Action Identification Theory: an Examination of Consumers' Behavioral Representations

George W. Hunt, University of Texas at Austin
Wayne D. Hoyer, University of Texas, Austin
[ to cite ]:
George W. Hunt and Wayne D. Hoyer (1993) ,"Action Identification Theory: an Examination of Consumers' Behavioral Representations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 449-454.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 449-454


George W. Hunt, University of Texas at Austin

Wayne D. Hoyer, University of Texas, Austin

The principles of the theory of action identification (Vallacher and Wegner 1985) are introduced with respect to their applicability to consumer research and behavioral change mechanisms. The theory provides insight into the ways in which people conceptualize their actions and how this affects the maintenance of action as well as the emergence of new behavior. It appears that action identification could be utilized for the influence of behavior and attitudes, as well as providing another dimension on which consumer experience can be described. The results of a preliminary study of consumer identifications of the act of using various products and services are discussed for illustrative purposes.

If we were to interrupt 100 shoppers in the midst of the act of exchanging money for a pair of jeans and ask them, "What are you doing?", the responses would be likely to vary considerably, ranging from "taking money out of my wallet" to "buying pants" to "trying to stay in fashion" to "answering a silly question". In other words, while the mechanical details of their actions may be nearly identical at the moment of the query, the cognitive representation or identification of their actions may differ remarkably. We may encounter an even wider array of such identifications with respect to more complex consumption behaviors such as buying a house, dining at an elegant restaurant, or driving a car. Yet consumer researchers rarely measure behavior in terms of how it is conceptualized by the consumer; rather, it is assumed that, like objects, actions are real and that the researcher's identification of the action is "correct". In doing this, important information may be lost because the consumer's identification of his or her action has implications for the maintenance of the action and for the possible emergence of new behaviors (Vallacher and Wegner 1985; Wegner et al. 1984).

The theory of Action Identification (Vallacher and Wegner 1985) treats actions as reifications, mental constructs that impose a presumed reality on experience. In order to access the subjective dimensions of action as perceived by individuals, Vallacher and Wegner (1985) have developed a method of eliciting inventories of potential identifications of an action and subsequently measuring individual tendencies to endorse these identifications. Action identification differs from other theories of action cognition in that it focuses on the level of detail or abstraction at which an individual conceptualizes a given action. As we will discuss in more detail subsequently, these conceptual representations guide the performance of action and often may provide cues that lead to the emergence of alternate behaviors. To consumer researchers this information may be useful in providing insight into possible ways of influencing consumer attitudes, satisfaction judgments, and behaviors, as well as possibly adding insight into how consumers currently perceive the consumption behavior in question.

The aim of this paper is to lay the groundwork for the incorporation of action identification principles into consumer behavior and marketing research. We begin with an abbreviated introduction to action identification theory, particularly with respect to consumption-related actions. We then enumerate several areas in consumer research where we believe the theory may provide insights, followed by an explanation of the methodology and results of a recently completed study of consumer identifications of the act of consuming each of 15 different products and services.


When we observe behavior, we seldom question the accuracy of our label of the behavior. Utilizing cues from memory and from the behavioral context, we are easily able to construct an identification of the action being performed. For example, upon seeing a person sitting at the wheel of a moving automobile, we are able to say that s/he is "driving a car". However, the driver may hold other identifications of his or her act, such as "looking for a place to eat," "trying to get through traffic," "listening to music," or "sitting and holding a steering wheel."

Often in consumer research we claim to be measuring behavior that we assume has been correctly labelled. Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness of the danger in this practice as evidenced by developments in both the experimental or empirical and naturalistic/humanistic/interpretive, or N-H-I (Hunt 1989) research traditions. In experimental empirical research, for example, the problem of "demand artifacts" (Sawyer 1975; Shimp, et. al. 1991) implicitly draws attention to the fact that we may not be measuring what we think we're measuring. What appears to be "purchasing the product" may in fact be "trying to impress the nice researcher." While action identification theory cannot provide the rich description of subjective consumption experience that is found in the N-H-I research, it nevertheless does attempt to gain insight from at least one dimension of individual representations of action, i.e., the level of identification.

