Gift Giving: Consumer Motivation and the Gift Purchase Process


Cathy Goodwin, Kelly L. Smith, and Susan Spiggle (1990) ,"Gift Giving: Consumer Motivation and the Gift Purchase Process", 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: 690-698.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 690-698


Cathy Goodwin, University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Kelly L. Smith, Georgia State University

Susan Spiggle, The University of Connecticut

This paper proposes that the extent to which gift givers are motivated by primarily voluntary or obligatory motives shapes the gift selection, acquisition, and post purchase process. A pilot study utilizing a naturalistic data collection technique provides some empirical support for hypotheses developed from the- conceptual scheme based upon obligatory versus voluntary motives.

Gift giving has been studied by a number of consumer behavior researchers. Earlier research focused on the differences between purchasing for personal use and for gift giving (Belk, 1982 Heeler et al. 1980, Scammon et al. 1982). More recently, researchers have suggested that gift giving is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. In his analysis of gift giving, Sherry (1983) suggests that gift giving has social, economic, and personal dimensions and develops a typology employing the nature of the gift, the relationship between donor and recipient, and situational conditions, such as holidays. Belk (1979) identifies four functions of gift giving: to mark important life events, to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships, to create a medium of economic exchange and to socialize children into the customs of society.

A number of questions about gift giving have been raised that are relevant to the field of consumer research. Lutz (1979) and Tigert (1979) both suggest that product category selection and pricing issues should be addressed. Banks (1979) suggests the importance of the gift search process, and Belk (1979) suggests the need to look at givers' perceptions of the recipient's needs and tastes. Sherry (1983) emphasizes the giver's motivation.

This paper addresses a number of these questions. It links product category selection, making decisions about time and monetary constraints, the search and gift selection process with the giver's motivation. The motivational dichotomy employed here is the distinction between gifts that are given because the giver feels an obligation and those which are given freely, without a sense of obligation.

In contemporary American society, perceived obligations of gift giving may arise from a variety of sources. In a corporate office setting, a feeling of obligation to contribute to a coworker's wedding may be created by the need for acceptance as a "team player." Families and friends create mutual obligations at holidays and often birthdays, as well as one-sided obligations at weddings, housewarmings, and graduations. People in dating relationships may develop gift giving customs to honor certain occasions and events such as Valentine's Day. The threat of strained relations caused by one partner's failing to honor the gift giving custom may create strong feelings of obligation for both partners. Through such gift giving acts, individuals may be communicating affirmation of the relationship. However, the motive for affirmation is externally defined. Thus, the giver's motivation is generated by social obligation. Under such circumstances, the obligation to purchase a gift may be perceived as a threat to freedom, eliciting psychological reactance (Clee and Wicklund 1980), creating a negative rather than positive purchase experience.

In contrast to these occasions, people give gifts from what appear more voluntary motives: to cheer up a depressed friend, share a unique object found in the shopping mall, express apology, concern or affection. Voluntary gift giving can be manipulative or threatening rather than benign or altruistic (Schwartz 1967). For example, giving a child a set of warm clothes may imply that the parents are careless (Poe 1977), and a small subliterature addresses the topic of patients who use gifts to manipulate or create a lasting bond with the therapist (e.g., Stein 1965; Orgel and Shengold 1968; Silber 1969; Kritzberg 1980). Culturally mandated gift giving (holidays, birthdays, weddings etc.) may be characterized by voluntary motives. That is, the predominant feeling of the giver may not be "I'd better give X a gift". Rather, the giver may be using the occasion as an opportunity to express sentiments through gift giving. In this case the giver's predominant sentiments are of communicating solidarity or affection, although failure to give would have negative social consequences. Accordingly, in socially defined gift occasions the giver's motive may be predominantly voluntary, predominantly obligatory, or some combination of the two. Thus, whether the precipitating conditions are culturally mandated, centering around widely recognized celebrations, or generated by individual relational dynamics, the giver may be motivated by feelings of obligation, or feelings of autonomy and control (voluntary giving). The voluntary/obligatory nature of gift giving may be best seen as a polar continuum with analytically distinct end-points. Any empirical act of gift giving may fall somewhere in between, not exhibiting characteristics of the pure type.

