A Consumer Response to Incongruity Between Optimal Stimulation and Life Style Satisfaction

Russell G. Wahlers, University of Notre Dame
Michael J. Etzel, University of Notre Dame
ABSTRACT - Several studies have found a relationship between the presence of a high optimal arousal level among consumers and behaviors that reflect stimulation seeking. The present study extends that research, going beyond absolute optimal arousaL level to a consideration of the difference between optimal and actual arousal and its effect on behavior. The results, based on a sample of 588 consumers who provided information on optimal levels of arousal, life style stimulation and preferences for an ideal vacation, provide strong support for the notion that the amount of stimulation desired by a consumer depends upon the directional difference between optimal and actual levels of arousal.
[ to cite ]:
Russell G. Wahlers and Michael J. Etzel (1985) ,"A Consumer Response to Incongruity Between Optimal Stimulation and Life Style Satisfaction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 97-101.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 97-101


Russell G. Wahlers, University of Notre Dame

Michael J. Etzel, University of Notre Dame


Several studies have found a relationship between the presence of a high optimal arousal level among consumers and behaviors that reflect stimulation seeking. The present study extends that research, going beyond absolute optimal arousaL level to a consideration of the difference between optimal and actual arousal and its effect on behavior. The results, based on a sample of 588 consumers who provided information on optimal levels of arousal, life style stimulation and preferences for an ideal vacation, provide strong support for the notion that the amount of stimulation desired by a consumer depends upon the directional difference between optimal and actual levels of arousal.


The concept of arousal has interested psychologists since Freud and has been a major component in numerous behavioral theories (Hebb 1949: Duffy 1957; Malmo 1959; Berlyne 1960) of the relationship between the state of an organism and its reaction to stimuli. The common theme of these theories is that a behavioral response will be influenced by the stimulus object, the level of arousal experienced by he organism at the time of the exposure, and the organism's optimal level of stimulation.

Berlyne (1960) proposed that all stimulus situations have four attributes (novelty, uncertainty, conflict and complexity) in varying degrees. These attributes, combined with the perceived reward or punishment associated with the stimulus, create its arousal potential. When the arousal potential of an individual's environment is too low, increased stimulation is sought. Conversely, when the arousal potential of a situation is coo high, he individual will seek ways to escape. The relationship between arousal potential and an individual's level of arousal has been described as an inverted-U, in which low levels of arousal potential in the environment stimulate greater arousal in the individual up to some optimal level. Beyond that level, increases in arousal are dysfunctional such that further increases in arousal potential produce lower levels of arousal as the individual seeks a more moderate situation.

Whether the arousaL potential of the environment is perceived as too high or coo low depends on the individual's optimal level of stimulation or ideal arousal. This optimal level, according to Berlyne (1960, p. 211) is determined by "personality factors, cultural factors, learning, and psychological states."


Arousal is an endogenous construct in most consumer behavior models (Howard and Sheth 1969; Hansen 1972; Bettman 1979). According to Howard and Sheth (1969), individuals strive to maintain an optimal level of stimulation. At this optimal level, the individual is satisfied. When circumstances move the individual away from this level, effort is expended to reestablish congruity between actual and optimal stimulation. One category of responses to an imbalance or incongruity between actual and optimal stimulation involves a striving on the part of the individual to increase stimulation. This phenomenon has been described in the marketing literature as novelty seeking, exploratory behavior, and variety seeking (Raju 1980; Venkatesan 1973; Faison 1977; Rogers 1979; Hirschman 1980; Raju and Venkatesan 1980). The alternative imbalance, involving efforts to decrease stimulation, has been of little interest to marketers and is not widely discussed in the literature.

Optimal stimulation has been the subject of a limited amount of marketing research. The need for high levels of stimulation has been related to the acceptance of new retail facilities (Grossbaret, Mittlestadt, and Devere 1976), new product trial (Mittlestadt et al. 1976) and risk taking, innovativeness, and information seeking (Raju 1980). These studies suggest a relationship between optimal stimulation and behavior. That is, individuals with high optimal stimulation levels (OSL) are more likely to engage in behavior which increases stimulation than individuals possessing low OSL.

However, more meaningful than the absolute value of optimal stimulation is the relationship between OSL and actual arousal. Rather than view only individuals exhibiting high OSL as stimulation seekers, it is more appropriate to consider the relative magnitudes of OSL and actual arousal. Regardless of an individual's absolute OSL, actual arousal is either greater, equal, or less than OSL. If they are equal, the individual is satisfied. However, it OSL is greater than actual, theory would suggest that the individual will be bored with his/her surroundings and thus seek stimulus on to restore congruity. In contrast, if OSL is less than actual stimulation, a person is receiving too much stimulation from the environment. In this situation, he/she would be expected to attempt to avoid or moderate the stimulation in order to restore balance. Given these conditions, the present paper addresses the following hypotheses:

H1: Individuals whose optimal levels of stimulation exceed their life style stimulation will demonstrate a preference for a more active consumption alternative.

