Giffen Goods: Definition, Historical Perspective, and Real-life Examples


Giffen goods, named after Scottish economist Sir Robert Giffen, are unique in that their demand increases as their price rises, contradicting standard economic theories. This article delves into the history, definition, and examples of Giffen goods, exploring their impact on economics. Discover the factors that influence Giffen goods and how they differ from Veblen goods. Gain insights into their historical context and real-world applications, shedding light on these intriguing anomalies in the world of consumer behavior.

Giffen goods: An economic enigma

A Giffen good, a term coined in the late 1800s, is a peculiar phenomenon in economics. It’s characterized by being a low-income, non-luxury product that defies conventional demand theory. Unlike most goods, the demand for Giffen goods actually increases when their price rises and decreases when their price falls.

This unconventional behavior leads to an upward-sloping demand curve, in direct contrast to the standard downward-sloping demand curve observed for most products. To understand this economic anomaly better, let’s delve into the history, definition, and examples of Giffen goods.

The origin of Giffen goods

The term “Giffen goods” owes its name to Sir Robert Giffen, a renowned Scottish economist, statistician, and journalist. Giffen goods are typically low-income, non-luxury products with very few close substitutes. They stand in contrast to Veblen goods, which also defy standard demand theory but are associated with luxury items.

Examples of Giffen goods

Giffen goods are often essentials with few near-dimensional substitutes at the same price levels. Examples include bread, rice, and wheat. These goods are central to the concept of Giffen goods because they are necessities for many people and have limited alternatives at similar price points.

Understanding the peculiarity of Giffen goods

Giffen goods are a rarity in economics because they challenge the fundamental principles of supply and demand. The demand for Giffen goods is influenced by various market variables, including supply, demand, price, income, and substitution. These variables play pivotal roles in the basic theories of supply and demand economics.

Supply and demand

Traditional economics posits that when prices rise, demand falls, resulting in a downward-sloping demand curve. Conversely, when prices fall, demand is expected to increase, creating an upward-sloping demand curve. Income can slightly modify these results, flattening the curves since higher personal income can lead to different behaviors. The concept of substitution is also significant, as most goods have substitutes, impacting consumer choices.

However, Giffen goods defy these norms. Their demand curve is upward sloping, indicating that demand increases as prices rise. Since there are few substitutes for Giffen goods, consumers continue to buy them even when prices increase. Giffen goods are often essential items, and this combines both the income and substitution effects. Consumers are willing to pay more for these essentials, but this also limits their disposable income, making buying slightly higher-priced options even more challenging. Consequently, consumers buy even more of the Giffen good, creating unconventional supply and demand results.

Historical research and Giffen good examples

The existence of Giffen goods has been a topic of historical research and debate. Alfred Marshall, in his textbook Principles of Economics, described Robert Giffen’s work in the context of bread rising in price because people lacked the income to buy meat. However, in 1947, the meat-bread example was challenged by George J. Stigler in his article “Notes on the History of the Giffen Paradox.”

Another example of the existence of a Giffen good was offered by a 2007 study authored by Harvard economists Robert Jensen and Nolan Miller. They conducted a field experiment in the Hunan province of China, where rice is a dietary staple, and in the Gansu province, where wheat is the staple. Randomly selected households in both provinces were given vouchers that subsidized the purchase of their respective staple foods.

Jensen and Miller found strong evidence of Giffen behavior exhibited by Hunan households with respect to rice. Lowering the price of rice through the subsidy caused reduced demand by households for rice, while increasing the price by removing the subsidy had the opposite effect. However, the evidence of wheat in Gansu was weaker.

Giffen goods vs. Veblen goods

Both Giffen goods and Veblen goods are nonordinary goods that defy standard supply and demand conventions. With both Giffen and Veblen goods, a product’s demand curve is upward sloping. However, they differ in some key aspects.

Veblen goods

Veblen goods, unlike Giffen goods, are premium, luxury goods. Examples can include celebrity-endorsed perfumes or fine wines. These goods are associated with high social status symbols, and their high prices actually make them more desirable to high-income consumers. The income effect has little impact on these goods because income is not a significant factor. Substitution is also minimal because these goods are generally status symbols and lack close substitutes.


Giffen goods remain a fascinating anomaly in the world of economics, challenging established theories of supply and demand. Their unique behavior, characterized by an upward-sloping demand curve, makes them a subject of ongoing research and debate. While Giffen goods are relatively rare, their existence has been observed in various contexts, shedding light on the complex interplay of factors influencing consumer choices.

Frequently asked questions

What is a Giffen good?

A Giffen good is a unique type of product in economics. It’s a low-income, non-luxury item for which demand actually increases as the price rises, and vice versa. This counterintuitive behavior contradicts the standard economic theory of demand and results in an upward-sloping demand curve.

Why do Giffen goods have an upward-sloping demand curve?

Giffen goods exhibit this unusual demand curve due to a combination of factors, including the lack of close substitutes and income constraints. Since there are few alternatives available, consumers continue to buy these goods even when prices increase. Moreover, Giffen goods are often essential items, so consumers allocate a significant portion of their income to purchase them, reinforcing the upward demand trend.

Are Giffen goods common in the market?

No, Giffen goods are relatively rare in modern economies. They are more commonly found in historical contexts or specific regions where income levels are extremely low, and essential goods become dominant in consumption. In most developed economies, the prevalence of Giffen goods is limited due to a wider variety of available substitutes and higher income levels.

How do Giffen goods differ from Veblen goods?

Giffen goods and Veblen goods share the characteristic of having an upward-sloping demand curve, but they differ in several key aspects. Giffen goods are low-income, non-luxury products primarily influenced by income constraints and the lack of substitutes. In contrast, Veblen goods are luxury items associated with high social status, and their demand is driven by factors like exclusivity and conspicuous consumption.

Can you provide more examples of Giffen goods?

While bread, rice, and wheat are common examples of Giffen goods, other historical examples include potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine and inferior-quality staple goods during periods of extreme poverty. The specific goods that exhibit Giffen behavior can vary depending on the economic and social context.

Has the concept of Giffen goods been debated in economic history?

Yes, the existence and behavior of Giffen goods have been subjects of debate among economists throughout history. The concept was initially introduced by Sir Robert Giffen in the late 1800s, and since then, various studies and research have both supported and challenged its applicability in different contexts.

Why is understanding Giffen goods important in economics?

Understanding Giffen goods is essential in economics because they challenge traditional supply and demand theories. They illustrate the complexity of consumer behavior and the influence of multiple factors, such as income, substitutes, and essentiality. Studying Giffen goods helps economists refine their models and better explain real-world economic phenomena.

Key takeaways

  • Giffen goods have an upward-sloping demand curve, defying standard economic theories.
  • Examples of Giffen goods include essential products like bread, rice, and wheat.
  • Income and the lack of substitutes are key factors influencing the demand for Giffen goods.
  • Veblen goods, although also having an upward-sloping demand curve, are luxury items driven by factors like social status and exclusivity.
View article sources
  1. Definition, Latest News, and Why giffen goods is Important? – ClearTax
  2. Introducing Supply and Demand: Giffen Goods – Saylor Academy
  3. The Z Curve: Supply and Demand for Giffen Goods –