Special Session Summary Consumer Behavior, Avoidance, and Coping With Negative Emotion

Mary Frances Luce, University of Pennsylvania
[ to cite ]:
Mary Frances Luce (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Behavior, Avoidance, and Coping With Negative Emotion", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 36-38.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 36-38



Mary Frances Luce, University of Pennsylvania

Julie R. Irwin, New York University


The discipline of cognitive psychology has undergone a resurgence of interest in emotion and coping, after many years of focusing primarily on cognition (e.g., Lazarus 1991). This paradigm shift is consistent with calls in consumer research for more focus on hedonic and experiential aspects of consumer behavior (e.g., Holbrook & Hirschman 1982). Considering the emotional side of behavior makes it clear that individuals may undertake action in order to cope with or minimize negative emotion. These coping behaviors are extremely diverse, but can be classified into two main categories: 1) problem-focused coping involves direct, planful action designed to solve environmental problems leading to negative emotion, while 2) emotion-focused coping, including avoidance and denial, involves actions that mitigate negative emotion but that are not directed towards the source of that emotion. For instance, a consumer may deal with a stressful consumer choice by avoiding difficult tradeoffs involving morally-charged attributes (engaging in emotion-focused coping), or by carefully completing these tradeoffs in order to ensure that moral concerns are resolved in a manner that accurately reflects her goals (engaging in problem-focused coping). The objective of this session was to consider the implications of this new coping framework for consumer behavior. All three presentations addressed how consumers cope with difficult or stressful situations. Further, the three presentations took a contingentview of coping, noting that individuals will exploit aspects of their environments in order to cope with difficult tasks, leading to varied coping behaviors.


The first presentation, by Irwin & Scattone, addressed anomalies in the weighting of environmental attributes during consumer choice. Consistent with research on anomalies in the valuation of environmental goods, the authors recognized the moral, and therefore potentially emotion-laden, component of these attributes. By demonstrating increased anomalies for environmental (versus other) attributes, this paper illustrates some of the common ways that consumers may choose to cope with environmental concerns in everyday purchases. Further, in contrast to some research on environmental concerns, Irwin & Scattone demonstrated that consumers are to some degree willing to confront potentially emotion-laden tradeoffs between environmental and other attributes in consumer choice, and that this willingness to confront environmental tradeoffs seems to vary with the task. The second presentation, by Luce, et al., addressed tradeoffs that are emotion-laden because the relevant attributes involve highly-valued concerns, including environmental and other issues (e.g., pollution caused or personal safety in a car purchase). They demonstrated that decision makers will sometimes avoid trading off emotion-laden attributes in choice tasks, where it is possible to simply choose the alternative with the best value on the problematic attribute, leading to choice / judgment preference reversals. Thus, the Irwin & Scattone and the Luce, et al. presentations both reported increased decision bias with more morally charged attributes; their findings are attributable, at least in part, to consumers’ desires to cope with the emotion elicited by these attributes. Finally, the Sujan, Sujan & Bettman presentation was centrally focused on coping, and reported a descriptive study investigating how individuals intuitively express the stress they feel as consumers. They presented a broad taxonomy of coping behaviors, and linked these behaviors with a wide variety of aspects of the consumer decision environment. Finally, they linked the variety and nature of reported coping behaviors to consumers’ feelings of overall stress and of self-efficacy, noting that perceived self-efficacy is related to the types of coping strategies reported. This presentation therefore provided a framework for understanding the behaviors discussed in the first two papers. Sujan et al.’s general hypothesis that effective coping may involve varied forms of both problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping helps explain the earlier papers’ findings that people will make difficult tradeoffs in some situations, but avoid these same tradeoffs in other situations, leading to apparently biased (e.g., logically inconsistent) response patterns. Sujan et al.’s conceptual framework explains these results in terms of decision makers exploiting their environments in order to engage in both problem-focused and emotion-focused coping, depending on the situation. The overall goal of the special session was to encourage members of the audience to think broadly about avoiding negative emotion in particular, and coping in general, as potential motivators behind the consumer behaviors that they study.

Holbrook, Morris B. & Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1982) The experiential aspects of consumption: Consumer fantasies, feelings, and fun, Journal of Consumer Research, 9 (September), 132-140.

Lazarus, Richard S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American Psychologist, 46 (8), 819-834.



