Measuring Material Values: a Preliminary Report of Scale Development

ABSTRACT - Belk's pioneering work to develop scales measuring traits associated with materialism has facilitated numerous investigations by consumer behavior researchers. Materialism, however, is a multi-dimensional concept which includes not only traits, but attitudinal, behavioral, and value components as well. This paper reviews some of the existing knowledge about materialism and concludes that the construct is appropriately measured as a value within the constellation of a personal or cultural value system. Empirical work to develop measures of material values are reported.


Marsha L. Richins and Scott Dawson (1990) ,"Measuring Material Values: a Preliminary Report of Scale Development", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 169-175.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 169-175


Marsha L. Richins, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Scott Dawson, Portland State University

[Thanks to Teri Root-Shaffer for her assistance in item generation and data collection during the early phases of the project and to Russ Belk for his helpful insights during measure development.]


Belk's pioneering work to develop scales measuring traits associated with materialism has facilitated numerous investigations by consumer behavior researchers. Materialism, however, is a multi-dimensional concept which includes not only traits, but attitudinal, behavioral, and value components as well. This paper reviews some of the existing knowledge about materialism and concludes that the construct is appropriately measured as a value within the constellation of a personal or cultural value system. Empirical work to develop measures of material values are reported.


The study of the culture of consumption has become an important topic in the consumer behavior literature. One concept frequently addressed in this literature is materialism. Current measures of materialism emphasize traits associated with materialism and have greatly facilitated both theoretical development and empirical analysis. In this paper, we review key conceptualizations of materialism, suggest some additional dimensions of materialism, and report the preliminary results of research in progress to develop measures of these dimensions.


Materialism is such a complex, multifaceted concept that agreement on its meaning is only approximate. The concept has been popularized in the mass media in response to America's apparent preoccupation with consumer goods and has been variously and often loosely defined in the academic literature. Several treatises and studies that have examined materialism or related concepts form the theoretical basis for establishing the materialism dimensions and measures suggested here. For sake of discussion, we categorize these into political/historical, anthropological/sociological, and marketing orientations.

Political/Historical Orientations

Though theoretical notions about materialism have benefitted from a number of historical analyses (e.g., McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb 1982; Mukerji 1983), Inglehart's (1981) work is particularly relevant. Using a political perspective, Inglehart suggests that materialism is evident by the degree to which nations or other social groups emphasize values involving material things. Influenced by Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Inglehart posits that Western societies have satisfied the majority of needs involving material well-being and are now primarily concerned with post-materialistic values such as family, friends, and social welfare. Perhaps because definitive data is lacking and because materialism is inferred rather than explicitly measured, his thesis has been quite controversial (Marsh 1975; Mastekaasa 1983) and difficult to accept given the consumption ethos in America during the 1980s (Yankelovich 1981). Nevertheless, Inglehart's argument that materialism is a value situated within the constellation of a value system has important implications for measure development.

Anthropological/Sociological Orientations

This genre of study has provided perhaps the richest underpinnings for understanding materialism (cf. Appadurai 1986; McCracken 1988). An especially valuable perspective is provided by Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) who have studied attachment to and meaning associated with possessions. Broadly, these authors develop a powerful conception of materialism:

"If things attract our attention excessively, there is not enough psychic energy left to cultivate the interaction with the rest of the world. The danger of focusing attention excessively on the goal of physical consumption - or materialism - is that one does not attend enough to the cultivation of self, to the relationship with others, or to the broader purposes that affect life" (p. 53).

j Among the many findings of their research, two I points are particularly relevant: (1) that the types and saliency of meanings associated with objects vary over the life span, and (2) that the degree of psychic energy invested in objects appears related in a curvilinear manner with well-being and happiness. While excessive reliance on the symbolic power of objects leads to a narrow definition of self and to unhappiness, those individuals who are most adamant about the meaninglessness of objects are often the most lonely. Possessions may serve a positive function by solidifying and making concrete the ties that we develop with family and friends.

Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton separate materialism into two components: (1) terminal materialism, in which consumption is an end of itself, there is little interaction between owner and object, and image or status associated with an object is of primary value; and (2) instrumental materialism, where objects are used in order "to make life longer, safer, more enjoyable" (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1978, p. 8). While these distinctions in the meaning of materialism have been used as a basis for evaluating themes in advertising (Belk and Bryce 1986; Belk and Pollay 1985), psychometric work has not proceeded to develop measures of these constructs. This may be because terminal and instrumental materialism are subjective terms so pregnant with meaning that they defy unidimensional measurement. While the scales described in the current measurement effort are not designed to measure terminal and instrumental materialism, elements of both concepts are evident in their content.

Marketing Orientations

In the marketing literature, a simpler definition of materialism comes from studies of child and adolescent socialization. Ward and Wackman (1971, p. 422) defined materialism as "an orientation which views material goods and money as important for personal happiness and social progress." This definition and adaptations of their measures (Wackman, Reale, and Ward 1972) have been used in later research by Moschis and his colleague-s (Churchill and Moschis 1979; Moschis and Moore 1982).

Without doubt, Belk's (1984, 1985) work on defining and measuring materialism has been the most useful to researchers working empirically in this area. According to his definition (Belk 1984, P. 291):

"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"

This definition is similar to others in its emphasis on-degree of object attachment and an associated state of well-being. Belk developed measures of three traits associated with materialism--envy, nongenerosity, and possessiveness. These measures have been used in a number of studies (e.g., O'Guinn and Faber 1989; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988).


After reviewing the conceptualizations, definitions, and operationalizations above, several issues guided the development of a new measure of materialism. First, materialism is a complex construct with multiple components that may be related or orthogonal. Second, any definition of materialism should be value neutral and not reflect some normative prescription of its authors. Material possessions do serve an important role in establishing and maintaining a positive affective state. As noted above, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) determined that those individuals who were the most lonely also found objects the least meaningful. Possessions serve a potent role in definition of self, and loss due to institutionalization or theft may result in negative affective states (Belk 1989). This facet of material objects has been perhaps the greatest obstacle to clarity of semantic meaning. "Materialism" carries with it a negative connotation that is not always justified.

A third issue in deriving a measure of materialism is that it should strive to transcend cultures, subcultures, and economic systems. Better understanding of consumption culture through cross-cultural comparison (Rassuli and Hollander 1986) is facilitated when concepts such as materialism and their measures demonstrate validity and reliability across cultural systems.

Finally, a critical issue is whether materialism is best approached as a trait, an attitude, or a value. Traits are personal characteristics that (1) are formed at an early age, (2) are relatively unchanging over the life span, and (3) the underlying trait itself is generally impervious to environmental stimuli. The theoretical work reviewed above suggest that one's relationship with material items changes over time. Further, examinations of materialistic themes in advertising (Belk and Pollay 1985), brand names in novels (Friedman 1985), goals and satisfactions within societies (Inglehart 1981), and broad societal trends (Henkoff 1989; Yankelovich 1981) all suggest that materialism is affected by broader environmental stimuli. Thus, the common but approximate conception of materialism gleaned from the literature suggests that this construct does not fit the accepted characterization of trait. It seems likely, however, that some traits may be associated with materialism, as Belk (1984) has suggested.

Though many definitions of attitude exist, a favored conception is that an attitude "represents a person's favorable or unfavorable feelings toward the object in question" (Peter and Olson 1987, p. 192). Such a definition seems too narrow for approaching materialism in that it speaks to specific objects, rather than broader systems of behavior.

Materialism may be best viewed as a value. Values "are (a) concepts or beliefs, (b) about desirable end states or behaviors, (c) that transcend specific situations, (d) guide selection or evaluation of behavior and events, and (e) are ordered by relative importance" (Schwartz and Bilsky 1987, p. 551; see also Maslow 1959, Rokeach 1973). They may emphasize individualistic or collective interests and may be used to characterize individuals, small groups, and societies. Values change with social conditions and with age, two important features which appear endemic to materialism. Schwartz and Bilsky (1987) used smallest space analysis to map Rokeach's (1973) 36 instrumental and terminal values. In the resulting structure, prosocial values (e.g., equality, belief in God) and security (family and national security) were polar opposites of achievement values (social recognition, ambitious) and enjoyment values (comfortable life, pleasure) and self-direction. This structure is consistent with Inglehart's (1981) theoretical analysis of materialistic and post-materialistic values.

