The Eye of the Beholder: Individual Differences in Perceptions of Consumption Symbolism

Russell Belk, University of Utah
Robert Mayer, University of Utah (student), University of Utah
Kenneth Bahn,
ABSTRACT - Using paired pictures of three houses and four automobiles, responses were elicited which measured impressions of the owners of each object. Comparisons of response patterns between college students and older adults, males and females, and high and low social class subjects showed substantial differences in impression formation between these groups. These individual differences are interpreted in light of theories of social status and gender roles.
[ to cite ]:
Russell Belk, Robert Mayer, and Kenneth Bahn (1982) ,"The Eye of the Beholder: Individual Differences in Perceptions of Consumption Symbolism", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 523-530.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 523-530


Russell Belk, University of Utah

Robert Mayer, University of Utah

Kenneth Bahn (student), University of Utah


Using paired pictures of three houses and four automobiles, responses were elicited which measured impressions of the owners of each object. Comparisons of response patterns between college students and older adults, males and females, and high and low social class subjects showed substantial differences in impression formation between these groups. These individual differences are interpreted in light of theories of social status and gender roles.


As demonstrated in a recent review paper (Holman, 1981), there is ample evidence that people both attempt and succeed in communicating information about themselves via their visible consumption choices. A person's choices of clothing, automobiles, homes, furnishings, and leisure activities are often rich in implied and inferred messages about the consumer making these choices. A substantial stream of research covers how consumers communicate their self-concept through their consumption selections, that is, encode messages to others. Much less is known about the subject of this paper -- the determinants of how people code messages conveyed by others' visible consumption.

Most of the research on the decoding of consumption cues focuses on the effect of particular types of cues. Some of this research has documented the sizable extent to which isolated consumption cues influence our impressions of others (Buckley and Roach, 1974; Calder and Burnkrant, 1977; Gibbins, 1969; Hamid, 1968, 1969, 1972; Haire, 1950; McKeachie, 1952; Thornton, 1944; Werbel and Bahn, 1980; Woodside, 1972). The most recent research focuses on the impact on impression formation of altering part of the total configuration of consumption cues which may be visible in meeting another person (Belk,1980, 1981; Gibbins and Schneider, 1980; Holman, 1980). However, relatively little research on decoding consumption symbolism has considered the extent of individual differences in the way we perceive others based on their consumption choices. The present research is part of a broad attempt to understand the influence of perceiver characteristics on the decoding of consumption cues.

The entire research project investigates the difference in the impressions formed by perceivers differing in age (from preschool children to middle-aged adults), gender, and social class. The emergence of impression formation among young children will be the main focus of later research. The portion of the research presented here, however, examines differences between college students and older adults in their perceptions of the owners of the same set of houses and automobiles. It was hypothesized that this difference in age and experience would result in different inferences about the product owners. There is little prior research to support this contention, but Cunningham, Anderson, and Murphy (1974) found that status consciousness tends to increase with age. This finding may mean that older perceivers are more willing or able to make such inferences about others. There is also some evidence that as age increases perceivers tend to make fewer object attributions (e.g. he selected that shirt because it is a nice shirt) and more person attributions (e.g. he selected that shirt because he is conservative) (Ruble, et al., 1979).

Within the college student and older adult groups, comparisons are also made between the response of male and female perceivers. It was hypothesized that males and females would differ in the impressions they formed of the automobile and house owners. This hypothesis is supported by several prior studies (Allison et al., 1980; Belk, 1978; Golden, Allison, and Clee, 1978; Hamid, 1969) and is derived from the expectation that experience in enacting differing gender roles may direct attention to different consumption objects and to different attributes of these consumption objects when males and females make consumption-based inferences about, in this case, a male consumer. Aside from specific differences in the nature of person perceptions by males and females, there is also some evidence that females are generally more sensitive to consumption cues and other personal cues than are males. (Belk, 1978; Hall, 1978; Hamid, 1969).

