Self-Gifts: a Metacognition Perspective

ABSTRACT - Metacognition is the key to the development of an information processing theory of self-gift giving. We argue that if a person can be aware of his/her cognitive state, then a person can also be aware of the necessity of maintaining or enhancing the cognitive/emotional integrity of his/her information processing system in order to achieve important goals in the life goal. We conclude that a major contribution of research on self-gifts is that it has led to the identification of a previously unrecognized and important type of consumer motivation.


Richard W. Olshavsky and Dong Hwan Lee (1993) ,"Self-Gifts: a Metacognition Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 547-552.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 547-552


Richard W. Olshavsky, Indiana University

Dong Hwan Lee, State University of New York at Albany


Metacognition is the key to the development of an information processing theory of self-gift giving. We argue that if a person can be aware of his/her cognitive state, then a person can also be aware of the necessity of maintaining or enhancing the cognitive/emotional integrity of his/her information processing system in order to achieve important goals in the life goal. We conclude that a major contribution of research on self-gifts is that it has led to the identification of a previously unrecognized and important type of consumer motivation.


On the basis of past research (Levy 1982; Mick 1986; Mick and DeMoss 1990a, 1990b), we agree that self-gift giving is a unique and important type of consumer behavior, that self-gift giving may commonly occur, and that the study of self-gift giving may lead to a more refined understanding of consumer behavior. What appears to be lacking is a systematic explanation of self-gift giving. The purpose of this paper is to argue that information processing theory, in conjunction with the concept of metacognition, can parsimoniously explain most, if not all, of the behaviors that have been classified as self-gift giving. If our proposed explanation holds up under future scrutiny by others, then further research and theory development on self-gifts can be integrated into the mainstream of research on consumer behavior.


"Metacognition is the knowledge of and awareness about our own cognitive processes." (Matlin 1989, p. 237) Specific examples of metacognition that have received empirical research pertains to attention (Reisberg and McLean 1985), memory (Brown and McNeill 1966; Hart 1965; Leonesio and Nelson 1990; Lovelace 1984; Reber 1989), comprehension (Maki and Berry 1984) and problem solving (Metcalfe 1986). Also see Feick and Park (1991). For example, in the context of "metamemory" it has been found that students can predict with some accuracy which general-information questions they can answer correctly. High ability students can predict how well they will do on tests. And, students can predict which words they will be able to recall on a list-learning task (Matlin 1989).

Metacognition can be viewed as the basis for self-consciousness or self-concept. Philosophers have considered reflection the essence of human self-consciousness. Haugeland (1985, p. 220) argues that "reflective self-awareness is certainly a critical element in much that we regard as particularly mature, sophisticated, profound, insightful, and the like. ... no system incapable of metacognition could reflect." Symbolic interactionists conceptualize the self-concept as an organization of various identities developed out of an individual's own reflexive positional designations, which creates internalized expectations with regard to their own behavior (Lee 1990).

Having cognitions about one's own cognitions implies "self-dialogue" (Haugeland 1986; Laird, Newell, Rosenbloom 1987). Self-dialogues can focus on issues external to the self (e.g., the weather, sports) or, importantly, self-dialogues can focus on various aspects of the self (e.g., self esteem, self concept, ideal self, real self). Self-dialogue is mostly a continuous and automatic process, but sometimes it is under an individual's control.

Although there has been some controversy concerning the extent to which people have access to their cognitive processes (Nisbett and Wilson 1977) there is general agreement that under certain conditions access is possible (Ericsson and Simon 1984; Fiske and Taylor 1991; Wright and Rip 1981).

Given that metacognition can be handled within an information processing framework (Haugeland 1986; Laird, Newell, Rosenbloom 1987), it is the key to the development of an information processing theory of self-gift giving as will be described below. [Information processing theory has the important virtue of avoiding the homuncular "infinite regress" problem that characterizes many other attempts to explain intelligence and specifically self-dialogues about the self (Haugeland 1986, pp. 113-4).]


