Consumption Visions in Consumer Decision Making

Diane M. Phillips, Pennsylvania State University
Jerry C. Olson, Pennsylvania State University
Hans Baumgartner, Pennsylvania State University
ABSTRACT - We propose that consumers sometimes form mental images of future consumption situations and that these consumption visions influence their decision-making. A consumption vision is "a visual image of certain product-related behaviors and their consequences... (they consist of) concrete and vivid mental images that enable consumers to vicariously experience the self-relevant consequences of product use" (Walker and Olson 1994, pp. 27, 31). We describe some of the likely characteristics of consumption visions, propose several factors that may influence the formation of consumption visions, and discuss how consumer researchers can integrate consumption visions into decision-making research.
[ to cite ]:
Diane M. Phillips, Jerry C. Olson, and Hans Baumgartner (1995) ,"Consumption Visions in Consumer Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 280-284.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 280-284


Diane M. Phillips, Pennsylvania State University

Jerry C. Olson, Pennsylvania State University

Hans Baumgartner, Pennsylvania State University


We propose that consumers sometimes form mental images of future consumption situations and that these consumption visions influence their decision-making. A consumption vision is "a visual image of certain product-related behaviors and their consequences... (they consist of) concrete and vivid mental images that enable consumers to vicariously experience the self-relevant consequences of product use" (Walker and Olson 1994, pp. 27, 31). We describe some of the likely characteristics of consumption visions, propose several factors that may influence the formation of consumption visions, and discuss how consumer researchers can integrate consumption visions into decision-making research.


A 29-year-old bride-to-be is planning her wedding. She is trying to decide which of several options would be most appropriateCthe country western wedding complete with cowboy boots and bluegrass band, the formal candlelight wedding with black tuxedos and caviar, or the garden wedding with climbing roses, fluffy pastries and a string quartet.

A 22-year-old woman is planning to take a vacation to celebrate her completion of college. The options under consideration are: touring Europe, relaxing on the beach of a tropical island, or hiking at a mountain retreat.

A 45-year-old male attorney is selecting a new sweater to wear skiing. He wants something sophisticated and elegant, yet sporty and functional.

According to traditional models of consumer decision-making (Bettman, Johnson and Payne 1991), these individuals will identify the relevant attributes of each option, evaluate the various attributes, and select the wedding, vacation, or sweater with the highest overall utility, based on a combination of their judgments about attribute values and importances. We contend that this process is not likely to occur in all decision-making situations. Traditional models of decision-making have worked fairly well for familiar, well-structured, and rational choices. However, these models may not describe how consumers make other types of decisions for which they have little experience, or where the problem is less well-defined, or where emotional considerations play an important role. When faced with such decisions, we propose that consumers form consumption visions to help them select an appropriate alternative.


A consumption vision is "a visual image of certain product-related behaviors and their consequences ... (they consist of) concrete and vivid mental images that enable consumers to vicariously experience the self-relevant consequences of product use" (Walker and Olson 1994, pp. 27, 31). For instance, the bride-to-be faces a difficult decision task in planning her wedding. She may have considerable uncertainty about the desirability of various choice alternatives. To help make this decision, she might create several consumption visions of possible weddingsCthe country western wedding, the formal candlelight wedding, or the garden wedding. Within each of these simulated consumption situations, the bride can imagine herself consuming various products and experiencing the consequences of this consumption with her friends and family. By imagining the likely outcomes, she is able to identify the salient characteristics of each decision alternative and develop beliefs about their outcomes. Also, she can experience affective reactions to the outcomes she imagines. In this way, the consumption vision allows her to form the cognitive and affective basis for her preferences. By constructing several consumption visions, she may be able to develop a preference for one of the wedding alternatives, for example, and the various products and services associated with that choice.

We believe consumers also form consumption visions when making purchase decisions less important than a wedding. For instance, the attorney might imagine wearing the new sweater while skiing or while eating in a resort restaurant. His decision to buy one sweater over another partly depends on the beliefs formed during such consumption visions and the affective reactions elicited by these anticipatory experiences.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the concept of consumption visions and to explore its implications for consumer decision-making. We specify some of the conceptual characteristics of consumption visions, identify several factors which are likely to influence consumption visions, and describe some of the consequences of consumption visions. Because little work to date has examined consumption visions, much of our discussion is speculative. Our goal is to stimulate interest and future research in the phenomenon, not to present a fully-developed theory of consumption visions. To explore how people actually use consumption visions, we conducted unstructured, depth interviews with eight college students. These people described consumption visions they have had, discussed instances in which they did and did not use consumption visions, and speculated about how they typically use consumption visions in their decision making. To illustrate our discussion of consumption visions, we present verbatim excerpts from these interviews throughout the paper.