The final individual difference characteristic examined in the present study is social class. Given the difficulty of assigning college students to social strata, social class effects are examined only within the older adult sample. The expectation here was that higher and lower social class respondents would make different inferences about traits of the product owners. Some support for this hypothesis was found in a study by Sommers (1964) in which high and low social class individuals differed in the extent to which they felt various products described themselves and described members of another social stratum. Similar findings have been reported by Munson and Spivey (1981) for at least some of the product categories and brands they investigated. In many respects their findings support the observations of Veblen (1899) concerning product-based communication within and between social classes.

Choice of Consumption Objects

There were several reasons for choosing automobiles and houses as the consumption objects for study. First, these items are commonly observed and easily recognized by young children as well as adults (Cobb, 1954; Estvan and Estvan, 1959; Riesman and Roseborough, 1955). Second, both cars and houses can normally be seen without also seeing their owners. Thus, these products could be presented alone as stimuli without having to worry about any unintended manipulations based on the product user shown. Third, owners of different kinds of automobiles and houses do in fact vary substantially in their demographic characteristics (Ferber, 1962; Katona, 1964; Porter, 1966)--even though the United States is relatively egalitarian in terms of whether people own a car or house at all (Lebergott, 1975).

Fourth, consumers regard cars and houses as expressive of themselves. Even though the classic study by Evans (1959) was unable to detect personality differences between owners of Fords and Chevrolets, subsequent studies have found strong relationships between self-concept and automobile preferences (Birdwell, 1968; Green, Maheshwari, and Rao, 1969; Grubb and Hupp, 1968; Grubb and Stern, 1971; Jacobson and Kossoff, 1963; Ross, 1971). Consumers also appear to encode messages about themselves through their housing choices (Cooper. 1974).

Finally, and most importantly, automobiles and houses are commonly perceived as consumption objects subject to different choices by different types of people. That is, people attribute unique characteristics to the owners of different types of cars and houses. Despite the fact that as much as one-fourth of a sample obtained by Felson (1978) claimed to be unable to rate the prestigiousness of American cars such as Ford Torino and Plymouth Fury, studies employing a more diverse set of foreign and domestic cars have had more success (King and King, 1980a, 1980b; Munson and Spivey, 1981). Even Ford and Chevrolet owners have been distinctly profiled using a forced choice adjective check list (Wells, et al., 1957). And when factors such as number, age, and condition of automobiles are added-to a consideration of make and model, the ability to draw inferences about social status is further enhanced (Rainwater, 1974). Automobiles differing in make and country of manufacture have also been found to be perceptually matchable with different owner occupation types (Green and Wind, 1973, chapter 7). Further, automobiles differing in age, condition, and make have been found to receive different degrees of hostile (horn-honking) responses when presumably stalled at a stop light (Doob and Gross, 1968). Similarly, the ascription of social status to others has been found to vary with size, location, condition, and cost of their housing (Rainwater, 1974; Coleman and Rainwater, 1978), although Felson (1978) found that suburb alone was only a moderately useful cue in rating status of home owners in Chicago. And the style of a residence also affects personality inferences (Cooper, 1974; Vershure, Magel, and Sadalla, 1978).

In fact, automobiles and houses have precisely those product characteristics that maximize the likelihood that consumer choices in that product class will be used as cues to owners' personalities and social strata. Belk (1980) found that product classes viewed as offering more variety, more unique choices, more visible consumption, greater cost, and more thoughtful selection are more likely to be used as salient cues in making consumption-based inferences about the social class and personality of another consumer.



In selecting the particular automobiles and houses as stimuli for eliciting perceptions of consumption symbolism, it was reasoned that the stimuli should be within the subjects' average range of experience and have potentially distinct consumer images associated with them. While no systematic knowledge exists about which specific attributes of houses and automobiles most powerfully elicit inferences about their owners, the literature cited above suggests that age, size, style, and cost (present value rather than initial purchase price) are attributes likely to lead to differences in images attributed to product owners. Inasmuch as possible, other object attributes were to be held constant (e.g., make of car).