H2: Individuals whose optimal levels of stimulation are less than their life style stimulation levels will demonstrate a preference for a more passive consumption alternative.


To test the hypotheses it was necessary to measure OSL, life style stimulation (LSS), and preferences relative to a stimulus activity. OSL was measured using Version V of Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking Scale (1979). Zuckerman describes sensation seeking as a "trait defined by the need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience" (1979, p. 10). The basis for the development of the Sensation Seeking Scale was that "Every individual has characteristic optimal levels of stimulation (OSL) and arousal (OLA) for cognitive, motor activity, and positive affective tone" (Zuckerman 1979, p. 92). The Sensation Seeking Scale has been shown to correlate with Garlington and Shemona's (1964) Change Seeking Index (Acker and McReynolds 1967; Farley 1971; McReynolds 1971) and Penney and Reinehur's (1966) Stimulus Variation Seeking Scale (Looft and Baranowski 1971). Satisfactory split-half test-retest reliabilities are reported by Zuckerman (1979). The Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS) consists of 40 forced-choice items. Sample items are presented in Exhibit 1



Life Style Stimulation (LSS) is defined as the stimulation level perceived by an individual in his/her normal work and leisure activities. A fourteen-item forced-choice scale was designed by the authors to measure this construct. The scale is presented in Exhibit 2. Items were scored such that high scores indicate the individual is experiencing a stimulating life style and vice versa. To test for validity, LSS responses were correlated with Pearson's (1970) Desire for Novelty Scale. The resulting significant negative correlation (r--0.51, p-.0001) was as expected. That is, an inverse relationship was found between the stimulation in an individual's life and the desire for novelty.

The stimulus activity of concern in this investigation was "an ideal vacation of two or more nights away from home that you may wish to take in the near future with the traveling party of your choice." This "ideal" vacation was described by nineteen adjectives, each accompanied by a six-point "highly desirable feature" to "highly undesirable feature" scale. The items are presented in Table 1. Vacation behavior was selected for the study because it is an experience that can be designed by the individual to meet specific needs, it incorporates the potential for a wide variety of stimulation levels, and it is a highly involving consumption decision about which consumers should have relatively strong feelings.

The data were collected via a mail questionnaire from the Wright State University consumer panel in the summer of 1983. The average respondent is 50 years of age, married, with some college education, and has a household income of approximately $25,000. Half were male and half female. The results reported here are based upon 588 responses.

The questionnaire contained five components pertinent to this project: the Zuckerman Sensation Seeking Scale, the Pearson Novelty Seeking Scale, the Life Style Stimulation scale, the ideal vacation description, and several demographic profile questions.




With respect to the questionnaire section addressing vacation perceptions, the initial set of descriptive attributes relating to ideal vacation preference was subjected to principal components analysis. This procedure was used to identify any underlying ideal vacation preference dimensions against which subjects' OSL and LSS scores could be examined. The results of the principal components analysis are found in Table 1. As shown, seventeen of the ideal vacation descriptors were found to yield factor loadings greater than 0.5. Two of the original items, "aesthetic" and "active," did not load cleanly on any of the factors and were therefore excluded from any further analyses. Five ideal vacation dimensions emerged from this analysis, each exhibiting an eigenvalue larger than one and collectively accounting for 61.4 percent of the total variance. Based on an inspection of the attribute loading pattern, the five vacation preference dimensions were termed: (1) new and different, (2) cerebral, (3) change of pace, (4) rejuvenation, and (5) traditional. Factor scores were generated for each respondent on these five vacation preference dimensions.



Each subject's responses to the 40-item Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS) instrument were subsequently scored to represent an operational measure of ideal or optimal stimulation level (OSL). The scale is constructed such that higher SSS values are associated with higher optimal stimulation levels and vice versa. To facilitate a comparison with the LSS scale, the OSL scale was transformed to a ratio index (0 to 1.0) by dividing the SSS score by forty. (The untransformed range of Zuckerman's SSS index is normally 0 to 40.) The resulting OSL index values ranged from 0 to 0.85 with a mean of 0.28 across all respondents.