Julie R. Irwin & Joan Scattone

Many consumer goods today are expressed in terms of environmental attributes such as recycled content and biodegradability. These environmental attributes are assumed to add value to a brand, to distinguish it from brands without such descriptions and/or to communicate that this particular brand has superior levels of the attribute. When adding an attractive attribute, regardless of whether it is environmental or not, it would be especially useful to be able to assume that this addition increases overall attractiveness in certain reasonable ways; we would usually expect that adding the attractive attribute would increase purchase likelihood, and that higher levels of the new attribute would result in greater attractiveness (all other things being equal). However, in studies of environmental values for policies such as a change in air quality, researchers have uncovered anomalous valuation tendencies that make it difficult even to make the simple assumptions outlined above. It is possible that these anomalies likewise might affect environmental attributes of everyday products. The studies presented here tested, using two value measurement techniques (willingness to pay and conjoint measurement), whether, in fact, such anomalies were obtained for environmental attributes of ordinary consumer goods. Environmental policies (such as an increase in air quality, or cleaning up a landfill) can be especially complex, unfamiliar, and morally charged, and the valuation of these special goods has become an intensely researched area. Because the tradeoff between the environment and more mundane and less emotionally charged attributes (such as money) can be difficult, studies of environmental preferences have shown that values for environmental policies are often anomalous (e.g., Irwin, Slovic, Lichtenstein, and McClelland 1993, Kahneman and Knetsch 1993, Schkade and Payne, 1993). For instance, respondents often refuse to make any tradeoffs at all, or their values are systematically and consistently context dependent in ways that violate normative and commonsense expectations. In three studies, one using willingness-to-pay, and two using conjoint measurement, we tested whether environmental attributes show these same sorts of anomalies. We also measured familiarity, morality, and experience, all of which could play mediating factors in the tradeoff difficulty which underlies the anomalies. We found that one anomalie, unwillingness to trade off environmental attributes, was much more prevalent in willingness-to-pay modes than in conjoint modes. Conjoint presumably provides a natural format for reasoning about difficult, emotional tradeoffs, while keeping the explicit nature of the tradeoff (i.e., giving up environmental quality for money or some other attribute) relatively hidden. We also found that context effects (e.g. valuing an environmental attribute less in the presence of another, uncorrelated, environmental attribute) were prevalent in both value measurement conditions, and that moral content mediated this effect. We concluded that environmental attributes of everyday products can present difficult, emotional tradeoffs, but that consumers are able to make these tradeoffs to a large degree, especially when they are presented in a way that both is evocative of everyday purchasing and makes the explicit nature of the tradeoff less obvious. Thus, consumers may be more willing to make difficult tradeoffs in order to gain decision accuracy when the psychic costs of those tradeoffs are mitigated by the decision environment.

Irwin, Julie R., Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, and Gary H.McClelland (1993), "Preference reversals and the measurement of environmental values,’’ Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 6, 5-18.

Kahneman, Daniel and Jack Knetsch (1992), "Valuing public goods: the purchase of moral satisfaction,’’ Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 22, 55-70.

Schkade, David A. and John W. Payne (1993). "Where do the numbers come from?: How people respond to contingent valuation questions,’’ in Contingent Valuation: A Critical Assessment, (Jerry A. Hausman, Ed.) Elsevier: Amsterdam.



Mary Frances Luce, Marlene D. Morris, James R. Bettman & John W. Payne

Important consumer decisions can be distressing or emotion-laden when they require difficult tradeoffs such as between automobile safety and price. Our research explores how decision makers cope with this source of decision stress, focusing on the degree to which decision makers cope by avoiding problematic tradeoffs. Thus, we investigate whether decision makers engage in emotion-focused coping (e.g., avoiding distressing attribute tradeoffs) at the expense of problem-focused coping (e.g., making tradeoffs in the service of decision accuracy; see Lazarus 1991 on coping and Luce, Bettman & Payne Forthcoming on coping with decision tasks).

We address tradeoff avoidance using a well-established paradigm for eliciting preference reversals: the choice-matching phenomenon (e.g., Lichtenstein & Slovic 1971; Fischer & Hawkins 1993). Many studies demonstrate that choice is more lexicographic (e.g., more strongly influenced by prominent attributes) than judgment. This behavior is easily explained in terms of lexicographic strategies preserving cognitive economy in choice. However, we explore a complementary reason for this effect: in some cases, making a lexicographic choice shields the decision-maker from emotionally taxing between-attribute tradeoffs.