Pairs of color photographs were used to present the stimuli to the subjects. The paired comparison format was chosen for two reasons: (1) to provide a task simple enough for preschool children as well as adults, and (2) to isolate the product characteristics that serve as the potential bases for inferences about the owner. Because age and cost tend to covary for automobiles, three rather than four paired comparisons were used. Similarly, size and cost in addition to style and age covary for houses, necessitating only two paired comparisons. This reduction in the pairs of photographs to be shown also substantially shortened the time necessary to complete the task (an especially important consideration with respect to the preschool children used in another phase of the research.

The automobiles ultimately selected were:

1. a blue 1981 Chevrolet Chevette two-door sedan;

2. a blue 1981 Chevrolet Caprice two-door coupe;

3. a blue 1981 Chevrolet Camaro two-door coupe; and

4. a blue 1971 Chevrolet Camaro two-door coupe.

All four cars were photographed in the same or similar settings with the same camera, lense, and distance. All had whitewall tires, were facing left, and were nearly identical in their shade of blue Paint.

In order to provide a task which could be accomplished by pre-school children as well as adults and in order to isolate the variables manipulated, automobiles were presented in a paired comparison format. The first pair involved the first and second cars which varied in size and cost (this compounding was unavoidable within a single make of automobile). The second pair involved the second and third cars which varied in style with the Camaro intended to be sportier. And the third pair involved the third and fourth cars which varied in age and cost. Each of these manipulations were tested among a subsample of the respondents. These manipulation checks are examined in the results section.

Three house photographs were selected with similar objectives and constraints:

1. a large white Bauhaus style two-story contemporary house;

2. a large white Colonial style two-story traditional house; and

3. a small white Colonial style two-story traditional house.

Comparisons of the first and second houses involved contrasts of style and age. Size and cost were varied by comparing the second and third houses. To the extent possible, landscaping, lighting, perspective, and surroundings were either held constant or eliminated from the photographs. These intended and unintended manipulations were also tested among a subsample of the respondents.


The student sample was drawn from three liberal arts and two business undergraduate classes at the University of Utah. A total of 170 subjects from these classes were shown slides of the five pairs of stimuli presented in different orders in each class. A subset of 76 subjects subsequently saw the slides one at a time and rated them on manipulation check scales. Although the ratio of males to females in the total sample is approximately equal, classifactory data were only obtained from 73 students and these subjects (39 female and 34 male) are used to test the gender hypothesis for the student samPle.

The sample of non-college adults was a convenience sample of 62 people drawn from the metropolitan area of Salt Lake City, Utah. Student interviewers recruited the sample subject to the restrictions that the respondents be 30 years of age or older and not be currently enrolled in college. These respondents were presented with the same pairs of stimuli rendered in black and white photographic reproductions in a self-administered questionnaire booklet. This adult sample consists of 23 males and 39 females. Social classes among this group were estimated using the Hollingshead and Redlich (1958) two-factor index. The sample was split at the median (32.5) on this index (mean score=34.2 on an ascending social status scale ranging from 11 to 77), yielding 27 people in the lower status group and 28 in the higher status group. These groups were used to test the social class hypothesis.

Criterion Measures

It was intended that the responses measuring consumption-based impression formation among adults also be measurable among preschool children. Consequently, it was necessary to use a small number of easily understood person characterizations, which could be inserted in the question, which of these two cars/houses is most likely to be owned by a man who is ___?" After examining measures used in prior research (little standardization is evident) and conducting small-scale pretests of children's abilities to respond to several types of items, a set of 12 person attributes was selected. The 12 attributes were intended to represent a variety of possible demographic, personality, emotional, and interpersonal inferences which could be made about other people.