These findings and Belk's definition of materialism quoted above suggest that materialism may be viewed as an organizing or second-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. This perspective was the basis of construct definition for the measures developed here.

Building on Belk's work and the values literature, the domain of materialism for purposes of measure development was framed in terms of the motivations, expectations, and affective states that characterize individuals' values with respect to material objects. First, as a motivation, materialism has a status component which reflects the intended and actual use of material objects as a means of social recognition and to symbolize one's personal success. Second, the expectation or aspirational component of materialism concerns the extent to which an individual believes that acquisition of material objects will lead to personal happiness and enjoyment in life. Third, materialism has an - affective component, represented by the degree to which an individual actually does find possessions to be a source of satisfaction. Finally, the notion of centrality is important to materialism. As noted by many writers, objects assume a central position in the lives of materialistic people. We do not posit these to be the only concepts representing materialism, and encourage the conception of additional facets.


Exploratory Research and Item Generation

The adequacy of the materialism domain described above was examined in exploratory research. A convenience sample of 11 adult consumers was asked to describe in an open-ended format the attitudes and values of materialistic people they knew and of materialistic people in general. The sample was evenly split among males and females and spread across several age and income categories. Frequently-mentioned attitude descriptions were converted into items. In addition, the researchers constructed items designed to represent the motivation, expectation, affective, and centrality aspects of materialism described above. Another source for item generation was characterizations of materialistic people described in the literature and mentioned by social critics. Finally, a few items were adapted from earlier studies in which materialism and related constructs were measured (Belk 1985; Heslin and Johnson 1985, 1989; Richins 1987; Wackman, Reale, and Ward 1972; Yamauchi and Templer 1982). In every case, items were cast to reflect values, attitudes, and feelings about possessions rather than the more specific behaviors or traits measured by Belk's scales. Effort was also taken to avoid items that might prove specific to American culture.

During the three data collection efforts described in this study, more than 120 items were generated. Redundant, ambiguous, leading, and other faulty items were eliminated in initial screening. Subsequent screening was based on empirical tests of reliability, validity, and social desirability bias.

Data Collection

Data were collected from students at three separate universities. In the first data collection, 50 items were administered to 448 students at Louisiana State University. The second sample consisted of 191 undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts who completed 66 potential materialism scale items. The third sample, 194 undergraduate and MBA students at Portland State University, completed 66 items. This sample was somewhat older than the other two because it included more part-time students and students in an evening MBA program; 30% were over the age of 30, 38% were married, and 35% worked 30 hours or more pet week.

The materialism measures varied across data collection efforts as we revised items, deleted weak items, and added others to improve the reliability and validity of scale components. Standard scale development practices described by Nunnally (1978) and Churchill (1979) were used in item purification.

The survey instruments contained several other measures that assisted in scale refinement. Two administrations (LSU and UMass) included the Marlowe-Crowne (Crowne and Marlowe 1960) social desirability measure. While materialism seems to be more socially acceptable today than in past eras, we had some concern about the potential for social desirability bias. Twelve items from the scale were included to identify those materialism items most subject to this type of bias. The original dichotomous scaling format used by Crowne and Marlowe was changed to a five-point Likert format.

Several other measures were included for validation purposes in some or all of the data collections .

(1) Life satisfaction. Because prior research has found a negative relationship between happiness and materialism (Belk 1985; Richins 1987), satisfaction with five life domains was measured on seven-point scales in the UMass and PSU data collections: amount of fun, family life, income or standard of living, relationships with friends, and life as a whole. The LSU questionnaire included only three domains.

