Gifts: What Do You Buy the Person Who Has Everything? Nothing?


Daniel R. Horne, Shay Sayre, and David A. Horne (1996) ,"Gifts: What Do You Buy the Person Who Has Everything? Nothing?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 30-34.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 30-34


Daniel R. Horne, Providence College

Shay Sayre, California State University, Fullerton

David A. Horne, California State University, Long Beach


This paper reports the results of a preliminary investigation into the receiving of gifts by those who have lost all or most of their possessions in a natural disaster. While it is possible that no social imperative exists for the giving of gifts in this type of situation, our findings showed this behavior to be quite common. Additionally, gifts tended to come from sources outside traditional gift giving circles. These and other finding from a small sample of victims lead to the suggestion of topics for future research.


In a recent work on the classification of gift givers and recipients, Otnes, Lowrey and Kim (1993) discuss the effort which may be required during the gift selection process. They showed marked differences in purchasing strategies used for an "easy" recipient as compared to a "difficult" recipient. Some of the characteristics which help determine these classifications involve an understanding of the recipient's preferences, a compatibility of tastes, and the perception of a current needs inventory of the intended recipient. In this last case, the recipient who already "has everything" is classified as one for whom selecting a gift is "difficult." Is the converse true? That is, is it easy to purchase gifts for those who have nothing?

In a research project investigating consumption behavior of those who survive disasters or catastrophic losses, we examined some of the interpersonal behavior of the loss survivors with their kinship and social networks. A frequent theme was the outpouring of assistance, both in terms of emotional support and outright gifts (c.f., Barton 1970). This work looks at this gift giving situation and explores how it may differ from extant theory developed to explain the gift giving process. Findings of a small, preliminary study are presented and directions for future research are suggested.


Unfortunately, disasters in the United States extract a major economic toll. In the U.S., the insurance industry defines a catastrophic loss as one totaling more than $5,000,000 and/or more than 1000 claims filed for a single event. Using that criteria, there were $23 billion in catastrophic losses in 1992 (a record because of Hurricane Andrew) and $5.3 billion in 1993 in the United States (Scism 1994). Since the losses from uninsured victims of recognized catastrophes and claims from smaller scale events are excluded, the actual loss is much higher. Thousands of devastated households comprise these sobering figures.

Disaster research has been recognized as a multi-faceted issue that can best be undertaken by concentrating on respondents who have personally gone through some portion of the mass trauma. The principal lines of inquiry have been on individual and societal recovery and mental rejuvenation. For views of this topic see Green (1986), and Lystad (1985). However, while previous research has concentrated on mental recovery aspects, these disasters create an interesting, and heretofore unexplored, setting in which to study victims as consumers. The post-disaster behavior of impacted individuals provides an opportunity to investigate several specific issues, including repurchase priorities, family decision making, alteration in the importance of possessions (Sayre 1994), and the receipt of gifts, to name a few possibilities.

When an individual or a family experiences a catastrophic loss, members of kinship and social networks, as well as community-based and national relief organizations, seek to mitigate the damage and disruption to the extent possible (Barton 1970; Quarantelli and Dynes 1986). Zelizer (1979) notes that this type of mutual assistance behavior was more common in the past, before the shift from personal aid to that provided by impersonal systems such as the government or insurance companies. Still, assistance from friends, family, and acquaintances is very common and it is noteworthy that individuals or groups outside of these intimate networks may also attempt to reach out to those perceived to be in need (Barton 1970). Support, in this manner, may take the form of a gift presented to the afflicted party. However, the rationale theorized to justify gift relationships may not fully account for behavior in this context.

A variety of frameworks have been proposed to examine gift giving (c.f., Belk and Coon 1993; Cheal 1988; Mauss 1990/1950). While these often use differing terminology, there are many concepts held in common which attempt to provide a foundation for gift giving behavior. Some of the motivations for this behavior include social obligation (Belk 1976; Mauss 1990/1950), the need to reciprocate for a previous gift or induce future reciprocation (Belk and Coon 1993; Camerer 1988; Levi-Strauss 1964), the need to communicate information about the giver-recipient relationship through the symbolic messages associated with the gift (Belk and Coon 1993; Cheal 1988, Otnes, Lowrey and Kim 1993; Wolfinbarger 1990), and truly selfless, altruistic designs (Belk and Coon 1993). Gift giving under the conditions described may be the square peg that does not neatly fit into the above round holes.

In the case of gifts to those who have suffered a loss, it is doubtful whether a social imperative exists, except within certain religious sects, such as the Mennonite community. A large number of disasters, natural and otherwise, occur every year. Yet, while the number is significant and probably perceived to occur at even higher than actual levels due to availability and vividness (Tversky and Kahneman 1973), the probability of an individual being thus affected or that an individual will personally know an affected survivor will be very small. When someone suffers a catastrophic loss, those who wish to provide assistance generally have no direct experience to help them decide between alternative forms of aid. Further, the type of social obligation which would suggest social punishments for those who give no support (Blau 1964) is not found.

