An Experimental Investigation of Self-Symbolism in Gifts

ABSTRACT - A role playing experiment is employed to investigate the influence of four independent variables on giver- and receiver-congruence. Closeness, similarity, the event being a rite of progression as opposed to a rite of passage, and the giver being female, all resulted in the intention to purchase more receiver-congruent gifts. Closeness also contributed to intentions to choose gifts that were more giver-congruent, an effect opposite to the negative effect anticipated. Surprisingly, sex had no impact on the giver-congruence of the gift. Similarity positively affected giver-congruence of a gift, while the occasion being a rite of passage slightly lessened the giver's intention to purchase a giver-congruent gift.


Mary Finley Wolfinbarger and Mary C. Gilly (1996) ,"An Experimental Investigation of Self-Symbolism in Gifts", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 458-462.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 458-462


Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, California State University

Mary C. Gilly, University of California


A role playing experiment is employed to investigate the influence of four independent variables on giver- and receiver-congruence. Closeness, similarity, the event being a rite of progression as opposed to a rite of passage, and the giver being female, all resulted in the intention to purchase more receiver-congruent gifts. Closeness also contributed to intentions to choose gifts that were more giver-congruent, an effect opposite to the negative effect anticipated. Surprisingly, sex had no impact on the giver-congruence of the gift. Similarity positively affected giver-congruence of a gift, while the occasion being a rite of passage slightly lessened the giver's intention to purchase a giver-congruent gift.


The ability of gifts to serve as emblems or containers of giver and receiver selves is a major reason for the existence and persistence of gift-giving rituals. From a purely economic standpoint, gift giving behavior is inefficient, as givers imperfectly understand needs and desires of receivers. However, the objects that become gifts transcend their purely economic functions to become representatives and extensions of giver- and receiver-selves, thus allowing the blurring of distinctions between self and other. Arguably, givers are likely to be more or less sensitive to the issue of the gift's ability to be an indicant of self and other; however, empirical research published by Belk (1976; 1979) reveals that in general, self-congruence of the gift with the giver as well as the receiver are important symbolic elements of the gift. As givers, we are familiar with the inclination to purchase self-indicating items through reflection on our own use of self/product language: "It's me" or "It's Kurt (or David or Chris)" is what we commonly exclaim upon finding a gift that matches our, or the receiver's, personality and tastes.

While there exists both empirical evidence and personal experience to suggest that the self-symbolism encoded in gifts is an important element in gift selection, little effort has been directed at understanding the circumstances that might lead to tendencies to encode selves in gifts. With respect to self (or giver)-congruence, both ideal and actual self-concept have been found to be significant predictors of gift choice (Belk 1979). In fact, Belk found that giver-congruence is a better predictor of gift choice than is receiver-congruence. In a qualitative study of gift shops, Sherry and McGrath (1989) found that customers primarily based their gift decisions on their own self image. Belk and Coon (1993) uncovered evidence suggesting that within dating couples, receivers strongly preferred giver-congruent gifts.

Receiver-congruence has also received some research attention. In fact, perhaps the most often discussed rule of gift-giving in both the popular press and scholarly research is the need of a gift selection to demonstrate the giver's familiarity with the receiver's preferences (cf. Caplow 1984). But, why are gifts often receiver-congruent? Giving such gifts situates and validates receivers by allowing their identities to be socially recognized and affirmed. In this sense, gift giving extends Wicklund and Gollwitzer's (1982) notion of "symbolic self completion" to "symbolic other-completion," in that others may choose gifts that create and confirm receivers' identities. Receiver-congruent gifts are generally not conventional gifts, which are "safe," mundane and common; conventional gifts are like commodities. Rather, receiver-congruent gifts are designed to respond to the "yearning for singularization" that exists in a complex society (Kopytoff 1986; McCracken 1986).

In summary, the importance of self-symbolism in gifts has been studied. We contribute to this literature by considering conditions which we believe impact the degree of self-symbolism in gifts: (1) perceived emotional closeness of the giver to the receiver, (2) perceived similarity of the giver with the receiver, (3) occasion for giving and (4) the sex of the giver. We begin with a literature review, followed by a description of the experimental research. The results are presented and discussed.


