Concreteness-Abstract - Ness and the Feature-Dimension Distinction

Michael D. Johnson, University of Michigan
Jolita Kisielius, University of Illinois
ABSTRACT - This paper examines consumers' cognitive representations of products. Specifically, the paper attempts to provide insight into the representation of product attributes by focusing on two approaches for classifying these attributes that of concreteness-abstractness and features-dimensions. The literature on both approaches is reviewed. The paper contends that the two approaches are related in that more concrete attributes may be associated with more dichotomous features, while more abstract attributes may be associated with more continuous dimensions. The implications of this view for future research is discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Michael D. Johnson and Jolita Kisielius (1985) ,"Concreteness-Abstract - Ness and the Feature-Dimension Distinction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 325-328.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 325-328


Michael D. Johnson, University of Michigan

Jolita Kisielius, University of Illinois


This paper examines consumers' cognitive representations of products. Specifically, the paper attempts to provide insight into the representation of product attributes by focusing on two approaches for classifying these attributes that of concreteness-abstractness and features-dimensions. The literature on both approaches is reviewed. The paper contends that the two approaches are related in that more concrete attributes may be associated with more dichotomous features, while more abstract attributes may be associated with more continuous dimensions. The implications of this view for future research is discussed.


Understanding consumer judgment and choice processes naturally requires an understanding of the cognitive representation of products on which these processes are based. Among the distinctions made among attributes in these representations, two have received particular attention. One such distinction is concreteness-abstractness. Distinguishing among attributes with respect to concreteness-abstractness has proved fundamental to the study of choice strategies (Johnson 1984). Concreteness-abstractness has, in addition, been indirectly researched in studies that have investigated the effects of pictorial information on persuasive communications (e.g., Edell and Staelin, 1983; Hirschman and Solomon 1984; Kisielius and Sternthal 1984a; Mitchell and Olson 1981). -The pictorial vs. verbal format of information as well as the concreteness-abstractness of information can both be viewed as operationalizations of imagery. However, concreteness has been the focus of investigation of only a few marketing studies dealing with persuasive communications (e.g., Dickson 1982; Rossiter and Percy 1978).

A second useful attribute distinction is that between features and dimensions (Johnson 1981). Either feature-based or dimensional representations are, for example, implicit in the use of different choice strategies (Garner 1978) and similarly scaling procedures (Pruzansky, Tversky, and Carroll 1982).

The purpose of this paper will be to integrate these two areas by suggesting that a relationship exists between the concreteness-abstractness and feature-dimension distinctions. First, a brief review will be undertaken on the concreteness-abstractness and the feature-dimension distinction;. Then, an attempt will be mate to relate the concreteness-abstractness of products to the use of features or dimensions by consumers. Finally, the implications of this view for future research will be discussed.


Concreteness-abstractness has long been central to research in psychology and has recently emerged as an area of interest in marketing. Within the psychological literature, a large body of research in verbal learning has examined the effects of concreteness-abstractness as an indicator of imagery on different measures of learning. Research in this area has been influenced primarily by the work of Paivio and his associates (Paivio 1971). According to Paivio (1969), the abstractness-concreteness of a stimulus is mediated by the stimulus' ability to arouse imagery, which in turn determines its ability to affect learning. Thus the higher the concreteness of a stimulus, the more likely it is to evoke imagery and to subsequently have an effect on learning. Consistent with this view, concreteness has been found to be correlated with free recall, recognition, paired-associate learning (see Paivio, Yuille, and Madigan 1968), memory for changes in meaning and wording (e.g., Moeser 1974), and comprehension (e.g., Klee and Eysenck 1973).

Within this framework, concreteness-abstractness has further been explained in terms of the subordination-superordination of categories (Paivio 1971). The abstractness of a word is assumed to be related to the degree that a word represents a superordinate category. The more abstract a word is, the more likely it is to belong to a superordinate category. Consistent with this view, Rosch (1975 ) in her work on human categorization uses levels of abstraction to indicate points at which basic category distinctions are made.

Concreteness and abstractness have also been used to explain human values and goals. Rokeach (1973) suggests that at least two different sets of values exist: instrumental values and terminal values. Instrumental values are considered to be relatively concrete and deal with values of "doing", whereas terminal values are more abstract and deal with values of "being".

The research in the psychological literature on the effect of concreteness-abstractness on persuasion is mixed. Concreteness has been found to both have an effect on judgments as well as to have no effect. A number of explanations have been offered for these results in reviews of this literature (e.g., Kisielius and Sternthal 1984b; Taylor and Thompson 1982). Since the focus of this paper is no t to reconcile inconsistencies in the effects of concreteness on judgments, the interested reader should refer to the cited literature reviews for a more in depth discussion of this research.