Although little direct research has been conducted on consumption visions, we can speculate about some of the likely characteristics of consumption visions that set them apart from other decision-making concepts. These include possible selves, narrative form, visual imagery, affective reactions, and goal representation.

Possible Selves

Consumers create consumption visions by projecting a "possible self" into a future consumption situation. Possible selves can represent what we would ideally like to be, what we probably will be, or what we are afraid of becoming (Markus and Nurius 1986). The depiction of a possible self in a consumption vision functions not only as a positive or negative incentive for future behavior, it also provides a standard for interpreting self-relevant consumption experiences.

Interestingly, subjects in our study described only consumption visions involving positive possible selvesCfor example, optimistic visions of being a wealthy business tycoon and more realistic visions of being a successful entrepreneur. One subject revealed a reason why people might have few consumption visions with negative possible selves:

"But there's no problem in my visions ... there are no problems for some reason ... I see mistakes and I change them right away. It's always perfect."

Narrative Form

We suggest that many consumption visions have a narrative form. That is, consumption visions have a character (the consumer's possible self), a plot (a series of events in which the character enacts behaviors and reacts to events) and a setting (an environment or context in which the action occurs). From a narrative perspective, consumption visions are "stories" created by the decision-making consumer. In constructing consumption visions, consumers project themselves into simulated consumption situations and observe the imaginary actions of the possible self in this context. The story-teller consumer also observes how the story "plays out," paying particular attention to the consequences that occur. The goals, motives and values associated with the projected possible self, combined with the features and context of the imaginary consumption situation, are the two main ingredients necessary for a consumption vision. We expect these narrative consumption visions to vary in complexity and elaboration. Some consumption narratives can be quite elaborate, much like a miniature play or movie, while others may have a simple form, similar to a sequence of static images or frames in a comic strip.

Consumers can construct (and view) a consumption vision narrative from different perspectives of the self (Nigro and Neisser 1983). Sometimes, consumers may see themselves from the "internal" perspective as if they were actually performing the actions themselves. Sometimes, they may experience a consumption vision from an "outside" perspective, as if they were observing the self performing the behaviors. For example, one subject contrasted these two perspectives in her consumption visions for an apartment and a new car:

"When I'm in the apartment, I see me ... I can see myself going to the apartment, going to the cabinet. I'll have everything in order ... I can see myself reaching for this and doing it and I'll know where it is and pouring whatever I have (a cup of coffee or tea) and going back and sitting on my couch ... and turning on the TV and I can see myself doing that."

"When I'm in the car, I see a body that looks like me ... I don't see myself in the car, holding the steering wheel, turning, making a left, looking out the mirrors, stuff like that ... I just see a body in there that looks like me going to work and coming back."

The internal perspective seems much more personal and realistic than the outside perspective. In our preliminary data, internal perspectives were reported in consumption visions of new apartments, new computers, and new suits, while outside perspectives were reported for exotic vacations, new sports cars, and dream houses. Perhaps consumers tend to use the internal perspective when viewing consumption visions involving their actual or current self, and tend to use the outside perspective when viewing consumption visions involving a possible or ideal self.

Visual Imagery

We suggest that consumers experience consumption visions as a series of visual images. Sometimes these images seem to be quite vivid, almost as if a tiny projector is presenting the action to the consumer's mind's eye. During the interviews, several subjects moved their hands and pointed while describing the placement of different objects in their consumption vision and to help illustrate to the interviewer "what it looks like." Apparently, one subject could "see" a detailed consumption vision of a new apartment and how the living room furniture would be positioned, as she moved her hands to describe that vision for the interviewer:

"You know, with a couch on one side, a couch on the other, and the TV right on the other wall, so that there would be three walls. Then maybe if I had a table or something, I'd put it on the other wall so that would kind of divide the living room and the dining room ... and then like a table in the middle of the two couches so that you could lay things on it or sit things on it. And a light, the lamps ... I'd have two end tables on each side of the couches; then I'd have the lamps there."

