The Effect of Arousal Seeking Tendency on Consumer Preferences For Complex Product Designs

Dena Cox, Indiana University
Anthony Cox, Indiana University
ABSTRACT - Research and theory concerning consumers' arousal seeking tendency (AST) would seem to suggest that high-AST consumers should prefer products with visually complex designs. However, the only previous study to examine how AST moderates preferences for complex, meaningful objects (Furnham and Bunyan 1988) found the exact opposite to be true. The present study re-examines this issue, while addressing some of the methodological problems of the Furnham and Bunyan study. Yet once again our results are contrary to those predicted in the arousal seeking literature. We conclude by discussing possible interpretations of this anomalous finding, and issues for future research.
[ to cite ]:
Dena Cox and Anthony Cox (1994) ,"The Effect of Arousal Seeking Tendency on Consumer Preferences For Complex Product Designs", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 554-559.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 554-559


Dena Cox, Indiana University

Anthony Cox, Indiana University


Research and theory concerning consumers' arousal seeking tendency (AST) would seem to suggest that high-AST consumers should prefer products with visually complex designs. However, the only previous study to examine how AST moderates preferences for complex, meaningful objects (Furnham and Bunyan 1988) found the exact opposite to be true. The present study re-examines this issue, while addressing some of the methodological problems of the Furnham and Bunyan study. Yet once again our results are contrary to those predicted in the arousal seeking literature. We conclude by discussing possible interpretations of this anomalous finding, and issues for future research.

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition among consumer researchers that many important consumer behaviors (e.g., reactions to fashion and decorative products, music, and advertisements) are affected by consumers' aesthetic or hedonic preferences (e.g. Sewall 1978, Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, Bell, Holbrook and Solomon 1991). This recognition has in turn stimulated experiments aimed at understanding how consumers' aesthetic preferences are affected by the design of marketing stimuli. For example, Bell, Holbrook and Solomon examined how consumer preferences for ensembles of furniture were affected by the consistency of styling within these ensembles, and Cox and Cox (1988) examined how the visual complexity of advertisements moderated the impact of repetition on consumer preferences for those advertisements.

Much of this research on consumer aesthetic preferences has been influenced by basic work in "experimental aesthetics," and especially by the research of Daniel Berlyne (e.g. Berlyne 1968, 1970; Berlyne and Lawrence 1964). Berlyne and his colleagues posited that humans' aesthetic preferences were a function of a stimulus' "arousal potential," which in turn was largely determined by its "collative properties;" e.g., its complexity, novelty and incongruity. According to Berlyne, aesthetic preference is related to a stimulus' arousal potential in an inverted-U shaped pattern, in which the most preferred stimuli are those which are moderately novel and complex, and therefore moderately arousing. In contrast, Berlyne's research suggests, subjects tend to dislike stimuli that are either too simple and familiar (which elicit a negative "tedium" response) or too complex and novel (which raises subjects' arousal beyond the optimal, preferred level).

While the above researchers have been examining how humans' aesthetic preferences are affected by a stimulus' arousal potential, other researchers, working virtually independently, have been studying a seemingly related phenomenon: individual differences in subjects' preferred or optimum arousal level. This personality trait has been variously termed "Sensation Seeking" (e.g., Zuckerman, Kolin and Zoob 1964) "Optimal Stimulation Level" (e.g. Raju 1980) and "Arousal Seeking Tendency" (Mehrabian and Russell 1973). A good description of this proposed construct is provided by Mehrabian and Russell (1973, p. 315):

"An individual's preference for an environment is closely related to his preferred arousal level: Some persons characteristically prefer calm settings, whereas others actively seek to increase their arousal by selecting novel, complex, or unpredictable situations."

In a recent article, Steenkamp and Baumgartner (1992) present both a literature review and original research examining the relationship between arousal seeking tendency and a variety of consumer behaviors: e.g., risk-taking, willingness to use a new brand, and information search. Surprisingly, however, they note that no study has examined the relationship between consumers' arousal seeking tendency, and their reactions to the collative properties (e.g., complexity, novelty) of marketing stimuli. In their discussion of future research, Steenkamp and Baumgartner (1992, p. 446) state:

"...we feel that some areas of exploratory behavior offer especially great potential for future research...particularly the effect of OSL [optimum stimulation level] on consumer responses to collative properties of stimuli. This is an important field of inquiry, and little experimental research is available. For example, one would expect that consumers with high OSL's would have greater preferences for complex, ambiguous or novel ads than consumers with lower OSL's. Furthermore, research on the relation between collative properties and consumer responses...may also be fruitfully employed to understand consumer reactions to other types of stimuli such as aesthetic objects."