In the field of marketing there is generally a renewed interest in attribute concreteness-abstractness. Holbrook and Hirschman (1982), for example, emphasize that tangible attributes of conventional goods, such as calories in a soft-drink or miles per gallon in an automobile, have been studied in consumer research to the exclusion of important experiential aspects of consumption, such as cheerfulness and sociability. The distinction between tangible and experiential aspects of consumption can be viewed as a difference in the abstraction of product attributes. Art works and ideologies have similarly been viewed as more abstract than other, more tangible products (Hirschman 1983). Empirical research on concreteness-abstractness in marketing can be divided into the areas of market segmentation; persuasive communications, and consumer choice. Each of these areas will now be reviewed.


Implicit in benefit segmentation is the notion that descriptive product factors are more concrete, while basic product benefits are more abstract. In his seminal article, Haley (1968) urges managers to rely on the basic product "benefits" sought by consumers rather than descriptive product factors when segmenting consumer markets. This view of segmentation is consistent with Becker's (1976) economic approach to human behavior. Becker theorizes that consumers derive utility from the properties or "characteristics" which groups of produces possess rather than from the goods themselves. One combines an automobile, gasoline, and one's own time, for example, to produce "transportation." It logically follows that segmentation should occur on these relatively abstract benefits or "characteristics" from which utility is more directly derived.


The concreteness-abstractness of attributes also plays an important role in persuasive communications. Sales-force presentations often rely on concrete descriptions of a product's attributes. The concrete case history format for presenting product attribute information that describes one individual's experiences with a product is being used in current television ads as well as the more abstract base rate information that presents statistical information about a product's attributes.

A few studies have been undertaken in marketing that have experimentally manipulated concreteness (Dickson 1982; Kisielius 1982; Rossiter and Percy 1978; Wright 1979). Dickson (1982) manipulated concreteness through different reports on refrigerators that were presented to subjects with either concrete case-history information or abstract base-rate information. In the case history condition, actual quotes of five housewives were presented concerning the failure of their refrigerators. In the base rate condition, more abstract information was presented in the form of summary statistical reports of 500 housewives. Relative to the base rate information, the presentation of the case history information led r an increase in the recall of the information and to higher failure-frequency judgments.

Concreteness was also found to have an effect on the attitudes formed toward print advertisements. Rossiter and Percy (1978) found that an ad that was highly concrete in presenting superlative and explicit product claims was more persuasive than an ad which was superlative but presented vague product claims. In another study, Wright (1979) found that the reading of drug warnings was affected by concreteness. The combination of concrete information and a visual action demonstration resulted in a significant short term increase in the inspection of drug packages and in the likelihood of reading in-store warning signs. Finally, concreteness has been found to affect the degree of consistency between an individual's attitude and behavior toward a consumer product (Kisielius 1982). A number of explanations for these results can be offered (e.g., Dickson 1982; Edell and Staelin 1983; Rossiter and Percy 1978). A recent literature review by one of the authors has attempted to explain the judgment effects of vividness, concreteness being one of its operationalizations, by using the availability-valence hypothesis (Kisielius and Sternthal 1984b). As is noted in the review, future research is needed in this area.


The third area of marketing in which concreteness-abstractness has prefigured is that of consumer choice, which is the focus of this paper. Specifically, we are interested in how consumers cognitively represent products when making decisions. No Literature currently exists in this area that directly relates products to both the concreteness-abstractness of product attributes and to their feature-dimensionality. The literature that has been under taken in the choice area that is relevant to our arguments concerns the relationship of concreteness-abstractness to choice. This literature will now be reviewed.

Consumer choice has often been viewed as a hierarchical process in which different levels of choice in a hierarch are at different levels of abstraction (Bettman 1974; Howard 1977). Higher level product category choices, for example, involve more abstract alternatives than lower level, brand based choices. Howard hypothesizes that, first, an evaluative hierarchy of choice criteria exists that corresponds to the hierarchy of choices, and second, that criteria in the evaluative hierarchy are chosen which correspond to a level in the choice hierarchy. In other words, there is a direct relationship between the abstractness of the alternatives in a choice and the abstractness of the choice criteria. A study by Boote (1975) indirectly supports this hypothesis. Subjects in the study rated the relative importance of Rokeach's instrumental and terminal values to each of two levels of choice, product category and brand. The results showed the more abstract terminal values as more important to product category choice, while the more concrete instrumental values were more important to brand choice. No evidence is given concerning actual product attributes or choice criteria.

However, as Johnson (1984) points out, choice is not always hierarchical. Consumers often face specific alternatives from different product categories. To account for such choices, Johnson hypothesizes a continuum of product attributes ranging from the concrete to the abstract. An important property of this continuum is that increasingly abstract attributes describe an increasing number of products. Thus products that are relatively noncomparable, or described on different concrete attributes, such as a bicycle and a television, can be compared directly on more abstract attributes such as "use" or "entertainment" value. Support for this view was found in three experiments conducted by Johnson (1984). As the comparability of the alternatives decreased, there was a corresponding increase in the level of abstraction of product comparisons.

