For the Love of Money: Materialism and Product Love


Aaron Ahuvia (1992) ,"For the Love of Money: Materialism and Product Love", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 188-198.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 188-198


Aaron Ahuvia, School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan

[I would like to thank Marsha Richins for her insights, patience, and generosity, in helping with revisions of this paper.]


'The love of money is the root of all evil"

Many people view materialism as nothing more than the love of money and the things that money can buy. Therefore, one natural place to start investigating materialism is to look more closely at people's love of products and consumption activities. While many areas of consumer research like materialism touch on consumers' love of products (e.g. involvement, brand loyalty, impulse buying, favorite objects, and collecting), little consumer research has investigated love directly. Similarly, the psychological literature on love deals overwhelmingly with interpersonal relationships and almost never recognizes that the "love object' can sometimes literally be an object. This paper investigates materialism by bringing together the consumer behavior and psychological literatures to directly explore people's love of products and consumption activities. Specifically, this paper investigates the following research questions.

1) Do people really love things other than people? And if so, what?

2) What do people mean when they say they love a product or activity?

3) Is the love of products and consumption activities synonymous with materialism, and if so is it likely to be associated with negative outcomes?



Subjects were contacted through a snowball sampling procedure that began by the author asking personal contacts in a variety of setting for lists of friends that would be willing to serve as respondents. Upon completing the interview, respondents were asked for names of their friends or acquaintances that also might be willing to serve as respondents. This procedure resulted in a fairly homogeneous group of 69 respondents (Males = 36, Females = 33) ranging in age from 23 to 45 years of age (M= 32), who were well educated professionals (High school or less =5, college = 27, post college = 38).

This method was chosen over a random sample because it was felt that the ability of the interviewer to introduce himself as being referred by a friend of the respondent would create rapport and more open self disclosure. In fact, the 100% response rate suggests that this may have been the ca . At the same time the non random nature of this sample leaves open the possibility that the love prototype uncovered by this investigation may be specific to the educated urban subculture from which the sample was drawn. To investigate the generality of this prototype, it will therefore be necessary to conduct further research on a random sample. However, this research could easily take the form of a short paper and pencil measure and need not replicate the extensive interview techniques used to generate the initial picture of the love prototype.

Instrument and procedure

Respondents were contacted by the author and asked if they would be willing to assist in research on love for the purposes of a doctoral dissertation. All of the people who were contacted agreed to participate in the research. The interviews were conducted over the phone and lasted between 10 minutes and 1 hour, averaging about 20 or 30 min.

After agreeing to participate in the research, the respondents were assured of confidentiality and permission was obtained to tape the conversation. They were then informed that the topic of the study was love in situations other than close personal relationships, and were read the following paragraphs.

In answering these questions, it is important not to limit yourself unnecessarily. The only things that I want to exclude from this interview are people with whom you have a close personal relationship. So family, friends, and lovers are excluded, but a celebrity or hero is O.K.

What we're going to do is go through the things you love one by one, and for each thing that you love I'm going to ask you a few questions about it. The interview will continue until you run out of things that you love. it's OX if you have a lot of things that you love, and its also O.K. if there's nothing aside from people that you love. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions and I ask only that you tell me how you really feel.

Following the instructions, respondents were asked "if there is something aside from people with whom you have a close personal relationship that you love, what is it?" For each thing that they loved, respondents were asked the following series of questions:

1) On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 equaling no love at all, and 10 equaling complete and unqualified love, how much do you love ?

2) Which of the following two statements is more true for you;

a) What I feel for is really love.

b) When I say 'I love ... I'm speaking loosely. So it's not strictly correct to say that I really love

3) If is not "real" love, why is that?

4) Why do you love ?

Following these questions, the author would sometimes add other questions to pursue interesting aspects of the responses, or to collect data needed for the constant comparative analysis (see below).

Data Analysis

Data analysis took place in two stages. The first stage involved the application of constant comparative methodology for the development of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967, Lincoln and Guba 1985, Strauss and Corbin 1990). As the interviews took place, respondent protocols were compared with previously existing theories of love in such a way that each comparison constituted a small test of the theory. When no pro-existing theory was found to fit the available data, modifications were made on the theories. This was repeated as an iterative process in which respondent statements were used to test and modify theory, which in turn was submitted to the test of the following respondent comments. Data collection continued until the incoming data was redundant with the previously collected information. To facilitate this process, questions were sometimes added to the end of the standard interview to further explore issues that had arisen during the analysis of previous interviews.

