Special Session Summary Constructing Preferences: the Role of Comparisons in Consumer Judgment and Choice

Shi Zhang, University of California, Los Angeles
Ravi Dhar, Yale University
[ to cite ]:
Shi Zhang and Ravi Dhar (2000) ,"Special Session Summary Constructing Preferences: the Role of Comparisons in Consumer Judgment and Choice", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 110.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Page 110



Shi Zhang, University of California, Los Angeles

Ravi Dhar, Yale University

Most conceptions of rational choice assume that individual preferences are well defined. This viewpoint is in contrast with the emerging consensus among consumer decision researchers who have found that preferences are often fuzzy, unstable, and inconsistent (e.g., Slovic 1995). Consumers are depicted as constructing and expressing rankings with respect to possibilities that they have considered. Because of the importance and pervasiveness of task and context effects, researchers continue to discover new conditions under which different types of information and different decision processes are used. This session has brought together scholars from both the marketing and psychology. The participants have reported new findings on how context variables such as similarity and comparison, task variables such as information format and respond mode affect the construction of consumer preferences and judgment.

Previous research on context variables mainly focuses on the factors describing a particular set of alternatives and how choices vary because of the relationships among them as an entirety. For example, the attraction and compromise effects deal with the dominating and dominant relationships among alternatives; the comparable vs. non-comparable choices examine the decision processes of selecting a choice across different types of products. Since each alternative is often represented as set of features, consumer researchers have recently re-directed their attention to how certain feature components can appear more salient and important during the comparison and judgment process (e.g. Sanbonmasu, Kardes, Gibson 1991).

The paper by Ravi Dhar, Stephen Nowlis and Jim Sherman shows that a features’ salience can be enhanced through comparison processes in similarity judgment (e.g., difference-or-similarity directed judgment between a pair of items). For example, asking "how different is A from B" highlights the unique differences between A and B. If those features are on average judged to be attractive compared with the shared common features of A and B that are judged to be unattractive, more subjects tend to make a choice than when subjects are asked "how similar is A to B". Exactly opposite results are obtained when the unique difference features of A and B are judged to be unattractive whereas the shared common features are judged to be attractive. In similar vein, makng similarity judgments prior to choice has a different influence on preferences than making dissimilarity judgments.

Shi Zhang and Sanjay Sood’s research suggests that comparison processes also influence consumer choice and deferral of choice. Specifically, they propose that comparison processes affect subjective experiences concerning the amount of information perceived in the choice set. Attribute information that is comparable between alternatives in a choice set gives rise to a greater perceived amount of information about the choice set, relative to information that is not comparable. Additionally, attribute information that is comparable is easier to process than attribute information that is not comparable. The authors provide data that suggests that although comparable information may facilitate the ease of comparison, this may not be accompanied by a similar increase in the perceived amount of information about the choice set. Hence, there is a complex relationship between comparability of attributes, perceived amount of information about the choice set, and choice deferral.

Comparison leads to enhancement of attribute salience. Further, attribute salience and importance can be affected by task variables such as the format in which product information is given. Lohse and Johnson’s experiments demonstrate that re-arranging product information such as attribute dimension (e.g. price vs. quality) can significantly influence choice outcomes. Regardless of product types or the correlation between price and quality associated with the products (high vs. low), when "price" is made prominent via display, subjects focus on the price dimension but not quality in making a choice, and vice versa when "quality" is made prominent. This finding clearly shows that preference can be constructed purely on the way information dimension is presented without subjects diligently engaging in values associated with each dimension.

Finally, can constructed or developed preferences under one learning environment be transferred to another learning situation? Julie Irwin and Bob Meyer hypothesize that if preferences are uncertain, elicitation modes that are different from the method around which an initial preference structure was developed would be more likely to produce preference inconsistencies. Conversely, the more decision a maker is experienced in articulating preferences via different response modes, the more consistent measures of preference will be across settings.

In summary, the special session has presented current work in behavioral decision theory and its implication for consumer choice. We hope that papers in the session have helped to highlight some of the promising avenues that are emerging in this area of research, and that the session has served as a means of motivating other researchers in consumer behavior to explore the issues further.