Each subject's responses to the 14-item Life Style Stimulation (LSS) instrument were scored to represent an operational measure of current, experienced life style stimulation. In this scoring procedure, the alternative statements comprising each of the fourteen items were coded 0 or l corresponding respectively to the lower or higher stimulation experience within the pairs. The fourteen item values were subsequently summed and divided by fourteen to yield a ratio index value potentially ranging from 0 to 1.0 such that higher values were associated with higher experienced life style stimulation and vice versa. These LSS scores, having a mean of 0.53, ranged from 0 to 1.0 across all subjects reflecting a wide variation in experienced stimulation among respondents.

Using the OSL index scores as an indicator of the subjects' ideal stimulation preferences and the LSS index scores as a measure of respondents' actual life style related stimulation levels, a decision rule was devised to categorize the subjects into either of two groups. Individuals exhibiting a higher optimal stimulation index than the experienced life style stimulation score (i.e., OSL > LSS) were classified as stimulation "seekers" representing those who experience less than their ideal amount of relative stimulation. Thus, the OSL > LSS state reflects stimulation deficiency strictly in relative sense. Likewise, subjects who exhibited a lower ideal stimulation score than the experienced life style stimulation index value (i.e., OSL < LSS) were classified as stimulation "avoiders" representing individuals who appear to experience more than the ideal, preferred level of stimulation in their lives. The OSL < LSS state thus reflects a stimulation overload situation, again strictly in a relative manner. One subject exhibiting equivalent ideal and experienced stimulation index scores (i.e., OSL - LSS) was excluded from further analysis under the presumption that his or her stimulation needs were satisfied from a relative perspective. Based upon this classification schema, the resulting groups of stimulation "seekers" and "avoiders" consisted of 90 and 497 subjects respectively with corresponding means OSL-LSS difference scores of 0.14 and -0.33.

The assertion that the stimulation deficient subjects (seekers) and the stimulation saturated respondents (avoiders) manifest different types of vacation preferences was examined by investigating differences in ideal vacation dimension factor scores between groups. The magnitude and nature of these differences are summarized in Table 2.



Using a two-sample C-test procedure (conservatively assuming unequal dimension variances between groups), the mean factor scores associated with four of the ideal vacation dimensions were fount to be significantly different. That is, a statistically significant distinction was observed between stimulation seekers and avoiders with respect to vacation preference dimensions 1, 2, 3, and 5. The mean factor scores on dimension 4 were not significantly different between the groups. Thus, the proposition that subjects' relative stimulation satisfaction (measured via difference between OSL and LSS) is linked to reported vacation preference was supported by the data.

Further, the nature of this linkage was revealed by an inspection of the mean dimension scores corresponding to the two groups. Stimulation seekers were observed to score higher on dimensions 1 and 3 which tents to suggest a relative characteristic of activity or action proneness in a vacation consumption context. Conversely, the group of stimulation avoiders were fount to score higher on preference dimensions 2 and 5 reflecting a relative characteristic of passivity proneness relative to vacation preference. Thus, this pattern of mean factor score differences between groups was viewed to support the study's hypotheses.


The results show that consumption preferences are influenced by the relationship between optimal stimulation and life style stimulation. Irrespective of the absolute value of OSL, individuals experiencing less stimulation in their lives than they desire expressed a preference for greater activity and action on an ideal vacation. Conversely, individuals experiencing more than their desired levels of stimulation exhibited a preference for a more tranquil, passive ideal vacation. Interestingly, no difference was fount with regard to restfulness or the rejuvenating characteristic of an ideal vacation. That is, both groups viewed their ideal vacation as restful and relaxing.

The findings are a refinement of previous OSL research. They suggest that the appropriate distinction in understanding the individual's stimulation seeking behavior is not 80 much an issue of high versus low OSL in absolute terms, but rather whether the individual's difference between OSL and life style stimulation is positive or negative.

While the present findings are based on a vacation preference criterion, in an actual choice context presumably consumers can use purchasing behavior to add zest and excitement to their lives (a not too subtle message in much advertising). It would appear from this study that consumers can also adjust their product and service choices as a means of reducing stimulation and introducing greater tranquility into a hectic life style.

Further research addressing the role of the optimal stimulation construct in the individual 18 consumption decision process is clearly needed. Vacation preference, the category of interest in this investigation, appears by its nature to reflect a classic opportunity for stimulation seeking. In terms of future research directions, the relationship between OSL and life style stimulation level needs to be examined in actual consumption contexts involving other product classes as well. Further research in this area needs also to involve other samples investigating demographic differences across groups exhibiting varying levels of stimulation arousal. Additionally, an opportunity exists to investigate the study's hypothesized relationships in actual product choice situations using alternative OSL measurement scales fount in the behavioral sciences literature. Finally, continued research needs to address the issue of experienced life style stimulation measurement in terms of identifying the appropriate underlying dimensions of environmental stimulation


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