Several factors define the context within which gift choices are made. Two of the factors are relational: perceived closeness and similarity of the giver to the receiver. A third factor is the gift-giving occasion. The final factor is the sex of the giver. Each of these factors will be discussed below.

Closeness has been defined as the amount of affection the giver has for the receiver (Belk 1979), a definition which focuses on the emotional content, rather than the structural relationship between the giver and the receiver. Gifts are "tie signs" (Cheal 1988; Goffman 1971) when their primary use is their capacity to represent the nature of the relationship between the receiver and the giver of the gift, especially their emotional closeness. In fact, Hyde (1979) writes that gifts are "false gifts" when they fail to bind people. In general, symbolic tokens are indexical of communicative expressions (Garfinkel 1967). Therefore, the expense and nature of gift symbols tend to vary with the closeness of the relationship (Belk 1979; Caplow 1984; Haas and Deseran 1981; Shurmer 1971).

In addition to the closeness of a relationship, gift symbolism may vary depending on the perceived similarity of the giver to the receiver. While people tend to become closer to those whom they perceive to be similar, closeness and similarity are separate, if related constructs (Brown and Reingen 1987). For instance, a giver may be close to a parent, a sibling, or even a friend or spouse, and not necessarily perceive that they are similar. The impact of similarity on gift giving has only been investigated by Belk (1976) who included it as one element which in combination with the valence of four other factors can impact satisfaction with gift giving.

In addition to the two relationship variables, closeness and similarity, a third variable, the occasion upon which the gift is given, should impact the giver's choice of gift and gift symbolism. Gift-giving occasions are typically ritualistic; Klapp (1969) writes that "ritual is the prime symbolic vehicle for experiencing emotions and mystique together with others...including a sense of one's self as sharing such emotions" (p. 118). The ambiance of ritual ceremonies may heighten the impact of giving and increase the value of the gift (Sherry 1983). Thus we expect that the occasion for giving will impact encoding and decoding of self-symbolism.

Indeed, both Goffman (1967) and much later, Cheal (1988) claimed that the most serious gaps in research on gift giving concerned the lack of comparative information about the variety of occasions upon which gifts may be given. Cheal is helpful in this regard, as he points out that there are two major types of gift-giving occasions: rites of passage (low frequency, large scale events) and rites of progression (high frequency, small scale events).

Several scholars and writers have commented that gift giving is an activity whose main responsibility and interest culturally lies with women (Barnett 1954; Caplow 1982; Cheal 1988; Fischer and Arnold 1990). Fischer and Arnold (1990) refer to giving as "more than a labor of love" and find that more feminine men and women make more effort and buy more gifts at Christmas. Weil and Gould (1991) have specifically studied the interaction of sex of the giver and receiver, finding that men report feeling more expressive (a traditionally feminine characteristic) when giving to women as compared to men, whereas womens' reported expressiveness changes much less between same- and opposite-sex giving. Wolfinbarger and Gilly (1991) found that in terms of general gift-giving attitudes, men are in general less positive and enthusiastic about giving than are women. Given this finding, it is perhaps no surprise that in Otnes et al.'s (1993) qualitative study of gift giving, only one informant who agreed to the study was male.


Belk (1979) reported that ideal and actual self concept (which are strongly correlated) had larger impacts on choice of gift-giving attributes than did the giver's concept of the receiver. Based on their qualitative research, Sherry and McGrath (1989) would concur, as they reported that customers of gift shops often said that they would like to receive as gifts the objects they were purchasing for others. Givers buy self-congruent gifts to successfully present their self to the receiver, as well as the ease of purchasing such gifts. Occasionally such gifts may be intended to socialize the receiver to be more like the giver.