Information processing theory has been widely accepted in cognitive psychology (Matlin 1989) and more recently in social psychology (Fiske and Taylor 1991). See Laird, Newell, and Rosenbloom (1985) for a description of a powerful architecture of cognition developed within information processing theory. Information processing theory has also been widely applied to consumer behavior; indeed, some have characterized it as the dominant theory (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). There are however many different versions of IPT (see e.g., Bettman 1979; Sternthal and Craig 1982). What follows is a brief description of how our version (Olshavsky 1975; 1985) of information processing theory explains consumer behavior.

Types of Consumer Behavior

Consumer behavior is defined here as those behaviors relating to the formation of goals involving goods, the acquisition of goods, the consumption of goods, and the disposition of goods. A good is defined as a product or service and all associated services. In addition, consumer behavior encompasses all behaviors with respect to information that originate within each of the four types of consumer behavior with respect to goods.

Each of these four types of consumer behavior with respect to goods consists of one or more subtypes. Goal formation encompasses four subtypes: desire formation, priority formation, preference formation, and intention formation. Desire formation encompasses those behaviors relating to the formation of desires for goods including the type of good, timing, amount, and intensity of desire. Priority formation refers to those behaviors that establish the relative importance of desires. Preference formation pertains to the selection of the most desired brand and store. Intentions formation pertains to the allocation of limited resources (money and time) to all desired goods to form plans to purchase specific goods within a particular time period. Acquisition encompasses three subtypes: travel to the store, purchase of the good, and transport of the good. Consumption encompasses three subtypes: storage, preparation, and use. Disposition refers to the disassociation of the good from the consumer (e.g., selling a car).

Explaining Preference Formation

The most frequently studied type of consumer behavior has been preference formation (i.e., brand and store choice). Most types of preference formation can be explained in terms of the attempt by the consumer to apply his/her evaluative criteria to the alternatives within the consideration set, given a particular image of each of the alternatives, using a particular choice rule (e.g., conjunctive). The outcome (and the process) of the execution attempt depends upon the interaction that occurs over time between the characteristics of the consumer and the characteristics of the environment (Olshavsky 1985).

Explaining Desire Formation

To explain desire formation it is first necessary to describe some basic assumptions concerning the nature of desires within an individual's life goal. If an individual's life goal is graphically represented as an inverted "tree," then "happiness" can be viewed as the highest goal within an individual's life goal. Five branches emerge from happiness representing the five basic needs identified by Maslow; i.e., physiological needs, safety, love, status, and self-actualization. Other desires in a person's life goal can be represented as additional branches (subgoals) that emerge from each of Maslow's needs. Each of these subgoals (consequences or benefits), in turn, can branch to additional subgoals, until the level of highly specific desires in the form of evaluative criteria (Gutman 1982; Peter and Olson 1987) is reached. At all levels within the tree (needs, consequences, attributes), desires may have hedonic as well as utilitarian aspects (e.g., most foods are desired for their good taste as well as for their nutritional content). Differences among individuals in the specific goals desired (i.e., what will make a particular individual happy) begin to appear at the level of Maslow's needs and continue to unfold until the level of attributes is reached. Thus, each individual's life goal is unique.

Desire formation occurs prior to preference formation and refers to the process by which desires in the life goal are added, deleted or modified. At the concrete level, desire formation pertains to those behaviors that establish the evaluative criteria, the consideration set, the image of alternatives within the consideration set, and the choice rule to be used during preference formation with respect to goods. But desire formation also encompasses behaviors relating to the formation of desires at the highest levels of abstraction (e.g., determining the types of subgoals relating to status).

Desires within the life goal are determined biologically, sociologically, psychologically or by some combination of these determinants. For example, the desire for goods relating to Maslow's physiological needs are largely biologically determined (e.g., food is innately linked to hunger). The desire for specific types of foods (e.g., a steak) and the way these foods are prepared (e.g., grilled) is largely sociologically determined. Idiosyncratic desires for foods are formed largely by psychological processes.

It is important to note that information processing theory has always been (Newell and Simon 1972) restricted to the "cognitive" or psychological level of explanation; it does not attempt to explain behaviors determined by either biological or sociological processes.

