Motivations and Symbolism in Gift-Giving Behavior

ABSTRACT - The premise of this paper is that gifts are more valuable to participants for the symbols involved than for the material benefits exchanged. Utilizing the perspective of symbolic interactionism, this paper focuses on the motivations of givers and the symbols they choose. Through the use of gift-giving literature as well as an exploratory study, three types of motivations for giving--altruism, norms, and self-interest--are investigated and related to the symbolism found in gifts.


Mary Finley Wolfinbarger (1990) ,"Motivations and Symbolism in Gift-Giving Behavior", 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: 699-706.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 699-706


Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, University of California, Irvine

[The author would like to thank Mary C. Gilly and Cornelia (Connie) Pechmann, University of California, Irvine for their comments on earlier versions of this paper.]


The premise of this paper is that gifts are more valuable to participants for the symbols involved than for the material benefits exchanged. Utilizing the perspective of symbolic interactionism, this paper focuses on the motivations of givers and the symbols they choose. Through the use of gift-giving literature as well as an exploratory study, three types of motivations for giving--altruism, norms, and self-interest--are investigated and related to the symbolism found in gifts.


Studies of gift-giving have proliferated in anthropology, social psychology, and sociology and each of these disciplines has developed a particular framework for studying gift-giving. Anthropologists have focused on gift-giving as a "total social fact," in other words, as a medium for social as well as economic exchange (cf. Levi-Strauss 1965, Mauss 1954). Sociologists have been interested in gift-giving from the perspective of "norms" of giving, social responsibility, and reciprocity (cf. Caplow 1982, 1984). The most promising approach, however, has been that derived from social psychology; this approach focuses on gift giving as an opportunity to express the giver's perception of both him or herself and the receiver, or more broadly, as complex movements in the management of meaning (cf. Cheal 1988, Schwartz 19-67, Schieffelin 1980). This viewpoint is consistent with a more general research paradigm known as symbolic interactionism.

Faced with the vast heritage afforded them by these other disciplines, marketers have taken diverse approaches to their study of gift-giving. Some studies have been mainly descriptive (Scammon, Shaw and Bamossy 1982, Jolibert and Fernandez-Moreno 1983, Heeler, Francis, Okechuku and Reid 1979, Devere, Scott and Shulby 1983), while others have been conceptual (Banks 1979, Belk 1976, 1979). Only Belk (1976, 1979) has been consistently conceptual and empirical. However, Sherry (1983) has called for more exploratory research to form a basis for conceptual and empirical work (1983), a call which has been at least partially heeded (Sherry and McGrath 1989).

The first subject of this article is the motivations receivers attribute to giving, a topic which has been virtually untouched by marketers, and a task which Lutz (1979) has referred to as "opening the black box." From a search of the gift giving literature, three general (not necessarily mutually exclusive) categories of motivations have been identified: (1) self-interested giving or "indebtedness engineering," (2) compliance with social norms and (3) altruistic giving, or "pro-social" behavior.

Admittedly, anthropologists have studied the motivations for giving in depth in primitive cultures. However, in primitive cultures, the gift was equally economic and symbolic. In societies with well-developed markets, it is hardly surprising that the gift has been at least partially stripped of its economic importance, leaving in a much more prominent position the symbolic value of gifts. As a result, the symbolic value in general, and more specifically, the symbolic statement that gifts make about the giver, the receiver, and the relationship between the giver an*he receiver are important topics in gift-giving research. Therefore, a second focus of this article is the general symbolic functions of gifts (revealed in the interviews) and more particularly, the ability of gifts to symbolize the giver, the receiver and/or their relationship. The primary function of gifts in modern society is symbolic; this must be true because people are generally the best judge of their own wants and needs and would obtain more functional benefit through self-purchase (Tournier 1963). As a result of the symbolic nature of gifts, the perspective of symbolic interactionism (SI) is particularly well suited to studying gift-giving.

Symbolic interactionism is a viewpoint which hails from social psychology (cf. Charon 1985, Cooley 1902, Hewitt 1988, Mead 1934, Stryker 1980, Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982, Wood 1982). This perspective was introduced into marketing by Solomon (1983), who has pointed out that SI stresses the importance of product symbolism as a mediator of self-definition and role performance. The central tenet of SI is that people communicate with symbols. Consistent with this notion, Belk (1979) has characterized gift giving as a process of symbolic communication where the gift is both message and medium, providing support for the use of symbolic interactionism in the study of gift-giving. Utilized in the realm of gift-giving, SI aids in explaining how gifts are symbolic of (1) the giver's self (2) the giver's concept of the receiver, (3) the role of the giver and the receiver in their relationship, and (4) how gift symbolism is used by givers.

