The Marketing Characteristics of Involvement

Robert N. Stone, University of Illinois
ABSTRACT - A behavioral view of involvement has never been specifically suggested in consumer research. The purpose of this article is to present this new perspective and to discuss how both behavioral involvement and ego-involvement may be used to understand marketing phenomena.
[ to cite ]:
Robert N. Stone (1984) ,"The Marketing Characteristics of Involvement", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 210-215.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 210-215


Robert N. Stone, University of Illinois

[Appreciation is expressed to Professors Dave Gardner at Illinois and Dave Finn at TCU and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.]


A behavioral view of involvement has never been specifically suggested in consumer research. The purpose of this article is to present this new perspective and to discuss how both behavioral involvement and ego-involvement may be used to understand marketing phenomena.


Much marketing attention has been given to involvement since the concept gained prominence in the mid-sixties. Credit for generating this interest is consistently given to Krugman (1965, 1966) and his presentation of low involvement learning, a concept wherein attitude formation followed behaviors. Years later, however, a sense in the marketing community of cumulative research progress with involvement seems noticeably lacking and as noted by Sherrell and Shimp (1982, p . 104):

The exact functioning of consumer involvement is not understood. More fundamentally, there is confusion over precisely what involvement is.

It seems strange that a term such as involvement, one used with such ease in everyday instances, has become an acknowledged research enigma.

What has obscured the clarity of involvement? The major objective of this paper is to answer that question by presenting the important distinction between attitudinal involvement and behavioral involvement. These are two very different contexts for the involvement concept, and it is stressed that greater concern for that be exhibited.

Emphasized in this article is that behaviors be viewed as what "involvement" means. This suggestion is not to be interpreted as some claim being made for behaviors to be studied as an indicant of the involvement construct. This would be interesting research in its own right and most worthy of pursuit; it is not the subject matter of this article, however. Here, the orientation is for a behavioral definition of involvement, an orientation suggested as most compatible with the marketing discipline. With this perspective then, involvement shall be defined as time and/or intensity _ effort expended in the undertaking of behaviors.

To develop this other understanding of involvement for marketing, background discussion is first presented about some previous conceptual and research dealings with the concept as it has been traditionally treated.



Involvement initially appeared in the social psychological literature as an attitudinal issue (Houston and Rothschild 19783. Involvement was associated with the ego, a concept understood to be comprised of a constellation of attitudes that was concerned with the very being of each individual, that is, with his or her unique combination of social and personal values. The champions of this position (Sherif and Cantril 1947) argued that highly involved individuals would be most likely to "take a stand" on an issue. This seems easy to accept: if one's very self (the ego) was highly involved, then one certainly could be expected to take a stand on an issue. One need only to consider the issues of abortion, unemployment, and the like, to appreciate this claim. Another related view saw involvement as a function of one's personal values and the degree to which they were engaged by some stimulus (Ostrom and Brock 1968).

Consumer Behavior

While issues may engage deep seated personal values, this phenomena need not "map" to marketing's domain where the ego would be called on to be deeply involved because of products and services that engaged these same values. One should not be at all surprised, as has been researched, that products, by and large, do not elicit the degree of ego-involvement that issues might (Hupfer and Gardner 1972). And yet, for the most part, consumer behavior researchers adopted the psychologist's orientation to involvement in the sense of involvement being related to attitudes, values, and cognitive activities. Consider the following examples:

*Rothschild (1979) remarked that, "Management theory and folklore concerning consumer decision-making generally assume that the consumer is involved with the product under consideration." As Rothschild proceeded to develop his point about management theory and folklore, he defined involvement "as a construct related to attitude strength.

*DeBruicker (1979), in his inciteful article on involvement, also leaned the mentalistic way and said, "Understanding the prior cognitive structure or the network of contact points is a problem of defining the status of the individual's prior cognitive structure."

*Ray et al. (1973) presented the same orientation with three hierarchy-of-effects models, all of which were based on cognitive structures.

*Day (1970, p.45) claimed "involvement reflects the general level of interest in the object to the person's ego-structure."