The second stage of the analysis took piece after the data collection was complete. Interviews were transcribed and entered into a database program for content analysis. The type of item mentioned by respondents was coded according to an expanded version of the following hierarchical structure (for more details of this structure and the actual loved items see results below).


A) Natural objects

B) Products

1) Commercial

2) Art forms

C) Places

D) People


A) Recreational

B) Creative






Reasons why items were or were not loved, as well " other respondent comments related to the current research were coded into categories. The process of coding involved adding a new code each time a statement was made that did not fit an existing code, and then going through all the interviews until a complete analysis of all 69 interviews produced no now categories. These initial codes were then sorted into groups based on face similarity and applicability to previously developed theories of love. This process resulted in several general themes that can be seen as comprising the most important and widely shared attributes of the love prototype [A prototype is a mental model of the quintessential exemplar for a category. It is used to form a fuzzy definition of category membership. For example, the prototypical chair may be an object used for sitting with a seat, four logs, and a back. As a chair gets wider, it becomes more couchlike, and as the back gets lower, it becomes more benchlike. When a person wants to tell if an object is a chair, bench, or couch, she compares the object to the prototype of each piece of furniture to see which it most resembles. A key property of prototypes is that they create fuzzy sets. This means that some objects fall on the border between two categories and cannot be neatly labeled. This occurs because prototypes generally have multiple attributes, no subset of which are either necessary or sufficient for category membership.]. Because one goal of this research was to establish what the love prototype consists of, special attention was paid to cases where respondents felt that the love object (LO) was on the borderline between love and something else.


What People Love

The results of the quantification of the types of items reported as LOs are presented in tables 1 and 2. Table 1 presents the analysis in terms of items mentioned, and table 2 presents the same analysis in terms of the number of respondents mentioning at least one item in the given category. The first column in both tables provides the total number of loved items that fell into that category, or the total number of respondents mentioning at least one item in that category, respectively. The second column gives the total number of items for which respondents claimed the item represents "real" or "true" love, as opposed to situations were they might say "I love but are just using the word love loosely. The third column indicates the total number of items in that category given as a percent of all 360 items mentioned by respondents. The fourth column indicates how many items in that category were deemed to be real love, again as a percentage of all 360 items. The fifth column is a measure of how many items in that category were considered real love, as a percentage of all the items in that category. The sixth and final column, labeled the "fall off rate," is equal to 1 minus the fifth column. Large numbers in this last column indicate that many items in that category did not pass the test of being considered "real love".

The first fact that stands out from these figures is that even when one only looks at "real" love, 72% of the respondents said that they loved something other than a person with whom they had a close personal relationship. Therefore, at least in terms of the popular prototype of love, it is possible for people to love a wide variety of things beyond family, friends, and lovers.

A further look at these tables indicates that when love is defined loosely, the most loved items are (in descending order) recreational activities, commercial products such as food and clothing, natural items such as pets and water, art forms, and creative activities such as making art or working. However, when love is limited to what respondents doom to be real love, "high culture' items such as art, and natural items such as animals and landscapes, gain dramatically in relative popularity. This may indicate that there is some aspect of the love prototype which is consistent with natural or high culture activities and products, but is inconsistent with commercial products. One test then, of any picture of the love prototype developed herein, is that it should be able to explain this phenomenon.

An alternative explanation for the reluctance of respondents to label love of commercial products as "real love", is that saying 'I really and truly love my car" says something negative about the speaker, whereas loving high culture items does not. However, while this social desirability bias may have some effect on the data, it is inconsistent with the fact that respondents brought up socially undesirable LOs in the first place. If they were highly motivated to appear sophisticated, why would they mention their love of cars at all?

Why People Love

The initial labeling of respondent statements produced a list of 66 categories. A secondary sorting of these categories produced the following outline of the love prototype. A prototype is a set of attributes used to classify something as belonging to a particular category. Unlike classical definitions (i.e. the list of necessary and sufficient conditions for X to belong to set Y), prototypes produce fuzzy sets that lack a clear boundary between what is and isn't a member of the category. In the love prototype, no attribute is either necessary or sufficient for category membership. Rather, the more X partakes in or resembles the prototype described below, the more likely X is to be considered love. Being very high in one attribute may make up for being very low in another, or having a small amount of all the attributes may make up for not being particularly high in any of them. Based on the data, the following 7 attributes are believed to be the key attributes of love as seen by the respondents.

I) The love object is virtuous

A) Physically

Beautiful, cuts, convenient, dependable, functional, natural, and just plain perfect, the best, or the ultimate.