While this lack of experience creates difficulties in the selection process, potential givers may still attempt to give gifts which symbolically reaffirm the importance of existing relationships, although the actual form of gift may vary from a traditional gift to one of emotional support. The strengthening of relationships is critical at this time of major emotional stress. However, traditional gift or emotional support, giving the gift with the highest level of utility for the recipient requires that the giver predicts the preferences of someone whose current position is very different from their own (Waldfogel 1993) or any position in which they have ever been. The level of uncertainty, thus, increases the risk of giving an in-kind gift for those for whom moral support is not an available option. At the same time, the benefits of less traditional, albeit more flexible, gift alternatives, such as money or near money (e.g., gift certificates), increase.

Yet gifts of money have long been problematic and are considered inappropriate or too impersonal for many gift giving situations (Carrier 1995; Webley, Lea and Portalska 1983; Zelizer 1994). In the first place, gift givers do not like to appear as though they are placing a dollar value on the relationship (Cheal 1987). Further, part of the evaluation of the gift by the recipient involves the effort and the thought that went into the selection (Belk and Coon 1993). In any event, the symbolic component of the gift is outweighed by consideration of societal norms and/or is subject to misinterpretation. An additional problem is a potential limitation on the strength of the memory trace that cash gifts create. For some time after the presentation of a gift, the giver and the occasion are associated in the mind of the recipient (Sherry, McGraph and Levy 1992). Tangible gifts have a lasting nature which may continue to reinforce the communications originally intended by the giver (Cheal 1988). Gifts of cash may be earmarked for specific use (Zelizer 1994), or it may instead become mingled with general household funds and spent on everyday necessities, thus leaving few memories.

Some exceptions to this restriction in gift giving have been marked, most notably downward, inter-generational transfers, such as from grandparent to grandchild (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Waldfogel 1993), and as wedding gifts in certain cultures and sub-cultures (Cheal 1988). Recently, however, this general proscription has come into question both theoretically (Waldfogel 1993) and from some limited survey evidence of attitudes towards gifts (Athay 1993). The rapid growth in near cash gifts, such as gift certificates (Horne and Kelly forthcoming), provides support for the idea that, under certain circumstances, gifts of cash or given monetary values are not viewed with disfavor but may actually be highly prized. A catastrophic loss will likely lead to a suspension of traditional gift giving norms, such as the prohibition of money gifts to equals (Zelizer 1994), which will increase the likelihood of gift presentations of this nature.

The theoretic justifications involving reciprocation and true altruism are much harder to untangle. It is very difficult to rule out desire for future reciprocation as a motivating factor. While this seems awkward, givers may, consciously or not, wish to ingratiate themselves in order to gain later tangible rewards, prestige, or even power (Batson 1991; Belk and Coon 1993; Mauss 1990/1950). If this is the case, however, then the concept of true altruism is precluded.

Belk and Coon's (1993) discussion of agapic or selfless love in the exchange of gifts in dating relationships opens the door in consumer research to the idea that all gifts may not be exclusively based on the self interest of the giver. Recently, investigations of altruism (c.f., Batson 1990; 1991), have provided evidence that some motivational component for helping behavior is ultimately the increased welfare of those receiving aid. This altruistic component, although not based on the notion of romantic love as described by Belk and Coon (1993), might help provide understanding of gifts in this context. Research in this area may need to consider work dealing with charitable donations (e.g., Weyant 1984), although that typically involves donations from an individual or collective to an organization or possibly an unknown individual (cf., Griffin et al. 1992). Medical donations of organs and tissues have been studied extensively (Pessemier, Bemmaor and Hanssens 1977; Shanteau, Harris and VandenBos 1992) and might also provide insights.


Researching the consumer behavior of disaster victims is different from the usual consumer study. First, in order to elicit any sort of cooperation with disaster victims, the researcher must establish genuine empathy for the subject. Second, gaining access to victims is greatly enhanced if the researchers have some form of insider status with the group or at least attain sanction as an outsider. Disaster victims quickly become suspicious of the motives of anyone they do not recognize asking questions as tales of scam artists and con-men abound (Valente 1995). Further, if fatalities have occurred, this provides an ominous backdrop against which interviews must be conducted.

The problem of access to disaster victims merits elaboration. Every disaster victim quickly receives literally hundreds of solicitations, most of which receive only a cursory consideration. A request from an unknown source to cooperate in a research project would in all likelihood be ignored. Unfortunately, one of the authors suffered a complete loss of home and most personal possessions in a recent natural disaster. After the disaster, the author helped organize a group of homeowners in the disaster area. At one of their regular meetings, a request was made for assistance with a personal research project. More than enough victims volunteered. This access was critical and most likely would not have been afforded to an outsider.