The point at which a gift-giving act falls on the voluntary/obligatory continuum may affect a variety of consumer behaviors. BeLk (1979) observed that virtually all gift objects convey symbolic meaning; therefore, the choice of gift may be affected, as well as the price to be paid and the effort involved in gift selection. The outcome of the process may vary depending on whether the giver perceives the event as obligatory or voluntary.

The distinction between voluntary and obligatory gift giving as the dominant motive differs from that suggested by Sherry (1983). In his 3-stage model of gift giving, he distinguishes between altruistic and agonistic motives which occur in the initial stage of the gift-giving process and which presumably affect activities at subsequent stages. The agonistic motive is self serving (the wife seeking to regain affection from an alienated husband). The altruistic motive is selfless (the father expressing esteem for his child). In the motivational scheme presented here, these are both encompassed under voluntary motives. Sherry's scheme explicitly incorporates a situational variable--"formal or emergent precipitating condition," that may include the extent to which the initiating condition is structured by custom (the father's holiday gift), or not (a particular instance of marital discord). This variable, however, is presented as external to motivation (although shaping it) and is exogenous to his gift-giving model.

The motivational dichotomy presented here uses a more fundamental motivational distinction in that it subsumes Sherry's altruistic and agonistic dichotomy under the voluntary pole and proposes an opposite motivational pole that: (1) suggests a greater motivational contrast and (2) we think more significantly shapes activities in subsequent stages of gift giving.

This paper represents a pilot study which explores the distinction between obligatory and voluntary gift giving. In this empirical study gift giving at the polar ends of the continuum is explored in order to demonstrate how the obligatory/ voluntary distinction operates to shape the gift giving process along dimensions relevant to consumer research--information search, monetary and time resource allocation, criteria for decision making, and selection.


Symbolic messages

Gifts may convey a wide range of symbolic messages such as "the status of a relationship, a promise of future interaction, or a statement of love, concern or domination" (Poe 1977). Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists have identified needs of patients communicated by gifts, e.g., 'The patient who presents the doctor with a plant may wish to remain rooted in the office" (Stein 1965); and 'The gift...permitted a fantasy of symbiotic involvement with the therapist to be acted out via the gift..."(Silber 1969).

Gifts may represent symbols of a relationship: "A gift is a ritual offering that is a sign of involvement in and connectedness to another" (Cheal 1987, p. 152). Specific gifts may further delineate the nature of the relationship. For example, money may communicate a variety of negative messages, such as thoughtlessness (Webley et al. 1983) and unequal status (Poe 1977; Caplow 1982), while a practical gift given to a business associate communicates that the relationship is not intended to be close or intimate.

Gifts may also symbolize identities of the giver or the receiver. Schwartz (1967) suggests that, "Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures that others share of us in their minds are transmitted," as when a parent gives a male child a gift of toy soldiers. Similarly, gifts can communicate the giver's identity, as in the "display of masculinity through the giving of gift cigars following the birth of a child." Identity may be expressed more freely when in non-ritual gift situations, and in some societies may represent a means of self-expression allowed only between intimates (Betteridge 1985).


Mauss (1954) was one of the first to note that gifts often appear to be generously offered, but the "accompanying behavior" derives from "obligation and economic self-interest." Gift-giving obligations have been well-documented in primitive and archaic societies (e.g., Mauss 1954; Levi-Strauss 1964). Muir and Weinstein (1962) found that the concept of social obligation was familiar to all of their 120 adult female respondents of varying social classes. While all respondents indicated that they "like to do favors for others," only 8.9 percent indicated that they "like being obligated to others."