B) Spiritually

The LO is connected to significant existential meanings, personal values, and a sense of being situated in the grand scheme of things. Example: it (the Ocean) represent an embodied concept of God that I have.

Example: In our world there seems to be so few things that really have qualities of the divine, both sort of the largeness and the power, the ocean is such a big reminder of that, and I feel lovingly connected to that. Example: (Re: Black Leather Organizer) it's kind of symbolic of a now job and a now life I'm about to start... It's symbolic of a now direction I'm taking.

II) The kwe object is intrinsically valuable. Definitions: "Intrinsic motivation: Motivation by which people participate in an activity for their own enjoyment, not for the reward it will got them. Extrinsic motivation: Motivation by which people participate in an activity for a tangible reward." (Feldman 1990, p. 299).

Example: (Dancing is not real love because it) seemed like a means to an end and not just an end in end of itself. it was means to getting people to think that I was a good performer and it was their appreciation of me that I loved.

III) The experience of relating to the love object Is engrossing, positive, and transcendent

Example: (Winning at the craps table is) one of the most intense natural highs I've ever experienced. I've been able to do it for 12 hours at a time, straight, except for going to the bathroom. it's just very exciting, making little bets, more and more each time, more and more money on the line, risking more and more. Winning, it just got every aspect of adrenaline flowing in my body. I don't got tired. Example: (Reading) takes me away from the everyday. It's a way to explore other worlds, other countries It takes me away. Example: Music sort of takes me away from like. . . it sort of elevates me above day to day life. Example: (Art) allows me to transcend into another world.

IV) The lover would make great sacrifices for the loved object.

Example: (Re: a bass) I sacrificed a lot to be able to play the instrument and to work with it. Example: (Re: dog) For me, love is something that I would be willing to sacrifice myself for someone, and I can't see sacrificing myself for my dog.

V) Love takes place within the context of a relationship.

Prototypically this relationship is with a person, but sometimes with a pot or a responsive non living entity. Example: (My computer) is my best friend. I tell it stories. Again this is tied up with the writing, I tell it stories and I keep a journal so whenever I'm telling secrets I'm sitting in front of the Mac. It plays games with me. It's so integrally tied up in my life that, when it was in the repair shop for 3 days, I was going through withdrawal. Example: Now that I'm saying that (painting is real love), one of the reasons that I'd say that "I love it' is there's a great deal of interaction, . Nith perfume bottles) there's a visual interaction, but it's not like it responds back to me. The perfume bottles are stagnant, but the process of painting isn't. Example: (Re: 1964 Dodge Valiant) It's been a traveling companion.

VI) The LO Is unique and Irreplaceable.

Example: One woman talking about a little crystal ball that she had used as a prop in a play, and later was stolen said "Replacement for the little crystal ball wouldn't be any good, because it was that crystal ball."

VII) The L0 Is seen as part of the lover's self.

Example: (Re: books) They participate in making me up, or how would you say they're part of me - (what do you mean when you say they're part of you?) You incorporate them in such a way that it just adds on and on and on about how you would look at life, its sort of expansive for myself.

Together, these seven attributes of the love prototype form a picture of what respondents mean when they say they love something. Now I will discuss the connection between this type of person/object relationship and materialism.


Research on people's love of products and consumption experiences is applicable to materialism in a wide variety of ways. However, the current discussion will be limited to the issue of whether loving things other than people is a form of materialism, and if so, is it associated with negative outcomes.

Research by Belk (1982, 1983, & 19155), Richins (1987), and Richins & Dawson (1991) has found that materialism is significantly correlated with poor life satisfaction. In contrast to this, Csikszentrnihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) found evidence which led them to question whether ail forms of materialism harm life satisfaction. Contrary to the popular belief that materialism generally functions as a substitute for close interpersonal relationships (Fournier & Richins, 1991), Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton found that many valued possessions such as gifts or photos often serve as links to other people that help strengthen social ties. People who used possessions to maintain social relations tended to have successful social connections and be happier and more satisfied then those with fewer valued possessions. Still, Csikszentmihaiyi and Rochberg-Halton recognized that using posse"ons in this way was somehow different from what people generally mean by materialism, even if it involved placing a high value on certain material objects. it just didn't make sense to say that a Grandmother who surrounded herself with pictures of her grandchildren was a materialist due to the level of concern she showed about the photographs. Therefore these findings do not necessarily contradict later findings by Belk and Richins on the negative correlates of materialism. Rather, they point to the need for a distinction between negative forms of materialism and the positive type of person-product relationship that Ceikezentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton found in their study.

