Products, Personalities and Situations in Attitude Functions: Implications For Consumer Behavior

Sharon Shavitt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
ABSTRACT - Although functional theories of attitude (e.g., Katz, 1960; Smith, Bruner & White, 1956) have conceptual appeal and applied utility, a lack of methods for operationalizing them has hampered empirical progress for several years. Recently, however, researchers have developed a variety of methods that capitalize on new personality and social constructs to identify or manipulate the functions of attitudes. This paper reviews these operational developments as they relate to consumer attitudes, focusing particular attention on tie role of products and brands in eliciting attitude functions. It is proposed that an understanding of the motivations underlying product attitudes and purchase decisions must account for the interrelation of a variety of factors that can influence attitude functions, including products, personalities, and situations.
[ to cite ]:
Sharon Shavitt (1989) ,"Products, Personalities and Situations in Attitude Functions: Implications For Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 300-305.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 300-305

PRODUCTS, PERSONALITIES AND SITUATIONS IN ATTITUDE FUNCTIONS: IMPLICATIONS FOR CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

Sharon Shavitt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

ABSTRACT -

Although functional theories of attitude (e.g., Katz, 1960; Smith, Bruner & White, 1956) have conceptual appeal and applied utility, a lack of methods for operationalizing them has hampered empirical progress for several years. Recently, however, researchers have developed a variety of methods that capitalize on new personality and social constructs to identify or manipulate the functions of attitudes. This paper reviews these operational developments as they relate to consumer attitudes, focusing particular attention on tie role of products and brands in eliciting attitude functions. It is proposed that an understanding of the motivations underlying product attitudes and purchase decisions must account for the interrelation of a variety of factors that can influence attitude functions, including products, personalities, and situations.

Decades of research on attitudes and persuasion have suggested that people are quick to form attitudes toward a wide variety of products, persons and issues, and t}hat attitudes are often held and defended with remarkable tenacity. The fact that attitudes are so pervasive and resilient suggests that attitudes serve important psychological needs for the individual. This assumption -- that consumers' attitudes serve important motives -- underlies the various research programs being discussed in this session.

The motivational significance of attitudes was the central focus of an influential set of models collectively known as the "functional theories" of attitude (e.g., Katz, 1960; Kelman, 1958, 1961; Smith, Bruner & White, 1956). Conceptually, this set of theories has been perhaps the most influential approach to studying the motives underlying attitudes. Functional theorists focused on the utility of attitudes in performing key functions for the individual: maintaining consistency in one's frame of reference, expressing one's values and identity, obtaining social acceptance, and protecting self-esteem. Further, they proposed that identifying the functions an attitude serves is vital to predicting the conditions under which the attitude will charge, the type of message required to change it, and the relation of the attitude to behavior. Unfortunately, although functional theories had conceptual appeal and applied utility, they had one critical deficiency: a lack of methods for identifying or manipulating them. Without such operations, empirical progress was stalled, and few studies were conducted that shed light on the functioning of consumer attitudes -- until recently.

Now, with a growing interest in the motivational underpinnings of cognitive constructs, researchers are returning to the question of what psychological needs are served by attitudes. Fortunately, recent attempts to study attitude functions have spawned a variety of new approaches to identifying the functions that attitudes serve. These methods have typically capitalized on new social cognition or personality constructs, refining and updating functional theories in the process. This paper reviews these operational developments overall, and then focuses on one approach in particular that has afforded new insights into the role of attitude functions in consumer behavior. We turn first to a summary of the functions that attitudes have been proposed to serve.

Functions of Attitudes

Functional theorists suggested that attitudes could be classified by the psychological needs that they met, and they proposed lists of functions that attitudes could serve (Katz, 1960; Kelman, 1958, 1961; Smith, Bruner & White, 1956). Their lists focused on similar motives underlying attitudes (see Table 1), all of which have implications for consumer attitudes.

Katz (1960) proposed that attitudes serve a knowledge function, helping to organize and structure one's environment and provide a sense of understanding and consistency in one's frame of reference. This is perhaps the most fundamental function attitudes serve, and all attitudes serve this function to some extent (Fazio, 1939). The notion is that simply having attitudes toward products, issues, and the like can provide a reassuring sense of understanding and facilitate the task of making decisions. In another paper in this session, Mark Zanna discusses his research on the role of this function in attitude-relevant judgments.

