those low in materialism did not mention this item in any context. Since these wore hypothetical situations, this seems to indicate a difference in the aspirations of materialists versus non-materialists in terms of what are considered appropriate self-gift in this situation. While the relative homogeneity of the respondents might have resulted in few differences in self-gifts in general, the reward given for landing a prize job engages a context where the respondents would be making a major role transition from student to employee. Thus, their expectations and resources might become more heterogeneous, allowing differences due to materialistic values to be manifest.

Resources Expended on Self-Gifts

Two types of analyses were performed to investigate the question of how people high and low in materialism view the time and money they spend on self-gift experiences. First, the resources expended on self-gifts were compared for the two groups, to determine whether materialists give themselves more expensive (in terms of time and money) seif-gifts. Resources were defined as the amount of time spent planning and carrying out self-gifts, and the amount of money spent on self-gifts. Then, additional analysis was performed on people's accounts of their self-gifts to determine what themes emerged concerning time and money dimensions of self-gift giving.

T-tests were performed on these items for the two groups, and in most cases the differences between the groups are not significant (see Table 4). With regard to the time invested in planning and carrying out self-gifts, the only significant difference was that materialists would spend 3.1 hours on their self-gift for their birthday, versus 1.9 hours for low materialists. With regard to the amount of money spent on sed-gifts, the only significant difference was for rewards, in this case a reward for getting the job of your dreams. Respondents high in materialism would spend an average of $13,552 an their self-gifts, versus $274 for low materialists. This difference seems to primarily stem from the large number of people in the high materialism group who said they would buy themselves an automobile for their gift, whereas this item was not mentioned by anyone in the low materialism group. Overall, the relationships seem to be very situation-specific, and the failure to find significant differences in most cases may be attributable to the homogeneity of time and monetary resources available to the student participants.



Thematic analysis of respondents' accounts revealed that self-gifts incorporated both spontaneity and lingering. Respondents specifically mentioned that the self-gift would be spontaneous or "Spur of the moment.' On the other hand, many noted that they would spend quite a bit of time shopping for the gift, such as "all day," from 10 to 15 hours, or even 'as long as it takes to find something I like.'

In most cases, the planning phase (such as deciding to purchase something and where to go) was much shorter than the time spent actually buying the self-gift or engaging in an activity. The mean difference in number of minutes spent carrying out the activity versus planning the activity ranged from 17.5 for incentives to 181.0 for gift to relieve stress. On the other hand, two circumstances elicited planning times that were generally longer than execution times - rewards for accomplishing something and having extra money to spend.

In terms of money, some respondents specifically mentioned limiting the amount spent, while others stated that there would be no limit. Most of those citing limits noted that the amount would depend on the salary to be earned in the now job or on current financial position, although on" respondent mentioned that she would not spend more than $30, as that was "my limit.' On the other hand, some participants who responded to the scenario of winning a lottery noted that they would be willing to put additional money (beyond the lottery winnings) into a self-gift in order to get something they really wanted. Even more unconstrained were a few respondents who frankly stated that they would not limit their spending. One stated 'I wouldn't care," and another noted 'if I want it, I charge it" The exercise of constraint (or lack thereof) in the amount spent on self-gifts does not, in this analysis, seem related to materialism, but again these are hypothetical responses and the amount of spending was not the primary focus of the study.

Emergent Themes

Interpretive analysis of respondents' accounts of their self-gifts was undertaken in order to identity themes that might reflect materialism or discriminate between high and low materialists. A number of themes emerged, but only a few of the more widespread ones will be reported here.

One theme, which parallels earlier findings of Mick and DeMoss (1990a) is that of escape. This was usually manifested in terms of consumption of alcohol or in giving a self-gift to alter one's mood. A number of respondents mentioned consuming alcohol to "drown my sorrows' or to forget an unpleasant or stressful experience. On a more positive note, a number of respondents mentioned self-gifts to encourage a good mood, such as .something to make me feet good," 'something that would keep my good feelings going." One respondent would buy .something that would give me Spring fever."

Another theme that emerged was that of ritual self-gifts. This also was identified in Mick and DeMoss (1990b). Seif-gift rituals in this study seemed to fail into two categories - material and non-material. Non-material rituals were especially pronounced in the area of relaxation rituals to relieve stress. These included relaxing evenings spent in the bath, trips to the mountains, reading a book or exercising. Material rituals were also usually habitual responses to stress, but they focused on buying an object to change one's mood. The purchase was often food or clothing. One respondent noted "1 might buy ice cream. I usually eat that when I stress.' Another noted "if I were depressed, I would probably head straight for [a restaurant] and buy a cheeseburger sub. They always cheer me up.' Thus, objects take on an amazing ability to soothe and cheer. However, not all habitual self-gifts are responses to stress. One respondent mentioned that she always rewards herself with clothes, and another noted that he tends to buy compact discs whenever he has extra money to spend.

Another theme that emerged, particularly in the context of rewarding yourself for getting an important job, was that of self-completion and easing the role transition to the new position through the use of possessions. In most wises, the self-gift was clothing, and a number of respondents noted that for this important job they should look 'good," "right' or 'professional.' In one case, a respondent said that he would got a now car, "because if I had the job of my dreams, I'd better have good transportation to got there."

Another, more collective theme across a number of accounts is the degree of freedom versus constraint that accompanies self-gift. Some respondents felt that self-gifts were an excuse to ignore the usual constraints on consumption, while others seemed to need further justification to buy themselves something, or used a self-gift occasion as a rationalization for buying something they wanted anyway. At one end of the spectrum are the respondents who felt that the self-gift situation gave them complete freedom. One respondent, discussing his potential lottery winnings, stated "I would spend it indiscriminately." Another respondent would buy 'anything that I want to buy," and another 'whatever I was in the mood for at the time."