In response to this need Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton created a distinction between "instrumental materialism' which they associate with positive outcomes, and "terminal materialism' which is characterized in negative terms. Instrumental materialism is exemplified by the Grandmother who uses the photographs as an instrument to attain her truly desired goal, i.e. connecting to her family. Terminal materialism occurs when owning or using the object is a terminal goal, i.e. an end in itself.

This distinction has been criticized by Fournier & Richins (1991) and Richins & Dawson (1991) who argue that terminal materialism is exceedingly rare, if it exists at all. Fournier & Richins (1991) cite several theorists (Beagishole, 1932; Bentham 1824/1987; Fenichel, 1938; Heilbroner, 1956; Klineberg, 1940; Litwinski, 1942; & Mill, 1871/1987; ) as arguing that what may seem like a simple desire for possession, is really a means to an and such as social popularity, prestige, power, sex appeal, or sensual pleasure. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton are particularly vulnerable to this criticism given that they don't consistently hold to their position that a terminal materialist sees possession as an end in itself, and instead often interpret terminal materialism as the use of products to achieve social status. I believe that Richins & Dawson hit the nail on the head when they rejected the idea that the distinction between terminal and instrumental materialism was based on instrumentality per say, but rather that....

(T)he classification as instrumental or terminal appears to rest on a value judgment. Instrumental materialism "involves the cultivation of objects as essential means for discovering and furthering goals" (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981, p.231), but only certain kinds of 'acceptable' goals seem to be deemed instrumental. Through his use of examples, it appears that Rochberg-Halton considers a relationship with an object to be instrumental if it involves self-actualization, the development of stronger family or friendship ties, or the development and expression of aspects of the self that he approves of. In Rochberg-Halton's analysis, valuing a tool that allows one to build model planes and fly them in competitions involves instrumental materialism. Owning an expensive car to impress others and feel better about yourself, or buying a second home so you can spend more time with your mistress and her child represent terminal materialism (Rochberg-Halton 19N, pp. 181, 183-184). (Richins & Dawson 1991, p. 6).

Based on these criticisms, Richins & Dawson abandon the terminal/instrumental distinction and instead create a single definition of materialism as an enduring value system that guides our behavior and determines our goals. Specifically, materialism involves at least three elements;

1) placing possessions and their acquisition at the center of ones life;

2) a belief that acquiring more possessions would lead to happiness; and

3) a tendency to judge one's self and others in terms of quantity and quality of possessions.

By this definition, some instances of instrumental materialism might not qualify as materialism at all because they do not involve the second and third of these elements and focus too narrowly on current possessions and not enough on acquisition. Take for example our hypothetical grandmother and her cherished collection of family photos. While the photos may play an important role in her life, for true materialists the act of acquisition is also central . We have no reason to believe that she sees acquiring more or better photos as central to her life or as a key to happiness. Nor do we have reason to think that she would judge people on the quality of their possessions. What Richins & Dawson's have done then, is to conceptualize materialism as more than a general concern for material objects. Rather, it is fixation with the acquisition of possessions and a tendency to measure oneself and others in terms of possessions.

While this understanding of materialism is a significant refinement of earlier work, it might be further developed by looking more closely at how materialists view the connection between possessions and happiness. Specifically I will argue that we need to consider both the type of intervening variable that connects possessions to happiness, and the number of intervening variables that are seen to lie between possessions and happiness.

With regards to the type of intervening variable that connects possessions to happiness, Richins and Dawson (1990) write that...

materialism may be viewed as an organizing or sawnd-order value that incorporates both the importance placed on certain end states (achievement and enjoyment values) and beliefs that possessions are appropriate means to achieve these states (p. 171).

In other words, possessions lead to enjoyment (or symbolize achievement) and this in turn leads to happiness. I would suggest that one reason materialism is generally disdained among social critics and moral philosophers is its association with "bass' values (for lack of a better term) which are seen to form the bridge between possessions and happiness. Although I am not aware of empirical evidence to support this association, materialism is often seen as connected not just with achievement and enjoyment, but with the normatively most suspicious aspects of the" values; e.g. coercive power, social prestige, short term self indulgence, and gluttonous pleasure through consumption. Furthermore, pursuit of these goals is frequently seen to hinder of more normatively esteemed goals such as concern for the public welfare, self actualization, cultivating intimate social relationships, and productive creative expression [Some empirical support has been found for the opposition between achievement and enjoyment values on the one hand, and prosocial values on the other (Schwartz and Bilsky, 1987).]. if this view is correct, then materialists don't just believe that money can buy happiness. They believe that money can buy social standing, power, and luxurious experiences, and that these are the key to happiness. Of particular importance here is the dichotomy between self indulgence as exemplified through luxurious purchases and productive/creative self expression. If part of our concern about materialism is that it is seen to stand in opposition to values and activities such as creative self expression, then it follows that instances where a fixation with possessions and their acquisition is supportive of creativity should not be seen as materialism. This would explain why artists are generally not considered materialists dispute the fact that they often meet at least two of the three criteria for materialism set out above. First, possessions (their artwork) is seen as central to their lives, as is acquisition of now possessions (i.e. creating more art). And second, they frequently believe that the ability to create (and hence acquire) more art is essential to their future happiness.

