The Effects of Product Involvement and Task Definition on Anticipated Consumer Effort

Keith Clarke, (student), University of Illinois
Russell W. Belk, University of Illinois
ABSTRACT - Two major determinants of the fervor and diligence with which a consumer prepares to make a purchase are thought to be the degree of involvement with the item to be purchased and the degree of involvement in the situation in which the purchasing occurs. This paper reports an experiment to assess the manner in which inherent product involvement and situational task importance affect anticipated consumer purchase effort. Both factors were found to independently increase estimations of purchase effort, but the effect of task importance was negligible in the case of high involvement products. This finding is interpreted as a ceiling effect on overall involvement level.
[ to cite ]:
Keith Clarke and Russell W. Belk (1979) ,"The Effects of Product Involvement and Task Definition on Anticipated Consumer Effort", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 313-318.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 313-318


Keith Clarke (student), University of Illinois

Russell W. Belk, University of Illinois


Two major determinants of the fervor and diligence with which a consumer prepares to make a purchase are thought to be the degree of involvement with the item to be purchased and the degree of involvement in the situation in which the purchasing occurs. This paper reports an experiment to assess the manner in which inherent product involvement and situational task importance affect anticipated consumer purchase effort. Both factors were found to independently increase estimations of purchase effort, but the effect of task importance was negligible in the case of high involvement products. This finding is interpreted as a ceiling effect on overall involvement level.

The concept of consumer purchasing effort has received relatively little attention in consumer research. Cardozo and Bramel (1969) treated the expenditure of effort in consumer decision-making as a form of behavioral commitment to the purchase. In this view, greater effort in a consumer purchase decision increases the perceived importance of the purchase decision and thereby increases the potential for post-purchase cognitive dissonance. The dissonance created by expending an amount of effort which is not commensurate with the degree of satisfaction the product is able to provide, may then be reduced through an inflated post-purchase evaluation of the chosen product. Cardozo (1965) and Woodside (1972) found support for this hypothesis in experiments manipulating the amount of effort required in consumers' prescribed information search activities. However, in much of consumers' normal purchasing activities the search task is much less structured and the relationship between decision importance and purchasing effort may be in the opposite direction from the one set up in these studies. That is, rather than greater search effort causing consumers to perceive a purchase as being more important, greater purchase importance should cause consumers to expend more search effort. This was the primary hypothesis motivating the present research.


Two separate aspects of the importance of a purchase decision are the amount of product involvement and the nature of the task definition involved in the purchase. Product involvement, as used here, is purchase item-specific but not purchase situation-specific. [Howard and Sheth (1969) used the term "importance of purchase," Lastovicka (1976) used the term "issue involvement,'' and Rothchild (1977) used the term "enduring involvement" to refer to this type of involvement.] Thus, for a given individual, a set of products and services might he arrayed in terms of their inherent involvement. While there are individual differences in levels of involvement with a given product, with a relatively homogeneous population the rank orders of involvement with an array of products are expected to be reasonably constant. Hupfer and Gardner's (1971) measures of product involvement among college students support this expectation, with certain products such as automobiles being almost uniformly more involving than other products such as facial tissues. Ratchford and Andreasen (1974) reached similar conclusions in their examination of the perceived importance of decisions to purchase various services by new residents to a community.

Howard and Sheth (1969, p. 73) predicted that greater search effort will be expended for high importance products. Consistent with this hypothesis, Katona and Mueller (1954) found strong differences in consumer decision effort ("deliberation") between products of such apparently differential involvement as sports shirts (low) versus major appliances (high). However, it is not clear that product involvement was the primary difference between these products, and various authors (e.g. Sherif and Cantril, 1947) have suggested that clothing is highly involving. It is therefore necessary to test any operationalization of product involvement and to avoid generalizing to dissimilar populations.

A second determinant of decision importance is task involvement. Belk (1975) suggested that task-defining features of a consumer purchase situation arise from goals relating to information gathering or product selection, and from the usage situations envisioned for products which are relevant to these goals. In other words, the task is defined by the consumer's intentions at a particular time and place. The task may be highly involving either because it entails important immediate goals (e.g., "find a coat which is the least expensive brown wool coat in town"), or because the intended usage situation involves important goals (e.g. "find a dress to wear to the prom"). Although task definitions for purchase situations may also differ in other respects such as their difficulty, specificity, and complexity, the present study is concerned only with task involvement.

