Special Session Summary a Forum on Health-Related Consumer Behavior

Meryl P. Gardner, University of Delaware
William D. Harris, Quinnipiac College
[ to cite ]:
Meryl P. Gardner and William D. Harris (1996) ,"Special Session Summary a Forum on Health-Related Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 397-398.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 397-398



Meryl P. Gardner, University of Delaware

William D. Harris, Quinnipiac College

How consumers make and implement health-related decisions can have literally life and death consequences. Health-related behaviors are conceptually different from the more usual phenomena we studyCthe decision to eat nutritiously is remade every time you pass Mrs. Field's Cookies. Implementation is often difficult and involves continual tradeoffs. In fact these tradeoffs are often intimately related to life satisfaction. Diverse paradigms have been used to explain these behaviors. But, no one has brought them together. To further complicate the issueCpeople are studying different parts of the elephantCsuch as nutrition detection, stress reduction, exercise behavior Cwhich may not involve the same target market, but are all health-related consumer behaviors. This special session was designed to bring together diverse perspectives on consumer health-related behaviors and in so doing enrich our understanding of this complex area of investigation.

The goal of the proposed session was to bring together divergent theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding how consumers make decisions about health-related products. Issues were approached from several theoretical perspectives, including prospect theory, information processing, and systems theory. Methodological issues such as message framing, dynamic behavior modeling, and longitudinal analysis were discussed.

It is hoped that by examining health-related behaviors from these divergent perspectives, we as consumer researchers will be able to move toward a richer understanding of the motivators and structural components behind this important aspect of consumer behavior. By studying health-related behaviors from within a consumer behavior framework, we hope to gain a richer understanding of health-related behavior from the perspective of why people purchase the products they do, and how they act, think, and feel during the process of buying and consuming these products. It's through the act of studying healthy lifestyle decision making along a continuum ranging from goal formulation to purchase and consumption behaviors that distinguishes this form of inquiry from that of investigating health-related behavior in general.

Stephen Hoch led an engaging discussion with the audience on the issues raised in the following papers.



William D. Harris and Meryl P. Gardner

This paper provides a theoretical framework for investigating the role of personal motivators in leading a healthy lifestyle. The focus of the discussion was on a model designed to describe the multi-level linkages of goal directing constructs to behavior. In addition, the model serves as theoretical basis for later empirical tests of hypothecized relationships among the constructs and enables us to see if the same relationships fit across a wide variety of behaviors.

Personal motivators of health-related behavior include demographics, psychographics, social factors, and situational factors. The effects of these four categories of variables on behavior are believed to be mediated by motivation and ability. Support for the motivation and ability linkage to behavior is given by Moorman and Matulich (1993) and Lutz, MacKenzie and Belch (1983).

Three important demographic factors that have been found repeatedly in the health-related behavior literature are age, gender, and income. The psychographic variables of interest are affect intensity, risk adversion, locus of control, and attributional style. Bolden (1994) and Jacques (1994) attribute social factors such as peer influence to be important determinates of the performance of health-related behaviors. Finally, the situational factors highlighted in the model are affective state, cognitive state, and physical state.

Through the examination of relations found in our model we hope to find answers to the following research questions: How do people decide to start taking better care of themselves? How do people decide whether to actually follow through with these decisions in spite of temptations to do otherwise? What are the characteristics of people who do/don't take care of themselves? Do people who take care of themselves in one way take care of themselves in other ways? In other words, are health-related behaviors compensatory or complementary?



Christine Moorman

Research Summary. This paper reports a longitudinal quasi-experiment that uses the implementation of the NLEA to examine the consumer and informational determinants of nutrition information processing activities. Over 1000 consumers from balanced demographic, geographic, and site categories were observed and surveyed within a supermarket setting and across twenty different product categories. Results indicate that consumers acquired and comprehended more nutrition information at the point of sale in the post-NLEA condition than in the pre-NLEA condition. The NLEA did not, however, always influence these outcomes irrespective of individual consumer differences. Specifically, results indicate that the NLEA strengthened the positive relationship between motivation to process and nutrition information acquisition, and transformed a positive relationship between consumer skepticism in food products and nutrition information acquisition into a negative one. In the area of nutrition information comprehension, the NLEA weakened the relationships between motivation to process and nutrition information comprehension as well as diet and label knowledge and nutrition information comprehension while strengthening the relationship between diet-disease knowledge and nutrition information comprehension. Finally, the NLEA reduced differences in nutrition information comprehension for healthy and unhealthy product categories, while slightly widening differences in nutrition information acquisition in favor of unhealthy product categories.

Public Policy Implications. This study provides a set of initial findings of the impact of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act on consumer processing of nutrition information. Findings suggest that consumers acquire and comprehend more nutrition information following the introduction of the new labels. Therefore, designing more complete, more comprehensible, and less potentially deceptive information across a wider range of food products has increased the level of nutrition information that consumers acquire and comprehend at the point of sale.

