Special Session Summary Exploring Situational Determinants of Contrast and Assimilation: Effects of Lay Theories, Evaluation Goals, and Framing

Rebecca K. Ratner, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Gal Zauberman, Duke University
[ to cite ]:
Rebecca K. Ratner and Gal Zauberman (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Exploring Situational Determinants of Contrast and Assimilation: Effects of Lay Theories, Evaluation Goals, and Framing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 94.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Page 94



Rebecca K. Ratner, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Gal Zauberman, Duke University

Traditional research on assimilation and contrast has examined how varying a context in which a stimulus appears affects judgments of that stimulus (e.g., whether a given product is seen as more attractive when surrounded by other less attractive products). Research in marketing typically has proceeded along similar lines, although in some cases considering individual differences (e.g., in cognitive capacity or willingness to expend effort) that affect the degree to which individuals use context in making a judgment (e.g., Meyers-Levy and Sternthal 1993). The purpose of the present session was to introduce three distinct lines of research that collectively suggest that whether contrast or assimilation occurs depends on factors other than the stimulus and surrounding stimuli. These papers pointed to three types of external determinants of assimilation and contrast: consumers’ lay theories, evaluation goals, and the framing of the relationship between the stimuli.

The paper by Ratner, Novemsky, & Kahneman investigated individuals’ lay theories of assimilation and contrast effects and compared individuals’ predictions of hedonic responses to actual hedonic responses while consuming products (music and jellybeans). The results indicated that people have a strong belief in the existence of hedonic contrast (i.e., participants expected that a neutral stimulus would be more pleasant following something bad than something good). However, participants’ real-time responses indicated that they did not, in fact, enjoy a neutral stimulus more following an aversive than a pleasant one. Importantly, the authors found that participants’ expectations about contrast effects were related to their choices. Participants who expected to experience contrast effects showed a stronger preference for improving sequences, and participants who were asked to think about their beliefs about contrast before making choices also showed a stronger preference for improving sequences. Thus, this paper indicated that individuals expect to experience contrast effects even if they do not in fact experience contrast, and that these beliefs about contrast guide their choices (i.e., preferences for improving sequences).

The Zauberman & Ariely paper drew from the hedonic evaluation tradition of te first paper and from the information integration literature to investigate assimilation and contrast in individuals’ evaluations of performance and satisfaction for experiences that extend over time. In two experiments the authors looked at evaluations of improving and declining patterns of experiences (grades on an exam, and product reject rate). The results from both experiments indicate that increasing patterns were evaluated higher than decreasing patterns of equal overall quality given an hedonic evaluation goal, but the opposite was true given an informational evaluation goal. Thus the results suggest that whether assimilation and contrast effects occur will depend on the consumer’s evaluation goal. Specifically, assimilation effects occurred when making informational judgments about what one thinks about an experience, but contrast occurred when making hedonic judgments about how one feels about the same experience.

The paper by Wanke, Bless, & Schwarz suggested yet another way in which external sources, rather than features of the stimuli, influence whether contrast occurs. These authors found that the same product may elicit assimilation or contrast depending on whether it is included in the category of the other items to be evaluated (producing assimilation) or excluded from that category (producing contrast). Whether inclusion or exclusion occurs may be triggered by external sources. They showed, for example, how marketers can circumvent the common problem of a moderately featured model suffering from the contrast to a top-of-the-line model. By framing the top-of-the-line model as part of the same category of the other models, the top-of-the-line model can produce more favorable evaluations of a more moderately featured model than eliciting contrast.

Collectively, the three papers suggested strongly that contrast effects are not produced simply by the features of the stimuli. Instead, the papers suggest that contrast effects may be predicted more than experienced and that they may come and go as the evaluation task and framing of the situation change. The papers also differed in important ways. The first paper looked at effects of one stimulus on actual enjoyment of another stimulus whereas the second paper looks at effects of patterns on assimilation/contrast in global, retrospective judgments of the whole sequence. Moreover, the final paper was not concerned with sequential presentation as the first two studies are; instead it considered how products and brands influence perceptions of each other.