Some support for the hypothesized relationship between task importance and search effort is found in a study by Gr°nhaug (1972). Gr°nhaug compared the information search activities of recent buyers of tableware who bought the product either as a gift (higher task involvement) or for personal use (lower task involvement). Those who had purchased the tableware as a gift were found to have considered more alternatives, visited more shops, sought more advice from both dealers and others, and studied more brochures. Based on these results and prior studies of the task involvement levels of gift-giving (e.g. Belk, forthcoming), the present study employs the gift/personal use dichotomy to manipulate task involvement.


A key concept integrating product involvement and task involvement as well as linking them to effort expenditure, is arousal. In an approximate sense, arousal may be seen as the level of energy released to deal with a person's present situation. While product and task involvement are not the only determinants of arousal, in a focused activity like product choice and purchasing they are generally dominant. The general expectation then is that with greater levels of arousal created by higher product involvement, task involvement, or both, the amount of effort devoted to information search and processing increases. It should be noted, however, that most theorists dealing with arousal do not postulate a straight linear relationship between level of arousal and level of efficient effort expenditure. For instance, based on the work of Hebb (1966), Berlyne (1967), and others, Hansen (1972) predicts the greatest amount of information search and deliberation at very low and moderately high levels of arousal, and the lowest amount of effort expenditure on these activities at medium levels of arousal. Despite the theoretical and empirical support for the non-linear relationship between arousal and effort expenditure, the series of experiments conducted by Hansen (1972) supports the view that most consumer purchase activities fall within the range of arousal which avoids the extremes at which arousal may no longer be positively associated with effort. Similarly it is assumed that the levels of involvement created by the present study's product and task involvement conditions are such that there is a direct although not necessarily linear relationship between arousal and consumer purchase effort expenditure.

Consumer purchase effort in response to arousal level may be manifested in several different ways. Effort is spent when the consumer internally recalls and processes information as well as when there are more overt signs of information acquisition. As Newman (1977) points out, external information search can also take on a number of forms and appearances. The most frequently used measure of external consumer search is the number of retail stores visited prior to purchase, and this is the one of the measures adopted for the current study. Nearly all measures of external information search involve active deliberate information search, although recent extensions of the time budget diary method by Venkatesan and Arndt (forthcoming) obtain some measures of passive non-deliberate information acquisition. Because the present study focuses on anticipated effort expenditure, its measures concern deliberate information search. A second measure of consumer effort expenditure used in the current study is deliberation time exclusive of travel time. By excluding travel time the measure ignores locational factors idiosyncratic to the data collection city, and provides a measure of largely internal search and processing activity efforts. The price a consumer expects to pay for a product constitutes a third type of measure in this study. Although price is not a reflection of effort expenditure directly, since effort must usually be expended for the consumer to obtain money, spending more money is an indirect expenditure of effort.


The three basic measures of effort expenditure just noted are hypothesized to be related to the two types of involvement in the following ways:

1. More stores will be shopped, more time will be spent, and more money will be spent under high task involvement conditions than under low task involvement conditions.

2. More stores will be shopped, more time will be spent, and more money will be spent for high involvement products than for low involvement products.

3. The effects of task involvement and product involvement will be additive with no interaction.

While each of the hypothesized effects in the first two hypotheses have been discussed, there is an alternative to hypothesizing that all three types of effort expenditure will increase with involvement. The alternative is to consider the three types of effort as substitutes, so that an increase in one type of effort can lead to a reduction in the others. For instance, a consumer might rely on a higher priced product as an assurance of satisfaction and thereby reduce the necessity of additional information search. However, considering that the source of consumer arousal is involvement with the product or task, it seems more reasonable that the consumer would be willing to spend more money and more information search effort in order to assure a more satisfactory purchase. Furthermore, in line with the Cardozo (1965) findings, the expenditure of one type of effort may itself increase the overall levels of purchase involvement and arousal which would further increase the other types of effort expenditure. The third hypothesis assumes that regardless of the level of inherent product involvement, giving the product as a gift (high task involvement) increases the overall level of arousal and causes more effort to be expended.


A two by four factorial design was used. Task involvement was manipulated by informing subjects that the product was to be purchased for personal use or else as a gift for a good friend. Product involvement was operationalized by the use of four products. Two of the products (bubble bath and a blanket) were chosen to represent low involvement and two (jeans and a record album) were chosen to represent high involvement products. These choices were based on a series of direct and indirect measures of involvement with various products conducted by Lastovicka (1976) and in pretests conducted by the authors on the same general subject pool as the current study.