At the other rend of the spectrum were respondents who felt various kinds of constraint in their self-gifts. These constraints tended to fall into three categories - waiting, restraint, and need. In terms of waiting, Mick and DeMoss (1990b) have noted that self-gifts often incorporate a degree of sacrifice, or abstention before the actual purchase. Typical of these responses is the comment that "if I were to buy something, -it would be something I really wanted for a long time, but kept putting off." In terms of restraint, a number of respondents stated that they would buy something "small" or inexpensive, .nothing special or expensive." Small here can range from a card or ice-cream (for a couple of dollars) to a few compact discs (average price around $15) or a complete outfit of clothing. There was also a dimension of getting the most out of the purchase. For example, one respondent said "I tend to buy 'rewards' than can be 'roused' often."

People also frequently cited need as a deciding factor in whether to purchase a self-gift. One respondent stated "I don't know - I might not need anything.' Another was more concerned about clarifying his position on buying a suit for his now job - "more because of need than as a reward.'

In addition to these categories of constrained or unconstrained self-gifts, some respondents seemed to use the self-gift context as an excuse for relaxing other constraints in order to make purchases that they would have made anyway. One woman said she would probably buy a hat, noting "I collect hats." Another, when considering that she hadn't done anything for herself in a while, stated "I love to shop, so most likely I'd go to the mail and buy an outfit for myself.' For his birthday, one man noted "1 would probably buy some compact discs, which I already spend too much on anyways [sic].' And another, also for her birthday, disregarded the object in favor of the experience. She stated that she would go to the mall, because "I love spending money, but don't got to do it very often." One respondent seemed to sum up this position perfectly:

I wouldn't intentionally buy something, but if there was something that I had my eye on then I would buy it and tell myself that I deserve it. It wouldn't matter what it was.

These themes, while indicative of people's relationships with material objects, generally existed in the accounts of respondents across all levels of materialism. This is not surprising considering the consumer culture in the U.S. and the general importance placed on objects. One category of response, however, did arise with marked frequency among materialists. it is the degree to which self-gifts involve what Mick and DeMoss (1990b) have termed "sacred" aspects.

Sacredness is the property of self-gifts to be special, out-of-tho-ordinary, and elevated to an unusual position. This theme can be seen in responses mentioning self-gift that were expensive, luxurious, elegant, and special. This theme was mentioned almost exclusively by those in the upper third of the sample on materialism. Typical responses were buying "a very expensive new car" .a good meal at a fine restaurant," 'something simple, yet elegant," 'maybe go see something special and expensive, like a play, ballet,' and "I would probably buy some expensive jewelry or an expensive coat.' Some of these responses also involved going to the mall, but not just to browse. One respondent who hadn't done anything for herself in a while would "go shopping at a huge mail. I would look for the perfect outfit and spend $100-150." There is a current running throughout these responses that sacredness is attained through great expense, and the expense is definitely a part of the self-gift above and beyond the item itself.

Conclusions and Limitations

In general, materialism seems to be related to the propensity to buy self-gift, at least in some situations. In particular, materialists seem more inclined to give themselves gifts to celebrate their birthdays, to cheer themselves up when they are depressed, just to be nice to themselves, and when they have not bought anything for themselves in a while. These results lend some support to Mick's (1991) conclusions in regard to therapeutic soif-gifts, and also indicate some other contexts where materialism may influence self-gift behavior. The results were equivocal about the degree to which materialism influences the expenditure of time and money on seif-gifts and the types of self-gift chosen, but this may be due to the limited resources of the respondents.

A number of themes emerged from analysis of respondents' accounts of their self-gifts. Some of these seem related to materialism, such as habitual buying responses to certain situations, using material goods to influence one's mood, and using material self-gift to enhance or reinforce success. In addition, materialists seem much more prone to mention expense or luxury in their accounts of self-gifts, and the added dimension of expensiveness seems to enhance the value of the self-gift independent of the item itself, such as the emphasis on an expensive car or an expensive meal.

The study has a number of limitations. There did seem to be a slight propensity to discuss potential self-gifts in the first of the three scenarios presented to the detriment of the latter two. This is a potential flaw of the survey, and it is uncertain whether this is a true order effect or not. The order of presentation was specifically constructed so that the first scenario would be engaging and spark respondents' interest in the task, and further study with either a random ordering of presentation or administering only one scenario to each respondent is warranted in order to determine the true nature of any order effect.

Another limitation is that the scenarios used to elicit the likelihood of giving self-gift were exploratory in nature. They were self-reported hypothetical measures, tapping respondents' beliefs about their typical or appropriate behavior rather than their actual past behavior. While the stories wore engaging and realistic, the degree of idealization that is manifested in the responses is uncertain. Can people realize their intentions in actual self-gift situations? The answer to this question awaits further Study.

Directions for Future Research

In addition to further exploration of the self-gift theme" that emerged, other issues that are particularly related to self-gift and materialism deserve investigation. The degree to which self-gifts are goal-driven behavior and are used to manage self-esteem and mood states deserves further attention. Affective responses to self-gift need exploration, particularly in self-gifts designed to maintain or alter the person's mood. Since materialism is in part characterized by the belief that possessions bring happiness, it would be beneficial to study whether self-gifts make materialists happy in an absolute sense as well as relative to their other purchases for themselves.


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Kim K.R. McKeage, Department of Marketing, University of Massachusetts at Amherst


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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