A goal that appears to be implicit in the NLEA is to facilitate consumers' use of nutrition information irrespective of their individual processing capabilities. In other words, most consumers should be able to use the new nutrition labels in their food choices. The results of this study suggest that the NLEA was only partially successful on this issue. Specifically, the new nutrition labels were comprehensible to consumers with varying levels of motivation and most types of nutrition knowledge. However, the new labels seem to widen consumer differences in terms of how much nutrition information was actually acquired C with more motivated consumers and less skeptical consumers acquiring more post-NLEA. If nutrition/health programs strive for greater equity in acquisition, different approaches will apparently need to be adopted in program design. For example, it is not clear that nutrition labels are the appropriate tool to motivate less interested consumers. Fear appeals, on the other hand, may be more effective in drawing attention to the critical information contained on nutrition labels (Moorman 1990). On the other hand, if equity is not a policy goal, the approach taken in the case of the NLEA appears to fulfill other important objectives such as making information available in a comprehensible format.

Of more concern appears to be a group of highly skeptical consumers who remain very pessimistic about the truthfulness of nutrition information and the healthfulness of food products, despite the NLEA, and who, as a result, acquire little to no nutrition information. Future research needs to address the causes of this skepticism. If, for example, this skepticism arises from ignorance or misinformation, education/persuasion programs targeting these consumers may be needed. On the other hand, if this skepticism arises from social structural features such as not feeling integrated into a well-established business/government system, which might come from socioeconomic status or ethnicity, other types of programs may needed that attempt to bridge into communities exhibiting such characteristics.

Finally, consistent with the NLEA's apparent ability to reduce comprehension differences, it narrowed differences across healthy and unhealthy products. However, the NLEA also widened differences in nutrition information acquisition, in favor of unhealthy product categories. We attribute some of these differences to the fact that nutrition information was available for unhealthy products in the post-NLEA period but not in the pre-NLEA period. The gains, however, were very large for unhealthy products, suggesting two important implications. First, there is likely to be a public health benefit associated with this gain. Second, these results suggest that nutrition is likely to increasingly become a basis for competition in unhealthy product categories.


Moorman, Christine (1990), "The Effects of Stimulus and Consumer Characteristics on the Utilization of Nutrition Information," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (December), 362-374.



Peter Salovey and Alexander J. Rothman

Health communications can emphasize either the benefits or the costs associated with a health behavior. Although asking people to consider an issue in terms of associated costs rather than benefits is thought to be an effective way to motivate behavior, empirical work of this kind has produced inconsistent results. The application of message framing to health promotion has been insensitive to important features of health-relevant decisions. The influence of framed information on decision-making rests especially on whether performing a behavior entails a risky or certain outcome. A framework will be presented that demonstrates how perceptions of the health behavior under consideration shape the relative effectiveness of loss- and gain-framed messages. In particular, the extent to which a behavior is considered to be illness-detecting versus health-affirming determines the degree to which people are more persuaded by loss- or gain-framed information, respectively. Finally, we suggest that paying greater attention to features of the situation in which health-related decisions are made allows for a richer understanding of how framed information influences judgment and behavior.

Findings from two lines of research are presented. In the first set of studies, we examined the moderating effect of involvement with the health issue and type of target behavior on the influence of message framing on intentions to perform health behaviors relevant to preventing or detecting skin cancer. In our samples, women as compared to men were more concerned about sun tanning and skin cancer and therefore were considered to be more involved with this health issue. In one experiment, exposure to gain- versus loss-framed messages differentially influenced the intentions of female (high involvement) and male (low involvement) subjects to obtain a skin cancer detection examination. In a second experiment, women who read gain-framed pamphlets were more likely than those who read loss-framed pamphlets to request sunscreen with an appropriate sun protection factor.

Our second line of research concerns the promotion of screening mammography for the early detection of breast cancer. A large sample of employed women not adhering to current guidelines for obtaining mammography screening was assigned randomly to view either gain-framed (emphasizing the benefits of obtaining mammography) or loss-framed (emphasizing the risks of not obtaining mammography) persuasive videotapes that were factually equivalent. Consistent with predictions based on prospect theory, women who viewed the loss-framed message were more likely to have obtained a mammogram in the subsequent 12 months following the intervention.

The pattern of results from our laboratory suggests that gain-framed messages have an advantage in promoting low-risk, certain behaviors like most preventive actions, but that loss-framed messages more effectively promote actions that involve greater risk and uncertainty, such as most early detection behaviors. Changes in perceived risk and emotional reactions may mediate these framing effects.


Bolden (1994), "Perception of Oral Health Needs by Southeast Iowa Non-Dental Care Providers," Special Care Dentist, 14 (5), 194-197.

Jacques (1994), "Rates of Bicycle Helmet Use in an Affluent Michigan County," Public Health Report, 109 (2), 296-301.

Lutz, MacKenzie and Belch (1983), "Attitude Toward the Ad as a Mediator of Advertising Effectiveness: Determinants and Consequenses, Advances in Consumer Research, 10, ed. Richard Bagozzi and Alice Tybout, Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research, 532-539.

Moorman and Matulich (1993), "A Model of Consumer's Preventive Health Behaviors: The Role of Health Motivation and Health Ability," Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (2), 208-228.