One very important type of psychological desire formation process begins with a comparison of the individual's desired state to his/her perceived actual state. If a discrepancy is noticed and if this discrepancy is greater than the relevant threshold then a subgoal is established to "solve this problem" (Engel, Blackwell and Miniard 1990). The process selected to solve this problem may take one of several forms (Newell and Simon 1972). For example, the consumer may use the "generate-test" process; here alternative solutions are generated and then tested, in sequence, until an acceptable solution is found. The solution to the problem then takes on drive or motivational properties. As with preference formation, the outcome (and the process) of this desire formation process is determined by the nature of the interaction that occurs over time between characteristics of the consumer and characteristics of the task environment.

Explaining Priority Formation

Priority formation can be explained in a similar manner. In this instance, the goal is to rank all goods currently desired on the basis of the relative intensity of desire. For example, a pairwise comparison process would produce the required priorities.

Explaining Intentions Formation

Intentions formation can be explained in terms of the application of some type of budgeting strategy (Hauser and Urban 1986). For example, a consumer may allocate available financial and temporal resources by first planning to purchase "necessities" and then planning to purchase "luxuries" in a sequence determined by that consumer's priorities, up to the current financial and temporal limits.

Explaining Acquisition, Consumption, and Disposition

These behaviors also entail the execution of a desired strategy. For example the "preparation" of certain foods may be guided by the directions provided on the package, by recipes provided in a cookbook, or by procedures stored in long term memory.


Explaining Interpersonal Gift Giving

Typically goods are consumed by the individual who acquires the good. But one very important use of a good (particularly goods such as flowers, candy, perfume, toys, and jewelry) is to give it to another person for their use. Why do consumers give gifts to others? Or, more to the point, why do consumers desire to give gifts to others? In our view, interpersonal gift giving is largely determined by socialization processes (Belk 1979; Sherry 1983); hence, these behaviors are beyond the present scope of information processing theory. That is, individuals are explicitly taught, directly or indirectly, to whom gifts are to be given, when gifts are to be given, what kinds of gifts to give, and even why gifts are given. Interpersonal gift giving that is not explained by socialization processes can be explained in terms of psychological processes in the same way that desire formation for goods was explained above. That is, a comparison of the individual's desired state to his/her perceived actual state is made. If a discrepancy is noticed and if the discrepancy is greater than the relevant threshold, then a subgoal is established to solve this problem. A specific problem solving strategy is selected and executed and the outcome may take the form of a desire to give a good to someone. (But we find it difficult to think of a good example of interpersonal gift giving that cannot readily be explained in sociological terms.)

Explaining Self-Gifts

How is self-gift giving explained? We argue that if a person can be aware of his/her cognitive state, that person can also be aware of the necessity of maintaining or enhancing the cognitive/emotional integrity of his/her information processing system in order to be able to achieve the goals contained within the life goal. More specifically, a comparison is postulated between the desired state (e.g., the desired motivational level) and the perceived actual state (e.g., the perceived motivational level). If the discrepancy is larger than the relevant threshold and if the problem solving effort is successful, a drive is formed for the solution. The solution may take many forms such as the purchasing of a good (e.g., clothing), using a good (e.g., watching TV), or engaging in an activity that does not explicitly involve the purchase or use of a particular good (e.g., taking a walk in a park). Self-gift giving, therefore, can be conceptualized as a special case of desire formation. (Note that even this psychological process may be heavily influenced by sociological factors. For example, a child may have learned to control his/her own motivational states with self-gifts by observing his/her parents engage in similar behaviors.)

What remains to be explained is why some behaviors relating to system maintenance and enhancement sometimes take on gift-like dimensions. According to Mick and DeMoss a purchase for oneself takes on gift giving characteristics when it shares three dimensions that characterize interpersonal gift giving: symbolic communication, exchange, and specialness. Self-gifts are defined as "... (1) personally symbolic self-communication through (2) special indulgences that tend to be (3) premeditated and (4) highly context bound." (Mick and DeMoss 1990b, p. 328) Why then do certain desires take on the dimensions of symbolic communication, exchange, and specialness? And, it remains to address two additional defining characteristics of self-gifts: premeditativeness and context-boundedness. Six "themes" characterizing self-gifts (Mick and DeMoss 1990b) will also be addressed: self-esteem, identity, deserving, perfect thing, escape, and discovery.