The present study will seek to address this gap in the literature; i.e., we will examine whether consumers' aesthetic preferences for products that vary in their collative properties are moderated by consumers' measured Arousal Seeking Tendency. The particular collative property we will examine will be stimulus complexity, since this variable is most clearly operationalized in the work of Berlyne et al.

Since Berlyne's research indicates that complex stimuli tend to be more arousing than simple stimuli, one would logically expect that subjects scoring high on arousal seeking would be more likely to prefer complex stimuli than would low arousal seekers. However, only one study has examined this hypothesis directly, and it yielded somewhat ambiguous results. Furnham and Bunyan (1988) presented subjects with four types of paintings: abstract paintings of high and low visual complexity, and representational paintings of high and low complexity. After exposure to the paintings, subjects expressed their preferences, and then completed Zuckerman's Sensation-Seeking scale. The authors found that, among the abstract paintings, preferences followed exactly the pattern one would predict based on Berlyne's theory: the higher subjects' sensation-seeking scores, the more likely they were to prefer the complex paintings. However among the representational paintings, the results were somewhat surprising: preferences for the simple/representational paintings were not significantly correlated with sensation-seeking, and preferences for the complex/representational paintings were negatively correlated with subjects' sensation-seeking scores (r=-.33). Since complex stimuli are typically more arousing (Berlyne 1968, 1970) the results regarding the representational stimuli seem contrary to what one would expect based on Berlyne's theory.

In contemplating these results, it is important to note that most of Berlyne's research on collative variables has tended to employ abstract, meaningless stimuli (e.g. abstract line drawings, black and white grids, etc.) while most marketing stimuli (e.g. advertisements) tend to present representational depictions of recognizable objects (e.g., a product). Thus it would seem particularly relevant to consumer research to determine whether these seemingly anomalous findings for representational stimuli are a bona fide, replicable phenomenon, or are somehow an artifact of the particular experiment reported by Furnham and Bunyan.

Unfortunately, a straightforward interpretation of Furnham and Bunyan's findings is somewhat hampered by some methodological problems in their experiment. First, while the authors employed "experts" to help classify the paintings as either simple or complex, they apparently performed no manipulation checks to confirm that subjects perceived them as such, nor did they measure any other perceived differences among the purportedly complex and simple stimuli (e.g., was each set of paintings perceived as equally novel? Were there confounds between the paintings' complexity and their artistic style? For example, all five of the abstract/simple paintings were by Mark Rothko, who has a very bold, distinctive style). Second, there was no effort in the Furnham and Bunyan study to control for subjects' knowledge of paintings in general, nor their prior exposure to these particular paintings. Third, the experiment employed a within-subjects design, in which all subjects apparently saw the paintings in the same order, suggesting a potential confound of stimulus effects and order effects. Finally, Furnham and Bunyan employed Zuckerman's sensation-seeking scale, which some researchers have criticized for reliability problems, and proneness to producing anomalous results (see Mehrabian and Russell 1973; Steenkamp and Baumgartner 1992).

Thus our study will address some of these methodological difficulties, while examining the following research question:

Will subjects scoring high on Arousal Seeking Tendency be more likely to prefer depictions of visually complex product designs than subjects scoring low on Arousal Seeking Tendency?


The design of our experiment addressed some of the methodological problems of the Furnham and Bunyan study: we employed a between subjects design, manipulation and confounding checks for complexity, controls for prior product knowledge, and an arousal-seeking scale that is widely viewed as more reliable than that used by Furnham and Bunyan. Specifically, our study employed a 2 x 2 between subjects design with two levels of product design complexity (simple and complex) and two levels of the measured variable, Arousal Seeking Tendency (AST) (low and high). We also employed multiple operationalizations of each level of product complexity to increase the construct validity of this manipulation (Cook and Campbell, 1979), using women's fashion products as the stimuli.