Although some consumption visions can be quite vivid, there are marked differences in level of elaboration and complexity. For example, one subject described his consumption vision for a new computer in simple terms with little visual imagery:

"Finances, budgeting, communicating with all kinds of different people. And a personal diary ... always updating my account and expenses for myself and the house and ... but, I don't know ... its just something I know I need someday. Its not a big issue. I just know I need it for business."

Other consumers seem to have very clear and detailed images of the different components of their consumption vision. For instance, after giving a detailed description of a consumption vision about vacationing on a tropical island, one subject gave a detailed description of a trip to an open-air market:

"There's a big market and everybody's walking with their own baskets to buy things fresh. I'd go to the seafood merchant and buy lobsters and oysters and crabs and then go to the fruit stand and get all these fresh vegetables and fruits like pineapples and papayas and mangoes and strawberries (laughs). No meat really, just a lot of fish and seafood and fresh vegetables. And for some reason, Italian bread. I don't know why (laughs). Italian bread makes no sense, but Italian bread. And its just really busy. There are a lot of people and they're all screaming and yelling in their native language and me and my boyfriend are very fascinated and we just buy our stuff and walk around and we find that the people are really nice. If we don't know what something is, they explain it to us and if they have samples, they let us try it. And just carry on regular conversations with them about things. And I'd buy a lot of jewelry, beads and stuff."

The presence of vivid (Taylor and Thompson 1982) or complex (Markus and Nurius 1986) visual images in a consumption vision may have important decision-making implications. Vivid and complex consumption visions would contain numerous, visually elaborate images of the self performing a consumption activity. This type of depiction might motivate consumers to work harder to achieve these visions. However, these concrete and vivid images may also decrease consumers' openness to alternative consumption experiences and might contribute to dissatisfaction if actual experiences deviate from expectations.

Affective Reactions

We expect consumption visions to vary in their potential to elicit affective responses. Several subjects became obviously excited when describing their consumption visionsCthey became animated and tended to laugh and smile a lot. Some subjects reported it felt good to think about their consumption visions. This is consistent with previous research which found that people reported higher levels of positive affect when thinking about their life goals or when enacting behaviors to help them achieve their life goals (Emmons 1986). Consumers know it feels good to think of certain potential future situations. In fact, in some cases consumers may construct consumption visions as a temporary escape from stress, as a break from monotony, or as a quick "pick-me-up." For instance, one subject reported forming consumption visions:

"... usually when I'm very stressed or something. Or, I just can't take my environment any more so I just drift off and just see myself in this very happy state ... it makes me feel much better about myself afterwards. It kind of like relieves stress; it makes me relax. It makes me feel like there is something in the future to look forward to. Maybe this will actually happen to me sometime in the future."

Prior research has demonstrated the importance of hedonic motives in consumer behavior (Campbell 1989; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). Apparently, consumers not only create consumption visions to help make decisions, they also purposely construct consumption visions to escape from the mundane aspects of life.

Goal Representation

By constructing consumption visions, consumers can form more tangible representations of their abstract goals, motives, and values. Consumption visions may represent realistic goals, or they may represent ideal goals that a consumer hopes to achieve someday. One subject described consumption visions as, "I can see it; it's something that I would like to aim for," whereas another said, "it is the ideal that you need to work toward." Previous literature has found evidence of both realistic and ideal visions of the future (Markus and Nurius 1986; Markus and Ruvolo 1989). Examples of realistic consumption visions from the interviews include wearing a new suit, using a new computer, and having a romantic dinner. Examples of ideal goals include owning a cruise line, living in a house like on the TV show Dallas, or driving a Mercedes Benz.

Consumption visions also give consumers a better idea of which actions are most likely to attain important goals. Further, consumption visions seem to provide motivation for consumers to work to attain the goals they create. One subject indicated that after forming a consumption vision, he allocated mental and financial resources to try to obtain the vision. Another individual described how she tried to achieve a match between her consumption vision and actual consumption:

"I know I'm going an apartment, so I start thinking ok, I want all this stuff in the apartment. Then that's what I go for. So like, you have this vision and you want to match that vision and you want to go and purchase those things that are in your vision. And along the way it might change, but more likely than not, you're going to keep most of what that vision is."