This article will begin by discussing the exploratory study utilized to comprehend gift-giving in spousal dyads. Then, the motivations for giving will be reviewed. Finally, the symbolic aspects of gift-giving will be investigated.


The salience of each of the motivations as well as the more general communication aspects of gift-giving were investigated through interviews with 18 subjects (9 couples), married over 25 years. Married couples were chosen so that both sides of a gift-giving relationship could be studied. Subjects were located utilizing contacts made through a major Southern California University's Executive MBA program, and one couple consisted of a Ph.D. student and his wife. Because the study was exploratory, no attempt was made to obtain a representative sample. Couples had been married anywhere from 25 to 46 years.

The interviews were semi-structured, and ranged from 30 minutes to an hour. The following topics were covered in the interview: (I) feelings about gift-giving in general (2) the success of self and spouse in choosing gifts (3) a detailed story about the respondent's favorite gift from their spouse and (4) a detailed story about the gift the respondent felt would be their spouse's favorite gift. It was hoped that favorite gifts would be more memorable, elicit more details, and unearth the most salient aspects of preferred gifts. The drawbacks of utilizing favorite gifts were the fact that three respondents did not have a favorite gift, and secondly, some details of the occasion (and even the occasion itself) had been forgotten over the years. An alternative would have been to ask them about the most recent gift; however, the symbolic aspects of a random gift were likely to be less rich than those of a favorite gift. Asking about favorite gift most likely biased the likelihood that respondents would choose an object based more on symbolic rather than functional attributes (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). A second bias towards more symbolic gifts was introduced because as Americans age, they are less likely to choose functional objects as favorites (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). Nevertheless, because symbols were of particular interest in this study, no attempt was made to overcome these difficulties.

Interviews were tape recorded and later transcribed. The interviews were analyzed by exploring the gift-giving stories for recurring themes. Although the questions did not explicitly explore historical aspects of the gift-giving relationships, historical trends were reported by respondents. For instance, the amount of gifts exchanged appeared to have declined significantly for people married over 40 years (2 couples), whereas for those married from 25-30 years, 3 wives reported that their spouse's choices of gifts had improved significantly in the last 10 years or so.

One major shortcoming of the exploratory study is that it did not focus on gifts that respondents did not like. It was felt that, in personal interviews, many respondents would be reluctant to dwell upon their least favorite gifts. An innovative curative for this drawback would be to cull anonymous letters about gift-giving situations from advice columns and content analyze them for recurring themes.


Altruism as 9 Motivation for Giving

Leeds (1963) defines an altruistic act as one which a) is an end in itself, not directed at gain, b) is emitted voluntarily, and c) does good. For many, "To bestow freely is the sine qua non of a gift" (Barnett, 1954). Moreover, one of the major differences between giving in primitive and modern society is the presence of self-sacrificial motives in giving (Lowes, Turner and Wills 1971, Shurmer 1971). Altruism especially arises when a receiver appreciates a gesture, but- as with a first gift (Simmel 1950), cannot entirely return the favor. Heider (1958) hypothesized, and Tesser, Gatewood and Driver (1968) found evidence, that gratitude was stronger when recipients perceived that the giver sincerely expected little or nothing in return.

Spouses uniformly felt that their favorite gifts had been given out of the desire to show love (an altruistic motive). These gifts were quite often complete surprises, and were often described as something that the giver normally would not buy. Furthermore, most of the favorite gifts often had cost the giver much sacrifice, either in terms of the relative affordability of the gift, or the time, effort, and thought that the gift had taken. For instance, one woman had saved for months out of her small personal budget to buy her husband a very special silver bracelet which she had to put on layaway for 6 to 8 months in order to pay for it. One husband saved $6000 in an account from outside consulting work, and used it to surprise his wife with a trip to San Francisco in order to choose a specially designed ring.