*Sherrell and Shimp (1982) wanted "to investigate the process of involvement and to examine cognitive differences in experimental subjects...." The authors went on to note that "the amount of involvement influences the extensiveness of cognitive activity that consumers engage in.

Though there are important differences in the above "involvements," in each case, it is apparent that the emphasis for involvement is on unobservable cognitive structures. A helpful summary to this cognitive approach to understanding involvement is suggested by Cohen (1983a);

At this point then it might be reasonable to define involvement in terms of (1) a preexisting state or predisposition to respond to a specific stimulus, (2) the activation level at a particular moment of time, (possibly directed to a purpose), or (3) a sequence of cognitive activities carried out subsequent to message reception.

Research. Research that has wrestled with involvement has been burdened by definitional ambiguities. Matters were expressed this way (Houston and Rothschild 1978):

A variety of conceptually distinct definitions have been used, resulting in several methodological approaches to the study of involvement... there are different types of involvement and different ways to study it.

Houston and Rothschild made an excellent point about types of involvement. But the "different types" they alluded to have rarely been related in an integrative sense by marketing researchers. Researchers have worked with advertising involvement, product involvement, issue involvement, situational involvement, and so forth, and each, somehow, became an outgrowth of the work of Krugman (1965). It seemed that the mere usage of the word "involvement" any place in the research provided carte blanche for a "natural" Krugman link-up.

Some important research is now cited with interspersed commentary. As this research is discussed, the following is a question which may be kept in mint: Is there not room in marketing for an orientation to involvement that differs from that of the psychologist?

(1) Lastovicka and Gardner (1979): These authors stated that ".. Krugman forces marketers and researchers alike to give serious consideration to the possibility that consumers are not highly involved in the purchase of most goods and services."

[Comment: This statement requires much deliberation. From a different perspective, it would also seem correct to view consumers as very much involved with things. This may not be in the psychological sense of "taking a stance," but in the quite relevant marketing one of time and effort expended in the undertaking of behaviors. A fruitful way to determine involvement that would seem relevant to marketing is: to ask consumers how much time they put into planning their shopping; to ask them how much time they allocated for shopping; to determine how much money was budgeted for purchases, and so forth. Upon analyzing these answers, something about the degree of involvement (as defined in this paper) may be assessed. By relying on a state variable, and Krugman's portrayal of involvement, the marketer may understandably claim no involvement for consumers. But by relying on the behaviors themselves, the claim of involvement is appropriate.

(2) Sherrell and Shimp (1982): In an effort to bring more empirical research to involvement, these authors suggested studying cognitive activity and three indicators were developed to accomplish this. These indicators were: "subjective state," a self report of how much thought one put into a task, or how meaningful that task was; "self insight accuracy," a self report of how much insight one could claim for his or her cognitive operations; and, the amount of time that subjects required to complete a decision task. Both self-report measures failed to show significant differences between the groups (group involvement manipulated using a personalization technique). In fact, results had the low involvement group showing higher insights into their cognitive activities than the high involvement group, exactly contrary to what was hypothesized. Only the behavioral measure of "elapsed time spent on the "task" showed significance, being greater for the high involvement group, as hypothesized.

The authors factor analyzed the six item "subjective state' scale and came up with two factors. All items that would indicate behaviors loaded on one factor ar.d those that were more "mental" loaded on the other. Interestingly enough, the item "Task was Very Involving" did not load on the same factor as the items, "Important to Me" or "Interesting to Me." The latter two have been understood to be surrogates for involvement and probably are in an attitudinal way. However, when asked about their own involvement, individuals treat the term as one related to behaviors, as the factors t seem to indicate.

[Comment: Behaviors may be used as an indicant of the involvement construct and, as stated earlier, that is a potential focus for fruitful research. But of special interest to this article is the results of the factor analysis. t.then asked about their involvement with a task, subjects interpreted this as a question about their behaviors. When asked about importance or interest, a separate factor emerged. It seems timely to ask this: Does involvement (the construct) dictate involvement (the behaviors)? This question could (and should) be reversed: Noes involvement (the behaviors) dictate involvement (the construct)? Further remarks about this appear later in this paper in a discussion about involvement and marketing strategy.]

