Do We Need Involvement to Understand Consumer Behavior?

Theo B.C. Poiesz, Tilburg University, the Netherlands
Cees, J.P.M. de Bont, Tilburg University, the Netherlands
ABSTRACT - In this paper the literature on the involvement concept is reviewed. One of the conclusions is that the cumulation of knowledge on involvement is hampered by the lack of conceptual clarity, the seemingly uncontrolled application, the overlap with presumed antecedents and consequences, and the unavoidable lack of consistent operationalisations. An alternative, more restricted, conceptualization is proposed.
[ to cite ]:
Theo B.C. Poiesz and Cees, J.P.M. de Bont (1995) ,"Do We Need Involvement to Understand Consumer Behavior?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 448-452.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 448-452


Theo B.C. Poiesz, Tilburg University, the Netherlands

Cees, J.P.M. de Bont, Tilburg University, the Netherlands


In this paper the literature on the involvement concept is reviewed. One of the conclusions is that the cumulation of knowledge on involvement is hampered by the lack of conceptual clarity, the seemingly uncontrolled application, the overlap with presumed antecedents and consequences, and the unavoidable lack of consistent operationalisations. An alternative, more restricted, conceptualization is proposed.


The concept of involvement has a long history in the consumer behavior literature. Generally, involvement is rather crudely defined as personal relevance or perceived personal relevance of a stimulus or situation. For several reasons it is a noteworthy concept. First, it receives an impressive amount of attention in the literature. Second, it addresses our way of thinking about consumer behavior; involvement is not just another determinant, but has paradigmatic implications as well. Third, involvement can be easily 'attached' to already existing concepts and theories. As such it fosters the (re)interpretation of available knowledge and stimulates research. Finally, involvement addresses the issue of external validity.

Popularity has its price, however. The rapid growth of attention for the concept resulted in a fragmentation of involvement research. Even though there are some more or less generally accepted aspects of involvement (see later), there are still too many loose conceptual and operational ends. Obviously, the absence of a single unequivocal definition hampers comparisons between studies, and prevents efficient cumulation of knowledge. These observations leave us with a dilemma: on the one hand the concept is more or less generally viewed to be relevant for the study of consumer behavior; on the other hand, there is uncertainty with regard to its exact position in de field. This calls for a critical assessment of the following issues: 1. Conceptualisations of involvement; 2. Operationalisations of involvement; and 3. Antecedents and consequences of involvement. Each of these sections will be concluded by a provisional discussion, which will be combined in a general discussion.


Because the involvement literature is reviewed extensively in several publications (e.g. Andrews et al., 1990), the present review will focus on some major conceptualisations only.

Sherif and Cantril (1947) introduced ego-involvement to refer to the linkage of new information with central, or ego-involved, attitudes. In the consumer behavior literature, Krugman (1965) viewed involvement as the number of bridging experiences, connections or personal references, between an individual and a product or issue per minute. Mitchell (1979; 1981), Bloch (1982), and Andrews et al. (1990) refer to involvement as an internal state variable that indicates the amount of arousal, interest, or drive invoked by a particular stimulus or situation. For many researchers involvement is equivalent to motivation to process information (e.g. Bloch and Richins, 1983; Burnkrant and Sawyer, 1983; Cohen, 1983; Greenwald and Leavitt, 1984; Bloch, Sherell, and Ridgway, 1986). Greenwald and Leavitt (1984) distinguish four levels of audience involvement: preattention, focal attention, comprehension, and elaboration. For several authors involvement stands for perceived personal relevance (e.g. Petty and Cacioppo, 1981; Zaichkowksy, 1985; Richins and Bloch, 1986; Celsi and Olson, 1988). Zaichkowsky (1985) defines involvement as a person's perceived relevance of an object based on inherent needs, values and interests.

By using the term 'felt involvement' some authors emphasize the experiential, phenomenological nature of the concept. According to Celsi and Olson (1988) concepts like: message-processing involvement (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981), audience involvement (Greenwald and Leavitt, 1984), and response involvement (Houston and Rothschild, 1978) can be regarded as effects of felt involvement.

Involvement has been conceptually related to objects or issues such as: product involvement, (Cohen, 1983; Mitchell, 1979), ad involvement (Lord and Burnkrant, 1993), program involvement (Lord and Burnkrant, 1993), message involvement (Mitchell, 1979; Laczniak and Muehling, 1990), and issue involvement (Laurent and Kapferer, 1985; Maheswaran and Meyers-Levy 1990). Sometimes the involvement construct is related to behaviors: e.g. purchase involvement (Antil, 1984; Mittal and Lee, 1989) and response involvement (Zimbardo, 1960; Bloch and Richins, 1983; Houston and Rothschild, 1978). Obviously, in situational involvement the construct is linked to the individual context (Bloch and Richins, 1983; Houston and Rothschild, 1978). Enduring involvement (Bloch and Richins, 1983; Houston and Rothschild, 1978) and outcome-relevant involvement (Johnson and Eagly, 1989) stress the interaction between a person and an object. Finally, some miscellaneous types of involvement can be found: e.g. value-relevant involvement (Ostrom and Brock, 1968; Johnson and Eagly, 1989) and impression-relevant involvement (Johnson and Eagly, 1989).