Besides the more general motive of expressing love for the receiver, more specific motives could be identified. The two motives revealed in the interviews included the reparation of loss experienced by the receiver (not caused by the giver), and the altruism of the receiver. The reparative motive is- especially consistent with the theory of symbolic self-completion espoused by Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982), except that in giving gifts, someone else (the receiver) is "completed" rather than one's self. One spouse reported giving a ring to her husband after he lost a valued ring received from his father. The same woman reported that her favorite gift was a wedding ring her husband purchased after she had lost her first ring. A different kind of loss is apparent in a story told by a colleague who reported that her favorite gift from her husband was a bracelet (inscribed with a "River of Life" pattern) she received to ameliorate her sorrow after her uncle died. Another woman reported that a six-week vacation for her and her husband in Puerto Rico was a reparation for his long absence on a worldwide speaking trip, and her grief over the death of her stepmother. As for the motive related to the altruism of the receiver, one spouse reported that she seldom bought for herself. Her spouse therefore bought her many gifts to compensate for the fact she bought herself so little, and possibly also to show his appreciation for her selflessness.

Unfortunately, there are several difficulties with construing gifts as altruistic acts. Altruism can only be attributed to donors, not established (Krebs, 1970). Even blood donation (generally believed to be the exemplar of altruistic giving) was found to be encouraged more by messages emphasizing benefits to the blood donor than by messages emphasizing other-oriented benefits (Barnett, Klassen, McMinimy and Schwartz 1987). Furthermore, Belk (1988) maintains that altruism can be explained as "aggrandizing a broader level of self...the broader communities incorporated within the self (p. 154)." Perhaps it is more important in understanding gift-giving behavior that receivers attribute altruism to givers, than that such altruism can (or cannot be) definitively established.

Gift-Giving as A Norm

The strength of the norm of giving on occasions was displayed in a study wherein respondents were asked to contemplate the possibility of not giving gifts at Christmas. Only 6% would consider this, expressing their feeling that relatives, children, and friends would feel forgotten and unappreciated (Lowes et al. 1971). The guilty feelings which were expressed by respondents are due to the fact that the norms of gift-giving in part flow from the role they play in marking relationships within a family social network (Caplow 1982, Poe 1977, Sahlins 1972, Titmuss 1971).

In addition to marking relationships, gifts also mark life events as they accompany various rites of passage. The recipient of such gifts often receives items which will enable him/her to perform in a new role, and thus these items often symbolize the new role as well as social support for the new role occupant (Schwartz 1967). In that symbolic interactionism focuses on the concept of role (cf. Hewitt 1988), SI can be utilized to enhance the understanding of the link between gift-giving and roles. Roles of the giver vis a vis the receiver are highlighted in gift-giving in several ways. First, gifts are often given to support performance of newly acquired roles, such as the baby stroller given to the expectant parent. Consistent with the notion that gifts are sometimes given to support role performance, empirical research has found that household goods are the predominant wedding gift (Lowes et al. 1971).

Moreover, gifts are also ceremonial tokens which are given in recognition of role status (the watch given to a retiree) and recognition of achievement (medals given to Olympians, diplomas given to graduates). In this respect primitive and modern societies are similar. One gift in the exploratory study was ceremonial; it was a jewel, which had been funded in part by a volunteer organization in order to commemorate one respondent's term as head of that organization.

One cue that transmits information about appropriate gifts is the intimacy of the relationship between giver and receiver. The closeness of the relationship defines the appropriate role of the giver with respect to the receiver as either a friend, a close friend, a parent or a spouse. A closer relationship makes more intimate (Belk 1979) and more expensive gifts appropriate. Consistent with this proposition is the fact that in the interviews conducted with spouses (generally the closest of relationships), the most frequently reported favorite gift item was a piece of jewelry, or a watch (11 of 18 respondents). These items are simultaneously expensive and intimate.

A final comment on norms is their probable attachment to specific gift-giving situations. Utilizing a 3-mode factor analysis in order to simultaneously classify types of givers, recipients/occasions and gift characteristics, Belk (1979) came up with 5 classifications of gift-giving situations which in all probability transmit messages to gift givers about appropriate behavior. However, it remains to be proposed what kinds of norms each of these situations transmits, and how they impact gift decisions. Chase (1984) hypothesizes that scale (the importance of the event) varies directly, and periodicity (how often the event occurs) varies inversely with the expense of gifts. For instance, weddings frequently garner the most expensive gifts as they are large scale, low periodicity occasions. Important, low periodicity occasions in the study were 60th birthdays (2), 15th, 25th, and 30th anniversaries (3), and recognition of a major achievement (1).