The Personal Symbolic Communication Dimension. "In general, the communication dimension in interpersonal gift giving involves the participants' expression of feelings and thoughts, including the imposition of identities." (Mick and DeMoss, 1990b, p. 325) According to Mick, DeMoss, and Farber (1991, p. 1), "... celebration, congratulations, and consolation are among the most typical of self directed messages."

The comparison that takes place between the desired state of one's own system and the perceived actual state of one's own system can be viewed as a self-dialogue focused on the self. An individual's desired state constitutes an integral part of the "self." Here constructs such as "ideal self" or "desired self" are relevant. And, an integral component of every individual's perceived actual state is the perceived self. Thus constructs such as "self-esteem," "self-concept," "real self," and "identity" are relevant. In effect, feelings and thoughts are exchanged between the desired state of self and the perceived actual state of self during the comparison process. It is important to note that in this case "system maintenance and enhancement" is nearly synonymous with "self maintenance and enhancement." This is because the definition of self can be very broad, encompassing one's physical attributes as well as one's mental capabilities and can even include one's possessions (Belk 1988).

Of the many types of self-dialogues focusing on the self, some take on a special significance because of the unique, personal, and important nature of the desired state or the perceived actual state. For example, if a person's "ideal self" includes a desire to have "strong willpower" and that person's perception of his/her actual willpower is very high on a particular occasion (such as the successful completion of a weight reduction program) then a drive may be formed (through subgoaling) for a good that will symbolically communicate to that individual his/her willpower capability long after the occasion has passed. In this particular case, metacognition relates both to an awareness of the fluctuations that occur in one's perception of one's willpower over time (i.e., from very high to very low) and to an awareness of the fallibility of one's own long term memory. The individual purchases a good for oneself (i.e., a self-gift) to symbolically communicate, in the form of a reminder, the message that he/she has strong willpower.

This explanation can be generalized to other self-directed messages arising from perceived discrepancies in other motivational or emotional states of the self such as those relating to celebration, congratulations, and consolation.

The Exchange Dimension. "Interpersonal gift giving has also been characterized as a continuing cycle of reciprocity in which people are obligated to give, receive, and repay (Belk 1979; Mauss 1954). This contractual aspect of gift giving predicates and even optimizes human behavior (Sherry 1983). Thus, as exchange, gift giving establishes, perpetrates, and clarifies interpersonal relationships (Belk 1979)." (Mick and DeMoss 1990b, p. 326)

Self-dialogues focusing on the self can address a variety of issues (willpower, appearance, competence, depression, etc.). One very important issue is motivation. A comparison (by the individual) of the desired state of motivation and the perceived actual state of motivation can result in a discrepancy that is large enough to result in a desire for a good or non good to correct the motivational problem. For example, a student who detects that his/her current level of motivation to complete school is too low may attempt to raise the actual motivational level by promising himself/herself a particularly attractive good (e.g., an automobile) as an incentive. Metacognition is crucial to this explanation because the consumer must be able to monitor the motivational aspects of both the desired and the actual states to establish the preconditions for this type of self-contractual arrangement. "Deserving" is an important theme here because it relates directly to societally inculcated ideas of "fair" contracts (e.g., the Protestant ethic) for interpersonal relations as well as for intrapersonal relations.

The Specialness Dimension. "Sincere interpersonal gifts are special, even sacred, binding individuals through a ritual communion of cultural values and deeply felt emotions (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989)." (Mick and DeMoss 1990b, p. 326)

Goods that are classified as "high involvement" typically are those that are related to the self (Krugman 1965). The specialness dimension of self-gifts can be attributed to the centrality of the self in all activities undertaken by the individual. The individual must be properly motivated and emotionally adjusted in order to pursue the many goals in the life goal. Hence, a good purchased for oneself that is critically linked to the integrity of the self takes on the gift characteristic of specialness. Metacognition plays a critical role here in as much as the preconditions for such subgoaling involve recognition of one's own cognitive/emotional states. This explanation can easily be generalized to a variety of other self-related issues such as motivation, competency, identity, and worth.