Conceptualisation: provisional discussion

Even though there seems to be a general agreement that involvement does relate to personal relevance, it remains unclear whether involvement should be interpreted as its synonym, as its conceptual equivalent, as something more general (or more specific) than personal relevance. Over time, in the consumer behavior literature, the concept seems to have changed its meaning to personal relevance. The problem of involvement may be located in its inherent plausibility or conceptual self-evidence which prevents the user from explicitly considering the question of its unique status and contribution. This renders it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish involvement from competing, but closely related concepts in the psychological and consumer behavior literature such as need, value, interest, drive, arousal, and motivation. Rather than focusing on the very conceptualization of involvement itself, the literature presents an inventory of different levels of involvement (preattention, focal attention, etc.), different types of involvement (enduring involvement, response involvement, etc.), different properties of involvement (intensity, direction, and persistence), different sources of involvement (personal, physical, situational), and different objects and issues to which the concept may be applied (message involvement, ad involvement, program involvement, product involvement, etc.). We do not seem to know what involvement is, but we do manage to produce all kinds of differentiations. By result, the involvement concept emerges as a loose conglomerate of various underlying notions, explicit or otherwise, whose core meaning and mutual relationships remain obscure. By simultaneously representing several more or less equivalent concepts, involvement-not surprisingly-is viewed as making a significant contribution to the explanation of behavior variance. However, it remains unclear whether and to what extent the explained variance can be attributed to the involvement concept per se.

Over the years, several authors have expressed criticism with respect to conceptualisations and operationalisations of involvement (e.g. Cohen, 1983; Zaichkowsky, 1985; Andrews et al., 1990), and with regard to the (lack of) direction that involvement research is taking (Rothschild, 1984). The general uneasiness with the concept seems reflected in concepts such as 'felt involvement'. Even though many existing psychological concepts relate to feelings, their conceptual clarity does not require this to be specified. For example, it is not necessary to refer to 'felt attitudes', 'felt motivation', 'felt ability', 'felt attention', etc. Then why would we need 'felt' involvement?


Unavoidably, conceptual problems or questions are reflected in manipulations and operationalisations. Often, involvement is manipulated by referring to the seriousness of the consequence of an issue, which, in turn, may be varied on the basis of distance from a person (geographical and time). Examples are provided in studies by Petty and Cacioppo (1981), Maheswaran and Meyers-Levy (1990), MacInnis and Park (1991), Chen et al. (1992), and Swinyard (1993). In other studies involvement is manipulated by varying consequences for the self (Celsi and Olson, 1988; Miniard et al., 1991). Sometimes manipulations do not seem to allow for a distinction between causes and effects of involvement. In a study by Mano and Oliver (1993) subjects were asked to consider either a product requiring little deliberation or a product requiring much deliberation. Thus, involvement was manipulated by referring to its presumed consequences. Similarly, Buchholz and Smith (1991) instructed subjects in the high involvement condition to maximize attention to the ad and the amount of brand processing.

Many researchers use multiple-item scales to measure involvement. For a review of involvement measures in advertising and consumer research see Andrews et al. (1990). Here we only mention that multiple-item scales have been developed by Lastovicka and Gardner (1979), by Laurent and Kapferer (1985), and by Zaichkowsky (1985; 1987). In the development of the measurement scales, different conceptual perspectives resulted in different multi-item scales. Other researchers use 2-item scales (Celsi and Olson, 1988), or even a single-item scale (Donthu et al., 1993) to measure involvement.

Finally, some alternative types of operationalisations do not use measurement scales at all. In Lord and Burnkrant (1993) program involvement was assessed by measuring the response (attention) time in a concurrent task. Longer response times were assumed to indicate that more attention is paid to the primary task (viewing the program). In Laczniak and Muehling (1990) cognitive response elicitation was used to distinguish between more involved and less involved subjects. The subjects having only one or fewer message-related responses (as opposed to ad-and product related thoughts) were assigned to the low-involvement group.

Operationalisation: provisional discussion

The first conclusion is that inter-study comparisons are hampered by the lack of a standardized (set of) measurement instrument(s). In their attempts to manipulate involvement, some authors went so far as to reverse cause and effect. Apparently, the reasoning was that if an increase in involvement causes a higher level of elaboration or attention, then a request to engage in more elaboration or to pay close attention can serve as a manipulation of involvement.