To determine the structure of the criterion set as reflected in respondent perceptions, a matrix was prepared to reveal interdependencies among user attributions. The matrix showed the degree to which two attributions were seen as being appropriate for the same stimulus object in the view of the majority of the respondents. For instance the majority of subjects judged that the same house in a particular stimulus pair belonged to "a doctor" and to "someone who has a lot of money." Since similar congruence was found for all five pairs of stimuli, perfect interdependence existed between these two attributions. Similarly, since the same house or car was never perceived as belonging both to a doctor and to a mailman, perfect interdependence also existed between these two attributions.

The matrix indicated that the 12 attributes could be reduced to four clusters (two of which contain only one attribute):

1. Age

A. "Is a grandfather"

2. Sociability

A. "Is someone who has a lot of friends"

B. "Is someone I would like to meet"

C. "Is happy"

3. Successfulness

A. "Is a doctor"

B. "Is someone who has a lot of money"

C. "Is smart"

D. "Is a mailman"

E. "Is one of the first people to have the newest things"

F. "Is bossy"

G. "Is lucky to live the way they do"

4. Aspiration

A. "Is the kind of person I would like to be"

Within the groups of "sociability" items and "successfulness" items, all pairs of items received five of five possible "same" choices. Furthermore, such a perfect correspondence occurred for none of the other possible pairs of items.


Manipulation Checks

Table 1 shows the mean ratings on several intended and unintended manipulations for the pairs of stimuli which were ultimately compared in the paired judgment task. (Manipulation check measures were obtained on one stimulus object at a time however). Means are shown only for pairs which differed significantly according to correlated means t-tests (alpha=.05). It may be seen that while most of the intended manipulations were successful, for each pair there are other, unintended, differences. For instance, the large contemporary house appeared somewhat larger and appeared to be on a somewhat larger lot than the large traditional house. In this case, the slide was cropped to reduce this difference, but some differences are partially unavoidable given the configurations of existing houses and cars. This was also felt to be acceptable given that the main intent was to provide distinct, natural, and familiar stimuli to which consumers could attribute consumption symbolism. Nevertheless, the ability to clearly infer why a consumption selection creates a particular impression of its user is diminished by the inextricably bound stimulus properties.

College Students Versus Older Adults

Table 2 shows that for 27 out of the 36 attributions made for the three pairs of houses, the adult and student groups differed in their judgments. The table provides a number of insights into the particular ways in which the attributions of the two groups differ. Yet the most striking difference is the fact that, contrary to expectations, students were more nearly- unanimous in their judgments of which automobile or house in a pair was best represented by each of the attributions. This may be seen in Table 3 which shows the average differences between the dominant (i.e. most often selected stimulus in a pair) and non-dominant attributions within each pair of stimuli for the adult subject group and for the student subject group. For each of the five stimulus pairs, the students were significantly more consistent in their portrayal of owners than were the adults. To the extent that this reflects differences in degree of stereotyping rather than simply differences in involvement with the task, it suggests that students rely more heavily on consumption-based stereotypes while adults make less of visible consumption behavior.



Apart from the differences in the degrees of consumption-based stereotyping in the two subject groups, there are relatively few disagreements between the two groups concerning which stimulus in a pair goes with a particular attribute of the product owner. Instead there is general agreement that:

1. The man who drives the smaller automobile rather than the larger one is younger, more sociable, but less successful and less the subject of aspiration;

2. The man who drives the less sporty automobile is older, more sociable, more successful and more the subject of aspiration;

3. The man who drives the newer automobile is younger, less sociable, but more successful and more a person whose status is to be aspired to;

4. The man who lives in the newer (more contemporary styled) house is younger, not consistently more sociable, more successful, and more the subject of aspiration; and

5. The man who lives in the larger house is younger, less sociable, more successful, and more likely to inspire aspirations.





It is apparent that, over subjects and over stimulus pairs, those owners judged to be more successful were also more likely to be the subjects of aspiration. Further, whether the stimuli are cars or houses, newness seems to connote a younger, less sociable, and more successful owner who is more likely to be the object of aspiration. Similarly, for both cars and houses, largeness connotes a person who is less sociable but more successful and more the object of aspiration. In fact, the only instance in which sociability and success are not negatively related is with respect to car style. This anomaly may be attributed to the fact that the adult and student samples showed their least amount of agreement concerning the success dimension of car sportiness.