An important implication of attribute abstraction for our attempt to relate concreteness-abstractness to features-dimensions is that abstraction, by definition, implies a summarizing or concentration of a larger whole resulting in a decrease in detail. That is, as representations become more abstract, fewer relevant attributes are involved. Both the Boote and Johnson studies support this decrease in relevant attributes with abstraction in consumer choice contexts. In addition, this notion is consistent with the availability-valence hypothesis explanation for the processing of abstract information (Kisielius and Sternthal 1984a). According to the hypothesis, abstract information should be less available in memory than concrete information because it is less likely to be cognitively elaborated; that is, less associative pathways are likely to be formed. Thus, the fewer the associative pathways that are formed, the less likely a consumer will be to access the abstract information.


Our understanding of concreteness-abstractness may benefit from the study of related distinctions. One of the aims of this paper is to show that concreteness-abstractness can be better understood by recognizing the distinction between features and dimensions. Specifically, while dimensions are continuous attributes on which objects differ as a matter of degree, features are dichotomous attributes that an object either has or does not have (Restle 1959; Tversky 1977; Garner 1978). For example, while one consumer may think of a beer as "sweeter" than another, indicating the use of a dimension; another may view beers as either "sweet" or not sweet," indicating the use of a feature.

Recognizing whether consumers use features or dimensions has important marketing implications. The appropriateness of different consumer choice strategies may depend on the use of features or dimensions in a representation. For example, while lexicographic choice models (Coombs 1964) are based on dimensions, elimination by aspects (Tversky 1972) is based on features. Recognizing the distinction between features and dimensions may also help determine the appropriateness of different similarity scaling procedures. Dimensions are, for example, implicit in product space analysis and underlie the use of multidimensional scaling procedures (Shocker and Srinivasan 1979). Features, in contrast, are implicit in many recent similarity scaling procedures such as hierarchical clustering, additive trees, and additive clustering (c.f. Tversky 1977). The ability of a scaling procedure to fit similarity data should depend on whether the consumer's representation of products when producing the judgments, using features or dimensions, is consistent with the representation implicit in the scaling procedure. Pruzansky, Tversky and Carroll (1982), for example, show that multidimensional scaling fits better data generated from a dimensional space representation, while an additive tree procedure fits better data generated from a feature tree representation.


Important differences between features and dimensions suggest an integral relationship between this qualitative difference in associated product attributes and the concreteness-abstractness of attributes. First, as features either do or do not exist (i.e., there is but one non-zero level for such attributes), they are relatively simple compared to dimensions (Garner 1978). Given a limited information processing capacity and that features are very simple because they only have two levels, the use of a feature-based representation is one way to handle products associated with a large number of attributes. Recall that concrete representations generally involve more relevant attributes than abstract representations (Johnson 1984) and that concrete information is more likely to be available than abstract information because of its greater cognitive elaboration (Kisielius and Sternthal 1984a). Thus consumers may be more likely to use features the more concrete the representation in order to reduce a possible cognitive resource limitation in memory induced by concrete information. Second, as Green, Wind and Claycamp (1975) suggest, groups of features are themselves captured by more basic or abstract dimensions. The degree of safety in an automobile, for example, may capture the existence of seat belts, air bags and a particular type of construction. Essentially, a single abstract attribute captures or subsumes more than one concrete attribute. Similarly, a dimension may be viewed as a set of nested features (Tversky and Gati 1982). These arguments, taken together, suggest the main hypothesis of our paper that the more abstract the attribute, the more likely consumers represent the attribute as a dimension. Conversely, the more concrete the attribute, the more likely consumers represent the attribute as a feature.


We suggest that this hypothesis holds only in a general sense. Aspects of a stimulus, such as a product's concreteness-abstractness, do not completely determine the nature of the representation used in cognitive processing. Representations, for example, may be modified by the requirements of the task (Garner 1978). The dependence of stimulus representation on task variables was illustrated in a recent study by Johnson and Tversky (1984). Subjects were asked to make similarity judgments, conditional predictions, and dimensional evaluations among a set of risky alternatives. they found that both the similarity judgments and the conditional predictions were better explained by additive tree models, which are based on features, while the dimensional evaluations were better explained by multidimensional scaling and factor analysis, both of which are based on dimensions. The authors suggest that subjects may use more feature-based representations when making more holistic judgments such as similarity.

Future research should, therefore, study both the existence and nature of the general relationship between these two attribute distinctions and the effect of task or context specific factors on product representations. Other task or context factors that may affect the representations used in processing include the number of alternatives involved and the risk or error at stake in the task. Consider the attribute "safety" represented as both a feature and a dimension, such as a "safe" automobile versus an automobile with some degree of "safety." Using the attribute as a dimension allows for finer distinctions among the alternatives, in this case automobiles. Therefore, as the number of alternatives increases, so may the need for finer discrimination resulting in an increased use of dimensions. As dimensional representation of an attribute may provide superior discrimination, dimensions may also be used when the risk or error involved in the task is large. Consider choosing among expensive durable products, such as automobiles, as opposed to inexpensive nondurables, such as candy bars. As there is more at s take when choosing an automobile, one's ability to make even the smallest discriminations may become important, resulting in an increased use of dimensions.


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