(3) Tyebjee (1979): Tyebjee noted that, "The most cursory examination of the research on involvement, however, immediately identifies that the concept seems to mean wholly different things to different researchers." Tyebjee employed Krugman's "conscious bridging experiences" to explain that involvement with advertisements was effected both by a viewer component and a mass communication component. Therefore, a conscious bridging experience, Krugman's definition for involvement, could be influenced by any of these. But Tyebjee introduced "low involvement products" and "involvement in the product class," ideas that marketers often think go naturally with Krugman's low involvement model, developed however, only for a form of learning due to repetitive advertising. Tyebjee stated (1979, p.97), "Low involvement products can be expected to be susceptible to advertising pressure because such products are characterized by weak beliefs and low perceived brand differences." But just a short while later (p.107) Tyebjee noted, "A product can be a low-involvement product for a particular consumer and high-involvement one for another."

[Comment: Tyebjee's comment is important. it acknowledges that classifying products as to high or low in involvement probably will lead to unwarranted generalizations. Once again, it is the desire to apply Krugman, and his idea of involvement, that leads to viewing "product involvement" in some cognitive way. How more relevant it would indeed be, especially for marketing purposes, to view product involvement as the behaviors that accompanying product usage.]

Summary Comment

Marketers, such as those just cited, have gone to great lengths to do justice to Krugman's theory of low involvement and they should be applauded for those efforts. But linkages to Krugman often do not seem natural and as noted by Finn (1982), so very often research on involvement seems to be "forced." The reliance in consumer behavior research on attitudinal and cognitive orientations for involvement has not proved fruitful to the degree hoped for.

When the domain of a construct changes, the construct must be cautiously handled, if not reconceptualized. Something less than this has occurred with involvement and that is suggested as the major reason for frustrations with the construct. After close to twenty years of deliberations over involvement, Cohen's (1983b) remark, "The first order of business, it would seem then, is to try to agree on what involvement is." seems all to appropriate.

Zaltman et al. (1982) present a helpful comment which summarizes the point-of-view being advocated:

Confusion also arises because we don't recognize the difference in meaning when using old words in a new context, that is, if we "borrow" the concept of entropy from physics, does it have the same meaning in a marketing context? Since many people get an initial theory by borrowing from another discipline, it is important to recognize that the terms that are used may not have the same meaning in the marketing area. Are the phenomena they refer to the same?



Day-to-day usage of the term, involvement, it seems quite appropriate to say, is not due to attitudes but to behaviors. Whether the focus be on employees at work, consumers using products or doing their shopping, students engaged in their studies, academicians lecturing and leading seminars, or husbands and wives planning budgets and allocating resources, in each and every case, use of the term "involvement" would be concerned with behaviors. In sum, if one were to state that any of the above persons were "involved," it would simply be because behaviors of those persons were directly witnessed (or understood to have taken place). While it is possible that some attitudes for these persons may be inferred, far more likely would be the case to believe that such was of little or no concern to the observer.

What about involvement in a marketing context? If psychological (ego) involvement calls for one to take a stand on an issue, is there some equivalent to this for marketing involvement? The very posing of these questions seems long overdue and badly in need of resolution.

Consider, for example, the Kassarjian (1981, p.32) remark:

It is undeniable that independent of the product class, there are some persons that tend to be more involved in the consumer decision process. They may be the addicted reader of Consumer Reports, those who pay greater attention to advertising and personal influence, and to the business and consumer sections of the newspaper. Some individuals may well be more price conscious, more alert to brand differences, generally more capable of discriminating quality differences, the more alert, the more conscious, the more interested and involved consumer.

What would cause one to think that some consumer was more involved in the consumer decision process? Intuitively, it would seem to be because of behaviors witnessed and not because of an inference about mental dispositions. But unexpectedly, Kassarjian went on to develop a personality based approach to what he called his "second look" at involvement. He looked past the behaviors and the excellent way that he used them to portray what it meant for someone to be involved.

