Three Scales to Measure Constructs Related to Materialism: Reliability, Validity, and Relationships to Measures of Happiness

ABSTRACT - Three measures of materialistic traits are proposed, measured, and tested: possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy. The scales show good reliability, good convergent validity, marginal discriminant validity, and very good criterion validity. Exploratory data relating these traits to sex, age, and feelings of well-being are presented and discussed Envy and nongenerosity, and to a lesser extent possessiveness, are found to be negatively related to reported happiness with life.


Russell W. Belk (1984) ,"Three Scales to Measure Constructs Related to Materialism: Reliability, Validity, and Relationships to Measures of Happiness", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 291-297.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 291-297


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


Three measures of materialistic traits are proposed, measured, and tested: possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy. The scales show good reliability, good convergent validity, marginal discriminant validity, and very good criterion validity. Exploratory data relating these traits to sex, age, and feelings of well-being are presented and discussed Envy and nongenerosity, and to a lesser extent possessiveness, are found to be negatively related to reported happiness with life.


The consumer orientation commonly known as materialism, reflects the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions. At the highest levels of materialism, such possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in life either directly (as ends) or indirectly (as means to ends). The consumer traits involved in materialism have been widely criticized as well as widely advocated, on the grounds of both personal satisfaction and societal well-being (see Belk 1983).

But despite such widespread concern with materialism, there has been little relevant empirical research, especially at a non-aggregate consumer level. Campbell (1969) has developed a materialism scale, but it is more accurately a scale of attitudes toward materialism and is also untested. Moschis and Churchill (1978) have developed a materialism scale which includes orientation toward money as well as possessions. The present paper offers three measures of materialistic traits that have been treated theoretically i prior literature. Reliability and validity data are presented for the measures and exploratory evidence relating these traits to happiness and satisfaction in life is discussed.



Possessiveness has been defined as "the inclination and tendency to retain control or ownership of one's possession (Belk 1983). Possessions, in turn, "must be reasonably tangible, but may include certain experiences (e.g. last year' vacation --' I've been there/done that'), tangible assets (including money, contracts, monetary obligations and interests, and land), owned symbols (e.g. a name, coat of arms, or title), and even other persons (where some identification with and mastery or control over these persons exists --e.g. 'my employee/friend/child/legislator')" (Belk 1982).

An earlier paper (Belk 1992) made a distinction between possessiveness and acquisitiveness, with possessiveness seen as a relationship with objects after acquisition, while acquisitiveness was seen as a relationship with objects before and during acquisition. These two traits have different motivational bases in Freudian psychology. Acquisitiveness was seen by Freud to be the result of oral fixation brought about from having mother's milk continuously withheld or prematurely withdrawn during nursing (Freud 1908/1959, 1914 1959). Possessiveness, on the other hand, was seen by Freud to be the result of an anal fixation brought about from pre mature toilet training (Freud 1908/1959), However, despite Freudian distinctions between possessiveness and acquisitiveness, factor analyses of attitudinal responses consistent with these characteristics (in pretests) failed to distinguish between the two traits. Since responses related to each construct consistently loaded on a single factor, the working assumption guiding scale development was that acquisitiveness is merely a mode or possessiveness The internal consistency of the resulting scale provides a test of this assumption.

Given the definition and scope of possessiveness described above, the attitudinal domain to be sampled has several dimensions. The possessive person should be concerned with the loss of possessions, either through their own actions or through the actions of others. They should prefer the greater control of objects gained through owning them over renting, leasing, or borrowing them (Marshall 1935; Berry and Maricle 1973). They should be inclined to save and retain possessions rather than discard them. And they should have a tendency to "tangibilize" experiences through photographs, souvenirs, and mementos that can be saved and can be demonstrably possessed (MacCannell 1976; Nicosia and Mayer 1976; Greenwood 1977; Kelly 1982).


Generosity involves a willingness to give or share with others. In the context of materialism, nongenerosity involves an unwillingness to give possessions to or share possessions with others. While some treatments view nongenerosity and possessiveness as aspects of a single trait of avariciousness (Coblentz 1965; Meagher 1967), pretest factor analyses in this case suggested that the two traits are distinct. Conceptually it is not difficult to envision possessive generous people. A parent may be possessive of their land and other property so that it may be shared with and given to their children, for instance. There is evidence that some children are more likely to be generous with toys they control if they also show possessiveness by protesting and offering resistance when others attempt to take toys which have not been offered (Furby 1982). Thus possessiveness and nongenerosity appear to be distinct, if not independent, traits.