The idea that the purchase of products is often influenced by congruence with self-image is hardly new and has been supported by past research (cf. Grubb and Hupp 1969; Landon 1974; Sirgy 1982). While Belk and Coon (1993) find that in dating couples, receivers prefer giver-congruent gifts, we expect that this will be less true in other close relationships. First, in longer-term relationships there should be less need to successfully present one's self to a receiver who is already familiar with the giver. Second, the giver should be strongly motivated to please the closer receiver, and thus to choose a gift that is unique to the receiver's, rather than their own, taste. Last, closer givers should have a great deal of information about what receivers desire to get as gifts, thus lessening the tendency of givers to rely on their own tastes in choosing such gifts.

Similarity should have a strong effect on the tendency to buy giver-congruent gifts, as it should result in gifts which simultaneously reflect the giver's and receiver's selves. Such gifts underscore the feeling that givers and receivers live in a shared world, and have common interests and values.

Occasion may impact giver-congruence of the gift as well. Rites of passage, as large-scale social events, tend to have more rules about appropriate gift-giving behavior, leaving a bit less room for the expression of self in giving. Items are commonly given to support the performance of receivers in a newly acquired role. Thus, gifts are likely to be somewhat less giver-congruent on rites of passage as opposed to rites of progression.

Sex of the gift-giver is likely to have an effect on the intentions to choose giver-congruent gifts. In general, women have been found to be more socially sensitive than are men (Chodorow 1978; Gill et al. 1987; Hartsock 1985; Berg and McQuinn 1986). Moreover, women are enculturated to be more enthusiastic about gift giving, and to be more sensitive to the "cultural rules" concerning gift giving (Barnett 1954; Caplow 1982, 1984; Cheal 1988; Hyde 1979). One of these cultural rules is to sacrifice self-presentation motives in order to take into account the needs and desires of the receiver. Therefore, we anticipate that men will be more likely than women to report an intention to buy self-congruent gifts.

Hypothesis 1: Givers will intend to buy more giver-congruent gifts when (a) they perceive the receiver to be more similar. Gifts are less likely to be giver-congruent when (b) the receiver is perceived to be closer (c) the occasion is a rite of progression and (d) the giver is male.


Gifts to those whom we are close should be more receiver-congruent, as close friends separate themselves from others by showing that they can choose gifts especially for the receiver (Camerer 1988). Additionally, Brown and Reingen (1987) argue that in relationships in which there are strong rather than weak ties, consumers are likely to know more about each other. This is true not just because of the close dyad's direct relationship, but also because of "multiple redundant paths of communication" which are found in strongly tied networks. Because of greater knowledge and motivation, when the giver and receiver are close, gifts are more likely to be receiver-congruent. With respect to similarity, when the giver perceives similarity with the receiver, it is easier to choose receiver-congruent gifts, regardless of closeness. There is also more motivation to please similar receivers, as Krebs (1975) reviews evidence suggesting that people are more empathic to the pain and pleasure of those to whom they believe they are similar.

As for the impact of occasion, rites of progression are personal, and include such events as birthdays, anniversaries, and Mother's Day. The symbolism of gifts given on personal events is more likely to be individual. Consistent with this argument, Belk (1979) discovered that birthday gifts were "uniquely personal" compared to wedding gifts. Similarly, Lowes et al. (1971) discovered that personal gifts predominate on birthdays, anniversaries, and Mother's and Father's Days (all normally rites of progression).

Sex is also anticipated to affect receiver-congruence of the gift. The greater social sensitivity of women, together with their greater culturally-determined involvement in gift occasions, and thus exposure to gift-giving "rules," are likely to result in women choosing gifts which are receiver-congruent (Barnett 1954; Caplow 1982, 1984; Cheal 1988; Chodorow 1978; Gill et al. 1987; Hartsock 1985; Hyde 1979; Berg and McQuinn 1986).

Hypotheses 2: Givers are more likely to intend to give receiver- congruent gifts when (a) the receiver is perceived to be similar (b) the receiver is perceived to be closer and (c) the occasion is a rite of progression. (d) Women are more likely than men to intend to choose receiver-congruent gifts.