The norms attached to giving, however, are sometimes violated. This is most likely with expensive gifts (Warshaw 1980), and in close relationships, wherein the giver and receiver feel free to make their own rules. One woman reported that if she had cared about receiving gifts on birthdays and anniversaries, she and her husband would have been divorced long ago, because he only enjoyed spontaneous giving. Also, the general "norm of giving" was similarly violated between two of the couples who no longer felt compelled to buy each other gifts on occasions.

Self-Interested Giving

To many authors, the only motivation for giving is self-interest, or as Firth (1983) would have it, "indebtedness engineering." Bourdieu (1977) and Levi-Strauss (1965) agree that gift-giving is simply an exchange in which non-functional attributes are given relatively greater weight, with the "payoff' consisting mostly of social recognition. Scholars in the area of gift-giving have suggested several benefits self-interested givers may desire:

1. to establish wealth and status (or more generally, achieving goodwill by impressing receivers with gifts) (Belshaw 1965, Veblen 1926);

2. as a correlate of (1), the desire to advance one's consumption scale (Chase 1984, based on Douglas and Isherwood 1979);

3. to reinforce relationships that are highly valued, but insecure (Caplow 1982, 1984);

4. to garner the social recognition as a philanthropist one may achieve through giving (Kerton 1971);

5. to ingratiate one's self with the receiver, in part by extending one's self into the other's life through a gift (Sartre 1943, Belk 1988);

6. the lessening of guilt for not achieving the ideal of brotherhood to man (Barnett, 1 954)

The most general utility obtained by the self-interested giver is the creation of receiver indebtedness. The creation of obligation was central to Mauss' (1954) analysis of gift-giving in primitive societies. Similarly, Barnett (1954), in his analysis of Christmas gift-giving from the 1800s to 1950s in the United States, comments on a similar phenomenon, calling it "psuedo-giving" and a "polite form of bribery." When a gift is perceived as being given to obligate the receiver, the giver "becomes a depriver about whom various degrees of ambivalence may emerge" (Schwartz 1967, p. 88).

The mechanism through which obligation is created is the norm of reciprocity (Gouldner 1960). Research by Belshaw (1965) and Ryans (1977) is supportive of the idea that reciprocity is an important element of gift-giving, and that gift-giving participants lean towards the ideal of fair exchange. However, reciprocity is not strictly maintained. Two factors determine reciprocation: the resources of the donor, which determine relative sacrifice, and the motives that receivers attribute to the giving (Heeler et al. 1979, Banks 1979).

Furthermore, the ideal of giving as disinterested sacrifice permits unbalanced accounts to be maintained "without rancor" (Pryor and Graburn 1980). In support of this idea, in his study of gift-giving in Middletown, Caplow (1982, 1984) found that reciprocated gifts do not have to be of equal value, and that in 4347 gifts (no number is given for those that were not reciprocated) at Christmas, there were no expressions of anger or disappointment when gifts were not reciprocated. Moreover, an unwillingness to be obligated on the part of the recipient can be shown by immediate reciprocation, thus transforming the gift into an economic, not a social transaction (Blau, 1964).

Taken together, this evidence indicates that gifts do not obligate recipients in the same fashion as market exchange. Finally, almost 80% of the gifts in Middletown at Christmas were given to relatives, and the 20% given to non-relatives were much more likely to be token gifts. In relationships with relatives, givers are unlikely to have as a primary motive the creation of obligation. Therefore, the importance of self-interest in giving has most likely been overestimated by researchers. Perhaps a study of "least favorite gifts" would be more enlightening in investigating the extent and prevalence of self-interested giving.


Several consumer behavior researchers, along with social psychologists, have recognized that gift-giving is an intrinsically semiotic activity (Belk 1979, Mick 1988, Poe 1977, Schieffelin 1980, Schwartz 1967, Sherry 1983). The idea that people communicate with symbols is the central tenet of symbolic interactionism (Hewitt 1988); the process by which symbols are utilized is similarly central to understanding gift-giving. Gift-givers, like advertisers, are creative directors in the management of meaning, seeking, through the principle of contiguity, to shift meaning from what McCracken (1986) refers to as the "culturally constituted world" to the chosen gift. One example if symbolism can be noticed in the faux paus that results when price tags are not removed. Even in the case when a recipient knows the price of a gift, the tag will be carefully removed (Shurmer 1971), the removal of the tag symbolizing the non-market, non-economic ideal embodied by gift-giving.