Although it might be assumed that nongenerosity is motivated by an egoistic concern for self over others, it is also possible that nongenerosity may either reflect or bring about unhappiness. Since giving has been hypothesized to involve an acceptance of self as worthy to give and receive (Neisser 1973), it may be that those with lower self esteem are more likely to be nongenerous. Further, because society creates a social compact to help and give which is reinforced by social sanctions and rewards (Leeds 1963; Harris 1970; Macauly and Berkowitz 1970; Kerton 1971; Presbie and Coiteaux 1971; McKean 1975; Schwartz 1977; Collard 1978; Baumeister 1982), nongenerosity may create alienation and thus act to the individual's detriment. Such a finding would support literary portraits such as Dickens' Scrooge as being accurate rather than merely providing support for the social norm of giving (Leeds 1963).

The attitudinal domain to be sampled in measuring nongenerosity involves unwillingness to share possessions with others. Reluctance to lend or donate possessions to others is considered an expression of nongenerosity. Since the measure is to apply only to material nongenerosity, reluctance to share or give time, knowledge, skills, effort, and money are excluded.


Envy has been defined as an interpersonal attitude involving "displeasure and ill-will at the superiority of (another person) in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable" (Schoeck 1966).

Such envy has been treated as a benign characteristic that motivates striving to acquire the desired object (Foster 1972;-Lyman 1978; Sabini and Silver 1982). But it has also been characterized as a destructive characteristic that motivates acts as extreme as vandalism, arson, murder, theft, and adultery, in order to deprive envied others of their possessions (Bakker and Bakker-Rabdau 19 73). For present purposes, no judgment is yet made and both benign and destructive consequences of envy are seen as possible.

A further distinction is made between envy and jealousy, even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Consistent with others (Schoeck 1966; Walcot 1978), jealousy is a characteristic applied to one's own possessions (especially sexual jealousy in which a mate is regarded as sexual property-Davis 1949), whereas envy is applied only to others' possessions. One who is jealous of their possessions is possessive in the present terminology. Thus envy and possessiveness are conceptually independent of one another. The same is true of envy and nongenerosity, since nongeneroSity also involves an orientation toward the use of one's own possessions, whereas envy is an orientation toward others' possessions.

Like possessiveness and nongenerosity, envy is defined here as a general trait rather than an attitude toward only a particular target person and possession. As such, the domain of attitudes to be sampled in measuring envy involves more than a single consumption object. The envious person is expected to desire some possessions (whether objects, experiences, or persons) of some other people. The envious person should also resent those who have desired possessions And the envious person should feel personally demeaned by others' possession of desired objects, especially if these others are seen as less worthy of the possessions (Shoeck 1966).

Reasons for Measuring Materialism

The consumer traits of possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy are not the only possible aspects of materialism, but they represent distinct and significant expressions of man relationship to material objects. They represent, respectively, our affiliation with these objects, our willingness to give or share the objects in our possession, and our feelings about the objects in others' possession. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, materialism is not necessarily either good or bad (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1978, 1981; Csikszentmihalyi 1982). For instance, possessiveness may be instrumental in developing identity (Dixon and Street 1975), but it may also lead to asocial behaviors characteristic of some collectors (Rigby and Rigby 1949) .

If materialistic traits can be measured successfully, one immediate question concerns how each of these traits relate to human satisfaction and happiness. While a number of studies relate money or income to happiness, (e.g. Bradburn and Caplovicz 1965; Cantril 1965; Easterlin 1973, 1974; Simon 1974; Duncan 1975; Campbell, Converse, and Rogers 1978; Berreman and Zaretsky 1981; Furby 1981) and several studies relate possessions to feelings of well-being, (e.g. Morgan and Cushing 1966; Carroll 1968; Sherman and Newman 1977, 1976, 1978; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981) the absence of measures of materialism has precluded a more direct examination of how our relationship to possessions may affect our satisfaction with life.

With measures of possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy we can ultimately better learn how materialism develops (e.g. Isaacs 1935, 1949; Presbie and Coiteaux 1971; Dreman and Greenbaum 1973; Furby 1978a, 1980) how it changes with age (e.g. Furby 1978b; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981), and how it differs between cultures (e.g. Spiro 1966; Lewis 1969; Wyckham 1975; Gergen, Morse, and Gergen 1980; Orans 1981; Jolibert and Fernandez-Moreno 1983). Such studies may allow some initial insights regarding the effect of marketing practices. Ultimately we may also be interested in discovering how materialism is related to attitudes toward non-material resources such as love, status, and information as well (e.g. Foa and Foa 1974). But before any of these important questions can be addressed properly we must have measures of materialism.


The Scales

Based on the conceptual domains identified for each of the three materialism constructs, initial item pools of 30 to 35 statements were formulated for each construct. These statements were used with 5-point Likert (agree/disagree) scales in pretests among 237 business school students. Based on factor analyses, item-total correlations, and other measures of internal consistency, seven to nine items were selected from each item pool to measure the three constructs (via summated ratings), as shown in Table 1.



Based on pretest data, Cronbach's Coefficient Alpha was .68, .72, and .80 for the three scales, respectively. Additional items improved these alphas negligibly.