Scenarios were used to manipulate the closeness, similarity and occasion variables in the experiment. Poe (1977) has suggested the construction of hypothetical role playing situations to study gift giving, and Belk (1979) used 15 gift-giving scenarios in his research. The experimental design is especially appropriate as three of the independent variables, closeness, similarity, and occasion are likely to be moderately or strongly correlated in a non-experimental study. Moreover, actual purchases may not be as good at revealing the "rules" that guide, yet of course, incompletely determine, givers' behavior. Constraints such as time and availability of an appropriate gift are likely to cause diversions from the basic guiding principles and intentions of givers.

The design was a 3X2X2 with experimental manipulations including three levels of closeness which were determined through pre-test (close friend, friend, someone you hardly know), two levels of similarity (similar or different with respect to gift-giving preferences) and two occasions (rite of progression C birthday, or rite of passage C wedding). Both of these events were appropriate for the MBA student sample employed, as graduate students are generally old enough to be socialized concerning gift-giving and to be giving gifts for birthdays and weddings. The scenario read as follows:

Imagine you have accepted an invitation to a large [birthday party/wedding] and you will be buying a [birthday/wedding] gift for [a close friend/a friend, but not a close friend/someone you don't know well at all (for instance, a friend of a friend, or a distant relative you rarely see)]. You believe s/he is very [similar to/different from] you with respect to the gifts s/he likes to give and receive.

Each student received three different conditions from the twelve possible. After reading each scenario, subjects were asked to name a particular recipient that would fit the scenario in order to make the task more concrete to them. Manipulation checks revealed that the closeness and similarity conditions were effective (F=98.7, p<.001 for closeness, F=117, p<.001 for similarity). At the end of each condition, givers were also asked to name the gift they would choose and to explain why this gift would be chosen.



Self-concepts were measured on a semantic differential scale from "This product is strongly like me [the receiver]," to "This product is strongly unlike me [the receiver]". Sommers (1964), Sirgy (1982), and Landon (1972, 1974) all report that consumers are able to describe themselves and others in terms of products. This procedure also reflects the self/product vocabulary that consumers themselves use, e. g. "It's me," or "It's you."

The sample consisted of 150 MBA students. The third condition completed by each student was removed from consideration, as analysis revealed the presence of an order effect in the third condition. After removing a few more cases that had incomplete information, the final number of usable cases was 277. Although students can be a less than desirable sample, they are appropriate for studying gift giving in that it is an activity in which students normally participate. The use of students is further justified in this experimental research because (1) theory testing is the primary goal of this research (Calder, Phillips and Tybout 1981) and (2) the use of a relatively homogeneous sample results in control of random sources of error (Cook and Campbell 1979).


Giver-Congruence. As shown in Table 1, hypothesis 1a is not supported; in fact, the directionality suggested by the findings is opposite that anticipated. Closer givers planned to give gifts that were more, rather than less, giver-congruent to their very close friends (p<.05). Hypothesis 1b is strongly supported, as givers reported they would buy more giver-congruent gifts for more similar receivers (p<.001). Hypothesis 1c is only barely suggestive (p<.15); givers believed they would give slightly more giver-congruent gifts on rites of progression as compared to rites of passage. Hypothesis 1d is not supported as the sex of the giver had no significant effect on the intended giver-congruence of the gift. No hypotheses were made concerning interaction effects, and no significant effects were found. While no two-way interactions are significant, a three-way interaction between closeness, occasion and sex is suggested by the data (p<.05). Women in the sample appeared to make an extra effort to buy more giver-congruent gifts on rites of passage to close friends than to other types of receivers, while mens' strategy did not differ on rites of passage regarding the degree of self-congruence to be encoded in the gift for closer as compared to less close givers.

Receiver-Congruence. The results appear in Table 1. Both hypotheses 2a and 2b are supported, as gifts were intended to be more receiver-congruent when receivers were similar and when they were closer. The impact of occasion on receiver congruence (hypothesis 2c) is also significant (p<.05) . In support of hypothesis 2d, women were more likely than men to buy receiver-congruent gifts (p<.05). Once again, no hypotheses were made concerning interaction effects, and in this case, no significant effects were uncovered.