(2) Values. To assess the relationship of material values to other values, the List of Values scale (Kahle, Beatty, and Homer 1986; Veroff, Douvan, and Kulka 1981) was included in the questionnaire for all data collections. The scale was modified by adding two values that might be related to materialism: "financial security," and "having enough money to buy nice things." Respondents were asked to rank their four most important values

(3) Self esteem. Several authors have argued that possessions provide a basis for self-identity (Belk 1989; James 1890) or that acquisitiveness is an effort to establish self-respect (Horney 1937). If this is the case, possessions might be more valuable to those who have less self-respect or whose self-image is less secure. Thus, a negative relationship between materialism and self-esteem is hypothesized. Rosenberg's (1965) self-esteem measure was used in the UMass survey.

(4) Self-monitoring. This scale, developed by Snyder (1974), is designed to measure the extent to which people adjust their expressive behavior and self-presentation to different situations. While the precise latent construct measured by the self-monitoring scale is not agreed on (see Snyder and Gangestad 1986), it seems clear that high self-monitors are more concerned about self-presentation than low self-monitors. To the extent that one's possessions publicly represent the self, a positive relationship between self-monitoring and materialism is expected.

(5) Public self-consciousness. Public self-consciousness is the tendency to think about those self-aspects that are matters of public display; for example, one's overt behavior, mannerisms, and expressive qualities (Scheier and Carver 1985). Since many of one's possessions are displayed publicly, a positive relationship between public self-consciousness and materialism is expected. This scale was included in the Umass questionnaire.


Rather than describe in detail the analyses and results of each data collection, this section summarizes what's been learned over the course of scale development efforts.

Factor Structure

Principal components analysis of the materialism items in all data collections yielded large numbers of factors with eigenvalues greater than one. Item purification improved the parsimony of the item set, such that the analysis of the last data set was refined to 29 items with an associated set of 6 factors with eigenvalues greater than one. We have chosen to postpone further item purification until data are obtained from large consumer samples.

Scree tests on the various data sets suggested that three, four, or five factors be retained. In the first data collection effort, one of the factors had 10 items with high loadings. On further inspection, these items were all truisms, including such statements as 'The desire for more things or money causes a lot of problems in our society" and "People place too much emphasis on material things." While the reliability of these items was acceptable (Cronbach's alpha = .76), they had weak relationships with validating variables. The truistic statements appear to measure respondents' attitudes about materialism and society in general rather than personal values that apply to respondents themselves. Because of the general nature of these items and their low relationship with validation variables, truistic items were excluded from subsequent data collection efforts.

Four factors emerged consistently from analysis of the three data sets, interpreted as follows.

(1) Possessions as symbols of success. This factor reflects the extent to which one uses possessions to impress others or perceives possessions as indicators of success and achievement in life. This factor coincides with the motivational aspects of material values identified in the literature review. Sample items with high loadings on this factor are "The things I own say a lot about how well I'm doing in life," and "I like to own things that impress people."

(2) Possessions as a source of pleasure. This factor reflects the extent to which one derives pleasure or satisfaction from the possessions they own and corresponds with the affective component of materialism. The factor had few items with high loadings in the initial data collection, but revisions to the item set improved it considerably. Sample items with high loadings on this factor include "I have some special possessions that I care quite a lot about" and "The things I own help make me happy."

(3) Belief that more possessions lead to more happiness. Respondents scoring high on this factor believe that their lives would be better if they had more or different possessions. This factor concerns the aspirational element of materialism. Some of the items with high loadings on this factor are "My life would be better if owned certain things I don't have" and "I have all the things I really need to enjoy life" (reverse scored).

(4) Asceticism. The opposite of materialism is asceticism. The ascetic ideal involves a hostility toward luxury, a suspicion of riches, and the belief that frugality is good (Shi 1985). This factor initially consisted of items all scored in the same direction. In subsequent data collections, items scored in the reverse direction were added but were only partially successful in balancing the scale. The asceticism factor might as aptly be named antimaterialism. Items include "I try to keep my life simple, as far as possessions are concerned" and "I like a lot of luxury in my life" (reverse scored).