Attitudes may also serve a variety of other needs: Attitudes can maximize rewards and minimize punishments obtained from objects in one's environment, a function that Katz labeled the utilitarian function. A product attitude would sere this function to the extent that it summarizes the positive and negative outcomes one associates with the product (e.g., pleasant taste, spoils quickly) and guides behavior that obtains or avoids those outcomes (e.g., purchasing or eating the product, keeping the product refrigerated). Attitudes toward a wide variety of products probably serve this utilitarian function. (Smith, Bruner & White, 1956, proposed an object-appraisal function which, like the knowledge and utilitarian functions, classifies objects in order to make responses available that maximize one's interests.)

Attitudes also play an important role in self-expression and social interaction. Through the attitudes we hold and discuss, we express our central values, establish our identity, and gain social approval. This social role of attitudes will be referred to here as the social identity function (also labelled the social adjustment function by Smith, et al. and the value-expressive function by Katz), and it is of obvious relevance to attitudes toward a great many products. For example, one's attitude toward a luxury item may be seen as symbolic of one's identity, and may be publicly expressed in order to convey a favorable, high-status image to others. One could distinguish between public, impression management motives and private identity motives that comprise the social identity function, and the papers in this session by Mark Snyder and Ken DeBono focus on this distinction and its relevance to product attitudes.

TABLE 1

FUNCTIONS OF ATTITUDES

Finally, attitudes can serve a self-esteem maintenance function in a variety of ways. Functional theorists suggested that attitudes can protect the ego through psychodynamic defense mechanisms that distance the self from threatening objects. This was labelled the externalization or ego-defense function, and it was applied primarily to the analysis of prejudiced attitudes. Attitudes may also maintain self-esteem in other ways, such as by associating the self with successful others, a process that has been called basking in reflected glory" (Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker, Freeman & Sloan, 1976). Attitudes toward products that facilitate this process -- e.g., a sweatshirt bearing the name of a hometown championship sports team -- may serve a self-esteem maintenance function.

These functions are nol necessarily the only ones that attitudes serve. Other functions, or delineations of functions, can be proposed (for example, Batra and Ahtola's paper in this session suggests distinctions between the utilitarian and hedonic functions of attitudes). Regardless of which list of functions is proposed, however, identifying the functions of attitudes may be very important. Functional theories proposed that the conditions under which an attitude will change depend upon the functions the altitude serves. Thus, understanding the functions of consumer attitudes has potentially vital implications for predicting advertising effectiveness and consumer behavior. Unfortunately, as no;ed before, functional theories proposed little in the wax of operations that would allow such predictions to be tested.

Personality Characteristics

Presumably, attitude functions can be influenced by any number of factors. The first factor to gain research attention by functional theorists was personality. Early research typically used personality differences to operalionalize attitude functions, base n on the operational assumption that the dominant psychological needs met by attitudes vary between individuals. With this approach, identifying the functions of an attitude meant identifying categories of people whose attitudes tend to serve certain functions. For example, in much of the early work by Katz and his colleagues, the ego-defensiveness of racial attitudes was inferred from the attitude-holder's scores on such psychodynamically-based measures as TAT stories, the F-scale for authoritarianism, and the like (e.g., Katz, Sarnoff & McClintock, 1956; Stotland, Katz & Patchen, 1959). Although the results were of interest to the understanding of racism and other prejudices, attitudes toward ordinary consumer products are less likely to be ego-defensive in nature (Lutz, 1981).

More recently, newly-developed personality measures have been used to identify attitude functions that are more relevant to consumer attitudes. For example, several studies by Snyder and DeBono (e.g. 1985, 1937) have used assessments of self-monitoring (Snyder, 1974) to identify the social functions served by individuals' attitudes, focusing on private versus public identity rr.olives. Their results (see their papers in this session) have yielded consistent evidence that high and low self-monitors differ in the social functions that their attitudes typically serve. Further, these differing orientations toward public versus private identity goals were found to have direct implications for advertising effectiveness. Thus, the personality characteristics of consumers have been successfully used to predict the functions that their attitudes lend to serve and the effectiveness of advertisements directed at those attitudes.