Individual reactions to obligations can be potentially important to researchers investigating consumption experiences. Poe (1977) suggests a number of consequences of psychological reactance experienced by the recipient; for example, the person who receives a set of skis may feel constrained to spend time on the slopes. However, it is not hard to imagine reactance occurring as part of an obligation to purchase a wedding gift, particularly if everyone in an office is "asked" to make a contribution. A giver may attempt to restore freedom (Brehm 1966) by limiting expense and effort associated with the requisite gift. Support for this association comes from Warshaw's (1980) contrast of the influence of norms on expensive and inexpensive gifts--a necklace or sweater compared to a box of candy and card. In an experimental setting, he found that evaluative attitudes (e.g., "It is good for me to buy Product X for someone") rather than norms (e.g., "Others who are important to me think...") influenced intentions to purchase expensive gifts, while evaluative attitudes and norms were equally correlated with intentions to purchase inexpensive gifts. Thus, gifts purchased from obligation might be associated with lower cost and less effort.

Two specific forms of obligation can be identified: reciprocity and ritual. Reciprocity in this context represents giving a gift as part of a mutual exchange or in return for another gift, as when family members exchange gifts at Christmas or wedding gifts over the course of their lifetimes. In contrast, some gifts may be given when there is no custom that would lead to a return gift obligation; for example, a married person may feel obligated to give a wedding or housewarming gift to a new neighbor or colleague. In these situations, the giver expects no reciprocal gift.

A number of social scientists have emphasized the special social significance of reciprocal gift giving. Levi-Strauss (1964) cites examples of the potlatch functions of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Strauss (1964) notes that the exchange can be intangible rather than tangible, and that "a mysterious advantage" seems to be related to commodities obtained by reciprocal gift giving rather than commercial exchange. In effect, he seems to suggest, gift giving represents another form of distribution.

Gouldner (1960, p. 176) suggests further that "the norm of reciprocity thus provides a second-order defense of the stability of social systems," offering a basis for moral sanctions of otherwise unregulated transactions. Moreover, he suggests, reciprocity may take the form of deference or gratitude rather than another tangible gift.

Reciprocity norms are influenced by need and ability to reciprocate and by closeness of the relationship. Muir and Weinstein (1962) suggest that middle class recipients of favors feel stronger norms of repayment as compared to lower class recipients, who "help when they can." Schwartz (1967) suggests that a high degree of "correspondence" between gifts exchanged will be more likely to occur in low-sentiment relationships; however, he goes on to say, some level of reciprocity will be necessary if a relationship is to avoid domination by the exchange partner whose gift is greater.

Ritual represents another aspect of obligation. Poe (1977) noted that ceremony and ritual are present today as well as in primitive societies. A number of researchers have focused on the Christmas gift ritual (e.g., Caplow 1982, 1984; Moschetti 1979; Cramer 1977).

Rituals often are associated with reciprocity; Davis (1973, p. 164) notes that at Christmas, "the obligation is to match benefits simultaneously, by ingenious pre-estimation." Caplow (1982, 1984) uncovers detailed norms surrounding the selection, presentation and reciprocity of Christmas gifts; Cramer (1977), on the other hand, views Christmas giving as a means of atonement for past neglect or obligations and a freedom from norms of economy and thrift.

A specific act of gift giving may have elements of ritual (Valentine's Day), reciprocity (I expect you to give me a Valentine's gift), and symbolic communication (I enjoy expressing my affection for you). The following hypotheses have been derived from the preceding discussion to suggest how these elements might shape gift selection and the gift purchase process.


H1. Gift selection will be more likely shaped by a desire to express recipient or donor identities when the gift-giving motive is voluntary rather than obligatory.

H2. Gift selection will be more likely shaped by the desire to communicate feelings of caring and reinforcing the relationship between giver and receiver, when motives are voluntary than when motives are obligatory.

H3. Consumers will report greater expenditures of time and effort associated with gift selection in the voluntary than the obligation motive.

H4. Consumers in obligatory gift situations will be more likely to expect tangible or intangible expressions of gratitude or reciprocity than in the voluntary gift situations.

H5. Consumers who give from a sense of obligation are more likely to select practical or utilitarian gifts as compared to those who give from a voluntary motive.