In the pretest conducted by the authors, subjects also provided estimates of a low, a medium, and a high level for each of the three dependent measures. That is, subjects in the pretest estimated a low, medium, and high number of stores to visit, a low, medium and high amount of non-travel time to spend in deciding, and a low, medium, and high amount of money to spend for each of the products. These measures were obtained for each product without reference to the task situation. The mean of the "medium amount" was used as the central point in a scale measuring the amount of a type of effort the experimental subjects would be willing to expend in selecting each product. The points on either side of these central points for each scale were selected by taking the median of the high and low amounts for each product. Medians were used so as not to choose points skewed by any extremely high or low values given in the pretest. On each scale, two additional points were added by including the categories "less than (the low amount)" and "higher than (the high amount)". Through the use of these scales it was possible to make comparisons of the objective ("real choice") levels of effort expenditure across the products, even though the base levels of these effort expenditures differed across the products. In an effort to measure subjective ("relative choice") levels of effort expenditures, three additional questions were employed measuring effort expenditure on seven-point scales labeled from "very little" or "very few" to "very much" or "very many". The same results were expected from measures of both subjective and objective effort expenditures.

Subjects were 56 undergraduate female students. They were randomly assigned to two treatment conditions subject to the constraints that each receive both task conditions but not receive the same product. It was felt that having each subject engage a different task and a different product would minimize the problem of repeated measures effects. To test for this, the data were first analyzed as a two by four by two design with the third factor being whether the responses were to the first product/task or the second product/task. There were no significant main effects or interaction effects involving this third factor so it was felt that there had been no sensitization problem and the data were collapsed into the two by four design.


The results of the study are summarized in Table 1 and Figure 1. The main effect for task involvement was significant for all six dependent measures, with effort expenditures for gifts reported as higher than expenditures for products for personal use. The second hypothesis was also generally supported, with all relative choice effort measures significant but with numbers of stores the only significant real choice measure. At least on the perceived effort scales then, the amount of effort was greater for the high involvement products.





The third hypothesis, that there would be no interaction effect between task involvement and product involvement, however, must be rejected. For all of the real choice measures and for the relative choice measure for time expenditure, the interaction effect is significant. As may be seen in the plots of cell means and in the simple main effects tests, the effect of task involvement was to increase the amount of anticipated effort for the low involvement products, but not for the high involvement products (with the partial exception of the amount of money and number of stores for the record album).


The one surprising finding is the interaction effect between inherent product involvement and task involvement. Although the stipulation that a product is being selected as a gift generally increases the reported amount of consumer effort expenditure, this is not the case for the high involvement products. The most plausible explanation is that there is a ceiling effect on the overall amount of involvement. For selection of a product like jeans, involvement is already as high as it can normally get and the gift conditions can raise this level no higher. On the other hand, gift-giving is able to transform an otherwise low involvement purchase like bubble bath into an important decision. However, the possible existence of a ceiling effect on involvement need not mean that there is a comparable ceiling effect on the levels of arousal corresponding to this involvement. It is reasonably clear that even giving high involvement products like jeans or records as a gift is still not sufficient to create arousal at the extremely high levels for which decreased purchase effort is predicted.

Another way to view the combined effects of the levels of product involvement and task involvement studied, is in terms of product relevance to the purchaser's self concept. Compared to the two low involvement products (bubble bath and blankets) the two high involvement products (record albums and jeans) are relatively visible to others and also more likely to be construed as matters of "taste". However, as has been noted by Belk (1976), normally non-visible products tend to become visible symbolic communications when they are given as gifts. A part of this symbolic communication involves a message about the recipient (i.e. this is a gift that suits you), and a part of the communication involves a message about the giver (i.e. this is a gift that reflects my tastes). Although the addition of the message about the recipient might seem to justify greater effort expenditure for the inherently high involvement products, the fact that the normal level of effort expenditure for these products is already high enough to consider the symbolic aspects of the purchase, may mitigate this effect.

There are some obvious cautions which need to be applied to interpreting and generalizing these results. Since these are reports of anticipated effort, they are subject to social desirability and other biases and may not reflect the actual amount of effort devoted to purchases. It is, however, encouraging to note that Ryans (1977) found greater amounts of information search time were expended when small appliances were chosen as gifts for people outside of the giver's household than when they were chosen for personal use. Nevertheless, the theoretical interpretations of these effects as due solely to task involvement are tentative given the singular manipulation of this variable. The same is true of the product involvement variable since the products employed also differ in other ways such as their visibility. Also, although the products selected were relevant and differentially involving for the college female sample, they may not be so for others.


