Temporal Dimensions of Decision-Making: How Long, and When, to Decide

Deborah J. Mitchell, Temple University
[ to cite ]:
Deborah J. Mitchell (1993) ,"Temporal Dimensions of Decision-Making: How Long, and When, to Decide", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 374.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Page 374


Deborah J. Mitchell, Temple University

There are at least two temporal dimensions underlying consumer decision-making. One dimension is the amount of time spent deciding; it includes time spent by the consumer on various pre-decisional activities such as problem framing, information search, and evaluation of alternatives. A second dimension is purchase timing, or the point in time at which an exchange occurs, usually based at least in part on predecisional activities. These two dimensions are clearly related, since one component often underlying the decision to delay or accelerate a purchase is the individual's perception of whether they need more or less time in order to make a high-quality choice. This special topic seminar addressed each of these questions, by (1) presenting current research dealing with both temporal dimensions of decision-making, time spent deciding and purchase timing, and (2) discussing how these dimensions may interact.

Recently researchers have shown a strong renewed interest in questions relating to both of these dimensions of decision time. One area of work has focused on whether the amount of time available to a consumer actually affects the nature or quality of the decision-making process. In general, findings support the notion that time pressure, or the lack of time, changes the decision-making process and may result in sub-optimal decisions (e.g.,Wright 1974). However, there is evidence that eventually individuals may adapt and perform quite well, given the time constraints (Payne, Bettman, and Johnson, 1988).

Purchase timing has also been the focus of recent research: when (and perhaps in what order) will consumers buy? Purchase timing has received considerable attention for frequently-purchased consumer packaged goods, and numerous models have been developed to predict when a consumer will buy. Other work has focused on the planning of purchases and the timing of durable goods acquisition. In addition, the timing of consumers' purchases has been an underlying issue for work on impulse buying and time-inconsistent preferences.

However, in examining these two temporal dimensions of consumer decision-making, both separately and in terms of how they may interact, many issues remain unresolved. First, consider time spent on decision-making. A strong intuitive belief that most consumers, researchers, and even clinicians share is that although people can 'get by' under pressure, more time usually helps decision-making (within realistic limits). However, are there particular contexts in which increasing the amount of time spent deciding might result in a lower quality decision? One way to spend more time on decision-making is to introspect about one's tastes and preferences. Does spending more time on introspection improve decision-making? Most consumers would say yes; Deborah Mitchell presented data to suggest otherwise, however.

In addition, should we as researchers and consumers be more concerned with the effect of time pressure on decision quality than previous research would suggest? Past research suggests that in the face of time pressure decision-makers pay attention to the most important product information. But what if they do not have the knowledge to discern the most critical information? In such situations decision-makers may focus even more intently on irrelevant or misleading information than they would if there was no pressure. France Leclerc presented data consistent with this hypothesis.

Next, consider the timing of consumers' purchases. What factors trigger consumers to end the decision-making process and actually act, thus causing acceleration or delay? Some clinicians seek to identify these factors in order to aid individuals who have a problem with impulsive behavior; they wish to delay or "turn off" the potential purchase act. However, both managers and social policy makers wish to understand how to accelerate or "turn on" consumer purchasing in the face of sluggish demand. The reasons consumers delay were presented by Eric Greenleaf and Don Lehmann.

Finally, how well do consumers predict their own future purchases? This question is important if managers and policy makers wish to use these intentions to help determine as quickly as possible the need to stimulate consumer demand, rather than waiting for actual purchasing to decline. Vicki Morwitz addressed this issue in her presentation.


Payne, John W., James R. Bettman, & Eric J. Johnson, E. J. (1988), "Adaptive strategy selection in decision making," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 14, 534-552.

Wright, Peter. L. (1974), "The harassed decision-maker: Time pressures, distractions, and the use of evidence," Journal of Applied Psychology, 59, 555-561.