A wide variety of factors may influence how and when consumers form consumption visions. We discuss three categories of factors that seem likely to affect consumption visionsCthe degree of personal relevance of, or consumers' involvement in, the purchase decision; individual differences such as previous experience and ability and/or preference to process information visually; and situational factors.

Personal Relevance or Involvement

Consumers form a consumption vision by projecting a possible self into an anticipated consumption situation. Therefore, we expect the degree of personal relevance of, or consumers' level of involvement in, the purchase decision to have a significant impact on the formation and use of consumption visions. Involvement will be high to the extent that products relate to important values and goals. This increased self-relevance should lead to more elaborate information processing (Celsi and Olson 1988), including the construction of more vivid and complex consumption visions. One subject illustrated the importance of self-relevance in the formation of consumption visions:

"Did you ever have ... kind of like when you decorate a room, for example, in the house. Have you ever had a corner and it needs something? You don't know what. So you sit down and think about it for a while. We could put a plant there or something, you know? I think it takes time to think about what I want to do to modify the home to make it more comfortable or look better or whatever...I would put time into thinking about that."

"We bought a washer and dryer when we first moved into the apartment because it had a washer/dryer hookup, but we didn't put a whole lot of thought into it, we just ... because we needed it, you know? Because we were tired of going to the laundromat every 2 or 3 days. And they were on sale so that was when we really ... It was a big ticket item that we didn't really put a lot of thought into. Plus we had credit at the furniture store where we bought it, so that helped."

This person formed a consumption vision for the more involving decision about filling an empty corner of a room, but he did not form a consumption vision for the purchase of a less relevant, although "big ticket" appliance. This example suggests that a high price does not always create the necessary involvement to generate a consumption vision. We suggest that consumers must perceive the consumption of a product to be at least somewhat relevant to the self before they are motivated to construct a consumption vision.

Individual Differences

We expect some consumers to be more likely than others to form consumption visions. Many individual differences, including demographics (gender, age, etc.) and trait variables (need for cognition, self-monitoring, etc.), are expected to influence whether individuals form consumption visions during decision making, how detailed these visions will be, and about which products consumption visions are formed.

Ability and/or preference to engage in visual processing of information seems to have particular potential as a predictor of the extent to which a consumer will form consumption visions. Researchers have developed several scales for measuring individual differences in imagery processingCone example is the Style of Processing scale of Childers, Houston, and Heckler (1985)Cand we expect such individual differences in processing style to affect the incidence of using consumption visions for decision making.

Interestingly, one subject explicitly speculated about such individual differences in forming consumption visions:

"I think it depends on the person. It depends on their imagination. I know people who can't imagine themselves doing anything except what they're doing at the present..."

Situational Factors

A variety of stimuli in the immediate context are likely to influence the formation of a consumption vision. For example, information in an advertisement could encourage consumers to construct consumption visions. Stimuli such as an evocative picture, the use of concrete, imagery-eliciting words, or an explicit request to imagine a consumption situation may lead consumers to visualize future consumption situations (Lutz and Lutz 1978; MacInnis and Price 1987; Phillips 1994).

As another example, financial limitations might influence the construction of consumption visionsCperhaps consumers are more likely to form consumption visions about choice alternatives they can reasonably afford to buy. In addition, as consumers get closer to the time of purchase, they may be more likely to create consumption visions. For instance, one subject described her consumption vision about an impending trip to Australia:

"My main vision right now is Australia because that's the next big thing in my life. So I envision that quite a bit. And I know in the Fall as it gets closer, I'm going to be envisioning it even more and as it gets to December, I'm going to be envisioning it a lot."

Note that by envisioning the people, the weather, and the tours she might encounter, this person could better prepare herself for actual consumption by bringing things she might need.


In this section, we discuss several consequences of consumption visions for consumer decision making. We also briefly discuss some other outcomes of consumption visions.

Decision Making

Most traditional models of consumer decision making assume consumers integrate present-day beliefs and evaluations about product attributes to form attitudes toward purchasing a product. Few models of decision making discuss how consumers come to have these beliefs and evaluations. Very often, consumers must make decisions about choice alternatives for which they have little or no direct personal experience. For such decisions, consumers are likely to have few beliefs about product attributes or the personal consequences of product use upon which to base their decision.

We suggest that forming a consumption vision is one possible heuristic by which a consumer can decide among alternative courses of action. We discuss the possible effects of consumption visions on consumers' cognitive and affective reactions to products, intentions and behavior, and post-purchase evaluations.