Subjects were recruited from undergraduate business classes at a large Midwestern University. As an incentive to participate, subjects' names were placed in a lottery to win a Sony compact disc player. After excluding thirteen cases with excessive missing data, and selecting subjects scoring in the top or bottom third of the Arousal Seeking Tendency scale (discussed below) 343 subjects provided the data for this study. Subjects' ages ranged from 19 to 41, with a median age of 20. The sample intentionally included both female (35%) and male (65%) subjects. While men do not typically purchase female fashions, male opinions of fashion attractiveness are rated as extremely important to females in this age group (see, e.g., Reynolds and Wells 1977) and thus are likely to exert an indirect influence on purchase behavior. The impact of gender on subjects' judgments in discussed in the Results.

Stimuli and Pretests

The stimuli were professionally prepared drawings of fashion apparel. Fashion is a product for which consumer aesthetic response is very important (Sewall 1978) and which can believably be presented in a wide variety of designs. A total of forty-two dress styles were initially designed, which were intended to vary on perceived complexity as defined by Berlyne and Lawrence (1964) (having many heterogeneous elements, irregular in arrangement). The styles varied in their complexity of both shape (some had many complex embellishments, while others were very simple) and fabric (some fabrics were very simple, such as a solid shade; others had complex prints such as an irregular arrangement of circles and rectangles).

Next, the initial set of product designs was pretested to gauge subjects' perceptions of their complexity and to ensure that the complexity manipulation was not confounded with perceived novelty (another collative variable that might have been a confound in the Furnham and Bunyan study) or overall likability.

The pretests were conducted among a total of 421 undergraduate students, using measures modelled after Cox and Cox (1988). Perceived complexity was measured on two 7-point semantic differential scales anchored by "complicated-simple" and "not complex-complex" (1 scored as simple, 7 scored as complex). The coefficient alpha for this scale was 0.85. Perceived novelty was measured on five, 7-point semantic differential scales anchored by "new-old," "original-unoriginal," "unusual-common," "familiar-novel," and "typical-atypical." The coefficient alpha for this scale was 0.81. Stimulus likability was measured by three 7-point semantic differential scales anchored by "bad-good," "pleasant-unpleasant," and "likable-not likable." This scale's coefficient alpha was 0.89.

**From these pretests, six product designs were found to meet our criteria. The mean perceived complexity of the three simple designs (=2.60) was significantly lower than that of the three complex designs (=5.95; t=10.2; p<.001), with all three complex designs (4=6.18, 5=5.20, 6=5.60) being rated substantially higher than all three simple designs (1=1.78, 2=2.83, 3=2.20). The mean liking of the simple designs (=4.17) did not differ significantly from that of the complex designs (=4.27). Finally, the mean perceived novelty of the simple designs (=5.01) was not significantly different from the mean of the complex designs (=4.87). All designs were perceived as at least moderately novel, with means ranging from 4.47 to 5.25 on the 1-7 point scale.

After pretesting, the six stimulus product designs were placed in the context of advertisements for a fictitious retail store.

The finished ads, like many fashion ads, were very simple. They contained minimal copy (the headline and store location information) and no product related copy. Aside from the variations in dress design, all of the experimental ads were identical on all other factors: store name, type, letter size, as well as the model, her accessories, her facial expression, etc. Each subject was exposed to only one of the six target stimuli, presented along with several unrelated "filler" ads within an experimental booklet.


The booklets were randomly distributed to volunteer subjects within three large classes. Subjects were told that we were interested in their thoughts about some advertisements. Subjects were also told that we would be asking different people different questions due to the limited time period. This was done to help mask any demand artifacts about the target ad.

Subjects were given 20 seconds to view each ad in the booklet. (Pretests indicated that most subjects' attention seemed to wander after about a 20 second exposure to these ads). Subjects were instructed not to look back at any previous advertisements (compliance with this request was confirmed by experimenter observation of the subjects). After this task, subjects were asked to write all of the brand, store or manufacturer names that they could recall. Next, they were presented with a list of product categories and asked to place checks by those depicted in the preceding ads. These tasks were designed to disguise the true purpose of the study, as well as provide a slight delay before measurement. Next, subjects viewed a picture of the target product design and were asked to rate its visual appeal, and its visual complexity. They viewed another product and were asked similar questions about this product. Next, subjects completed the forty-item Arousal Seeking Tendency scale, and demographic questions.