One symbol commonly attached to gifts is uniqueness (Sherry and McGrath 1989). In the exploratory study, both the giver and the receiver of a cocktail ring described it as "one-of-a-kind." Similarly, the brooch a woman received for being head of a volunteer organization was unique because it was three-dimensional (unlike the jewels made for the past recipients).

Another symbol attached to many of the gifts was togetherness. Those to whom we give are symbolically included within group boundaries (Belk 1979, Schneider 1981). Although many of the favorite gifts were valued because they were surprises, others were valued because the gift had been jointly chosen by the couple. A diamond anniversary ring, a replacement for a lost wedding band, a Seiko dress watch, a videocamera, a 6-week trip to Puerto Rico, and a series of trips one couple made to San Francisco to choose the emeralds and design for a $2500 ring, were all gifts the respondents felt were especially memorable, in part because they had been chosen together, and thus were emblematic of the relationship between the giver and the receiver. This theme is also apparent in Wallendorf and Arnould's (1988) study of favorite objects in which the authors found that respondents with strong ties to other people often represented those ties in favorite objects.

A third symbolic theme discovered through the interviews was the idea that the gift was representative of a turning point in the couple's life together. One woman reported that she had always wanted a diamond when they "were poor," and had imagined getting one at some point in the future when they could afford one. Her husband surprised her with a $4000 diamond for Christmas, about 10 years ago. She values the ring not only because she always wanted it, but also because it was a symbol that they had "made it." A colleague related a similar story in which her husband had given her a grandfather clock she always wanted at a time when they were finally financially comfortable. The clock was symbolic not only of her relationship with her husband, but also of a turning point in their lives.

A last theme apparent in the interviews was the richness of symbolism often attached to favorite gifts. Layers of symbolism were evident in the gift of an emerald brooch. The gift was a crown and scepter pin which the respondent had recently received for being "Queen of the Nile," a volunteer organization run by Shriner's wives. Her husband had designed the emerald and diamond brooch, and a cousin (a jeweler) had made the gift. A flower in the brooch contained a single diamond, received from her husband three months after their marriage (now over 40 years ago) during a short weekend they spent together between his service commitments. The husband had spent his last dime on a ticket for his wife to come visit, and a diamond ring. The young wife had been impatient to become pregnant, and the ring was a reparation of sorts for their seeming slowness to conceive. The couple's first daughter was conceived that weekend. Another woman had her favorite gift (a diamond) put in a setting similar to that of her mother's wedding ring. Recently, she had inherited her mother's ring, and added the stone to her own. This theme of collapsing meaning into symbols is also evident in Olson's (1985) investigation of artifacts in the home. Olson explains this phenomenon: "Human experiences are so complex, people are forced to summarize them. One way of producing summaries is by means of symbols, which often take the form of visual representation" (p. 388).

Gift-Giving as a Symbol of Self and Other

Humans are social by nature and crave interaction and feedback from others (Mead 1934, Wood 1982). Each new gift provides communication from others that confirms and often extends the views of self developed through previous interactions. As a result, of all the gift's symbolic functions, the presentation of self (the giver), and other (the receiver) is the most obvious (Belk 1979). Gifts convey both the giver's self, and the giver's perception of the receiver (Schwartz 1967, Shurmer 1971).

Utilizing Holbrook and Grayson's (1986) approach of analyzing the consumption symbolism in art to augment an understanding of consumer behavior, the ability of a gift to symbolize the giver and receiver is apparent in the recent movie, Working Girl. Tess, a secretary with dreams of upward mobility, receives a birthday gift of sleazy lingerie from her boyfriend. Tess asks him why he doesn't ever buy her something she can wear outside the apartment. Clearly, Tess's boyfriend, Mick, views her as nothing more than a sex object. In contrast, Tess's new love interest, Jack Trainer, buys her a beautiful leather briefcase, thus symbolizing his appreciation of her business acumen. Later in the movie, Mick also gives scanty lingerie as an engagement gift to a couple. From this, the audience learns that not only does Mick view Tess as a sex kitten, but in addition, he thinks of all women as sex objects.