If one closely examines Kassarjian's remarks, one would have to acknowledge a host of behaviors embodied in the comment. One finds, reading, paying attention, being more alert, even being more price conscious, a notion only possible as a consequence of studying prices. Might we have been "looking" at involvement yet not recognizing this because of trying in earnest to understand involvement only from a cognitive perspective? Possibly the question for the marketing community to address is, "Should it be 'thinking' that is tantamount to involvement or should it be 'doing'?"


Although examples like that from Kassarjian are peppered throughout the literature, a behavioral view of involvement has never been specifically suggested in consumer research. For the sake of clarity, though possibly at the expense of redundancy, the previous statement is not to be interpreted as a call for understanding the involvement construct through behaviors. It is a call, however, for acceptance of the term, involvement, as one simply used to "summarize" behavioral acts.

Hansen (1972) came close to this understanding with his thought that involvement, "...can be thought of as reflecting the extent to which the individual is engaged in the particular situation." But this is not lucid support for a behavioral or mentalistic orientation as one cannot be certain that Hansen's "engaged" is mentalistic or behavioral. Calder (1979) presented an excellent point that, "To understand low involvement we need research that allows for the impact of behavior." However, Calder was not advancing another way to view involvement, but simply discussing the dynamic nature of behavior in shaping the involvement construct. Perhaps Finn (1982), in his effort to point out the weaknesses with Krugman's low involvement reasoning, came closest to acknowledging a behavioral dimension for involvement Ho stated:

Low-involvement learning refers to Krugman's... idea of passive information processing. The concept of low-involvement choice behavior particularly when the tern low-involvement product is introduced does not seem to be related to the former construct....I believe that we have been seeing imaginary connections between the two ideas...

This viewpoint is totally shared. While product involvement may mean, in Krugman fashion, the ability of the product to generate conscious bridging experiences, or in Ostrum and Brock fashion, to engage central values, why not acknowledge that product involvement has to do with behaviors that one undertakes while using the product? In sum, could not a marketer claim that a person "was involved" and not be referring at all to that person's attitudes but simply to his or her behaviors?


It would seem quite appropriate at this point to acknowledge a dichotomy for involvement as follows:


By accepting involvement both as a state variable (Mitchell 1981, p.25) and as behaviors, various fruitful questions may be forthcoming. For instance:

For "Behavioral" Involvement

1. If someone were highly involved, what behaviors would indicate this?

2. When does high involvement clearly reflect the involvement construct, and when does high involvement reflect other underlying constructs?

For "Mental State" Involvement

1. How does high involvement manifest itself in behaviors? In other words, for high and low attitudinal involvement, how do behaviors differ?

2. Are there personality types whose high involvement is not manifested in their outward behaviors?

Further questions naturally follow about behavior's impact on attitudes and vice versa. For example, are repeat purchases (a form of behavior) based on habit (high behavioral involvement and low attitudinal involvement) or brand loyalty (a high/high status)? This mutually dynamic influence is supportive of Calder's (1979) important remarks in this area.

After the initial dichotomy for involvement is acknowledged a tree diagram may be formed, as next shown, to help direct thoughts and elicit researchable issues. As a mental state, the familiar branches of "latitudes," "taking a stance" and "direction and intensity" may be indicated, to name a few. By behaviors, the branches "searching," "questioning," and "arguing," may be listed, also to name a few. Each of these latter are samples of the kinds of behaviors that indicate degrees of behavioral involvement.


Greater searching for information, as part of buyer behavior, would indicate high involvement from a behavioral perspective; the lack of questioning about new products would indicate low involvement. This reasoning applies to any other types of behaviors exhibited by consumers.

Considering a dichotomy for involvement permits reflection of how the "involvements" impact each other and important marketing issues. Take, for example, the adoption process. Early adopters would all be highly involved in a behavioral sense; the attitudinal, ego-involvement of these early adopters is not as clear-cut nor as easy to determine. While the attitude towards the act of early adoption is evident, the reason for the attitude is not. Furthermore, one cannot claim "product involvement" (a cognitive meaning simply because a person is an early adopter. The involvement (the behaviors) may or may not be due to something about the attitudinal (ego) involvement towards the product it may simply be something about one wanting to be first with something new.