Action Identification theory (Vallacher and Wegner 1985; Wegner and Vallacher 1986) holds that the performance of an action is accompanied by an identification of that action, and that this identification has significant implications for the performance, maintenance and control of the action. The theory proposes that a person who is asked "What are you doing?" will always have a response that is most accessible to him or her at that moment. This label for his or her action is termed the prepotent identity. If asked to consider other explanations of what s/he is doing, s/he could come up with further identifications of both the mechanical details, or low level identities, and other high level identities pertaining to the possible consequences, side effects, and meanings of the action. These identifications together comprise the act identity structure.

The relational term by links together the identity statements in an act identity structure. Thus, for example, one may "escape from stressful thoughts and feelings" by "enjoying a scenic trip through the countryside," by "driving a car," by "sitting and holding a steering wheel," and so forth. With a little imagination, we could link each of these identity statements with countless alternatives, leading to a vast network of act identities. The activation of a particular subset of these identities may be guided by processes similar to the activation of ad hoc categories (Barsalou 1983) or associative networks (Collins and Loftus 1975).

Principles of the Theory

Vallacher and Wegner (1985) have proposed three principles governing the relationship between action and corresponding identification levels. Underpinning these principles are two forces that may compete or work together: the desirability of understanding one's actions in the most comprehensive and meaningful way possible, and the need to be able to perform actions to their satisfactory completion.

The first principle states that action is maintained with respect to its prepotent identity. People have in mind an idea of what they are doing and this prepotent identity serves as a guide for the maintenance and stability of action. Just as identities exist at different levels, actions are similarly maintained. One person may sustain the act of reroofing a house by attending to the action of "hitting nails through shingles", while the next person may identify the act as "finishing a job so I can go play golf". According to the first principle, people will only consciously entertain the prepotent identity of their action at any point in time and will maintain the action in accordance with it.

The identity that becomes prepotent is the subject of the other two principles. According to the second principle, there is a tendency for higher level identities to become prepotent. In other words, we find it more interesting and useful to think in terms of goals, consequences, and meanings of behavior. An action identification such as "moving my arm" conveys little in the way of meaningful description; one performs this movement as a component of literally millions of actions. The action is better understood if identified in higher level terms, such as "throwing a football", "eating", "raking leaves", or "typing a research paper". Even these identifications may be less meaningful than, say, "trying to score a touchdown" or "sharing a meal with my family".

The tendency to move to higher levels of identification is somewhat constrained by reality. As the third principle points out: when an action cannot be maintained in terms of its prepotent identity, there is a tendency for a lower level identity to become prepotent. For example, most of us can remember learning to use a stick shift. At first, our attention was focused on the low level details of the act. But there was probably a tendency to want to think in terms of racing along an open road, or impressing a friend with our newly acquired skill. Just about the time we found our thoughts turning to these higher level identities however, we lurched up onto a curb or into the bushes.

Thus, an action for which we do not have adequate skill is more successfully performed with respect to details of the action (i.e, a lower level identity). As we gain experience and become familiar with an action, there is less need for conscious attention to its fundamental components and well-learned behaviors may be carried out with no conscious attention at all (Langer 1978). But a "pleasant drive in the country" can quickly become "trying to stay on the road by holding onto the wheel" in the event of a sudden burst of wind, and a professional baseball player who is accustomed to thinking about "lining it up the middle" may need to revert to minding the mechanics of his swing in order to break out of a slump. Thus, while high level identities are most appealing in terms of comprehensive understanding, they will be abandoned in favor of lower level identities if they prove to be ineffective guides to action control. (Some pathological behaviors such as alcoholism and compulsive shopping, however, may be perpetuated by the unwillingness or inability of individuals to abandon inappropriate high level identification of their actions.)

Action Emergence: A Mechanism for Behavior Change

There is experimental evidence that an act normally identified at a high level can be disrupted such that the identification is brought down to a lower level. Subjects in one experiment (Wegner, et al 1984) were shown to lower their identification level of the act of eating Cheetos when they were instructed to pick them up using chopsticks. In another experiment (Wegner, et al 1984), subjects were given coffee in either normal or unwieldy mugs. Subjects in the latter condition (the "low level" condition) showed significantly greater susceptibility to suggestions of new high level meanings of their action, and subsequently displayed behavior more in keeping with these suggested meanings than did those in the control group.