Subjects were 90 graduate and undergraduate students at a large southeastern university. Despite their student status, these subjects appeared to be genuine consumers. Average age was 24.7 years (ranging from 19 to 41 years), and mean work experience was 2.2 years of full-time experience and 4.0 years of part-time. Fifty-eight percent were males.

Subjects were asked to identify a recent gift-giving experience, followed by a series of open-ended questions regarding why the gift was given; what, if anything, the subject intended to communicate with this gift; considerations which influenced search time and effort as well as price; and what, if anything, was expected in return. A final question, intended to elicit norms of gift giving, asked subjects, "If you were to advise someone from another society who was unfamiliar with gift-giving customs in a similar situation, what would you say?"

Two versions of the questionnaire were prepared and distributed randomly to subjects. In one version, subjects were asked to identify a gift experience "in which you felt obligated;" in the other, to identify a gift experience "in which you felt no obligation to give a gift." Questionnaires were completed in classroom or office settings in the presence of one of the authors.

A content coding scheme was developed by one of the authors. The coding categories were developed through a combination of a priori deduction from the conceptual background and inductive abstraction from inspecting over one half of the data. The final coding scheme consisted of between four and six abstract categories for each question. A precise definition was attached to each category. (See Appendix). Following Kassarjian's procedures (1977), responses for each question were content coded by the other two authors working independently. Disagreements were resolved through discussion. by two of the authors. Interrater reliability coefficient was 90%. Because some subjects failed to answer an occasional question, and because some responses fell into the "other" category, numbers of responses will vary among the analyses reported here.








Chi-square tests were employed to analyze the relationships between the ordinally scaled variables. It is noted that in some instances, small cell size may affect interpretation. However, where results are highly significant, we would expect to reject the null even with more exact tests.

Subjects reported giving gifts in a variety of relationship situations. Thirty-two percent of the males, as compared to 8 percent of the females, chose to report gifts to dates or spouses. Otherwise, males and females made similar choices of relationships. However, differences in relationships reported were significantly different for obligatory and voluntary giving (Table 1).

When the variety of relationships was grouped into three relationship types--close friends and spouses, family and casual friends/business associates--Table 1 shows that, not surprisingly, gifts to casual friends and business associates were reported only in the obligatory category.

Hypothesis 1 was partially supported (Table 2). Surprisingly, respondents suggested that both voluntary and obligatory gifts were made for reasons related to caring or sentiment, such as "to say I care," "to say I love you," or "you are important to me." Similarly, both obligatory and voluntary givers used gifts to express the importance of the relationship and their own feelings, such as, "I thought it would make me happy," "To say I missed them and loved them," or, "to let them know I was thinking of them." However, obligatory gifts were more likely to be given in celebration of an occasion, and voluntary givers reported a higher likelihood of giving a gift "just because he's a nice person" or "she needed cheering up."

Twenty-four respondents indicated that the reason they gave the gift was from a sense of obligation (defined by answering why they gave the gift, rather than which version they filled out). When these respondents were compared with those who reported reasons based on recipient needs or characteristics, the difference between versions appears even stronger (Table 3).







Hypothesis 2 was also partially supported (Table 4). Surprisingly, a large number of respondents in each motivational category indicated that they wished to communicate feelings about the quality of the relationship or the recipient. However, desires to mark the event ("because it's Christmas") and wishes to communicate "nothing" (when the word "nothing" was written explicitly) were reported almost entirely by respondents who completed the obligatory version of the questionnaire.

While no hypothesis was developed, Table 5 suggests that the nature of the relationship between receiver and giver also affects the type of communication expressed by a gift. While gifts to casual friends and acquaintances may either communicate feelings or simply mark an event, gifts to family and close friends almost all tend to communicate relational qualities or emotional states. As the numbers are small, however, this finding should be interpreted cautiously.