Consumer liking of the product designs' visual appeal was measured by averaging six 7-point scales, anchored by "bad-good," "pleasant-unpleasant", "likable-not likable," "flattering-unflattering," "unattractive-attractive," and "stylish-not stylish." The first three adjective pairs were taken from Cox and Cox (1988), and the last three were designed to be specifically relevant to fashion. The polarity of some adjectives was reversed to avoid acquiescence bias, and then recoded before being combined into a mean score. This scale had a coefficient alpha of 0.92. Perceived Complexity was measured using two 7-point scales, anchored by "complex-not complex" and "complicated-simple." This scale had a coefficient alpha of 0.92.

Arousal Seeking Tendency (AST) was measured using Mehrabian and Russell's (1973) arousal seeking tendency scale. This summed scale asks subjects to provide 9-point agree-disagree ratings of 40 different statements related to arousal seeking (e.g., "I like to experience novelty and change in my daily routine" and "shops with thousands of exotic herbs and fragrances fascinate me".) Because we were interested in extreme effects, those scoring in the top and bottom thirds of this scale were used in the ANCOVA. We chose to use this particular measurement instrument for several reasons. First, as noted by Raju (1980), this scale taps a wider variety of arousal seeking behaviors than some of the alternatives, including several consumption-related behaviors. Second, as demonstrated both by Mehrabian and Russell (1973) and by Steenkamp and Baumgartner (1992), the AST scores well on a variety of tests of reliability and validity. Finally, the AST is fairly easy to administer.

The coefficient alpha of the AST scale in this study was 0.89, which is very consistent with past studies (e.g., Steenkamp and Baumgartner 1992).

Product-Category Knowledge was measured by asking "In general, would you say that you are knowledgeable about current fashions?" to which subjects responded on a seven-point scale ranging from "not at all knowledgeable" to "very knowledgeable."


Subjects' preferences regarding the fashion stimuli were analyzed using a 2 x 2 ANCOVA, with product design complexity (2 levels; high and low) as a manipulated factor, and Arousal seeking tendency (2 levels; top 1/3 and bottom 1/3) as a measured factor. A manipulation check confirmed that the mean perceived complexity of the "complex" designs (5.34) was significantly higher than that of the "simple" designs (2.88; p less than .001). Gender was included in the analysis as a covariate since (given the nature of the product category) we expected that there might be gender differences in the ratings of the stimuli.

The results of the ANCOVA are shown in the Table. As can be seen, arousal seeking had no main effect on product preferences, but dress complexity did (p<.013). This finding cannot be interpreted in a straightforward manner, since, as expected, there was a significant interaction between complexity and arousal seeking (F=5.73; d.f.=1, 338; p<.017). Figure 1 shows this interaction. As can be seen, the effect is contrary to what one would expect given the theories of Berlyne (1968, 1970) and Mehrabian and Russell (1973), but consistent with the results Furnham and Bunyan (1988) obtained for representational stimuli: Subjects with high arousal seeking tendencies preferred the simple product designs to the complex designs, while the low arousal seeking subjects rated both the low and high complexity dress designs the same (low =3.84, high =3.80).

As discussed earlier, we also measured subjects' self-reported fashion knowledge. Since several of the items in the AST scale measure interest in changes in one's environment and novel sensory experiences, one might expect AST to be positively correlated with fashion knowledge. Furthermore, since people with different levels of fashion knowledge may tend to view particular styles differently, we wanted to make sure that the apparent interaction of AST and design complexity was not actually an interaction between fashion knowledge and design complexity. Our analysis did confirm that AST was positively correlated with fashion knowledge (r=.228). However, when fashion knowledge was included as a covariate in the ANCOVA, the interaction between AST and complexity was essentially unaltered (p=.016). Thus, even after controlling for subjects' self-reported fashion knowledge, our original findings hold.


This study examines the moderating effect of consumers' arousal seeking tendency (AST) on their preferences for complex and simple product designs. Our data analysis revealed that AST does interact with product complexity, but the pattern of the interaction is the opposite of what one would expect based on the literature on arousal-seeking tendency (e.g., Mehrabian and Russell 1973; Steenkamp and Baumgarten 1992): High arousal-seeking consumers actually preferred the simple products to the complex products.

One previous study (Furnham and Bunyan 1988) examined the interactive impact of AST and stimulus complexity on the liking of meaningful objects (representational paintings), and they also obtained findings which appeared contrary to conventional arousal-seeking theory. Initially, we had speculated that Furnham and Bunyan's anomalous findings might have resulted from several methodological problems in their experiment (e.g., the absence of manipulation and confounding checks, possible order effects, their measure of arousal-seeking, failure to control for subjects' prior knowledge of this stimulus category). However, even when we addressed these methodological problems in our own experiment, we obtained results very similar to those of Furnham and Bunyan.