In an empirical study, Belk (1979) discovered that the largest influence on the gift chosen was the giver's ideal self-concept, followed by the giver's present self concept, and only thirdly by the perceived characteristics of the recipient (although the later two factors were also significant). One wife expressed this idea in explaining her inability to choose gifts her husband really liked, saying that she bought items she wanted him to have, rather than gifts he really wanted. Based on their qualitative research, Sherry and McGrath (1989) support the idea that gifts are predominantly based on self concept of giver, noting that customers of gift shops often said they would like to receive as gifts the objects they were purchasing for others.

A second semiotic element of gifts is the messages that they send about the receiver. When asked why a particular item w s chosen for their spouse, many respondents said quite simply "It was him (or her)." One husband described at length a beautiful black velvet dress and jacket he had purchased for his wife about 20 years earlier. He had found the gift serendipitously, and given it spontaneously, paying a great deal of money for it because the dress "was beautiful... and it wore like iron... was just the right was Connie." One respondent had passed a corner jewelry store where a silver bracelet caught her eye because it "was him...strong and traditional."

On the other hand, poor choices are often the result of a poor fit between the gift and the receiver. Caplow (1982), in his research, specifically identified clothing that is too large as the standard disappointing gift. The oversized clothing is most likely decoded by the receiver as a message by the giver that s/he is overweight. Similarly, a colleague felt that a cappucinno maker received from her boyfriend meant that he no longer considered her to be sexy. Finally, one couple in the study each mentioned an incident where she had received a frilly blouse from her husband that she did not like at all. When asked why she did not like the blouse, her husband replied, "I think it represented to her a woman she felt she wasn't."

Motivations and Symbolism In Giving

The results of the exploratory study suggest that motivations for giving may be related to the symbolism chosen by givers. Four categories of symbols are suggested by the exploratory research: (1) gifts which are symbolic of the self of the giver (2) gifts which are symbolic of the giver's perception of the receiver (3) gifts which are symbolic of convention and (4) gifts which are expressive, and have many meanings attached to them. More altruistic gifts should be symbolic of the receiver, while more self-interested gifts should be congruent with the self of the giver. Gifts symbolic in a conventional fashion should predominate when motivations for giving are norm-dominated. Furthermore, more expressive gifts should result when motivations for giving are altruistic.

Gifts are more likely to be perceived as self-interested when they are congruent with the giver's ideal or real self-image and additionally are incongruent with the receiver's self image. As an example of this phenomenon, Tournier (1963) tells a story about a man who collects pipes giving his wife a pipe for Christmas (a gift she did not consider to be altruistic). It follows that a gift that is inconsistent with the giver's self-image, but consistent with the receiver's will be perceived by the receiver as a truly altruistic gift. In support of these propositions, many favorite gifts were described as being bought in places the giver never goes, and as being objects the giver never purchased before. These gifts may have been perceived as more altruistic because they were something the receiver wanted, rather than something the giver wanted to give. Most gifts (as opposed to favorite gifts), however, are probably compromises between what the receiver wants, and what the giver wants the receiver to have.

The next step in gift-giving research is to identify which antecedent variables are most likely to lead to perceptions of particular gift-giving motivations. Based on these antecedents, and the resulting motivations for giving, different types of symbols are likely to be chosen for gifts. For instance, Belk (1979) has discovered that ideal self concept and self-concept of the giver are more important than giver's concept of the receiver in predicting characteristics of gifts. However, it remains to be determined in what situations the giver's self-concept may be less or more important in choosing gifts.


Consumers are their own "creative directors" in the management of meaning. As in primitive cultures, exchange (both gift and other) is a system of meanings involved in the shaping of both personal and cultural meaning. Sharing items brings others into a shared microcosm, and into our extended selves. There are 3 general motivations a receiver may attribute to a giver: self-interest, norms, and altruism. Depending on these attributions, and the statements the receiver perceives the gift makes about the donor, himself, and their relationship, the receiver will feel more or less satisfaction, obligation, and desire to reciprocate.

The symbolic value of gifts (in market settings at least) appears to dominate the economic value of gifts, except possibly for philanthropic giving. Furthermore, benefits to the giver and the congruence of the item with the giver's self tend to dominate gift purchase, although benefits to other and congruence with the receiver's self are somewhat important in gift decisions. However, the more selfless the gift is perceived to be by the receiver, the more the gift tended to be congruent with the receiver's self image, and additionally, such gifts were often incongruent with the giver's self image. Givers and receivers are thus participants in a process most generally described as "the management of meaning, although most participants hardly conceptualize gift-giving in this fashion.


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Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, University of California, Irvine


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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