Special Session Summary Processes Underlying Direction and Magnitude of Context Effects: Advances in Theory and Implications For Consumer Settings

Herbert Bless, Universitat Manheim
Carolyn Yoon, University of Michigan
[ to cite ]:
Herbert Bless and Carolyn Yoon (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Processes Underlying Direction and Magnitude of Context Effects: Advances in Theory and Implications For Consumer Settings", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 86-88.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 86-88



Herbert Bless, Universitat Manheim

Carolyn Yoon, University of Michigan


A considerable amount of research has focused on how the context, or the setting in which a target stimulus is presented, affects consumers’ processing of information, perceptions, and judgments of the target. Consumer research on context effects has been conducted from several different perspectives. While some have focused primarily on the degree to which context appears to require cognitive resources that might otherwise be available for processing a target item (e.g., Meyers-Levy & Sternthal, 1993; Meyers-Levy & Tybout, 1997), others have investigated how various features of the contextual information influence the cognitions activated about a contiguously presented target and thereby impact target evaluations and judgments (e.g., Bless & Schwarz, 1998; Herr, 1989; Stapel, Koomen & Velthuijsen, 1998). In particular, research efforts aimed at better understanding the conditions influencing assimilation and contrast, and the processes underlying the effects continue to generate much interest.

An important finding to emerge from the literature on assimilation and contrast is that it is possible to alter the processing of contextual information to produce assimilation in one situation and contrast in another (Bless & Schwarz, 1998; Bless & WSnke, 2000; Stapel & Koomen, 1998). Building on these recent theoretical advances, this session aims to present new investigations of how the direction and size of context effects are dependent on the type of information that is made cognitively accessible by the context. It brings together three research projects that focus on different aspects of consumer processing of contextual information, with each offering important contributions. "The Inclusion/Exclusion Model as a Framework for Predicting the Direction and Size of Context Effects in Consumer Judgments," by Herbert Bless, Michaela WSnke, and Norbert Schwarz, proposes and tests a general theoretical model to explain ho the same context might product assimilation or contrast of a target depending on how the information is used by the consumer. "Now You See It, Now You Don't: On the (In)visibility of Assimilation Effects," by Michaela WSnke and Florian Kutzner, presents new insights by extending the theorizing on processes underlying context effects. It considers how the processes, under certain conditions, reflect a net effect of both assimilation and contrast. Finally, "Effects of Extreme-Priced Products on Consumer Reservation Prices," by Aradhna Krishna, Mary Wagner, and Carolyn Yoon, extends prior theorizing on assimilation and contrast by examining how the direction and size of context are moderated by, not only variations in the type of contextual information, but the manner in which it is presented.

Given that virtually all consumer judgments and decisions are generated in the presence of contextual information, it is essential that we continue to improve our understanding of how context influences consumer responses. Together, these three papers provide significant new theoretical and practical insights about context effects.



Herbert Bless, Michaela WSnke, and Norbert Schwarz

Social scientists have long been fascinated by the observation that attitude judgments are highly context dependent. Depending on the context, the very same product or the very same person may be evaluated very differently. In the proposed paper, we present the inclusion/exclusion model as a general framework for conceptualizing context dependent judgment and relate it to consumer judgments.

The inclusion/exclusion model emphasizes the role of categorization processes. It is assumed that when individuals form a judgment about some target stimulus (e.g., a specific product), they first need to form some mental representation of it. In addition, they need to determine some standard of comparison against which the target is evaluated. For both constructions, the representation of the target and the standard, individuals are unlikely to retrieve all knowledge that may bear on the judgment but rather rely on the subset of potentially relevant information that is most accessible at the time of judgment.

It is argued that the same context (e.g., a brand image, or a special feature of the product) can result in assimilation or in contrast of evaluations, depending on whether the context is used to form the representation of the target or the standard of comparison. If the information that comes to mind is included in the temporary representation of the judgmental target, it will result in an assimilation effect. If, however, the information is excluded from the representation of the target, it may be used for constructing a standard of comparison and may result in contrast effects. The model specifies the conditions that trigger inclusion and exclusion processes and thus allows predictions about the direction of context effects. Moreover, it allows for predictions about the size of context effects.

In the present paper we will review recent evidence testing some implications of the inclusion/ exclusion model. In this research, we typically keep the judgmental target as well as the context information constant and manipulate the cognitive processes that operate on this information. Focusing on this procedure, we want to emphasize that it is not the features of the target and the context that determine assimilation and contrast, but the cognitive processes (i.e., inclusion vs. exclusion categorization) that operate on them.

