Incorporating Attributional Theory and the Theory of Reasoned Action Within an Affective Events Theory Framework to Produce a Contingency Predictive Model of Consumer Reactions to Organizational Mishaps

Charmine Härtel, The University of Queensland
Janet R. McColl-Kennedy, The University of Queensland
Lyn McDonald, The University of Queensland
ABSTRACT - Being able to predict consumers’ reactions to mishaps would greatly benefit crisis management. The limited research available in this area generally uses either attribution theory or the theory of reasoned action. In this paper we critically analyze the appropriateness of these two theoretical frameworks for research in this area. We conclude that generalization of these theories to the context of consumer response to organizational mishaps (for which neither was intended), yields an unsatisfactory description of the processes involved. In view of these criticisms, we incorporate aspects of both theories within an affective events theory framework to develop an integrated model aimed at the organizational mishap context.
[ to cite ]:
Charmine Härtel, Janet R. McColl-Kennedy, and Lyn McDonald (1998) ,"Incorporating Attributional Theory and the Theory of Reasoned Action Within an Affective Events Theory Framework to Produce a Contingency Predictive Model of Consumer Reactions to Organizational Mishaps", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 428-432.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 428-432

INCORPORATING ATTRIBUTIONAL THEORY AND THE THEORY OF REASONED ACTION WITHIN AN AFFECTIVE EVENTS THEORY FRAMEWORK TO PRODUCE A CONTINGENCY PREDICTIVE MODEL OF CONSUMER REACTIONS TO ORGANIZATIONAL MISHAPS

Charmine Härtel, The University of Queensland

Janet R. McColl-Kennedy, The University of Queensland

Lyn McDonald, The University of Queensland

ABSTRACT -

Being able to predict consumers’ reactions to mishaps would greatly benefit crisis management. The limited research available in this area generally uses either attribution theory or the theory of reasoned action. In this paper we critically analyze the appropriateness of these two theoretical frameworks for research in this area. We conclude that generalization of these theories to the context of consumer response to organizational mishaps (for which neither was intended), yields an unsatisfactory description of the processes involved. In view of these criticisms, we incorporate aspects of both theories within an affective events theory framework to develop an integrated model aimed at the organizational mishap context.

Major organizational mishaps such as those involving the Exxon Valdez, Dow Corning Wrights’s controversy over the safety of its breast implants and more recently, Royal Dutch Petroleum’s involvement in Nigeria, have received considerable press with many consumers calling for greater accountability on the part of the organizations. Experts in the area claim that organizational mishaps can occur at any time costing companies millions of dollars in lost sales, eroding market share, and damaging company reputation (Mitroff and Pearson 1993). Further, some rgue that the negative information significantly affects not only consumers’ consumption related beliefs and attitudes (Griffin, Babin, and Attaway 1991), but it also affects consumers’ behavior. Despite the wide coverage in the press that many of these organizational mishaps attract, it is not known whether there are significant long term impacts on consumer behavior as a direct result of the crisis. Indeed, there are few empirical examinations of consumer response to company crisis situations (Jorgensen 1996). What research does exist is derived generally from either attribution theory or the theory of reasoned action. In this paper we critically analyze the appropriateness of these two theoretical frameworks for research in this area. We conclude that generalization of these theories to the context of consumer response to organizational mishaps (for which neither was intended), yields an unsatisfactory description of the processes involved. In view of these criticisms, we incorporate aspects of both theories within an affective events theory framework to develop an integrated model aimed at the organizational mishap context.

Before we turn to an analysis of the theoretical frameworks predominantly used in organizational mishaps research, it is necessary to define what we mean by organizational mishaps. As this is a relatively new area of research, no clear definition of organizational mishaps currently exists. We derive our definition from the common features present in discussions of organizational mishaps. Namely, while the term mishaps has been used to encompass a wide range of situations such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Tylenol product tampering, food poisoning, and train or aircraft crashes (Carey, 1991, Jorgensen, 1996, Lerbinger, 1986); all of these situations are uniquely characterized by the potential to inflict harm on humans. In this paper, therefore, we define organizational mishaps as those situations where the organization’s products or services or personnel are involved directly or indirectly in inflicting death, pain, injury, or damage to its customers.