Situational Characteristics

Situational factors have also been shown to influence the functions served by attitudes. By warning the context in which attitude-relevant information is encountered, experiments have directly manipulated the presence of particular functional goals. Kelman's studies of compliance, identification and internalization processes (1958, 1961) are perhaps the best-known examples of this operational approach. In these studies Kelman manipulated aspects of messages about social policies (segregation, science education) in order to induce different motives for subjects to accept a message's position. The messages either differed in terms of the source of the communicator's power (Kelman, 1958) or discussed different motive-relevant implications of the position espoused in the message (Kelman, 1961). These message manipulations appeared to be effective in inducing different motives for accepting social influence. Thus, Kelman's research demonstrated that features of the message itself can change the motives associated with an opinion. In terms of advertising messages, the results imply that ad copy and carefully chosen spokespeople (e.g., "teen-idols" or sports heroes) may not only change consumers' attitudes about products and issues, but may even change the motivations that underlie those attitudes. (However, see Shavitt, 1989. for a discussion of possible limitations on such effects.)

Recent studies of situational influences on attitude functions have focused on factors external to the message itself -- i.e., the context factors that surround message exposure or decision making. For example, research by Bernd Schmitt (presented in this session) showed that tasks that immediately preceded exposure to advertisements affected the salience of certain functions in processing the ads. The salient functional dimensions, in turn, significantly influenced both the effectiveness of the ads and the types of motives that the resulting attitudes were linked to. Thus, transient and subtle factors surrounding ad exposure can have relatively profound effects upon the motivations that underlie product attitudes. And such factor can be manipulated in order to study those motives experimentally. (See also Shavitt & Fazio, 1987, for evidence that the salience of functional dimensions can be "primed" in this manner.)

The decision making context can also have an influence on the functions served by attitudes. Recent research has shown that situations that create a need for an attitude as a guide in decision making heighten the motives associated with the knowledge function of attitudes. For example, several studies by Mark Zanna and his colleagues (see his paper in this session) employed time pressures in attitude-relevant decision making tasks to heighten the knowledge function of attitudes. The results suggested that time pressured subjects relied more on their existing attitudes and less on a careful consideration of available data when making their decisions. Thus, when situational constraints made it difficult to arrive at more informed judgments, attitudes appeared more likely to serve a knowledge function by providing a convenient (although not necessarily appropriate) guide to decisions (see Jamieson & Zanna, 1989, for a review).

Situational manipulations were also employed in studies by Fazio, Lenn and Effrein (1983) to induce knowledge function goals for forming new attitudes. In their research, some subjects were lead to expect future questioning about, or interaction with, new attitude objects (intellectual puzzles). These subjects therefore expected that it would soon be useful to have an evaluation of the puzzles, as a guide for their upcoming tasks. When such knowledge function goals were introduced, the results indicated that attitudes toward the puzzles were formed spontaneously, but were not formed spontaneously when these goals were absent. Thus, results across a number of studies have suggested that attitudes can serve a knowledge function. and that situational factors can be manipulated in order to heighten or elicit goals relevant to this function. Further, the knowledge function operations employed in these studies are directly relevant to consumer decision making situations. particularly those in which there is a lack of time to make a purchase decision, or there is an anticipation of future decisions that could be aided by new product evaluations. Thus, the studies suggest some conditions under which product attitudes would be likely to be formed and used in guiding purchase decisions.

Product Characteristics

In addition to the effects of situational and personality factors, attitude objects themselves may play an important role in the functions of attitudes, and may provide a useful new basis for operationalizing attitude functions. In the domain of consumer behavior, this implies that products and brands should be thought of as potential sources of attitude functions, a conclusion consistent with Ratchford and Vaughn's findings (see their paper in this session).