The specific nature of the research subject requires a data collection methodology that is empathic yet allows for extensive elaboration and disclosure by the respondents. The more typical exploratory research techniques were considered inappropriate. For example, focus group members might be reluctant to openly share feelings after a disaster with someone they might directly or indirectly know, and disaster victims are geographically concentrated.

A hybrid of photoelicitation (Heisley and Levy 1991), which we call video-elicitation, whereby victims would respond to the videotaped comments of other victims was devised to overcome the shortcomings of the more common exploratory techniques. Empathy could be established through the depicted victims. If the victims appeared genuine and their comments plausible, then the respondents could identify with them and share their own behavior. Thus, video-elicitation would jog their memories about different aspects of the event and simultaneously be sensitive to their privacy needs.

However, we did not feel it would be possible to discuss the act of receiving gifts in this exploratory video. Since there was little previous research on this specific subject, there were no indications as to the prevalence of gift giving to disaster victims. The need to appear sensitive to the respondents caused us to wonder what would be the effect of someone on a video discussing their gifts and how much they appreciated their family and friends thinking of them when a particular subject being interviewed had not received anything. However, the gift issue was extremely interesting and we wanted to include some form of inquiry. It was decided to use written questions about gift receiving on a separate form that would be completed after the video process. In that manner, a person not receiving gifts would not have to disclose that possibly embarrassing fact in such an open manner.

Eighteen interviews were conducted. All the respondents had suffered complete losses of their homes, though a few managed to save a handful or so of personal items. After the tape was finished and the discussion had ended, the respondents completed a short questionnaire about themselves, about the gifts they received, and about the interview they just went through. As a follow-up, post-interview discussions were held with several of the respondents a week or so after their interview to clarify some of the responses. This last step was useful in probing for more specific information about the gifts that the victims had received.


The respondents were equally divided between men and women. Their ages ranged from the 30's to over 70 and their profiles quite closely matched the entire victim population for this particular disaster, which had middle to upper-middle class demographics.

All subjects, with one exception, received gifts after they suffered the loss. The gifts included household and personal items, some quite mundane (e.g., a broom); gifts of services (e.g., lodging for the displaced family); gifts of food (e.g., a basket of snack foods such as crackers and cheese); clothing; and gifts of cash and gift certificates. These last two categories made up the majority of the gifts presented, accounting for nearly 40% of the gifts reported. Approximately 30% of the gifts were household items and slightly less than 25% of the gifts were personal items such as clothing.

It is interesting that several of the respondents noted that friends had thrown showers on their behalf. Some of these recipients seemed especially grateful for not only the gift received but also for the concept of having a shower, as many had expressed intense sorrow over the loss of treasured possessions such as wedding gifts (cf., Sayre 1994). Further, these showers involved not only traditional shower gifts (i.e., kitchen items) but work items as well. One subject, an artist, was given a shower in which she received equipment, tools and supplies to help her return to work. Four subjects also noted that they had "registered" at local retailers, for example, Crate and Barrel.

Two findings provide indications of the lack of social imperative for gift giving under these conditions. These are the number of gifts and from whom the gifts were received. First, the number of gifts received seems quite small with the average being just over 2.5 for each individual. This may be related to the fact that the gifts tended to come from outside kinship networks. In several cases all gifts received were from individuals or cooperatives outside traditional gift giving circles. For instance, one recipient received three separate gifts, all from colleagues or co-workers with whom he had previously never engaged in any gift exchanges. One gift was a substantial amount of money ($2,500) which was collected by office personnel at his firm's home office in Japan, a place he visited only two or three times a year. While it is reported that giving gifts to those who suffer losses is common in Japan (c.f., Hulme 1995), collections were raised for this victim by co-workers in the U.S. as well.

It is certainly plausible to think that aid to victims from kinship and close social networks comes by way of emotional support rather than tangible gifts. Those outside this intimate circle may strongly feel the need to provide support, yet may feel ill at ease in attempting to understand and deal with the emotional aspects of the trauma or may lack "permission" to fulfill such a role (Otnes, Lowrey and Kim 1993). These individuals might be termed "compensators" by Otnes, Lowrey and Kim (1993) because of their desire to utilize the gift to "make it up to you" and "as one of consolation rather than of apology" (pg. 235). However, the very lack of social intimacy which makes providing emotional support so difficult would make it less likely that aid of any sort would be given. Lack of intimacy might also decrease the effectiveness of the symbolic component of any gift presented.