ATTRIBUTION THEORY

Attribution theory is a broad category of theories concerned with describing how individuals explain their own and others’ behaviors and the consequences of these explanations (Booth Davies 1992; Martinko 1995). Although attributional research has a fairly long history in the social sciences, it only really began to be applied in consumer behavior about a decade ago (Folkes 1988). Most of this research uses Weiner’s attributional theory (Balakrishnan, Patton, and Lewis 1993), which focuses on the behavioral consequences of attributions (Weary, Stanley, and Harvey 1989).

Weiner’s attributional theory states that the consequences of a causal attribution are determined by the location of the attribution along three causal dimensional continua. The three causal dimensions are locus of causality, controllability, and stability (Weiner 1985). Locus is the degree to which the behavior or event is judged to be a reflection of characteristics of the target (e.g., ability, effort) versus characteristics of the target’s situation (Kent and Martinko 1995). Attributing a behavior to the target’s ability would be a causal attribution of internal locus whereas attributing a behavior to the target’s demanding boss would be a causal attribution of external locus. The controllability causal dimension is the degree to which the behavior or event is judged to be under the volition of the target (Kent and Martinko 1995; Weiner 1995). Poor performance attributed to effort would be considered to be a controllable cause while poor performance attributed to ability level would be considered to be an uncontrollable cause. The third causal dimension, stability, is the degree to which the behavior or event is judged to be immutable versus changing over time (Booth Davies 1992; Martinko 1995). For example, behavior attributed to luck would be considered to have an unstable case while behavior attributed to cultural background would be considered to have a stable cause.

According to Weiner’s (1986) theory, the attributional judgments about these three causal dimensions collectively generate emotions and attitudes toward the target. These feelings and attitudes in turn direct the behaviors of the perceiver (Weiner 1995).

Although Weiner’s theory was specifically developed to investigate success and failure within an individual, some researchers (e.g., Booth Davies 1992; Jorgensen 1994) have suggested that it can be applied to the study of consumer reactions to company related events because it focuses on the consequences of attributions. We will revisit this assumption in our critique of attributional research.

The use of attributional theory in research on consumer-related mishaps

Most research to date on consumer reactions to company-related mishaps is based on attributional theories concerned primarily with the consequences of arriving at a given attribution (Mowen and Ellis 1981; Siomkos and Malliaris 1992; Weary, Stanley and Harvey 1989). We will illustrate how attributional theory is being applied in this research by describing a recent study in the area.

Jorgensen begins his 1996 examination of a company related mishap by noting that studies of consumers’ attitude toward a company and intention to purchase often show weak relationships to behavior. He argued that this might be due to prior studies failing to assess indirect effects. His research explored both direct and indirect effects in a company related mishap.

Jorgensen’s (1996) study reveals some ways in which consumers’ causal attributions affect their behavioral intentions. The more internal/controllable consumers’ perceived an incident to be, the more responsible they perceived the company to be. Increased anger and decreased sympathy were associated with higher levels of perceived company responsibility. And higher levels of negative emotions towards a company were associated with higher levels of punitive intentions. The relationship between causal attribution and behavioral intention suggests that causal attribution will also impact upon actual consumer behavior.

Jorgensen’s study provided important insight into the conditions under which mishaps and responses affect purchase intentions. Still, like others before it, this study was unable to find a significant relationship between attitudes and purchase intentions or investment intentions. That is, Weiner’s theory was only partially supported: feelings do influence behavioral intentions but, contrary to expectations, attitudes do not.

As Jorgensen (1996, p. 347) notes, "consumer judgments, feelings, and attitudes are most interesting when shown to have an influence on consumer behaviors." Yet, his causal model derived from an experimental investigation using Weiner’s attributional theory failed to find a relationship between attitude and behavioral intention.

We now turn to considering what is wrong with or missing from attributional theory for purposes of predicting the attitude-behavior relationship.

Limitations of attributional theory and research in predicting the attitude-behavior relationship

Attribution theory has several limitations, some of which are methodological. For example, a major methodological limitation in using attribution theory is the lack of psychometrically sound instruments for measuring attributions (Kent and Martinko 1995). Another methodological difficulty is terminology. If researchers provide explanatory categories to participants, this may result in forcing causal explanations to fit casual dimensions (Kent and Martinko 1995). Yet, if participants provide their own category, it may be difficult to identify the underlying causal structure (Kent and Martinko 1995). A related issue is that researchers often investigate the causal diensions dictated by attributional theory without providing justification as to why those dimensions would relate to the phenomenon under study (Kent and Martinko 1995).