Hypothesis 3 was also partially supported (Table 6). Although caution is required to interpret significance due to the number of cells with counts below 5, this pattern of responses suggests that financial and time constraints were salient to the majority of respondents in both categories, possibly (but not necessarily) due to their student status. However, 26% of voluntary givers mentioned recipient needs as compared to 10% of obligatory givers. Ten percent of voluntary givers mentioned external definitions of what was appropriate ("I didn't want to appear cheap" "spending less would have been tacky" 'That amount was expected of me" "with her expensive tastes anything over $50 would be a good gift"). Sixteen percent of obligatory givers explicitly mentioned some calculus having to do with the importance of the relationship and what was expected in return ("the dollar value depended on how well I knew and liked the person" or "they always gave me good stuff so I had to get them something decent" or even "she wasn't that great of a friend") compared to only 3% (1 respondent) from the voluntary category. Voluntary givers were more concerned with the recipient in their calculations. One giver reported looking for an inexpensive gift for a spouse on an occasion which was not a major gift-giving occasion for them, stating, "I wasn't sure he was giving me anything and didn't want him to feel badly if he didn't."





Eighteen respondents explicitly rejected time and/or money constraints with such statements as, "Money was not an issue; whatever gift I saw was the one that I would get." Surprisingly, two-thirds of these responses came from obligatory givers and one-third from voluntary givers. Further research will be needed to explore whether strength of norms is sufficient to override financial and time constraints, or whether these respondents are experiencing some form of reactance: while they are obligated to give a gift, they retain their freedom to spend as much time and money as they please. Additionally, people reported giving obligatory gifts to less familiar recipients (casual friends, business associates) where it is more difficult to assess recipient needs; therefore more time and money may be required to select an appropriate gift. Further, wedding presents to casual friends or business acquaintances may be politically motivated and therefore involve greater risk, thus justifying greater expenditure of time and money.

Hypothesis 4 was also partially supported (Table 7). Voluntary givers were more likely to expect an emotional response, such as "expressions of affection," "a smile," or "just to see her happy." However, approximately 14% of each category of givers expected verbal expressions of gratitude, such as, "a thank you note," or explicitly stated "gratitude." On the other hand, 31% of the obligatory givers expected tangible gifts, compared with only 2% of the voluntary givers. This result may be due to norms of the obligatory situation, such as Christmas. Surprisingly, 31% of the obligatory givers but only 20% of the voluntary givers explicitly resisted reciprocity, with such statements as, "I don't expect anything in return," or, "I don't give gifts to get something back." Again, the obligatory givers may be attempting to reclaim freedom from norms of the gift exchange process as an expression of psychological reactance.

Hypothesis S seems to be supported (Table 8), although the significance level of the results considering all types of gifts (p < .113) suggests caution. Gifts were classified into four categories: clothing; lasting gifts, such as jewelry or artwork; toys and board games; and "practical" gifts, such as kitchen appliances, linens, calendars and pen-and-pencil sets, as well as other gifts which did not readily fit this classification. As only half the responses fit these four categories, the numbers are extremely small. However, of eight respondents reporting "practical" gifts, seven were obligatory gifts. The small size of the sample suggests further investigation.

Norms Identified by Respondents

Respondents were asked as a final question, "If you were to advise someone from another society who was unfamiliar with gift-giving customs in a similar situation, what would you say?" Responses were coded into 8 categories, including recommendation to give a specific gift, recipient needs, benefit to the giver, such as a way to express feelings, a general moral imperative ("better to give than to receive" or "it's the thought that counts"), custom, specific shopping recommendations ("Go to the mall" "If unsure ask a middle-aged female"), explicit rejection of obligation ("don't give a gift just because you feel you should" and "Don't have expectations about what you'll receive in return or you'll be disappointed") and non-altruistic comments ("Make sure you'll be getting back at least as much as you've been given" or "Give less than what you expect to get back").



Table 8 summarizes the responses. Clearly, subjects expressed or strongly supported altruistic norms, focusing on benefits to both giver and receiver. Of the 8 subjects who explicitly rejected norms of obligation, 7 completed the "obligatory" version of the questionnaire, again suggesting the occurrence of reactance. Otherwise, differences between versions were minimal and non-significant (chi-square =7.9, p < .34).