The latter result, along with several other findings (see Wegner and Vallacher 1986 for a summary) reveal what Wegner and Vallacher (1986) call action emergence. The complexity of links between identities in an act identity structure is partly a function of the fact that a given low level identity (e.g., "walking") may have links to many different higher level identities (e.g,. "getting exercise" and "going to the neighborhood bar"). Any force, such as a disruption, that interferes with the maintenance of an action at a high level of identification will tend to lower the identification level. Once at a lower level, people tend to be more susceptible to any cues that might indicate a new high level meaning, as action details are often congruent with several alternative high level identifications. By this process, new actions may emerge. This is the central mechanism by which action identification can result in behavior change (Wegner et al, 1984; Wegner et al 1986).

Measurement of Identification Levels

The method developed by Vallacher and Wegner (1985) for revealing the action identification levels of research participants begins with a pilot study designed to generate a general inventory of possible identities for a specified action. Survey respondents are asked to think about the various ways an action can be identified and are encouraged to include all possible levels of perceiving the action. They are then asked to write down as many one-sentence descriptions of the action as they can think of in 15 or 20 minutes.

The lists of identities are then compiled into a single inventory that includes those items most frequently mentioned, usually resulting in a total of anywhere from 20 to 50 identifications. A second study is then conducted in which respondents are asked to consider the action and to state the degree to which each statement is a good description of the action by circling a number from 1 to 7, anchored by the end points "describes very poorly" and "describes very well." The results of this survey are then correlated across subjects, factor analyzed by principal components, and rotated to a varimax solution. The factors thus obtained generally have interesting interpretations with respect to the ways in which different individuals identify actions. One pattern that consistently appears in studies of act identity structures is the manner in which identity statements load onto factors. Typically a single low level factor is found, often explaining the greatest amount of variance, along with several distinct higher level factors with interpretable meanings.


Attitude and Behavior Influence

The following is a sample of the many potential applications of action identification theory to issues in attitude and behavior research:

Warning labels and product safety: Often a potentially hazardous product can be used without requiring much conscious attention. Insecticides, for instance, are very easy to use in aerosol form. Other products like liquid propane gas are generally used by people who have a great deal of experience with them. In both instances, the consumer is likely to identify the usage of the product at a high level (e.g., "killing cockroaches"), and thus will be less susceptible to an alternative high level identification associated with the danger involved (e.g., "inhaling toxic fumes because there is inadequate ventilation"). Drawing attention to warnings and instructions, and persuading consumers to act accordingly, may require incorporating a devise that lowers identification levels by disrupting the normal flow of procedures involved in product usage, followed by drawing attention to messages that convey the appropriate new high level identification.

Cuing and reinforcing desirable high level identifications: When a consumer is at a low level of identification for the act of consuming a product or service, s/he is apt to be susceptible to cues that suggest higher level identifications. Marketers may be able to take advantage of this tendency by, for instance, designing advertising campaigns that are congruent with positive outcomes of consumption, thus cuing and reinforcing stable high level identifications. This might work in the following way: when a new product design is tested on a sample market, act identity structures for its use may be measured, along with other variables pertaining to consumer satisfaction with the product. The interpretation of one or more positively valenced high level identification factors might serve as a guide to appropriate messages that could be communicated through advertising and through the design and packaging of the product. For example, if the act identity structure for the use of a new kitchen appliance yields dimensions such as "being a sophisticated cook" and "having convenience", advertising can be designed to convey these concepts. The consistency between expectations and postpurchase experience that should result would increase consumer satisfaction (Oliver 1980) and reach the most appropriate target market as compared with advertising messages that are discrepant from postpurchase processes.

In many instances where new products are being introduced, or where an existing product or service is being promoted in a new manner, high level identifications may already be present in the minds of most consumers. Most users of financial investment services have a high level conceptualization of the act of using these services, so that a new entry into this market faces preconceived notions about its products. It may be possible to structure advertising in a way that disrupts these high level identifications, by introducing incongruencies and unexpected images that force the target audience to engage in processing novel information. A number of experiments (Wegner and Vallacher 1986) have shown that disruptions of action result in movement to lower levels of identification; perhaps disruption of the information environment would have a similar effect. Hoch and Deighton (1989) have suggested that ambiguity of the information environment provides marketers with increased influence over consumer learning. It may be that lower action identification levels are involved in this situation, allowing for greater susceptibility to new high level identifications that may be cued from memory or from the environment.

Retail settings and other service environments (Bitner 1990; 1992) can also be designed to provide high level cues. This appears to be implicitly understood, as most service environments are carefully or inadvertently reflective of the image that the firm wishes to convey. High fashion clothing outlets are designed to give an impression of quality, taste, and luxury, while discount stores often convey images of thrift such as high stock levels that imply volume purchasing and cost savings.