It appears that the reason for purchasing an item as well as the inherent involvement with the item create differences in the amount of effort a consumer is willing to exert in purchasing the product. It would therefore be a mistake to assume that personally uninvolving products are purchased with little effort devoted to securing and processing information or otherwise attempting to optimize purchase selection. In fact, during peak holiday gift-giving periods high task involvement and attendant effort may predominate the selection of normally uninvolving products. As suggested by other research (e.g., Hupfer and Gardner, 1971) as well as the present research, it would also be a mistake to assume that higher price is necessarily related to higher involvement and higher purchase effort. Even though blankets are generally mere expensive than Jeans, Jeans are higher involvement products to which greater amounts of purchase effort are devoted.

Among the areas for future research suggested by this study are investigations of purchase situation characteristics, other than personal/gift use, which affect the level of task involvement and purchase effort. It is also of interest to know whether different bases for product involvement (e.g. social relevance, financial relevance, hedonic relevance) are all able to create greater purchase effort expenditure. It will also be necessary to establish these effects in actual as well as in anticipated purchase effort expenditures. And the particular types of purchase effort expenditure which are favored in different types of high involvement purchase decisions might be considered. Finally, it would be useful to know whether increases in consumer purchase effort in response to greater purchase involvement, have the same effects on postpurchase processes such as dissonance reduction as when the effort increase is necessitated by unforeseen purchase conditions.


Russell W. Belk, "Situational Variables and Consumer Behavior," Journal of Consumer Research, 2(1975), 157-64.

Russell W. Belk, "It's the Thought that Counts: A Signed Digraph Analysis of Gift-Giving," Journal of Consumer Research, 3(1976), 155-62.

Russell W. Belk, "Gift-Giving Behavior," in Jagdish Sheth (ed.), Research in Marketing, Vol. 2, (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, forthcoming).

Daniel E. Berlyne, "Arousal and Reinforcement," in D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1967).

Richard N. Cardozo, "An Experimental Study of Customer Effort, Expectation, and Satisfaction," Journal of Marketing Research, 2(1965), 244-49.

Richard N. Cardozo, and Dana Bramel, "The Effect of Effort and Expectation on Perceptual Contrast and Dissonance Reduction," Journal of Social Psychology, 79 (1969), 55-62.

Kjell Gr°nhaug, "Buying Situation and Buyer's Information Behavior," European Marketing Research Review, 7 (1972), 33-48.

Flemming Hansen, Consumer Choice Behavior: A Cognitive Theory (New York: Free Press, 1972).

Donald O. Hebb, A Textbook of Psychology, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1966).

John A. Howard and Jagdish Sheth, The Theory of Buyer Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1969).

Nancy T. Hupfer and David M. Gardner, "Differential Involvement with Products and Issues: An Exploratory Study," in M. Venkatesan (ed.), Proceedings, 2nd annual conference of the Association for Consumer Research, (University of Maryland, 1971, 262-70).

George Katona and Eva Mueller, "A Study of Purchase Decisions," in L. H. Clark (ed.), Consumer Behavior, (Vol. 1, New York: NYU Press, 1954).

John L. Lastovika, "An Exploratory Multidimensional Scaling Study of Involvement with Products and Services,'' mimeographed paper (University of Illinois, 1976).

Joseph W. Newman, "Consumer External Search: Amount and Determinants," in A. G. Woodside, J. N. Sheth, and P. D. Bennett, Consumer and Industrial Buying Behavior, (eds.), (Amsterdam: Elsevier North-Holland, 1977).

Brian T. Ratchford and Alan A. Andreasen, "The Effects of Role Structure, Decision Type, and Household Characteristics on Consumer Information Source Use Under Conditions of Limited Experience," Working Paper #181, (University of Illinois, College of Commerce and Business Administration, 1974).

Michael L. Rothchild, "Advertising Strategies for High and Low Involvement Situations" paper presented at 1977 Attitude Research Conference, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Adrian B. Ryans, "Consumer Gift Buying Behavior: An Exploratory Analysis," in B. A. Greenberg and D. N. Bellenger, Contemporary Marketing Thought (Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1977, 99-115).

Musafer Sherif and H. Cantril, The Psychology of Ego Involvement (New York: Wiley, 1947).

M. Venkatesan and Johan Arndt, "Consumers' Use of Time: An Exploration with Time Budget," in Jagdish N. Sheth (ed.) Research in Marketing, (Vol. 3, Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press (forthcoming)).

Arch G. Woodside, "Positive Disconfirmation of Expectation and The Effect of Effort on Evaluation," Proceedings, 80th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (1972), 743-44.