How Does Choice Affect Evaluations?

Christie Brown, University of Michigan
Fred Feinberg, University of Michigan
[ to cite ]:
Christie Brown and Fred Feinberg (2002) ,"How Does Choice Affect Evaluations?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 331-332.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 331-332


Christie Brown, University of Michigan

Fred Feinberg, University of Michigan

This paper explores the interrelatedness of choice and judgment (i.e., the assessment of valuation). We would like to know, how does the fact that we have chosen one item instead of another change how we assess our experience of it? In other words, we are concerned with the causal effects of choice on the subsequent valuation of objects when they are consumed. We investigate whether and how a consumer’s experience of an item, once chosen, is different than that of this same item had it not been chosen (Raudenbush 2001).

The particular empirical phenomenon we seek to illuminate is bolstering, the tendency of decision makers to interpret their experiences in a biased way that casts their choices in a positive light (Chernev 2000; Kunda 1990; Tetlock, Stitka, and Boettger 1989). The traditional explanation for post-choice bolstering has been motivational: i.e., it is created by cognitive dissonance derived from the conflict between one’s actions (choices) and one’s beliefs (preferences) (Festinger 1957). Such a causal claim would seem to require a direct manipulation of choice: subjects evaluating target items following choice should show more bolstering than subjects evaluating items in the absence of choice. However, previous research has either been concerned primarily with pre-decisional distortion (Russo Medvec and Meloy 1998; Russo Meloy Medvec 1996; Shiv and Huber 2000), or post-choice confirmatory reasoning (Chernev 2000, Houston Sherman Baker 1991). To our knowledge no direct test of the effects of choice on valuation exists in the marketing literature; thus, no definitive test of the role of choice in general, and dissonance in particular, in creating bolstering has been reported. The current research provides such a direct test, and assesses the ability of several alternative explanations to account for the results: dissonance, "mood" effects (Langer 1975, Meloy 2000), positive hypothesis testing (sometimes called confirmatory reasoning or focus-of-comparison effects; Chernev 2000, Dhar and Simonson 1992, Klayman and Ha 1987), and motivated reasoning (Kunda 1990).

One self-evident way in which choice affects valuation is by improving outcomes. Choosing freely among alternatives (in comparison to random assignment), should improve choice outcomes (i.e., which alternative is chosen). We, however, are primarily interested in how properties of the choice set affect valuation of an outcome, given that it is chosen. To disentangle these effects, we adopt a novel analytical approach, adapting a model from labor economics that treats choice as ndogenous (Heckman 1979, Feinberg and Brown 2001).

We apply our model in two experiments designed to show when and how choice affects the degree to which consumers engage in bolstering. In our experiments, each subject chooses among a set of candy bars, and reports his/her real-time judgment ratings while actually eating. In our first experiment, we manipulate the amount of potential dissonance by manipulating the size and variability of the choice sets. Study 1 provides only mixed support for dissonance: consistent with dissonance theory, bolstering was greater following choice of a less-preferred item than following choice of an a priori favored item; [We define a "favored" item as the item or items in the available set with the highest expected value, as measured by an a priori rating.] however, not all conditions expected to generate high levels of dissonance did so.

Study 2 investigates whether a positive hypothesis-testing strategy (Klayman and Ha 1987) alone can explain post-choice bolstering, or whether some motivational component is still required. In Study 2, we manipulate choice experimentally, by allowing subjects free choice among alternatives or by assigning them to consume a particular alternative. Results show that bolstering effects are highly dependent on the outcome of the choice process: if a favored item is consumed, these bolstering effects are relatively small. However, for less preferred items, bolstering effects can sometimes be so substantial that preferences are reversed. In other words, in some cases we find so much bolstering that the item with the lower a priori rating has a higher posterior rating than its competitor.

Study 2 results cannot be explained by dissonance either, because in some cases bolstering is greater when subjects are randomly assigned to consume a particular item (which should not generate dissonance) than when they deliberately choose it. (Cooper and Fazio 1984). However, neither can the results be explained as a "cold" result of a positive hypothesis-testing strategy, without recourse to some form of "warm" motivated reasoning, because although both post-choice and post-random-assignment subjects can be expected to use the consumed item as the focus of comparison (Dhar and Simonson 1992), post-choice subjects show greater resistance to counter-attitudinal information than randomly-assigned subjects. In short, judgment following choice is different both cognitively and motivationally than "choiceless" judgment.

This research makes a contribution in several key areas: first, our theory makes critical and empirically useful distinctions between confirmatory reasoning, motivated reasoning, and cognitive dissonance. Second, our empirical results provide a novel direct test of the effects of choice on valuation. Third, the lack of availability of an appropriate analytical model has previously made it difficult, if not impossible, to test for the effects of choice on judgment. The development and application of the model is thus an important contribution of the paper.


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