The studies we will present pertain to the direction and the size of context effects. Focusing first on the direction of context effects, we demonstrate that when an element is perceived as typical for a superordinate category, an evaluation of the superordinate category is assimilated toward this element. When the very same element is perceived as atypical, however, contrast effects emerge (Bless & WSnke, 2000). Moreover, as predicted by the model, assimilation effects were more likely when individuals perceived the target category as relatively wide (thus allowing inclusion of a wide spectrum of context information), rather than when they perceived the target category as narrow (thus increasing the likelihood of exclusion), in which case contrast effects were observed. In addition, we observed that in a scenario of product line extensions, judgments of a specific product were assimilated toward a newly introduced top-of-the-line-product, when a joint representation of the two products was elicited. However, contrast effects emerged when the same products were presented and we induced processes that elicited separate representations of the two products (WSnke et al., 2001). With respect to the relation between superordinate category and exemplar, we observed that including the exemplar into the superordinate category resulted in an assimilation of the category toward the exemplar and an assimilation of the exemplar evaluation toward the category. Similar complementary effects were found in the case of contrast (Bless et al., in press). Applying these findings to brand extensions, we suggest that the same process (inclusion) which helps a new product benefit from a positive brand image may, at the same time, result in reduced evaluations of the brand, and vice versa in the case of contrast.

With respect to the size of context effects, the inclusion/exclusion model holds that both assimilation and contrast effects are less pronounced, the more other judgment relevant information is accessible relative to the context information. In line with this assumption we found that assimilation and contrast effects were attenuated when we made other judgment relevant information temporarily (Bless et al., 2000) or chronically (WSnke et al., 1998) accessible.



Michaela WSnke and Florian Kutzner

All judgments are relative, and as Tesser and Martin (1996) have pointed out "the three most important influences on evaluation are context, context, and context" (p. 421). This is especially true for consumer judgment. Consumers usually perceive brands or products within a range of comparable alternatives rather than in isolation. Thus, how context influences evaluative judgments is an extremely relevant issue in consumer research. One of the most intriguing aspects about context is that, in principle, it may elicit opposite effects: assimilation as well as contrast. Models on human judgment attempt to specify the exact conditions under which assimilation or contrast would emerge. Recent work, however, showed that the processes underlying assimilation and contrast effects are not mutually exclusive but may well operate additively within the same judgment (WSnke, Bless, & Igou, 2001). The present paper extends this work and links models of context and judgment to findings of comparison processes.

When a moderate exemplar is presented in the context of an extreme exemplar, the default expectation is a contrast effect. For example, a top-of-the-line model is likely to decrease evaluations of other more moderately equipped models as they suddenly look pale compared to such a bright star (e.g., WSnke et al., 2001). However, such a top-of-the-line model may also rub off on other more downscale models. In our previous research, this was the case when the shared brand membership was made salient so that participants transferred the positive brand image to all models of the brand. A different manner by which a context may elicit assimilation is given by comparison processes. In particular, we found that when the target serves as the referent of the comparison, its shared features were over-represented in its mental representation (WSnke et al., 2001).

Are comparison processes then sufficient to elicit assimilation rather than contrast? Given that consumer judgments typiclly involve quite explicit comparison processes between different alternatives, the role of comparison processes in context effects is highly relevant. However, the issue is rather complex because unlike many previous models on context effects, we suggest that a positive (negative) context stimulus may enhance shared features and thus cause a more positive (negative) mental target representation but may nonetheless be used as a standard of comparison and elicit contrast in that function. As a result, assimilation and contrast may both occur but what can be observed in judgment is only the net effect of the stronger force or a cancellation. In other words, although comparison processes may attract attention to shared features, this may not always result in assimilation of the evaluation to the context.

Thus, one might ask whether it is of any use to present a particular target with an extremely positive one. How can we be sure that assimilation will override contrast? To predict the strength of both effects can, in fact, be rather cumbersome. We suggest that an extreme context stimulus should only be used as a standard of comparison in absolute evaluations (e.g., how much do you like the product?). However, preference judgments between the target and other stimuli should not be affected. Two studies were conducted to test these hypotheses.

In study 1, participants were presented with pairs of product descriptions. The first pair consisted of the target A and an extremely positive context brand. The target shared half of its features with the positive context brand. The other half of its features were less favorable. Participants were asked to compare both brands and then evaluate each separately. Next, they were shown a second pair consisting of target B and an extremely negative brand. As with target A, target B shared half of its features with the context brand. Again, comparison processes were elicited and each brand was evaluated separately. A control group was shown only target A and B without extreme context stimuli.