In more general terms, manipulations of involvement seem to concentrate on the size of the effect and/or its probability, distance, or relevance. A critical question is whether the instructions manipulated involvement exclusively, or had other, unspecified psychological, effects as well. Unfortunately, without a very clear notion of the exact nature of involvement and of its relationships to other psychological variables, this question can not be answered. The lack of conceptual clarity does not only prevent us from distinguishing between involvement and seemingly equivalent or neighbouring concepts, but may also prevent us from making a clear distinction between involvement, its antecedents, and its consequences. This is demonstrated by the types of manipulations of involvement reported in the literature. For some of these, it is not clear whether an antecedent, a consequence, or involvement itself is manipulated.


The need to distinguish between involvement and its effects on cognitive processing and its causal antecedents has been stressed by Cohen (1983), Greenwald and Leavitt (1984), Celsi and Olson (1988), Mittal and Lee (1989), and Andrews et al. (1990). The following antecedents are mentioned in literature:

- Physical and social aspects of the immediate environment (Celsi and Olson, 1988);

- Intrinsic characteristics of the individual (Houston and Rothschild, 1978; Zaichkowsky, 1985; Richins and Bloch, 1986);

- Products with salient distinguishing attributes (Hupfer and Gardner, 1971; Robertson, 1976; Lastovicka and Gardner, 1979).

Mostly, consequences of involvement are proposed in the field of information processing. Suggested consequences are attention and comprehension processes, and levels of processing (Celsi and Olson, 1988; Maheswaran and Meyers-Levy, 1990; Miniard et al., 1991; Lord and Burnkrant, 1993), motivation to process information (Burnkrant and Sawyer, 1983; Bloch et al., 1986), amount of counterargumentation (Chen et al., 1992), and type of processing (Mittal, 1988). Other consequences of involvement can be viewed as the outcomes of information processing: attitudes, persuasion (Sherif and Hovland, 1961; Petty et al., 1983; Laczniak and Muehling, 1990; Maheswaran and Meyers-levy, 1990; MacInnis and Park, 1991; Miniard et al., 1991; Chen et al., 1992), and behavioral intention (Swinyard, 1993). Some consequences of involvement are suggested in the domain of purchase and consumption: frequency of product usage (Mittal and Lee, 1989), brand loyalty, post purchase satisfaction (Richins and Bloch, 1991), adoption of new products (Foxall and Bhate, 1993), and voting behavior (Burton and Netemeyer, 1992). In some studies the consequences consist of experiences: shopping enjoyment (Mittal and Lee, 1989), brand commitment (Mittal and Lee, 1989), and consumption experience (Mano and Oliver, 1993). Consequences that can not be attributed to the mentioned categories are: arousal (Mitchell, 1981), extensiveness of decision process (Mittal and Lee, 1989), interest in advertising (Mittal and Lee, 1989), differences in advertising effectiveness of radio and television (Buchholz and Smith, 1991), and perceived argument truth (Hawkins and Hoch, 1992).

Antecedents and consequences: provisional discussion

The inventory of antecedents and consequences does not present clear clues on the possible solution of the conceptual problem of involvement. The observed statistical covariation is attributed to cause-effect relationships, but could also be interpreted as reflecting common psychological elements and meanings. To add to the confusion, some of the antecedents and consequences would not be out of place in a multi-item involvement inventory. Stated differently: if we were to dismantle the involvement concept and would exclude synonyms, antecedents, and consequences from its conceptualization, what would be the residue, if any? Is there something like a core meaning of involvement, or is involvement nothing but a conceptual and statistical artefact?


Originally, involvement was meant to express the intensity of mental or cognitive elaboration (see Krugman, 1965). In the provisional discussions we concluded that involvement shows a tendency to be confused with other concepts and with its antecedents and consequences. If involvement implicitly claims to be an integral aspect of just about everything, without having idiosyncratic characteristics of its own, then the inevitable question is whether we need the concept at all in theory development and application. We will address the potential legitimacy of both a negative and a positive answer to this question in the light of the previous provisional discussions.

For reasons of conceptual clarity and parsimony, we propose that the answer may be negative to the extent that involvement only adds to the confusion by merely claiming the role already played by other well-known theoretical concepts such as, for example, personal relevance and motivation. The answer may only be positive if it can be shown that there is a need for a motivational concept that is more than a mere conceptual substitute and that has explanatory value of its own.