In trying to make sense of these anomalous findings, several potential issues come to mind. The first involves a reassessment of what is actually measured by the AST or Sensation-Seeking instruments. In initiating this investigation, we (like Furnham and Bunyan) accepted the traditional view that these instruments measure a general tendency toward "Arousal Seeking" or "Sensation Seeking;" thus it seemed reasonable to expect that subjects scoring highly on these scales would prefer stimuli with any arousing attribute, whether it be stimulus complexity, novelty, etc. However, if one examines the specific items included in these scales (particularly Mehrabian and Russell's AST scale) one cannot help but notice that a very large number of these items appear to measure respondents' preference for novelty or change, and none directly mentions preference for complexity. For example, the forty AST items include multiple mentions of the words "change," "new," and "unpredictable," as well as the words "strange," "weird," "unfamiliar," "surprises," and "novelty;" however neither "complex," "complicated," nor any close synonyms, are mentioned in the AST items. Probably the statement most closely related to the complexity construct is "Shops with thousands of exotic herbs and fragrances fascinate me." This raises the possibility that the AST, rather than tapping into all types of arousal-seeking tendency, is primarily a measure of novelty-seeking, and has little relevance to subjects' preference for complexity. This would help explain why our high-AST subjects did not tend to prefer the complex designs.



If, in addition, the simple designs were seen as more novel than the complex designs, then this might explain why the high-AST (i.e., high-novelty-seeking) respondents tended to prefer the simple designs. This might be a plausible interpretation of the Furnham and Bunyan results, since (as mentioned earlier) they did not control for the perceived novelty of their paintings. However, in our study, the pretests indicated no significant differences in perceptions of novelty between the complex and simple products; thus we must look for constructs other than complexity or novelty to help explain our results.

One such construct, which has recently received considerable attention in the field of experimental aesthetics, is stimulus prototypicality. Several recent studies (e.g. Hekkert and van Wieringen 1990; Martindale, Moore and West 1988) suggest that while complexity and other collative variables may be the most important determinants of preferences for the abstract/meaningless stimuli typically employed by Berlyne and his colleagues, preferences for meaningful stimuli are largely determined by stimulus prototypicality, or the extent to which stimuli are seen as "typical" or "classic" examples of a particular category of objects. (For example, even though robins and penguins are both birds, robins are likely to be viewed as more prototypical, since they possess more of the attributes normally associated with the category "bird:" smallness, chirping, ability to fly, etc.) In one study, Hekkert and van Wieringen (1990) found that while preferences for abstract paintings were an inverted-U function of their complexity (as would be predicted by Berlyne) preferences among representational works bore little relation to complexity, but exhibited a monotonically positive relationship to their prototypicality.

How might this relate to our research? It is conceivable that our complex and simple designs may have differed in their degree of perceived prototypicality (e.g., as "dresses," or "garments"), and that this difference may have elicited different reactions from the high and low AST subjects. For example, it may be that the complex designs contained more of the elements typically associated with dresses (e.g. pleats, fabric ornamentation, etc.) and thus were viewed as more prototypical; the simple dresses, being less prototypical, may have stimulated more arousal (see e.g., Mandler 1982), making them more preferable to the high AST subjects. However, without further experimentation, this interpretation is simply speculation.

It is clear that future research is needed on the relationships between arousal-seeking tendency, product design characteristics and consumers' aesthetic preferences. While the relationships between these variables might appear to be straightforward from a reading of the literature on arousal seeking (e.g. Steenkamp and Baumgartner 1992), both our study and Furnham and Bunyan's obtained results that are not readily explained by that literature. Future research should attempt to operationalize the construct "product design prototypicality," to examine the impact of prototypicality on consumers' aesthetic preferences, and to explore its possible interactions with consumer arousal-seeking tendency. In addition, future studies of aesthetic preference should include explicit measures of subjects' arousal states, so that the presumed role of arousal as a mediator of design preferences can be confirmed (or refuted) directly, rather than assumed, based on Berlyne's theory. In general, while the work of Berlyne and his associates offers many insights into human preferences for abstract visual stimuli, there is a great need for more research into the formation of consumers' aesthetic preferences for products and other meaningful stimuli.




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