We expected that the comparison process would make the shared features salient. This should be reflected in the recall data. Whether this would be observed in the absolute ratings was not clear. Because the extreme context could also be used as a standard of comparison, both assimilation and contrast might be expected to occur and override each other. Target A was evaluated more negatively when presented with an extremely positive stimulus as compared to the control group, and the opposite pattern emerged for target B. Apparently the contrast effect induced by the standard of comparison was rather strong. This also led to a more favorable evaluation of target B rather than target A in the absolute ratings. In other words, judging by only these ratings participants seemed to prefer target B. However, we expected that the contrast effects, which may affect the absolute ratings, would not be visible in the preference judgments. Indeed the pattern of the evaluative ratings reversed when preferences were assessed. Then target A was preferred. In line with our hypotheses, participants recalled more positive features of target A as compared to B.

In order to rule out the explanation that the preference reversal was only caused by the recall task prior to the preference judgment, study 2 was conducted. Study 2 followed the same procedure as study 1 but participants were not asked to recall features. Although study 2 found no contrast effects on the absolute ratings compared to the control group, again a preference reversal occurred. Whereas participants rated target B as superior to A in the experimental condition and the control group, in direct preferences target A was preferred in the experimental condition. In the control condition, direct preference ratings reflected the absolute ratings. These results provide further evidence that comparison processes may make shared features more salient and that contrast and assimilation are not exclusive but compatible processes. For applied purposes, it should be noted that while contrast may override assimilation in absolute judgments, assimilation may well be observed in comparative judgments such as reference ratings.



Aradhna Krishna, Mary Wagner, and Carolyn Yoon

Recently, several major companies have included extreme-priced products in their catalog. For example, in the 2000 holiday season Victoria’s Secret catalog included a gem-studded ten million-dollar millenium bra. Extremely high priced items like this rarely, if ever, sell. This raises the question of what, if anything, the inclusion of an extreme-priced product in a catalog does for marketers. We investigate this research question by conceptualizing the problem in terms of how consumers’ reservation prices for target (regular priced) products in a catalog are assimilated toward or contrasted away from the extreme-priced product (contextual cue). Across three experiments, we test whether the inclusion of an extreme-priced product cue does, in fact, affect consumer reservation prices in a systematic manner.

In the first experiment, we extend prior research on assimilation and contrast to investigate how two contextual factors, that previously have not been examined together, affect consumer responses. The first factor we consider is whether the contextual information is presented separately and prior to the target object (which we term "memory-based") or embedded within the same context as the target ("stimulus-based"). Most prior studies on assimilation and contrast have focused on memory-based environments (see Meyers-Levy & Sternthal (1993) for a notable exception), in the sense that they utilize traditional priming methods wherein the contextual information is presented before subjects are exposed to the target. We consider how the direction and magnitude of consumer responses may be different when the contextual information and target are presented together, in a manner that allows for direct comparison processes, as would be the case with catalog environment described above. We further consider how the nature of the contextual information might interact with the first factor to produce assimilation and contrast effects. More specifically, how might the degree of relatedness between contextual information and the target affect consumers’ reservation prices? Subjects in this experiment were presented with catalogs with eight products from a single product category. Subjects were also presented with an extreme-priced product cue or no cue (control condition). The extreme-priced product cue was presented either separately from the catalog, or embedded within the catalog. Moreover, the product cue was from the same product category, a related product category, or an unrelated product category as the target to be judged. In accordance with expectations, we found that the presence of an extreme priced product does increase reservation prices for other items in the catalog and that this effect is particularly strong when the cue and the target are from the same product category and appear together in a stimulus-based setting.

In a second experiment, we explore the robustness of this result by extending the investigation to additional product categories and by assessing purchase intentions for the target product items. Subjects received three catalogs from different product categories. These catalogs either contained an extreme-priced product from the same product category, or no cue at all. Subjects were then asked to provide purchase intentions in addition to reservation prices. Findings were consistent with results of the first experiment for all three product categories in that assimilation effects were obtained when subjects were presented with extreme-priced product cues. Additionally, we found that purchase intentions for target items were significantly higher in the presence of extreme-priced products.

In a third experiment, we further test the robustness of the direction and magnitude of the context effects by investigating the phenomenon within an altogether different stimulus-based consumer environment involving auction bidding on the Internet. Subjects were presented with listings for Indian head pennies. They were assigned to one of two contextual cue conditions in which all the information provided was identical except for the current maximum bid price for one of the pennies. Half the subjects were assigned to the condition with a high current maximum bid ($175) and the other half to the condition with a low current maximum bid ($7). Appearing directly above, was the target penny for which subjects were asked to provide a maximum bid. Consistent with our previous findings, subjects in the high current maximum bid condition gave bids that were significantly higher than those in the low current maximum bid condition.

In sum, the three experiments demonstrate consumers’ susceptibility to assimilative influences when exposed to extreme-priced product cues that share category membership with the target. Our results have significant practical implications for catalog and web-based sellers, as well as marketers in general.