Males Versus Females

Table 4 presents a summary of the dominant attributions which differed between males and females in one or both of the subject groups. The greater number of attributions which are stronger among males would suggest that the males in these two samples have a greater tendency to have consistent consumption-based stereotypes than do females. Indeed the mean differences between the dominant and non-dominant attributions for males are significantly higher (averaging 53.8%) in the two subject groups than are these mean differences for females (averaging 46.4%). This finding is opposite that of other research (Belk, 1978; Hamid, 1969) which concludes that females are more sensitive to consumption cues. The apparent explanation is that decisions about automobiles and houses are more within the domain of male sex roles (Davis and Rigaux, 1974). In contrast to the present research, the studies just cited focused more strongly on apparel and fashion goods; areas which may be more relevant to female sex roles.

The other notable finding suggested by Table 4 is also subject to a sex role explanation. It may be seen in the table that males are more likely than females to make strong attributions of success and personal aspiration to those with larger and newer automobiles and houses as well as the less sporty automobile. It has been suggested by others (Davis and Moore, 1945; Simmons and Rosenberg, 1971) that recognition of status differentials is a prerequisite for achievement motivation and career preparation. Furthermore, a series of early studies found greater attention to and interest in status indicators by boys than girls (Jersild, Markey, and Jersild, 1933; Zeligs, 1942; Cobb, 1954). For instance, Cobb (1954) found that junior and senior high school boys expressed wishes for personal achievement and possessions more often than girls, while girls expressed wishes for social and family relationships more often than boys. Emerging changes in sex roles not withstanding, such findings may explain the tendency of the males in the present study to give more consistent attributions of success and attribution. That is, if males are more likely to pursue a career, attention to status-related consumption differences is more relevant to their success.



Lower Social Class Subjects Versus Higher Social Class


Table 5 summarizes the dominant attributions which differed between the lower and higher social class subjects in the adult sample. While the overall tendency to draw consumption-based inferences is similar for lower and higher social class subjects, other specific differences in attributions exist. Considering the size and age manipulations it appears that both groups see the owners of larger and newer houses and automobiles to be more successful. But while lower social class subjects see these persons as "lucky", higher social class persons see them as the type of person they would "like to be". That is, lower social class persons seem to be more fatalistic and believe in external control of their lives while higher social class persons appear to believe that they have personal control over their lives (Herzog,1963; Lewis, 1966). This same theme may be reflected in the finding that lower class subjects tend to make sociability attributions to the non-sporty automobile owner while higher social class subjects tend to make attributions of success to this owner.




The data reviewed here clearly indicate that individual differences exist in the nature and extent of consumptionbased person impressions formed by various observers. For the (distinctive and visible) automobile and housing consumption cues studied, college student subjects draw more distinct inferences than older subjects, and males draw more distinct inferences than females. These findings may indicate that the perceptions grow more complex as we age and that we pay more attention to products for which our gender is seen to more responsible.

It was also found that while college students and older subjects agree that newer and bigger cars and houses connote greater success and are more likely to inspire aspirations to own them, males make these inferences more readily than females. This was suggested to be due to gender roles, coupled with the hypothesized necessity to perceive status differentials in order to perceive career success incentives.

Finally, while social class groups were equally sensitive to consumption symbolisms lower social classes appeared to see luck as allowing the purchase of status symbols while higher social classes appeared to see self-motivation as being responsible. There was also some evidence that higher social class subjects may view automobiles more as symbols of success while lower social class subjects see them more as social facilitators.

The findings reported here should certainly be explored in larger, more systematically drawn samples. Future research should also investigate additional product classes. Even this, though, will only yield a static picture of the person attributions that are inferred from consumption choices. The authors hope to provide a more dynamic perspective by directing their future attention to the emergence of these attributions among children and examining how perceiver factors such as age, gender, social class and race affect this developmental process.


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