Cognitive and affective reactions. The decision-making self may construct consumption visions to think about the attributes that characterize the product, to imagine the consequences resulting from using the product, and to predict the likelihood that consumption of the product will lead to the satisfaction of important values and goals. By mentally simulating a consumption event, a consumer can gain greater clarity about how product attributes relate to the self via the consequences of product use. In addition, affective reactions to the imagined consumption experiences can influence the decision process. For example, Schwarz (1990) has suggested that people may ask themselves, "How do I feel about it?," and use these feelings to render a judgment. In sum, by visualizing future product use occasions in a consumption vision, consumers can form beliefs about their likely satisfaction with the product and imagine their affective reactions to these consumption experiences. They can use these cognitive and affective reactions to make more informed purchase decisions.

Intentions and Behavior. Research has shown that the mere act of imagining oneself performing certain behaviors can lead to changes in behavioral intentions to engage in these behaviors (e.g., Anderson 1983). In addition, visualizing a future event can enhance the performance of the actual behavior. For example, Gregory, Cialdini, and Carpenter (1982) showed that people who imagined themselves using and enjoying cable television subsequently subscribed to a cable TV service at a significantly higher rate than control subjects who were only told of the benefits of cable TV. These findings imply that the formation of consumption visions involving the self can increase consumers' intentions to follow a course of action and that consumption imagery may have a self-fulfilling effect on actual behavior.

Post-Purchase Evaluations. We might expect consumers to retrieve consumption visions after purchase to see how well actual use of the product corresponded with the imagined use of the product. Curiously, at least in our preliminary data, subjects did not report consulting their consumption visions after purchase. For instance, two subjects described what happened to the consumption vision for a new car and a new computer after purchase:

"I did all those things I envisioned I was going to do. After that, I don't remember doing anything else or thinking anything else, besides, 'I have a car' and that was it."

"With the computer, you're...always still consuming it. I don't know if there's a whole lot of re-evaluating, unless something goes wrong with it. So far, I'm pretty satisfied."

These examples are congruent with previous literature (Kahneman and Tversky 1982) that finds people tend to engage in complex mental manipulations only when something goes wrong. Thus, it would seem that consumption visions are likely to be reactivated and reconsidered only if the actual consumption experience is highly discrepant with expectations.

Other Outcomes

Aside from their use in decision making, consumption visions can also serve other purposes such as mood management or self-construction. Although many subjects reported experiencing positive affect when imagining positive outcomes of product use, other subjects mentioned using consumption visions for purely hedonic reasons. It simply feels good to imagine yourself in a happy future where certain goals have been fulfilled. With no intention of making a judgment about a specific consumption alternative, consumers may purposely evoke consumption visions to escape from the pressures of daily life and fantasize and daydream about positive possible selves and pleasurable consumption situations.

In addition to mood enhancement, consumption visions may also be used for self-construction. For example, the manner in which possible selves are depicted in consumption visions can help consumers define their roles in modern society. People's lives have become increasingly complex due to the demands of the multiple social roles of present-day life (Gergen 1991). Indeed, in one day an individual might enact the roles of spouse, parent, neighbor, doctor, and amateur musician, among others. Making purchase decisions in the context of these multiple roles/selves is complex and difficult. By constructing consumption visions based on the various perspectives, the consumer may be able to clarify the consumption situation and make more appropriate choices.


There is currently a mismatch between our traditional models of consumer decision-making and the way consumers actually make decisions, at least for certain product choices. Multi-attribute models have been successful in modeling how consumers make decisions about mundane, frequently purchased products, where the problem is well-defined and decision making proceeds ration-ally. But these models cannot account for decisions in which less experience is available, where the problem is not well-structured, and where emotional reactions are important.

Whereas traditional models assume verbal and semantic processing, the consumption vision perspective focuses on visual and imaginal processing. The consumption vision approach explicitly acknowledges creative sense-making processes consumers use to anticipate the future. Consumption visions help consumers anticipate and make plans to navigate an uncertain future by providing concrete, vivid images of the self interacting with a product and experiencing the consequences of product use. Consumption visions allow consumers to vicariously participate in product consumption prior to purchase. By forming different consumption visions, consumers can mentally "try out" different choice alternatives and select the one that provides the greatest pleasure during consumption and leads to the satisfaction of important values and goals.


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