There is concurrence with Bettman (1978) and his excellent point, "One cannot confidently conclude that a consumer is not involved with a product if little external search is observed." In other words, Bettman is stating that sparse behavioral involvement need not equate with the lack of ego-involvement. But it is also true that: one cannot conclude that extensive external search (behavioral involvement) is indicative of product involvement (a mental state sense).

Strategy Making

Involvement from a behavioral perspective may also assist and describe strategy-making. The marketing strategy of free samples and give-aways, say, is done to elicit involvement (behaviors) with the firm's fundamental goal of developing long run favorable attitudes (mental state involvement). One thing seems to be certain and that is that if any marketing manager asked, "What target markets may be most apt to initially get involved," that manager would hardly be talking about attitudes. He or she would, however be talking about involvement in the behavioral sense of purchasing activity in the marketplace.

An attempt to represent some of the previous remarks in matrix form may be as follows with the dichotomy for involvement separated into high and low levels:


Brand loyalty and habit were commented on earlier, but major durables and novelty seeking were not. These latter two may be represented in the "low behaviorally involved" portion of the matrix. Major durables are infrequently purchased by consumers and novelty seeking is to be taken as unplanned purchases. Brand loyalty very definitely may develop for major durables but that term was reserved in the matrix for frequently purchased items (consummables). For some target markets, major durables will appear in the low/low box.

Many other entries may be placed in the respective boxes of the matrix and the ones suggested may be argued about. But a sense of marketing strategy is evident in the matrix as sellers attempt to "move" consumers around, hoping to achieve HI/HI status for their clientele.

Finn (1982) noted:

. . . forcing the idea of low involvement products to define a set of behavioral outcomes is inefficient and misleading. we would do better to first establish that a given behavioral situation exists and then search for explanations.

Finn was advocating the study of mental states from observed behaviors. But one should feel comfortable with (a) witnessing involvement, and (b) inferring involvement. The former is "kinetic" in the form of behaviors which may or may not be easily understood through consideration of motivational states as marketing researchers well know; the latter is "potential" in the form of attitudes and these too may or may not be easily inferred through consideration of observed behaviors. But acknowledging two contexts for involvement as has been stressed, an attitudinal one and a behavioral one, is strongly recommended.


The objective of this paper has been to advance another perspective for involvement, one that stresses behaviors. This perspective is supported not only because it more naturally conforms to everyday usage of the term, involvement, but also because the frustrations with involvement, it is suggested, stem from the very conceptualization of the construct. Most articles on involvement, as has been noted, point out definitional concerns and lack of clarity for the concept and the concern must be raised as to whether the low involvement conceptualization was appropriate- Another question, in deference to Krugman, is whether consumer behavior researchers employed Krugman in ways that he may never have intended nor would support. Recent research suggests that Krugman's model has not been an accurate representation of attitude formation (Finn 1982); earlier research has tried to re-explain what Krugman really meant (Preston 1970).

If the mainstay of the Krugman formulation was not accurate, then why not comprehensively reexamine involvement? Why not see if a new framework would assist consumer behavior research? The Krugman orientation to involvement was clearly a mentalistic one applied by marketing researchers to marketing issues. The "fit" has still not comfortably materialized. To be involved with a product means to be using and working with a product; to have experience with it. While it is possible that "product involvement" may mean the product is able to generate conscious-bridging experiences, such notion has been difficult to understand and develop (Leavitt et al. 1981).

The traditional view of involvement considers involvement as a person's activation level and as one's readiness to respond to a stimulus (Cohen 1983a). Cohen points out that consumer behavior interest in involvement has generally been in the context of advertising communication and, more specifically, to the communication episode, its antecedent variables, and the cognitive processes from time of message reception to product purchase.

By considering involvement in the context presented in this article, however, the emphasis for studying involvement shifts. The greater import for marketers than mental connections, it is suggested, becomes one of knowing what is transpiring in the marketplace. That is really the place to study involvement, involvement in the sense of noting what consumers are doing because of the marketing efforts aimed at them.


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