The results of the experiment suggest that there are indeed norms which influence intentions to encode gifts to be either giver- or receiver-congruent. The two conditions of the relationships investigated C closeness and similarity C impacted the intentions of givers to encode gifts to be more or less giver- and receiver-congruent. In fact, greater closeness and similarity both resulted in the desire to make gifts more giver- and receiver-congruent. The result concerning the positive impact of closeness on giver-congruence was unexpected. We predicted that closeness would lead givers to intend to "trade off" giver-congruence to please receivers, and to thus choose less giver-congruent gifts. Several reasons can be suggested for the surprising findings. Because of the experimental nature of the task, subjects may have felt that they would be able to choose gifts which simultaneously pleased receivers and successfully presented the giver's self, a task which may have proved more difficult in practice. However, an alternative explanation for the findings should be considered. As did Belk and Coon's (1993) dating partners, the receivers of closer giver's gifts may actually prefer giver-congruent gifts, and givers may be endeavoring to satisfy this desire. Perhaps giver-congruent gifts are perceived to be positive even by dissimilar close receivers because the giver, by giving a gift that represents their self and their interests, is giving of themselves. Thus, rather than "imposing" their self upon that of the receiver, such gifts may often be considered by both the giver and receiver as positive, desirable extensions of the giver. Conceptually, this study suggests that the nature of giver-congruence is such that the construct has both negative and positive dimensions. It may be that giver-congruence is a desired quality by both givers and receivers, as long as such gifts are in some "acceptable range" of receiver-congruence as well. Previous qualitative studies suggested that one source of gift-giving errors is that the disappointing gifts are giver- rather than receiver-congruent (cf. Sherry, McGrath and Levy 1992). Perhaps in reality these unacceptable giver-congruent gifts are less frequent than anticipated.

The impact of perceived similarity with the receiver on self-symbolism, on the other hand, was consistent with our expectations. When the giver perceives similarity with the receiver, then a gift can be purchased that is both giver- and receiver- congruent. In this case, trading off self-presentation motives to buy a gift pleasing to the receiver is unnecessary. Similarity of the giver to the receiver suggests that there is a common understanding within the relationship; this commonality facilitates the expression of sentiments about relationships which Belk (1979) and Scammon et al. (1982) posit to be an important function of gift giving.

Gifts were perhaps slightly more giver-congruent for rites of progression as opposed to rites of passage. The link between the conventional nature of rites of passage and self-symbolism was stronger for the receiver-congruence of gift, which was lessened on rites of passage. Perhaps receiver-congruence requires extra effort as compared to giver-congruence, and givers are less motivated to put forth this extra efforts on rites of passage as compared to rites of progression

Sex did not have an impact on giver-congruence of the gift, a result that may be explained in part by the fact that giver-congruence can be either a desired or undesired characteristic; therefore, the greater social sensitivity of women would not necessarily result in buying less giver-congruent gifts. However, women did intend to buy more receiver-congruent gifts than did men, a finding consistent with womens' greater interest in gift-giving and the domestic sphere of life.

While the experimental design utilized can separate the effects of the independent variables which in practice are correlated, the design nevertheless has limitations. As subjects did not have to actually engage in any search behavior, they could report what they ideally would do. Whether or not that goal would be achieved is unclear. In that other studies have suggested that givers do not find gift purchase in general to be a difficult activity (cf. Otnes et al. 1993), it may be that intentions of givers are often carried out. The hypothetical nature of the experiment together with the within subjects design may have resulted in interactions between the independent variables being too subtle to detect (Sawyer 1977). Further research with a different research design is necessary to study the impact of closeness, similarity, occasion and sex on self-symbolism in gifts.

Gift-giving behavior appears to involve an engagement of self and other for many givers. This is especially true for givers buying for receivers they perceive to be both close and similar. Such givers are more likely to feel like receivers are part of their "extended self." While many of us feel obligated to give gifts, and may grumble about the commercialism which promotes this enterprise, giving is nevertheless a meaningful ritual which provides an avenue for the discovery and enlargement of selves.


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Mary Finley Wolfinbarger, California State University
Mary C. Gilly, University of California


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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