Because the analyses were exploratory, in early factor analyses we preferred to err on the side of over-factoring rather than under-factoring the data and retained more than four factors for rotation. Several of the later factors were coherent and interpretable, including propensity to splurge, enjoyment of shopping, and others. While these are interesting in their own right, they measure what might be outputs or consequences of materialism rather than materialism itself. Attempts were made to eliminate such factors in later data collections.

Part of the domain of materialism identified in the literature review was centrality of possessions to one's life. Items such as "I spend a lot of time thinking about the things I own" and "The things I own are an important part of my life" were included with the hope that they would form an identifiable factor. They did not. Over three data collection efforts, we were unable to generate a factor representing this domain. The centrality items spread themselves across the factor space or had low communalities. The reason for this failure may lie with the notion of centrality. Possessions may be important for a number of reasons: they may bring pleasure (musical instruments), they may signify important events or relationships (a wedding ring), they may demonstrate the kind of person one is (Birkenstock sandals), or they might cause others to notice, admire, or envy the owner (fashion clothing or sports cars). This diversity in reasons for importance may have caused the centrality items to spread across factors rather than form one of their own.




While a final version of the scale was not generated from the student data, preliminary subscales to measure the various domains of materialism have been formed. They vary in precise content and length across the evolution of the project, so only general statements of reliability will be made. Factor 1, possessions as symbols of success, consistently had the highest reliabilities. In the various forms, the scale performs in the range of .80 to .85 for coefficient alpha. Factor 2, possessions as a source of pleasure, started out with few items and low reliability. At the final data collection, this subscale consisted of 7 items with a reliability of .76. The subscale for the third factor, belief that more possessions lead to more happiness, generally has reliabilities between .75 and .80. The asceticism subscale has been the most difficult to construct, with reliabilities in the .59 to .67 range. This scale needs further refinement using adult consumer samples.

Social Destrablllty Tests

While social desirability doesn't seem to be a serious problem with any of the subscales, there were small but significant correlations between the social desirability scale and two subscales-asceticism (r = .20) and possessions as indicators of status -.25).

Construct Validity

Results of some of the validity tests are shown in Table 1. The reported analyses are based on summed subscales that represent the factors. Analysis using factor scores produced similar results. The validity tests suggest that the materialism scales perform in the predicted manner among college students.


Analysis of the literature concerning materialism suggests that this construct is best measured as a value. Toward this end, we have embarked on a program to measure some of the relevant aspects of material values. Empirical studies conducted on student samples suggest that at least three aspects of material values can be measured reliably and with some validity: possessions valued as symbols of success, possessions as a source of pleasure, and beliefs that more possessions lead to happiness. The validity of the fourth factor emerging from data analysis (asceticism) remains to be demonstrated. At this time, it is unclear whether this factor should be treated as a separate subscale or merely represents very low materialism across the three other subscales. Internal consistency of the asceticism items is also lower than desired.

A research program to refine the material values measures is underway. It includes collecting data from consumer samples in three separate cities of the U.S. The goals of this program are three-fold: to determine the final set of scale items, to measure the reliability of scale items in a consumer sample, and to examine the nomological network of material values by studying their relationship with other personal values, psychological constructs, and Belk's trait measures.

This research has identified some of the ways in which possessions are linked to personal values, but the possibilities extend beyond the domain identified here. The empirical study of values in consumer behavior has not been especially fruitful in the past. While values are prominently discussed in consumer behavior texts, the 1984 ten-year index for JCR doesn't even include a heading for values; the 1989 five-year index has a heading but only one article is listed. The limited empirical attention to values stems in part from measurement problems. The current measurement approaches generally involve ranking of rather abstract constructs. While these are useful in identifying the relative importance a consumer assigns to a set of values, it is difficult to use the measures for other purposes. In addition, the ordinal, ipsative nature of the resultant data is not amenable to many data analysis techniques. By providing a values measure of a more limited domain but greater depth, we hope to encourage a new approach to the study of consumption-related values.


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Marsha L. Richins, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Scott Dawson, Portland State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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