We identified two additional problems with the way in which attributional theories are being applied in research on consumer reactions to organizational mishaps. One concerns assumptions about the relevant attributional target. The other concerns the measurement of attitude.

An implicit assumption in much of the research in this area that we believe deserves to be questioned concerns the interpretation of causal attributions regarding the company involved in the mishap. To our knowledge, all the empirical research in this area measures only attributions regarding the company. The implicit assumption is that measuring this attributional target alone is sufficient. We believe that this is a matter for empirical investigation. Not only may other attributional targets be important (e.g., government regulations, consumer responsibility), it is also possible that increased anger and attributions of causality and responsibility are associated with two or more targets including such things as media and government. For example, in a study of responsibility attributions of victims and aggressors, increased attributions of causality, blame, and responsibility were leveled at both the aggressor and the victim when judges were informed that the latter was intoxicated (Leigh and Aramburu 1994).

We argue in this paper that the weak relationships between attitude and behavior often reported in the literature reflect shortcomings in current formulations of attributional models with respect to making such predictions. These shortcomings stem from the intended purpose of attributional theory: to explain judgments of causation and predict the behavioral consequences of such explanations. The focus in attribution theory is on the judgments about the causal dimensions rather than on emotion and attitude which play only an ancillary role in these models. The point is, these theories assume that emotions and attitudes follow from attributions in a simple and straightforward way to influence behavior. Our contention is that the relationship between emotion, attitude, and behavior is very different for different contingencies. We return to this point in the presentation of our proposed model.

Although a number of studies in the area of consumer reaction to company-related mishaps use attributional models that include emotions as a variable, none of these models operationalize emotions as part of the attitude construct. This failing limits the ability of such models to predict the attitude-behavior relationship. Attitudes are comprised of affective and cognitive components and the relative weights of each may vary. Therefore, attitude measures that fail to capture both subcomponents will only partially capture consumer attitude. Second, no attributional model considers the role of each of the two attitudinal subcomponents in driving a given behavior. One of the foundations of the model we develop in this paper therefore is an elaboration of Weiner’s attributional theory.

THEORY OF REASONED ACTION

Since the realization of inconsistency between attitude and behavior in the 1930’s, significant research has been undertaken in this area, demonstrating largely that the attitude-behavior relationship depends on 'other’ variables. Among the most widely known models is the Fishbein/Ajzen model. Their theory of reasoned action evolved from Fishbein’s early work on the attitude-behavior relationship (see for example Fishbein and Ajzen 1975). The theory of reasoned action (TRA) (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980) provides a useful framework for studying consumer behavior. The theory of reasoned action states that behavioral intentions result from an individual combining his or her attitudes toward a behavior with his or her perception of the norms assoiated with that behavior. Thus, the theory takes the view that attitudes are mediated by beliefs.

Ajzen and Fishbein have long argued that their model can be used to both understand and predict human behavior (see for example Ajzen and Fishbein 1980). Yet, Sheppard, Hartwick and Warshaw (1988) in their review of the theory of reasoned action claim that more than half of the research they reviewed investigated activities for which the model was not designed.

Despite the amount of research that has been conducted on the role of attitudes in consumer behavior, very little is known about the process intervening between attitudes and action (Bagozzi 1993). Furthermore, very few studies into the attitude-behavior relationship have been carried out under naturalistic conditions (Bagozzi and Warshaw 1992). Those that have (for instance Wicker 1969) were only able to show a weak connection between these variables.

In one of the few studies of the theory of reasoned action conducted under naturalistic conditions, Bagozzi and Warshaw (1992) surveyed 264 undergraduate students from two universities on three separate occasions. Their findings suggest that the theory of reasoned action was supported for weight loss, but the theory performed less well for explaining the initiating of a conversation with an attractive stranger. Intentions did not predict behavior, contrary to theory. Bagozzi and Warshaw concluded that intentions, and to a lessor extent attitude, are dependent on behavior and not the reverse. Although their findings disconfirm the causal efficacy of attitudes, subjective norms, and intentions, they suggest that this 'does not rule out the possibility that other unmeasured mental processes govern behavior, or that attitudinal effects are contingent on other variables’ (Bagozzi and Warshaw 1992, 631). We concur that action will influence attitude but we suspect that the relationship between attitude and behavior is reciprocal. We will return to this point in the development of our model.