In order to provide a more adequate measure of the reliability of these scales (as well as measure their validates), the scales in Table 1 were mixed with an additional 24 questions used in pretests and administered to another group of 338 subjects. This group was composed as follows:

Business Students                              213

Secretaries in an Insurance Office     39

Students at a Religious Institute          32

Fraternity Members                          27

Machine Shop Workers                    27   

Total                                                338

The overall sample was approximately two-thirds male. An additional group of 48 business students (also approximately two-thirds male) completed the questionnaire twice. On the second occasion, two weeks after the first, they also provided additional data that are described in the validity section below.

Internal consistency as measured by Cronbach's Coefficient Alpha, was lower for each scale than was the case in the pretest data. Based on the larger sample, these Alphas were .57, .58, and .64 for possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy, respectively. This decline was to be expected outside of the developmental sample, and the new scores are still sufficiently high. Coefficient Alphas were unable to be improved by deleting any item, and corrected item-total correlations (removing the effect of the item from the total) were all .35 or higher. Internal consistency was also measured by split half scores (again with the larger sample), as the average of four attempted splits. These scores were also adequate: .40, .44, and .45. With as few as three items in some of the split halves it is understandable that these scores are lower than the Cronbach Alphas, even though the Alphas conceptually represent the average of all possible split half reliabilities.

Consistency over time was measured through test-retest correlations for the small sample. These scores were .87, .64, and .70 for possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy. Given the two week interval separating the two administrations and the ample use of filler items, these scores are quite encouraging. Overall, both internal consistency and consistency over time indicate acceptable reliability for each of the three scales


In order to examine convergent and discriminant validity for the three scales, the retested sample of subjects provided additional data during the second questionnaire administrations. Part of these data consisted of self reports of behaviors deemed possessive, generous, or envious. The other part was derived from analyses of an album or other group of 40 or more photographs taken by each subJect in the past two years. Sontag (1973), Milgram (1976, 1977a, 1977b), and Musello (1979) have all noted that our collections of family photographs are largely fictional histories; we pose our photographs to capture things at their best and then selectively retain only the most successful (i.e. happy) renderings of the way we would like to remember our pasts. Nevertheless, such photos provide a potentially valuable unobtrusive means of measuring behavioral traits (Lesy 1976; Wagner 1979).

In the present photographic analyses trained student administrators discussed each photograph with the subject and asked (as appropriate), "what is this a picture of?", "who are the people?". "what are the things in the picture ?", "when was this taken?", "what was the occasion?", and "where was this taken?". Based on responses, each photograph was coded by these administrators into one or more of 23 categories describing its content and meaning. Based on training exercises with a common pool of photographs, interjudge reliability in scoring was .84. Table Z shows the content of the photo-based indices ultimately developed from these codings, along with the behavioral indices.



Despite reasonable Alpha Coefficients for the multiple item scales in these behavioral and photographic indices, less confidence is warranted for these indices than for the primary scales being tested. They do, however, meet the convergent and discriminant validity requirements of providing dissimilar measures of similar constructs (Campbell and Fiske 1959). Using these measures, the multitrait-multimethod matrix shown in Table 3 resulted.



Convergent validity is examined in the monotrait-heteromethod validity diagonals. All are significantly different from zero, suggesting that the same trait is being measured by each of the three methods in each case. There is also some suggestion that the scales and behavioral indices have more in common with each other than they do with the photographic indices, since the validity diagonals involving the latter indices tend to be lower. Given that the scale and behavioral index measures are both paper and pencil measures, this is understandable.

Discriminant validity is examined in three ways. The first requires that validity diagonal coefficients be higher than the heterotrait-heteromethod coefficients in the same row or column of the heteromethod block in which they occur. For all nine validity coefficients this requirement is met. The second discriminant validity criterion suggested by Campbell and Fiske (1959), is that each of the validity diagonal coefficients be higher than the corresponding (one of the same two methods) monomethod-heterotrait coefficients. Results find this true for 36 comparisons, untrue for 14 comparisons, and indistinguishable (not different) for the remaining 4 comparisons. However, all 18 exceptions occur for the photographic index method. The final discriminant validity criterion requires that the same pattern of correlations occurs between traits, regardless of the measurement method employed. While there is some of this sort of consistency in the tendency for the possessiveness/envy correlations to be highest, this is not always true. In addition, the higher correlations between traits which are all measured via the photographic indices suggests that the photographic measures introduce greater method variance than do the other measures. Thus there is only partial support for the discriminant validity of the scales. Given the untried nature of the behavioral and photographic indices, these failings may be due more to these methods than to the scales of primary interest. This final discriminant validity criterion is also more meaningful if at least two of the traits are expected to be uncorrelated (Campbell and Fiske 1959). Since all three traits are aspects of materialism, this is not the case for the present data.