In experiment one, we presented subjects with pairs of automobiles described in terms of both price and a second (low or high emotion) non-price attribute (e.g., price / styling versus price / safety). Responses to matching questions eliciting a price that makes two alternatives equally-valued are inconsistent with the choices subjects make when presented with pairs of alternatives constructed based on their own prior matching values. Further, we find that choice-matching preference reversals where choices favor the alternative with the higher value on the non-price attribute are reliably more prevalent as that attribute is more emotion-lade. This pattern of results holds even when price is more important. Our findings therefore extend the usual finding that choices favor the alternative that is best on the more important attribute. Thus, there may be multiple explanations for the choice-matching preference reversal phenomenon, involving both cognitive economy and motivations to cope with negative emotion. Overall, therefore, decision makers appear willing to sacrifice some consistency or accuracy in their decision behavior in the interest of avoiding processing operations that elicit negative emotion. Overall, therefore, decision makers appear willing to sacrifice some consistency or accuracy in their decision behavior in the interest of avoiding processing operations that elicit negative emotion, particularly when the environment facilitates avoidance (e.g., one may easily avoid tradeoffs by using a lexicographic choice rule).

A replication study involved a differing operationalization of emotion. A pretest indicated that subjects find alternative pairs with relatively low (e.g., low versus average safety) versus relatively high (e.g., average versus high safety) values to be more emotion-laden. As expected, te replication demonstrated an increased incidence of choice / matching preference reversals for alternative pairs involving poorer attribute values.

A final study broadened both the type of avoidance behavior addressed and the environmental source of emotion. Instead of directly considering the tendency to avoid between-attribute tradeoffs, we considered tendencies to avoid a choice altogether (e.g., procrastinating). Further, we operationalized tradeoff difficulty within a high velocity consumer decision context; such a context may itself introduce conflict and uncertainty into the decision situation, eliciting negative emotion.

Fischer, G.W. & Hawkins, S.A. (1993). Strategy compatibility, scale compatibility, and the prominence effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 19, 580-597

Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American Psychologist, 46 (8), 819-834.

Lichtenstein, S. & Slovic, P. (1971). Reversals of preference between bids and choices in gambling decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 89, 46-55.

Luce, M.F., Bettman, J.R., & Payne, J.W. (Forthcoming). Choice processing in emotionally difficult decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.



Harish Sujan, Mita Sujan & James R. Bettman

Considerable research in psychology has focused on how individuals deal with stress, the responses they use, and their success in coping. Much of this research has supported the notion that some particular coping strategies are more effective than others. It has been found that problem-focused coping and active coping contribute positively to well-being, while emotion focused coping and coping through avoidance are detrimental to health and well-being (Carver, Scheier & Weintraub 1989; Aspinwall & Taylor 1992).

A critical evaluation of this research raises the possibility that the general support for some types of strategies (problem focused) over others (emotion focused) might be methodological, because much of the work on coping has adopted a trait approach in which general coping styles are seen as operating across many situations. Thus, a situational analysis might produce more contingent results; it may be that problem-focused coping is predominant when individuals believe something can be done whereas emotion-focused coping predominates when the stressor has to be endured (Rothbaum, Weisz & Snyder 1982; Parkes 1984).

An exploratory study investigated how 60 individuals describe the stresses and stressors associated with consumption episodes. These subjects reported an extremely wide variety of purchase-related stressors and coping strategies.

Based on self-reported scales, respondents were classified into four groups reporting: 1) high perceived coping self-efficacy and low experienced stress, 2) high perceived coping self-efficacy and high experienced stress, 3) low perceived coping self-efficacy and low experienced stress, and 4) low perceived coping self-efficacy and high experienced stress. The number of self-reported stressors is higher in the high perceived stress groups, as one would expect. When coping behaviors are analyzed by group, one finds that a wider repertoire of coping strategies is associated with feelings of high coping self-efficacy coupled with high experienced stress. Further anayses described the composition of preferred coping behaviors by stressor and by efficacy / stress group. Future work will address whether better copers are more flexible, showing greater variability in choice of coping strategies across stressors. Similarly, better copers may buffer themselves against stress more successfully by using both a wider range of coping strategies per se and a wider range of coping strategies for any given stressor.

Aspinwall, Lisa G. and Shelley E. Taylor (1992), "Modeling Cognitive Adaptation: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Impact of Individual Differences & Coping on College Adjustment & Performance," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 63(6), 989-1003.

Carver, Charles S., Michael F. Scheier and Jagdish Kumani Weintraub (1989), "Assessing Coping Strategies," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(2), 267-283.

Parkes, Katharine R. (1984), "Focus of Control, Cognitive Appraisal & Coping in Stressful Episodes," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(3), 655-668.

Rothbaum, Fred, John R. Weisz and Samuel S. Snyder (1982), "Changing the World and Changing the Self: A Two-Process Model of Perceived Control," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 42 (No. 1), 5-37.