Recent theories and debates have challenged the Theory of Reasoned Action’s assumption that attitudes are mediated by beliefs, arguing that attitudes are instead mediated by emotions (Weiner 1995; cf. Weiss and Cropanzano 1995). Consequently some scholars (e.g., Herr 1995) have suggested that attitude theories which incorporate emotions be used to modify TRA. We elaborate on the Theory of Reasoned Action accordingly (i.e., by giving emotions a focal role), which forms the second foundation for the model we propose.

AN ALTERNATIVE THEORY FOR PREDICTING CONSUMER RESPONSE TO COMPANY-RELATED MISHAPS

Behavioral intentionsCbehavior continuum

The model we propose takes into account the affective and cognitive subcomponents of attitude. Specifically, our model presents behavior and behavioral intentions (e.g., purchase intention or decision) as varying along a continuum ranging from affectively-driven behaviors to cognitively-driven behaviors. Where a behavior lies on this continuum determines the relationship between the attitudinal components and that behavior. In other words, the predictive ability of each of the two attitude components depends upon how cognitively-driven or affectively-driven the behavior is.

Dominant attitudinal subcomponent match

The model we propose posits that consumer reaction to company-related mishaps is best predicted by the attitudinal component that matches the behavioral driver. That is, the attitude-behavior relationship is dependent upon the match between the dominant attitudinal subcomponent (i.e., affect or cognition) and the driver of the behavior. This aspect of our model is basedupon Millar and Tesser’s (1992) mismatch hypothesis. The mismatch hypothesis states that affectively driven behaviors will be best predicted by the affective component (versus the cognitive or combined components) of the attitude. The converse is true for cognitively driven behaviors. Some behaviors may be equally driven by the affective and cognitive components. The implication of the mismatch hypothesis we wish to highlight here is that low attitude-behavior congruence may be the result of inappropriate measurement and interpretation. For example, obtaining a global measure of attitude or failing to measure the attitude subcomponent that is relevant to the driver of the behavior under study. As we have noted, the latter has been a common feature of research aimed at predicting consumer reaction to company mishaps.

Attitude-behavior dynamic

Recall Bagozzi and Warshaw’s conclusion that intentions and attitudes follow from behavior rather than precede it. We agreed that action will influence attitude but we suggested a reciprocal relationship. That is, one’s attitude is likely to influence behavior as we previously arguedCwhen the attitudinal subcomponent matches the behavioral dimension. However, there is not a perfect correspondence between attitude and behavior. When behavior corresponds to a prior-held attitude then that attitude is likely to be strengthened. Conversely, when behavior does not correspond to a prior-held attitude then that attitude is likely to be revised to be congruent with the behavior. Such a dynamic process is supported by concepts such as cognitive dissonance theory and hindsight bias.

Emotions

Our model (Figure 1) shows the organizational mishap as eliciting emotions in consumers. These emotions in turn are moderated by the organization’s response. Affective Events Theory (Weiss and Cropanzano 1996) provides some insight into how emotions elicited by events may come to have a direct influence on behaviors and attitudes. Affective Events Theory (AET) is concerned with the affective component of job attitudes, specifically, job satisfaction. AET attempts to describe how workplace events influence attitudes and behaviors through the elicitation of affective reactions. Although the theory is specifically intended to help understand employee attitudes and behaviors, its process description should generalize across settings. For this paper’s purpose, we focus upon the process aspects of AET.

AET states that events often elicit an emotional response. The experienced emotion represents a two-part cognitive appraisal process. The primary appraisal is an assessment of whether the event is relevant to and consistent with a personal desire or concern. The intensity of the emotional response depends upon how relevant the event is to a goal, how important the affected goal is, and how inconsistent the event is to the relevant goal (i.e., negative events produce stronger emotional reactions). The primary appraisal establishes the emotional intensity and is the foundation for the formation of specific emotions. Secondary appraisal entails assessment of the context and the actor. This is where causal attributions are made.