A further type of validity examined for the scales is their criterion validity among known groups. The two major criterion groups were the 27 male machine shop workers and the 32 male college students enrolled in a non-university religious class at a nearby religious institution. Machine shop workers were expected to be high in all three materialism traits. The materialism of blue collar workers has been described by sociologists as "compensatory consumption" (Chinoy 1952; Gorz 1967; Best and Connolly 1976). This is thought to occur when people whose social or occupational status is limited by discrimination or a lack of skills, redefine success as the acquisition of possessions. Chinoy (1952), for instance found this to be a dominant orientation among automobile workers. The non-materialism of the religious institute students is predicated instead on the long-standing opposition of organized religion to excessive materialism and its alternative offerings of spiritual rewards (see review by Belk 1983). Table 4 reports mean levels of the three materialism traits for these two groups and other test groups as well. It can be seen that the criterion groups differed in the expected directions on all three measures.



Furthermore, with the exception of one group with a lower score than the religious group on envy, the criterion groups were the two most extreme groups in each case. The one exception, that insurance secretaries are lower than religious students in envy, finds an explanation in additional analyses discussed below. Thus the criterion validity data are very good for all three trait scales.

Overall, the reliability and validity data for the three scales are encouraging. All measures of reliability are good. Convergent validity is also good, while discriminant validity is marginal, but constrained by the conceptual similarity of the three traits. Finally, criterion validity is quite good for all measures. While these are only initial evidences for the construct validity of the scales, they provide enough support to encourage further testing of the measures. There is also enough encouragement to allow initial examinations of the relationships between these materialism traits and other variables, including measures of happiness.


Scores on the possessiveness, nongenerosity, and envy scales were next examined for relationships to subject sex, age, and two measures of happiness with life, using the 338 subject sample in each case. While possessiveness and nongenerosity scores did not differ between male and female subjects, females were significantly less envious than males (means = 20.2 versus 22.5; p< . 0001 via F-test). This may explain the only anomaly in the tests of criterion validity since the insurance secretaries who had the lowest mean enviousness score were the only all female group. It is also interesting to note that these findings contradict the myth that women are the envious sex (Scheler 1910/1961).

The contradiction is however consistent with some psychoanalytic literature (Daniels 1964). It is also consistent with the hypothesis that greater incentives for career success are created by socializing males to be more envious (Davis and Moore 1945; Moschis and Churchill 1978).

Two of the three materialism measures were also found to b significantly related to the age of the present subjects. Envy showed a slight negative correlation with age (r= -.19 p<.0001) while nongenerosity showed a slight positive correlation with age (r = .12, p<.02). The apparent decline in envy with age might be due to having achieved a greater proportion of one's material goals, having adjusted material goals to financial means or having come to place less social importance on material goods. The apparent age-related increase in nongenerosity is not as contradictory to these explanations as might appear to be the case. Both envy and generosity reflect a concern with others, and it may therefore follow that they should co-vary.

The final correlates of these materialism traits to be examined were two measures of happiness in life. The question of ultimate concern here is whether materialism is healthy for the individual (Arndt 1978; Czepiel 1978, Day 1978). To provide a tentative answer to this question, two measures of feelings of well-being were obtained: the Gurin, Veroff, and Feld (1960) measure and the Bradburn and Caplovitz (1965) measure. Although both are only single item scales, they have been widely used to measure happiness in life and have good reliability and validity (Robinson al Shaver 1969).

Using ascending scores (higher = more happy or satisfied) for both scales, correlations with all three materialism measures were found to be negative:


While no causal inferences are warranted, these findings provide evidence that materialistic people do not tent to be happy people. This tends to be least true with possessiveness and most true with envy. On the basis of these tentative findings it would appear that envy is indeed a destructive trait (Bakker and Bakker-Rabdau 1973). Further generosity appears to have real, but nonmaterial, benefits as others have suggested (Kerton 1971; Belk 1979). Possessiveness is not as clearly related to feelings of well-being. This is consistent with Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton's (1981) findings that some very happy adults had very few cherished possessions and did not feel strongly about them, while other equally happy adults had many such possessions and were strongly attached to them. As was pointed out in discussing the conceptual independence of possessiveness and nongenerosity, whether possessiveness brings happiness or unhappiness may depend upon the relate, motives of the possessive person. The present findings suggest it is slightly more likely to bring unhappiness.


The three measures of materialism examined here are not perfect measures, but they appear to be adequately reliable a valid to prove useful in consumer research until improved measures are constructed. Their existence may enable research into greatly neglected but fundamental issues involving the effect of marketing practices on materialism and t relationship of materialism to quality of life. The present exploratory analyses suggest that these traits (especially nongenerosity and envy) may be an important source of human dissatisfaction. To the extent this is true, these consumer traits deserve substantial research attention.


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Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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