The significant proportion of cash and near cash gifts received is an indication of the difficulty givers had in selecting gifts for these recipients. In general, cash type gifts are more often presented in situations where the level of knowledge of the specific wants and needs of the recipient are less well known (Cheal 1988; Zelizer 1994). Gifts of cash and near cash serve to lessen the level of uncertainty and anxiety felt by the givers, while, at the same time, increasing stress due to the skirting of societal norms. Anecdotal evidence from our sample supports this idea. Recipients who received cash reported that, upon presentation, givers were "almost apologizing" and used terms like "we wanted to do something but we didn't know what to do, but please accept this (money)." Two members of the sample were actually informed by co-workers that meetings were held to discuss possible group responses to the situation and these groups were in a "quandary" over what to do for the victim. In both cases, collections were taken and the proceeds presented to the victims. These subjects were asked about the disposition of these cash gifts. One respondent said that the money was simply put into the checking account with other household funds, while the other stated that the money had been mentally "set aside" in a fund designated for the purchase of replacements for an art collection that had been lost in the fire. In a thank you note this victim expressly informed his benefactors of this intention. This specific earmarking likely leads to a stronger and/or more positive memory trace of the gift and the occasion.

Additionally, respondents were asked to describe their feelings when they were presented with gifts. By far, the majority of adjectives utilized by the recipients dealt with feelings of gratitude. Nearly half of the responses (49%) were items such as "grateful" and "touched." Less prevalently, in large part due to the occasion for the gift, some listed "happy" (13%). More interesting, however, were the less positive responses that were noted. Several of the respondents listed "embarrassed" (13%) as their reaction to the gift. "Humbled" was noted in 11% of the responses. Less common, but still noteworthy, is that two of the respondents listed "obligated," indicating that, even if they were intended, perceptions of pure altruism did not exist (Levi-Strauss 1964). Finally, two respondents listed "humiliated," which is reminiscent of early gift theory which suggested the use of gifts as a form of domination (c.f., Mauss 1967; Veblen 1934).

A final question dealt with the idea of what should be given to people in like circumstances. The questions asked that if they were advising others what to give survivors of a different disaster what would be appropriate gifts. Five different categories of gifts were listed and subjects were asked to indicate their responses on a 5-point scale anchored by Very Appropriate (1) and Very Inappropriate (5). The most appropriate gifts were felt to be gifts of in-kind. These were gifts of food and beverages (mean=1.89) and gifts of household goods (mean=1.94). Gifts of near cash products were thought to be slightly less appropriate on average with store gift certificates having a mean response of 2.06 and mall or credit card gift certificates having a mean of 2.33. The final category, "Contributions in the victim's name to a general victims' fund" was felt to be neutral (mean 3.00).


The purpose of this paper was to present findings of an exploratory investigation into the gift receiving behavior of individuals who have lost most or all of their possessions in a disaster. Several issues arise which warrant further consideration and research. First, a complete understanding of the social dynamics of gifts given to victims will not be forthcoming until we look not just at tangible gifts but at all forms of succor. Although at the beginning of the research project we implicitly defined gifts as only traditional objects (i.e., things wrapped up, tied with ribbon and presented in fairly formal or structured manner), victims reported to us that aid from those closest to them tended to come more from an outpouring of needed emotional support as well as help with the many tasks which lay before them. Future work should include a more encompassing view of a gift following Carrier's (1995) definition, which includes labor and ideas with more traditional presents. Unfortunately, this definition may violate the conditions put forth by Sherry (1983), which includes a prestation component. Thus Carrier would describe a spouse going to the store to buy milk as a gift whereas Sherry would not. In this particular situation, those outside the traditional gift circle may have utilized gifts as their best means of communicating their sympathy, as they would possess limited access to provide differing forms of support. Future work should establish the level of intimacy between the parties involved and examine whether this pattern holds.

In addition, the lack of information or knowledge about the needs and desires of the victim makes the selection of gifts a difficult task. Recent work which examine gifts of cash (Athay 1993; Waldfogel 1993; Zelizer 1994) and the rapid growth of near cash gift certificates would suggest that under these conditions givers and recipients would benefit from not giving in-kind gifts but rather cash or the equivalent. The finding that several members of this sample received money or near money, and their comments about their feelings, may indicate that under these conditions knowledge of needs is low. It might also suggest that, given high levels of stress, traditional mores do not apply. Further work on the contexts in which gifts of money are acceptable or even preferred will be important in establishing a more complete understanding of the entire gift giving process.

Finally, the needs and the objectives of the givers should be examined. Creative projective techniques, such as the video-elicitation method discussed above, could prove beneficial in making certain that all sides of this gift giving process are covered.


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Daniel R. Horne, Providence College
Shay Sayre, California State University, Fullerton
David A. Horne, California State University, Long Beach


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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