Shavitt (1987, 1989) proposed that the purposes that a product (object) can serve may exert an important influence on the functions that attitudes toward it will serve. Some products seem to serve primarily one purpose. For example, coffee serves a utilitarian purpose because of the outcomes intrinsically associated with it (such as pleasant taste or nervousness). But it typically does not serve, for example, a social identity purpose of impressing others or expressing one's values Other products may serve multiple purposes. For example, a car serves both the utilitarian purpose of providing transportation and the social identity purpose of expressing status and identity. Thus, coffee may tend to elicit attitudes that serve a utilitarian function (by guiding its purchase and consumption in order to maximize positive outcomes), but be relatively unlikely to elicit attitudes that serve a social identity function (e.g., by discussing or displaying the attitude to others). In contrast, cars may elicit attitudes that serve either or both functions.

The purposes served by products may stem from a number of sources. Characteristics of the product itself, including its physical features (e.g., taste, texture) and other attributes (e.g., washability, fuel efficiency, cost) should contribute to the purposes a product can serve. Also, the predominant cultural or societal definitions of a product (e.g., "stylish," "wasteful," "avante garde") should play an important role in determining what the product can do for an individual. Without a shared societal definition of the meaning of designer jeans, for example, they would be ineffective in eliciting social approval. Of course, the purposes that products serve should not be viewed as predetermined or unchanging. They can change as product features are modified or as societal definitions of the product change over time.

Objects that seem likely to engage only certain attitude functions and unlikely to engage others (e.g., coffee) have been capitalized on as a basis for operationalizing attitude functions. That is, the functions of subjects' attitudes have been varied by presenting subjects with different products to respond 10.

A number of general criteria have been used to select such products for experimental use (see Shavitt, 1987, for a discussion of these criteria). For example, to the extent that a product is intrinsically associated with important rewards and punishments, it should elicit attitudes that serve a utilitarian function. A product such as an air conditioner should fall into this category because attitudes toward it tend to be based largely on the rewards (e.g., comfort) and punishments (e.g., high utility bills) intrinsically associated with it. In contrast, products that are considered to symbolize other concepts, such as values, social classifications, or group affiliations, should tend to elicit attitudes that serve a social identity function. This should be particularly true to the extent that the product is associated with behavior routines likely to be performed in public. Flags, wedding rings, school sweatshirts, and the like fall into this category because attitudes toward them are likely to be based on the values and social classifications that they symbolize, and because these attitudes may guide public behaviors that display one's attitudes to others.

Several studies have yielded support for the viability and construct validity of methods based on these product selection criteria (Shavitt, 1987; Shavitt & Fazio, 1987, 1988; Shavitt, Han, Kim & Tillman, 1988). In one study (Shavitt, 1987), 96 subjects' attitude essays toward a variety of products (air conditioners, coffee, weddings rings, American flags, school sweatshirts, and several other objects) were coded to assess whether items that primarily engage one attitude function could be identified using these selection criteria. For most of the products, the predominant attitude function emerging in the attitude essays was consistent with expectations, suggesting that varying products is a viable basis for varying the functions of attitudes. In addition, the study yielded a reliable coding scheme for attitude essays that carl assess the functions of attitudes toward a wide variety of objects, from appliances to social groups.

Subsequent studies have varied the products and brands to which subjects were exposed in order to investigate a number of hypotheses about attitude functions. In research on the role of attitude functions in advertising effectiveness (Shavitt, 1987), subjects read ads about products that were expected to engage primarily either a utilitarian or a social identity attitude function. The utilitarian products were air conditioners and coffee. The social identity products were greeting cards and perfumes. For each product, subjects read an ad for a fictitious brand advertised wi,h utilitarian arguments (e.g., "The delicious, hearty flavor and aroma of Sterling Blend coffee come from a blend of the freshest coffee beans") and an ad for a brand advertised with social identity arguments (e.g., "[Savoy Coffee] says something about the type of person you are. It can reveal your rare, discriminating taste").

Across two separate studies, independent measures largely supported the effectiveness of this product-based approach as a manipulation of functions. Moreover, the studies yielded consistent evidence that ads that were relevant to the function primarily engaged by a product were more effective than ads that were relevant to another function. Functionally relevant ads elicited more favorable attitudes toward the brands they supported, a preference for purchase of those brands, and more favorable attitudes toward the ads themselves. Thus. this research provided support for a key hypothesis of the functional approach: The conditions required to change an attitude depend upon the function(s) the attitude serves.