The "perfect thing" theme is important here because of the uncertainty and complexity that so frequently characterize our desires. Typically it is very difficult for the average consumer to specify with any degree of precision the criteria to be used for the selection of a good (e.g., a car, life insurance, food). Therefore, if a consumer does happen to know exactly which good would serve as an incentive or as therapy this would have an element of specialness to it. Here, metacognition pertains to knowing what it takes to maintain or to enhance our selves.

Certain activities or goods may enable an individual to "escape" the continuing self-dialogue focused on the self by focusing the self-dialogue on some external stimulus. By buying time away from the issue (i.e., putting it aside for a while), some individuals may be better able to cope with the specific motivational or emotional problem at hand. Metacognition speaks to the issue of how the individual knows whether an escape strategy works for him/her and knowing which specific activities (e.g., watching TV) are capable of distracting one's self. "Discovery" is an important theme because discovery involves novel stimuli which could have the desired distracting effect.

Premeditatedness. The relative importance of desired goods is an important input to the intentions formation process, the process that determines which of all desired goods will be purchased in a particular future time period. Because the motivational and emotional states related to the self are so crucial to the successful performance of the individual, goods related to the self can be viewed as being of great relative importance. Thus, it follows that intentions for the purchase of a self-gift will on occasion be formed prior to their purchase (i.e., they would be premeditated). An example of this would be the self-gift that was promised (perhaps years earlier) as a reward for the successful completion of a task (e.g., a car on graduation).

Context Boundedness. Mick and DeMoss (1992, p. 4) report "... of the 392 reports, 134 were rewards, 145 were therapeutic, 39 concerned birthdays, and 74 concerned extra money to spend." Self-gifts arise in these contexts because contexts involving rewards and therapy, by definition, involve important changes in either the desired state or the perceived actual state. In the case of therapy, for example, failing an exam forces a negative change in one's perceived actual state. In the case of reward, for example, the ability to complete a weight reduction program leads to a positive change in the perceived actual state. Holidays serve as a context for self-gift giving because the timing and the nature of the desired state has been predetermined by society. Birthdays are particularly important because the individual is supposed to receive special attention and gifts on this day. Having extra money to spend relaxes the income constraint and enables the purchase of the next good on the priority list or it may stimulate desire formation to occur.


We believe that self-gift giving is parsimoniously explained by information processing theory if a person's metacognition capabilities are addressed. We believe we have explained why reward and therapy are the dominant contexts in which self-gift giving arises, why birthdays and having extra money to spend also serve as important contexts for self-gifts, why self esteem, identity, deserving, perfect thing, escape, and discovery are dominant themes, why self-gifts take such a wide diversity of forms, why the timing of a purchase and the amount of a good purchased can serve as a self-gift, why simply using a good can serve as a self-gift, and why self-gifts are premeditated.

As previously stated, in order to achieve goals within the life goal, the individual must maintain and perhaps enhance the information processing system or self that actually performs the various goal-oriented behaviors. From this perspective, a major contribution of research on self-gifts is that it has led to the identification of a previously unrecognized and important type of consumer behavior, one that has its own unique source of motivation. Given that the relevant subgoal underlying self-gifts is to maintain or to enhance the capabilities of one's own information processing system, it is difficult to "trace" these desires directly back to Maslow's needs (or to other basic value systems). We use the word trace in the sense of "laddering," a depth interviewing procedure described by Gutman (1982). This is perhaps what Mick and DeMoss (1990b, p. 328) mean by their statement that "... the consumer is seeking to consummate a desire that goes beyond intrinsic human needs."

The Moderating Role of Interpersonal Gift Giving on Self-Gift Giving

Even if the individual desires the gift and has the necessary resources to acquire the gift, self-gift giving may not occur. First, the context or occasion (e.g., need for a reward, need for therapy, or birthday) that gives rise to the desire for a self-gift by Person A may be observed by Person B and an appropriate gift may be purchased by Person B for Person A. There are, of course, many reasons why this type of interpersonal gift-giving may not occur. For example, Person B may be unaware of the Person A's circumstance. Or, if Person B is aware of Person A's circumstance, Person B may be unwilling or unable to provide the gift. Still, if such "unsolicited" interpersonal gift-giving does occur, it reduces the likelihood of occurrence of self-gift giving.