Managing customer perceptions of service quality: Service encounters (Bitner 1990; Solomon et al. 1985; Zeithaml et al. 1988) provide opportunities for trained staff to provide cues during the performance of the service. Bitner et al. (1990) found that nearly one-fourth of freely recalled satisfactory critical incidents in service encounters were directly related to service failures. The authors remarked that "the fact that such incidents can be remembered as very satisfactory is somewhat surprising" (p. 81). Action identification theory would predict such a result, as the service failure would constitute a disruption leading to lower levels of identification and, consequently, greater susceptibility to cues provided by the service provider and/or the environment. This implies that the service firm's greatest opportunity to influence customer evaluations of service quality may well lie in the moments immediately following a service disruption. Solomon et al. (1985) argued a similar point from the perspective of role theory. They proposed that any significant deviation from a well-learned "service script" could bring about the need for active cognitive processing; in this activated state, the service encounter would take on an affective valence, leading to greater extremes (both positive and negative) in evaluations. Action identification offers an explanation of a possible mechanism by which this may occur.

Product meaning and symbolism: The majority of the studies of "meaning" in consumer behavior have come out of the N-H-I research stream. Underpinning much of this research is the belief that a complete understanding of consumer behavior is not possible without considering the meaning of phenomena from the perspective of the consumer (Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy 1988; Ozanne and Hudson 1989). Meaning-based constructs discussed in the N-H-I literature include symbolic consumption as it pertains to self-concept (Belk 1988; Belk, Bahn and Meyer 1982; Schouten 1991; Solomon 1983), symbolic consumption as communication (Belk, Bahn and Meyer 1982; Holman 1980), the sacred/secular dimension of consumption (Belk, et al, 1989; Hirschman and LaBarbera 1989; O'Guinn and Belk 1989), cultural meaning transmitted through possessions (McCracken 1986), and "homeyness" (McCracken 1989). Other studies have applied quantitative methods to consumer meaning constructs, such as the dimensions of emotion patterns (Westbrook and Oliver 1991), the influence of context on meaning (Kleine and Kernan 1991), means-end chain analysis (Gutman 1982) and value segmentation (Kamakura and Mazzon 1991). While the research method in action identification is empirical in nature, it may be useful in identifying meaning-based dimensions of product usage and symbolism, as well as potential consumer segments, through the identification and interpretation of the act identity factors.

Implications for research methodology: Wegner et al. (1986) found that subjects who identified the act of participating in an experiment at low levels were more likely to agree with suggestions that they were "being helpful" or "being selfish." Individuals who identify experiments at low levels may show more demand effects. In general, experimental conditions provide novel stimuli to subjects, which is likely to promote lower levels of action identification (Vallacher and Wegner 1987). From this lower level, subjects may be more susceptible to cues provided by the experimental context. Such a problem would cast doubt on the external validity of many behavioral experiments.


Our central purpose in carrying out this study was to determine if consumers do, as expected, identify consumption behavior and experience in measurable, interpretable ways, and if the factors corresponding to dimensions of consumption experience correspond to what the theory would predict. There is little reason to suspect that action identification principles would not apply to the broad class of actions related to consumption. If the theory holds, we should expect to find similar results in studies of actions involving the consumption of goods and services as are found in the studies conducted by Vallacher and Wegner. Specifically we expect to find a low level identity factor (as described above) along with factors that might reflect knowledge of the practical purposes commonly associated with the product or service (e.g., Alba and Hutchinson 1987), and other factors reflecting more subjective meanings or dimensions of affective consumption experience (Belk 1988; Havlena and Holbrook 1986; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Westbrook and Oliver 1991). Such factors and the degree to which consumers vary in their endorsement of them may provide marketers with a better understanding of how their products are perceived and how they fit into the lives of the individuals who use them. Negatively viewed dimensions of consumption experience may be revealed as well, possibly giving insight into problem areas that can be addressed at the levels of design and production and/or perception.