In another study (Shavitt & Fazio, 1987), existing brands of products sere employed as a functional manipulation. This study explored the role of attitude functions in the relation between attitudes and behavior predictions. It was expected that this relation would be strong to the extent that the functional dimensions salient at the time of attitudinal and behavioral expression corresponded. Otherwise, the two expressions might be guided by different evaluations, reducing the relation between them.

Two brands of soft drinks were employed to manipulate the functions that were salient at the point of behavior prediction, when subjects predicted their likelihood of buying and drinking the target brand. One of the brands was expected to engage primarily a utilitarian function (7-Up) at the point of behavior prediction and the other primarily a social identity function (Perrier mineral water). (Independent measures supported our assumptions about the functions engaged by these brands.) The functional dimension that was salient at the time of attitude expression had been manipulated independently, at an earlier point in the study, using a "priming" procedure in which subjects rated either 20 food items for their taste (utilitarian prime) or 20 actions for the impression they make on others (social identity prime) immediately before expressing their attitude toward the target brand.

The results strongly supported the hypothesis: When the functional dimension that was salient at attitude expression (the primed dimension) matched the function that was salient at behavior prediction (the function engaged by the brand), the correlation between attitudes and behavior predictions was significantly greater than when those functions did not correspond (see also Shavitt & Fazio, 1988).

Overall, then, the results of a number of studies have supported the viability of employing products as a method of varying altitude functions. The selection criteria that were briefly reviewed here have been effective in identifying products that operationalized particular attitude functions, as indicated by a variety of measures. Furthermore, the data emerging from these studies have yielded insights into the role of attitude functions in advertising effectiveness and in the attitude-behavior relation.

Interactions among Products, Personalities and Situations

So far, the three types of operational factors discussed here have been considered in terms of their individual effects on attitude functions. However, in order to fully understand the motives underlying product attitudes and behavior, it is important also to account for the interrelation of these factors. How will the effect of, for example, situational factors interact with product characteristics to influence the functions of attitudes?

The interaction among situational and product factors may depend largely upon the likelihood that a product will engage the functions typically induced by a given situation. That is, situational factors are unlikely to induce certain attitude functions for products that rarely engage those functions. To illustrate, the functions of attitudes toward a highly utilitarian product (e.g., an air conditioner) may be unlikely to be affected by situations designed to induce a social identity function. Thus, even in situations in which one's central values or the evaluations of one's peers are highly salient, the function served by one's attitude toward air conditioners may nevertheless remain largely utilitarian. However, the functions of one's attitudes toward products that frequently engage a social identity function (e.g., cars or clothing) may be strongly influenced by such situations.

The same type of prediction could be made for the interactive role of personality characteristics and products in attitude functions. For example, although individuals who are chronically concerned with creating favorable social impressions will be more likely overall to have attitudes that serve a social identity function than individuals who are not chronically concerned with this goal, this effect should be enhanced for products that frequently engage a social identity attitude function and attenuated for those that do not. Evidence for this interaction of personality and product factors was provided in a study by Shavitt, Han, Kim and Tillman (1988). In this study, subjects' level of self-monitoring predicted the functions of their attitudes toward products to the extent that those products were likely to serve the public image concerns of the high self-monitor. For products that frequently engage such a social identity function (e.g., high school class rings), high self-monitors Were more likely to hold social identity attitudes and low self-monitors were more likely to hold utilitarian attitudes. However, for products that rarely engage a social identity function (e.g., coffee), attitudes were consistently utilitarian, regardless of self-monitoring levels (Snyder & DeBono's data, 1985, also provide suggestive evidence for this point).

Interactions among product factors and personality or situational characteristics underscore the important role of products and brands in the functions of consumer attitudes. These interactions have operational implications, as well. They suggest that the effectiveness of personality and situational inductions of attitude functions may be limited to products that are likely to engage the functions to be induced (see Shavitt, 1989). Thus, personality factors to be assessed or situational characteristics to be manipulated should be selected to correspond with the products being studied (or, alteratively, products should be selected to correspond with specific personality or situational operations).

It is hoped that future research will continue to explore the interactive roles of products, personalities, and situations in attitude functions. Such research can shed light on the complex interrelation of marketplace factors that affect the motives of consumers' attitudes.

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