Special Session Summary What Is Your Goal? the Impact of Goals on Counterfactual Thinking, Attitude Formation, and Predictions of the Future

Jennifer L. Aaker, Stanford University
Angela Lee, Northwestern University
[ to cite ]:
Jennifer L. Aaker and Angela Lee (2001) ,"Special Session Summary What Is Your Goal? the Impact of Goals on Counterfactual Thinking, Attitude Formation, and Predictions of the Future", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 276.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Page 276



Jennifer L. Aaker, Stanford University

Angela Lee, Northwestern University

Consumer researchers have long recognized that consumer preferences and choices are often influenced by the goals that a consumer holds. Considerable research, with its theoretical underpinnings in categorization theory (Barsalou 1986; Rosch, Simpson and Miller 1976), has focused on examining the types of attributes possessed by a target product that best fulfill one’s consumption goal (e.g., Ratneshwar, Pechmann and Shocker 1996), what types of benefits underlie those attributes (e.g., Huffman and Houston 1993), and what alternative consumption products one could buy instead of the target product (e.g., Johnson 1989). In this stream of research, the goal is often defined explicitly and is functional in nature, such as "buying a car" or "shopping for a gift".

A distinct stream of research has arisen recently that investigates how consumer decision making involving functional goals may be affected by strategies and behaviors that are motivated by higher level goals. For instance, when trying to decide what brand of fruit juice to purchase (i.e., functional goal), consumers may be more attracted to advertising appeals that focus on positive outcomes such as energy creation (i.e., promotion goal). Alternatively, they may be more persuaded by appeals that focus on negative outcomes like unclogging arteries (i.e., prevention goal). These higher level goals often influence how consumers approach functional goals. Unlike functional goals that may be more transient and disappear once they are satisfied, these higher level goals tend to be chronically accessible, either out of habit (e.g., smoking) or due to dispositional or cultural inclination.

The objective of this session is to introduce the notion of higher level goals and demonstrate how they may influence the consumer’s cognitive processes, attitudes and predictions of future behavior in the pursuit of lower level functional goals. All three papers focus on how higher level goals affect the consumer’s approach toward fulfilling certain functional goals. Each paper, however, examines a different aspect of how cognitive and affective responses related to the past (counterfactual thinking; Pennington), present (attitude formation; Aaker and Lee) and future (choice related to future consumption; Brendl and Markman) consumption goals are influenced by the higher level goals.

In the first paper, Pennington discusses how higher level goals influence individuals’ cognitive responses to the nonfulfillment of functional goals. Individuals often express regrets and generate counterfactual thoughts (i.e., thoughts about what might have been) when they experience a product failure. In four studies, Pennington identifies the subtypes of counterfactual thoughts that result from the nonfulfillment of a functional goal. When a promotion (i.e., gain focused) goal is thwarted, individuals tend to generate counterfactual alternatives that specify the hypothetical inclusion of some previously omitted action (e.g., "Had I bought Brand X instead"). When a prevention (i.e., loss focused) goal is not met, however, individuals are more likely to generate counterfactuals that remove, or subtract, a past action or event (e.g., "Had I not purchased Model Y"). These findings suggest that when consumers are disappointed with products or services, those with a prevention focus are likely to react to failure by generating subtractive counterfactual thoughts. In contrast, consumers with a promotion focus are likely to react to failure by generating additive counterfactual thoughts that involve potential alternative actions.

In the second paper, Aaker and Lee discuss how these higher level goals influence individuals’ attitudes, and how this process is influenced by one’s view of the self. They draw on prior research showing that individuals with an accessible independent self view are likely to have promotion goals that focus on approaching positive outcomes, whereas individuals with an accessible interdependent self view are likely to have prevention goals that focus on avoiding negative outcomes. The authors posit that the activation of a particular goal and the subsequent exposure to persuasion information that is compatible with that goal should lead to more favorable attitudes. In four studies, they manipulate goal compatibility by exposing participants with a promotion versus prevention goal to product information that focuses on positive consequences (e.g., creating energy) versus negative consequences (e.g., preventing heart disease). Their results show that under conditions of goal compatibility versus incompatibility, a) information is better recalled, b) strong vs. weak arguments are better discerned, and c) attitudes towards websites, advertisements and brands are more favorable.

In the third paper, Brendl and Markman present results showing that consumer’s choice decisions pertaining to a functional goal (e.g., purchase of a lottery ticket) that benefits future consumption are based on some higher level promotion goals that are currently active (e.g., desire to smoke). The authors suggest that when people are faced with options about consumption preferences in the future, their higher level goal that is currently active often presides over their choice of how to best fulfill the functional consumption goal. People assume that their future goals will be similar to, if not the same as, their current goals. For example, smokers bought more lottery tickets that could win cigarettes instead of cash five minutes before smoking a cigarette, even though they were fully aware that the prize drawing would occur two weeks later. In contrast, 5 minutes after smoking a cigarette, a second group of habitual smokers exhibited the reverse pattern of choices, purchasing more tickets for a lottery to win cash than for a lottery to win cigarettes. These findings demonstrate how consumer choice decisions are dependent upon the absence or presence of a higher level goal (promotion or prevention-based).

The three papers integrate research from multiple disciplines (marketing, psychology and organizational behavior), and present a coherent picture of how individuals’ cognitive processes, attitudes, and predictions of future behavior are affected by higher level goals that underlie currently activated functional goals. Further, together the papers aim to broaden our current understanding of goals in two ways. First, from a conceptual perspective, we distinguish between lower level goals that tend to be more functional in nature and higher level goals tha guide attitude and behaviors relating to the functional goals. Our particular focus is on identifying these higher level goals by addressing the following questions: What are the antecedents to these goals? When and how do they guide thoughts, attitudes and behavior? Second, from a substantive perspective, we hope to demonstrate how examining the individual’s underlying motivational states may help to explain his/her counterfactual thoughts, attitudes and behavior relating to the (non)fulfillment of past, present and future consumption.