For the most part, it is probably better not to incorporate all the uses to which possessions are put directly into the definition of materialism. Keeping a distinction between materialism (a fixation with the acquisition of possessions) and the way possessions are used, will help prevent both our definition and our measures of materialism from becoming overly complex. However, the relative emphasis that a person puts on self expression through purchase and consumption, vs. self expression through creativity and production seems central to materialism. Therefore I believe the definition of materialism should include the qualification that materialism are fundamentally concerned with the consumption of poss salon" rather than productive self expression.

Our understanding of materialism may also be enhanced if we look at the number of intervening variables that are seen to lie between possessions and happiness. Richins and Dawson showed that the terms "terminal" and "Instrumental" materialism were highly misleading, however I will argue that they were not totally without merit. While it is incorrect to say that the materialist sees possession itself as the ultimate goal, I speculate that he believes possessions to be close to, or directly connected with the ultimate goal. An outside observer might say that a materialist is really motivated by the feelings of status and chicness that he gets from his clothes, it seems plausible that in his own mind the materialist focus more on the clothing itself. Figure 1 shows how the same occurrence, say, a man is complimented on his now tie, might be interpreted by a non-materialist (case A) and a materialist (case B). In both cases, the ultimate goal is the pleasure of the compliment. However, for the materialist, what is salient in his mind is not the social interaction so much as the material object that provoked it. He might not even think of the terminal goal as "the pleasure of the compliment" so much as 'the pleasure of owning good clothes."

Based on this example I contend that materialism may also have a cognitive element in which the materialist chronically attributes causal power over his or her feeling states to material objects. This cognitive tendency sees material objects as proximate to terminal goals, although they may not be the goal itself.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of materialism, we can begin to think about whether love of products and consumption experiences is always a form of materialism, and hence likely to be associated with negative outcomes. We saw in the discussion of the major elements of the love prototype that for an object or activity to be loved, it is generally seen as intrinsically good. This means that it is either seen as good in and of itself, or is seen as directly providing a benefit to the user (i.e. proximal to a terminal goal). For example, one respondent talked about how he didn't really love dancing because "it seemed like a means to an end and not just an end in and of itself. it was means to getting people to think that I was a good performer and it was their appreciation of me that I loved.' In terms of the theory of materialism outlined here, figure 2 shows how this respondent saw dancing as only loosely connected to the terminal goal (case A), rather than proximal to the ultimate objective (case B).

Although loved products will generally pass the test of being proximal to terminal goals, they may not always be instances of materialism. First, materialism is only concerned with a fixation on possessions, not material objects in general. Many of the respondents loved such things as nature which are not possessions. Second, some of the respondents talked about loving items that they had created themselves, and were at least in part artifacts of creative expression. These cases, however, were seldom clear out and usually combined the pleasures of creation and consumption. For example, several respondents talked about loving to cook for company, and also loving the sheer sensual pleasure of eating the food that was produced. Lastly, two of the aspects of materialism (possessions lead to happiness, and judging other by what they own) were not covered in the interviews conducted for this study. A follow up study is planned to determine more specifically the nature of the relationship between materialism and product love. Therefore, until more data is gathered it is impossible to toil in detail about the relationship between love of products and consumption activities and materialism. But it is possible to reject the simplistic assertion that the two are identical phenomenon.


To return to our original research questions, we find that yes, people really do love products and activities, at least in terms of their own understanding of what love means. We also find that the meaning of love to our respondents consists of a prototype containing seven elements.

1) The love object is virtuous

2) The love object is intrinsically valuable.

3) The experience of relating to the love object is engrossing, positive, and transcendent

4) The lover would make great sacrifices for the loved object.

5) Love takes place within the context of a relationship.

6) The LO is unique and irreplaceable.

7) The LO is seen as part of the lover's self.

Lastly, we find that some instances of product love may be materialism, but that the two constructs are not strictly synonymous.








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Aaron Ahuvia, School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan


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

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