For reasons to be explained shortly we propose to conceive of involvement as referring to the momentary mobilisation of behavioral resources for the achievement of a personally relevant goal. Behavioral resources comprise physical (sensory and physiological) capacity, mental capacity, and energy (arousal). It is assumed that behavioral resources will be mobilized to the extent that three conditions are met simultaneously: the goal is subjectively relevant, and the perceived ability and perceived opportunity to achieve that goal are favorable. (Compare Petty and Cacioppo, e.g. 1981, who refer to involvement as the combination of motivation and ability, where opportunity is subsumed under ability). This notion of involvement differs from personal relevance (or motivation) by the specification of two additional conditions, which implies that high personal relevance may be associated with low involvement. For example, if an unpolluted environment is highly personally relevant, and perceived ability and/or opportunity to contribute to a clean environment are low, no behavioral resources are mobilized (involvement is low). When personal relevance is held constant (or even reduced slightly), the level of involvement may be increased by increasing perceived ability and/or opportunity. These examples show that there is a loose relationship between personal relevance and involvement. Therefore, it is proposed to consistently conceive of involvement as the consequence of the combined subjective assessments of motivation and ability and opportunity, and not to take involvement as the mere equivalent of personal relevance. If, in the literature, involvement is conceptually and operationally defined as personal relevance, while involvement is meant to represent behavioral resource mobilization, considerable conceptual confusion will occur. We assume that this confusion remains largely unnoticed, however, due to the fact that in many involvement studies reported in the literature subjects are exposed to favorable ability and opportunity conditions only, thus allowing only personal relevance to vary. This seems to explain why, in these studies, personal relevance could be (but should not have been) simply equated-or confused-with involvement.

Involvement, in the present interpretation of mobilization of behavioral resources, may be considered a determinant or antecedent to behavioral phenomena such as behavior persistence and behavior intensity. The conceptualization (re-)proposed here implies that involvement is different from motivation, personal relevance, and arousal. It allows for a distinction between involvement and its antecedents and consequences in a conceptual, methodological, and operational sense. Of course, to the extent that ability and opportunity conditions become more favorable, the difference between personal relevance and involvement becomes smaller.

For the present conceptualization of involvement-the mobilization of behavioral resources-no operationalization is readily available. At least two operationalization possibilities present themselves. The first is to develop a scale for the subjective assessment of the degree to which behavioral resources are mobilized. The problem inherent to this option is that the mobilization of resources may not be accessible to conscious assessment, and the very assessment may even interfere with the very phenomenon. The second option is to regard involvement as a phenomenon that can not be measured directly and to resort an operational definition in the form of the measurement of the three antecedent psychological conditions suggested in this paper. In the latter option involvement is taken as some combination (comparable to, for example, a latent construct in LISREL terms) of the subjective assessments of motivation, ability, and opportunity. According to the view presented here, involvement can be manipulated by changing the levels of either one or a combination of the three mentioned conditions. This implies that involvement may be manipulated by changing other conditions than motivation or personal relevance alone.

In the present interpretation, concepts such as product involvement, message involvement, enduring involvement, and situational involvement would acquire a different meaning than suggested in the literature. Product involvement, for example, would not be taken as the conceptual equivalent of product interest, but as the mobilization of behavioral resources with respect to a particular product at a particular moment and in a particular situation. Involvement should not be uniquely associated with a person, an object, or a situation. The same object may invoke high levels of involvement in one situation, and low levels of involvement in another. The suggestion of involvement types (e.g. Krugman, 1965-high and low involving media) prompted consumer behavior researchers to produce endless differentiations. Although these may have contributed to a rich description of consumer behavior, they do not seem to have really contributed to a consistent and parsimonious understanding of that behavior. (By comparison, it would not be useful nor efficient to distinguish between different types of health such as genetic health, stress health, exercise health, eating health, and drinking health. Of course, by statistical analyses the effects of different health factors might be partialled out, but this would not legitimize a distinction of different types of health). Similarly, personal involvement, object or issue involvement, and situational involvement are not different types of involvement; they merely refer to different aspects of the same phenomenon from which a particular level of involvement emerges. The assumption of different types of involvement holds the risk that the same involvement is attributed to the person by researcher 1, to the object by researcher 2, and to the situation by researcher 3, merely depending upon what happens to be the particular interest of the individual researcher. In the present reasoning, involvement is dependent upon the combination of characteristics of the person, the object/ issue, and the situation. These characteristics, in themselves, should not be taken as more or less involving.

In conclusion, the traditional conceptualizations of involvement do not allow a description of its scope which is due, to a large extent, to the absence of boundaries of the concept itself. As the scope is endless, so is research on involvement-the concept may continue to grow rank forever. That involvement does explain behavior variance is not a critical issue here. What is critical is whether the variance is correctly or incorrectly attributed to personal relevance.

To return to the title: involvement is a necessary concept indeed, but its conceptualisation needs adaptation to avoid confusion, to allow for operationalisation and integration, to avoid uncontrolled growth and unwarranted application, and to fully exploit its basic, inherent meaning.


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