In addition, because an action that is well-learned and familiar tends to be identified at higher levels, we expect to find that knowledge of and familiarity with a given product or service will correlate negatively with individuals' scores on low level factors. To the extent that consumers who are less knowledgeable are found to be at lower identification levels, we expect them to be more susceptible to cues suggesting high level meanings of products and services. This may partially account for why "novices" tend to generate more simple evaluative thoughts and be more extreme in their evaluations than "expert" consumers (Sujan 1985). In other words, novices may have been exposed to advertising and other suggestive cues to higher level product meaning that they readily adopted. Thus, we may also find positive correlations between certain high level factors that are image-oriented and low levels of product or service class knowledgeability. Sujan's (1985) work would also indicate that knowledgeable consumers will be more likely to endorse action identification statements that reflect pragmatic attribute-oriented aspects of product/service use.


A pilot study was conducted using 85 undergraduate business students at a large southwestern university. Each student received a list of three products and/or services, drawn randomly from a total of 15 that were included in the study. These 15 items were selected with the objective of representing the dimensions of complexity, hedonic vs. utilitarian consumption (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982), and products vs. services. Respondents were asked to generate as many one sentence descriptions as they could think of for the act of using each product/service in a total of 20 minutes. Thus, each product/service had lists generated by 17 different respondents. The identities most commonly listed were compiled into act identity inventories, with the number of statements in each inventory ranging from 24 to 35.

In the second stage, 171 students participated in rating each of the statements in three different randomly ordered inventories according to how well they fit the acts of consumption in question. Participants were instructed to rate how well each statement described the act of using the particular product or service by circling a number from 1 to 7 corresponding to "describes very poorly" to "describes very well," respectively. At least 34 respondents rated inventories for each of the 15 consumption objects in this process. Participants were also asked to rate their knowledgeability and familiarity with respect to each of the three product/service classes they rated (Brucks 1985).

The ratings compiled from stage two were intercorrelated across subjects and then factor analyzed by principal components and rotated to a varimax solution. This analysis resulted in between five and nine factors with eigenvalues greater than one for each of the 15 consumption items. In some cases, reduction of the number of factors to five or six gave solutions with the most meaningful interpretations, without sacrificing a significant amount of explained variance.


In each factor analysis, one low level factor emerged, along with 4 to 7 other factors with eigenvalues greater than 1.0. In general, factors were easily interpreted, especially for generally higher involvement products. To illustrate, Table 1 contrasts the identity factors for 2 of the consumption objects: a higher involvement service (elegant restaurants) and a higher involvement product (personal computers). In each case, the low level factor explains less variance than two higher level factors, which contradicts the normal factor structure found in the studies by Vallacher and Wegner. This may be due to the relatively high levels of familiarity that respondents reported with respect to the items in the survey, combined with the prevalence of messages about consumption objects that consumers are exposed to, which may tend to drive identifications into various high level factors. It is also possible that respondents accessed their own scripts (Abelson 1981) for the process of engaging in the consumption behavior without adequately imagining themselves performing the act. Ideally, action identification levels would be measured immediately following the action.

An interesting trend was found with respect to the knowledge and familiarity scale. A pattern of positive correlations between certain high level factors and familiarity appeared, although caution is necessary in interpreting this result because the knowledge and familiarity scale violated normality assumptions and sample sizes were too small to compensate. In table 1, factor 2 for elegant restaurants ("feeling pretty special") showed a strong positive correlation with familiarity. This is intuitively appealing, as the elements of this factor indicate actual experience with the consumption object. Four factors in the personal computer category showed significant correlations with familiarity: factors 3 ("low level") and 4 ("frustration") correlate negatively, while 2 ("being more productive") and 5 ("doing work") show positive correlation. This also confirms expectations; the low level factor is more likely among those with less knowledge, while factors indicating experience with and appreciation for the results computers can achieve correspond to persons with greater knowledge. Additionally, the "frustrating" factor's negative correlation with familiarity may apply to other categories where negative affect could be generated by a limited amount of exposure to a product or service that requires significant learning in order to obtain its benefits.

We emphasize that these are preliminary results and that more extensive testing needs to be done with larger and more heterogeneous samples. However, the initial findings appear to be promising.


Action identification theory addresses a number of issues of interest to consumer researchers. It explicitly takes into account the importance of an individual's subjective interpretation of his/her behavior, while providing an empirical technique for capturing some of that interpretation in identity "factors". The possibility that action identification levels with respect to the purchase and use of goods and services are subject to influence suggests a new means of influencing behavior. From the results we have obtained in our preliminary study, it appears that action identification may provide marketers with a tool for gaining additional insight into the dimensions of consumption experience and consumer scripts for the use of products and services. In addition, research into possible applications of the theory in attitude and behavioral influence seems warranted.




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