Emotion-attribution

Attributions about the past behavior of an organization contribute to the decision or desire to patronize the organization in the present and future (cf. Kelley 1984). One underlying causal explanation for the relationship between attribution and behavior is that attributions elicit emotions which, in turn, influence attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Weiner 1985, 1986). Weiner’s attributional theory of emotion, like other cognitive appraisal theories, attempts to characterize the relationship between one’s causal attribution and one’s emotional response. In particular, Weiner argues that one’s emotional response to an event is determined by three aspectsof one’s causal attribution: locus of causality, controllability, and stability. We argue that the relationship between emotion and attribution is reciprocal. That is, emotions are elicited by the attribution but also independently by the organizational mishap and the organizational response. Consequently, the type, intensity, and frequency of emotions associated with an organizational mishap (including any mishaps prior to the current mishap) influences the attributions that an event is likely to give rise to (cf. Forgas, 1995).

We give emotions rather than attributions the focal role in our model. We believe that, for consumer-related mishaps, this is a more accurate application of Weiner’s theory which presents causal attributions as preceding emotions. However, recall we have argued for the reciprocal relationship between emotions and attributions. Attribution-based emotions, together with perceived and real features of the relevant consumer environment (e.g., attitudes toward competing providers, product cost and availability, prior attitude toward organization), influence consumer attitude toward the organization. The attribution may result in no revision or a revision (positive or negative) to the original attitude held about the company. The attitude the consumer has toward a company represents the propensity to patronize a company. When consumers hold a negative propensity to patronize due to a negative event they may continue their patronage. One condition under which patronage may continue following a negative event is when consumers determine that discontinuation will have a negative impact on themselves. For example, other options may not be available, may be inconvenient, may be more expensive, or may be less desirable. A second condition under which patronage may continue following a negative event is when consumers determine that discontinuation will not have the desired impact on the organization. For example, consumers may perceive that the organization is too large to effect a change given the number of concerned consumers they perceive to exist. A third condition under which patronage may continue following a negative event is when the mishap is associated with a brand for which the consumers are, for the most part, not aware of the parent company (e.g., the Rely tampons mishap). Behaviors are depicted in the model as resulting from patronage intentions and attitude. Incorporating the Theory of Reasoned Action, the attitude-behavior relationship is moderated by the assessment of impact of behavioral change.

FIGURE 1

MODEL OF CONSUMER REACTION TO COMPANY-RELATED MISHAPS

Brand only, brand-organization, and organization only associated mishaps

Consumer responses to mishaps are determined in part by the association attached to the mishap. We identify three associations that may produce different mishap outcomes: brand only association, brand-organization association, and organization only association.

Some mishaps may be associated with the organization overall. Others may be associated only with the individual brand which is inflicting the death, damage or distress to the consumers. Still others may be associated with both the brand and the organization that carries the brand. For example, consumers were generally aware that Tylenol was a Johnson and Johnson product and consequently, the Tylenol mishap could be associated with both the product brand (Tylenol) and directly with the organization as a whole. On the other hand, when there is low strength brand name or low level of awareness of the brand as a product of an organization, the negativity associated with the brand may not spill over to the organization or from the organization to other products (brands) of the organization. For instance, a recent scare with contaminated peanut butter did not seem to affect the attitudes of customers or the buying behavior of these customers with respect to the other products of that organization. Yet, with some organizations, perhaps largely due to their high profile and the generic nature of the product, people clearly associate the mishap with the organization, and not the product per se, aswas the case with Exxon Valdez.

CONCLUSION

It is evident that mismanagement of crises can devastate a company (cf. Mitroff, Pearson, and Harrington 1996). Yet there is evidence that if organizations manage crises well costly economic fallout may largely be avoided. Consequently, a model that can reasonably predict consumer responses to mishaps would be of great benefit to organizations in handling such mishaps which inevitably will occur from time to time (Mitroff, Pearson, and Harrington 1996). Our review of the literature shows that neither attributional theory alone or the theory of reasoned action alone have been able to sufficiently predict behavior from attitudes. In this paper, we have presented a model that seeks to combine aspects of both of these theories into a more comprehensive theory that is specifically designed for predicting consumers’ reactions to organizational mishaps.

In summary, we present a model which emphasizes emotions and takes into account the affective and cognitive subcomponents of attitude with behavior and behavioral intentions as varying along a continuum; with attitude-behavior relationship dependent upon the match between the dominant attitudinal subcomponent [e.g., affect or cognition] and the driver of the behavior; behavior-attitude dynamic process; and emotion-attribution relationship.

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