Second, Person A may be able to induce Person B to give the gift that is desired by Person A. There are, of course, several reasons why such an influence attempt may fail. For example, Person B may not agree that Person A needs the gift. Or, Person B may be unwilling to buy the gift desired by Person A at the time the gift is desired. Or, Person B may disagree as to the affordability of the gift. Or, Person A may find it too difficult to communicate to Person B exactly what is desired. Still, if such "solicited" interpersonal gift giving does occur, it reduces the likelihood of occurrence of self-gift giving.

At a minimum, the possibility that gifts to oneself can be obtained from others with or without solicitation threatens the conceptual clarity of the term "self-gifts." Of course, this problem can be side stepped by classifying these two types of gifts as instances of interpersonal gift giving. However, in empirical research, this distinction must be made clear to the respondents to avoid misunderstandings and to avoid overestimating the frequency of occurrence of true self-gift giving.

There are at least two additional types of interpersonal gift giving that confuse the distinction between interpersonal and self-gift giving. The first occurs when pairs of individuals mutually agree not to exchange gifts but rather to purchase their own gift in each other's name. For example, after many years of interpersonal gift giving, a married couple may agree that it is more efficient and effective to buy their own gifts on all subsequent gift-giving occasions. The second occurs when a "gift certificate" or "cash" is given; in effect the gift-giver instructs the gift-receiver to engage in the selection of the gift. For example, when relationships are characterized by physical separation (e.g., a grandmother and grandchild living in geographically distant locations) this may spur the giving of cash or gift certificates because the gift giver does not know the recipient's desires well enough. Interpersonal relations involving a person who is "difficult to please" is yet another circumstance in which interpersonal gift giving may be abandoned for some type of self-gift giving or selection.

This problem too can be avoided by classifying such gift giving as special cases of interpersonal gift giving. But, in empirical research this distinction should be made clear to the respondents to avoid misunderstandings and to avoid overestimating the frequency of occurrence of self-gift giving.

Directions for Research

Given this explanation, it is possible to propose a few directions for research. First, we should expect large individual differences in the ability to recognize the need to maintain and to enhance one's own system. Further, even given this recognition we should expect that individuals will differ in response to this need. For example, beliefs about the appropriateness of self-therapy and the form it should take are likely to differ greatly among individuals within a culture. Some individuals believe that vacations are necessary for increased and continued job productivity; others do not. One particularly interesting research area pertains to children; children are known to be less aware of their own cognitions and cognitive states (Matlin 1989). Therefore we should expect that self-gifts will occur less frequently among children. Another area pertains to introversion/extroversion; an introverted person may be more aware of his/her cognitive state and the necessity of maintaining or enhancing the self. Gender is another interesting variable to explore.

Second, we expect that an awareness of oneself may be greatly moderated by the cultural milieu. For example, within certain Asian countries that are heavily influenced by Confucian collectivist culture, an individual tends to think more in terms of the group or the family rather than the self (Hofstede 1980). Even if members of these cultures do think of themselves, it may be socially inappropriate to act on this individualistic desire (i.e. to buy gifts for oneself).

Third, we agree with Mick and DeMoss (1990b) that an individual's attribution for a particular motivational or emotional state is very likely to impact on the occurrence of self-gift giving in the manner they suggest.

Finally, the fact that self-gifts can be solicited or unsolicited in the form of interpersonal gifts can reduce the occurrence of self-gift giving. The impact of such interpersonal gifts on the likelihood of occurrence of self-gifts is likely to be highly context bound. For example, a serious illness may result in unsolicited gifts from many friends and relatives. Further, an individual's expectations about the occurrence of interpersonal gift giving may also play a significant role in the occurrence of self-gift. That is, if an individual expects that another person (e.g., a spouse) will recognize his/her need for a reward, then self-gift giving may be less likely to occur. Also, an individual's expectations about the appropriateness of the gift to be received from another person may influence the likelihood of occurrence of self-gift giving. That is, if an individual expects to receive a gift that is not strongly desired (e.g., a tie for Christmas), then self-gift giving is more likely to occur.


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Richard W. Olshavsky, Indiana University
Dong Hwan Lee, State University of New York at Albany


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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