Males and females did not differ significantly with respect to categories of norms identified (p < .17). However, 43% of the males compared to 17% of the females suggested moral imperatives; in contrast, 30% of the females but only 1-5% of the males suggested norms involving attention to needs of recipients. ("Giving gifts makes others happy when they are not"). Differences in age were also not significant among categories of norms identified; however, the mean age of those identifying norms associated with "custom" was 23.22, while the mean age of those who explicitly rejected obligation was 23.5. On the other hand, the mean age of those who indicated attention to recipient needs was 27.4. It is possible that younger subjects experience both greater concern with customs as well as greater perceptions of threats to their freedom when complying with customs. However, due to the limited age range, interpretation must be speculative, suggesting guidance for future research.


This pilot study suggests that consumers tend to define gift giving as obligatory or voluntary, and this distinction affects their the gift selection process and post-purchase behaviors.

Several implications are proposed for future research. First, a variety of psychological reactions may follow an obligatory act of gift giving. Considerable research has demonstrated that reactance may occur when an individual's freedom is threatened (Clee and Wicklund 1980); in this case, anticipated freedom of purchase and gift giving is curtailed by obligations.of gift giving, which may involve norms associated with choice of gift object, price, and presentation--even selection of retail outlet, as in the case of bridal registries. While the potential for recipient reactance has been identified (Poe 1977), reactance may represent a useful framework to explore gift-giving behavior in obligatory situations. The occurrence of reactance seems to explain differences in search and price preferences identified in this and other studies (e.g., Warshaw 1980). Furthermore, reactance may influence satisfaction of both giver and recipient following completion of the process.

On the other hand, the act of gift giving, whether voluntary or obligatory, may represent an act of public commitment (Kiesler 1969). In this case, the giver will be likely to express more positive feelings for the recipient following purchase of a gift. Such reactions presumably are desired outcomes of ritual exchanges of names for gift giving in offices and fraternal organizations.

Second, consumer researchers may wish to explore non-altruistic motives of consumption, or the "poisonous" gifts colorfully described by Orgel and Shengold (1968). Such research might best be carried out from the recipient's perspective, as even the psychotherapists note that these motives are often unconscious. As Belk (1979) observes, few gifts are rejected, and gifts often seem to mark the status of the recipient. The possibility that a recipient may resent a gift, and even wish to dissociate his self-concept from a gift, suggests a category of experiential post-purchase consumption activity that warrants further study. A related question involves attribution of gift-giving motive: is an obligatory gift experienced the same way as a non-obligatory gift? Belk (1988) suggests that possessions take on meaning within a household; for example, items in a collection take on aspects of the sacred.

Third, this study represents a pilot conducted with student subjects. A study encompassing a wider range of ages would be useful to identify developmental responses to gift giving. In this sample, it was noted that subjects who associated gift-giving norms with custom or resistance to obligations tended to be younger than those who professed more altruistic norms, such as concern for the recipient. A wider age range might produce even greater diversity. Many researchers associate rituals with holiday and other society-wide events. However, groups of friends may develop informal gift-giving rituals which can be associated with strong obligations. For example, sororities often have rituals involving gifts of flowers or exchange of gifts between members. Families within a neighborhood may start their own "potlatch" in the form of a series of potluck dinners. Groups of friends may develop elaborate norms of gift giving within their own circles. The origin and development of these small-scale norms represents a fruitful area of research as a sizeable segment of people look to informal social associations for social rewards. Finally, gift giving has been shown to be of great economic significance in both modern and premodern economies and of social significance in all societies. Given its importance, consumer researchers may profitably pay more attention to gift giving as it shapes variables of significance to consumer researchers--product selection, search behaviors, allocation of resources, and post purchase experiences. We suggest that the obligatory/voluntary dimension is especially fruitful for understanding the dynamics of these consumer behavior variables.




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Cathy Goodwin, University of Alaska, Fairbanks
Kelly L. Smith, Georgia State University
Susan Spiggle, The University of Connecticut


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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