On Getting Situated: the Role of Situational Factors in Consumer Research

Richard J. Lutz, The University of Iowa
ABSTRACT - The role of the situation as an explanatory construct has seen increasing attention over the past several years. The present paper provides a critique of four recent investigations of situational determinants of behavior; attempts to place them within the broader context of situational research; and suggests some additional priorities for future research on situational effects on consumer behavior.
[ to cite ]:
Richard J. Lutz (1980) ,"On Getting Situated: the Role of Situational Factors in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 659-663.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 659-663


Richard J. Lutz, The University of Iowa

[Visiting Associate Professor, on leave of absence from the University of California, Los Angeles.]


The role of the situation as an explanatory construct has seen increasing attention over the past several years. The present paper provides a critique of four recent investigations of situational determinants of behavior; attempts to place them within the broader context of situational research; and suggests some additional priorities for future research on situational effects on consumer behavior.


Despite the recent surge in interest in situations as a determinant of consumer behavior, there is still some concern that the situational construct has not been adequately conceptualized or operationalized. Hansen(1972) offered a basic conceptual distinction among exposure situations, deliberation situations and response choice situations. Further, he segmented response choice situations into three sub-categories: communication situations, purchase situations, and consumption situations (p. 53). This latter sub-categorization is particularly useful in sorting out situational effects on consumer behavior, as shall be seen in the analysis which follows.


In this section, a critique is offered for each of four papers dealing with various aspects of situational impacts on consumer behavior. Both substantive and methodological issues will be addressed.

Stanton and Bonnet

In their study of purchase situations, Stanton and Bonner (1980) make a useful distinction between the purchase situation and the consumption situation. In so doing, they point out that the intended consumption situation may in fact be a key component of the purchase situation, when the latter is construed in psychological rather than purely objective terms. Stanton and Bonner's Figure B depicts the inter-relationships among actual and intended consumption situations and purchase situations. The model appears to have considerable conceptual merit, and could easily be extended to incorporate communications situations, the third component of Hansen's (1972) typology. Figure 1 depicts one such possible extension. Note that in Figure 1, the Communication Situation is seen as exerting possible influence on each of the three situation types delineated in Stanton and Bonnet's original model.

The first possible effect (#1 in Figure 1) would be the impact of communications on intended consumption. Advertising which encourages consumers to use a particular brand or product in a wider variety of settings would be represented by this linkage in the model. Arm and Hammer Baking Soda's recent campaign depicting alternative uses of the product (e.g., refrigerator freshening, swimming pool cleansing) would be an excellent example of a communication attempting to modify the situation of intended use.



The Communication Situation can also form an aspect of the "objective" Purchase Situation, in the form of point-of-purchase displays or personal selling efforts. In such a case, the consumer would be in these two types of situations simultaneously, both receiving (and perhaps sending) information and attempting to make a product choice.

The third new linkage in Figure 1 relates Communication Situation to Consumption Situation. This effect can be thought of as an immediate effect of communication on behavior. It occurs most often, perhaps, through word-of-mouth wherein a friend recommends or encourages consumption (e.g., "Hey, why don't we have a beer!"); in some instances, however, advertising messages may serve the same function. For instance, an ad which concludes with the suggestion, "Why not have one right now?", can be seen as an effective component of the consumption situation.

In sum, the conceptual extensions offered by Stanton and Bonnet appear to be quite promising and should provide impetus to further work in the situational arena.

With respect to the empirical work reported in the paper, interpretation is hindered by a lack of complete reporting in some instances. It is difficult to completely conceal the identity of the product studied and still provide enough detail with respect to measurement of key variables. Thus, more information on the exact number of variables and their measurement is required in order to allow replication by other researchers.

Perhaps the most serious methodological shortcoming of the Stanton and Bonnet study is their failure to incorporate a holdout sample in their analysis. With a sample of 2915 purchase occasions, there are certainly ample degrees of freedom available to allow a split sample procedure. In the absence of this, the strength of the reported findings is suspect.

Stanton and Bonnet's analysis of four levels of product selection--i.e., product class, product form, brand, and variety--was an excellent methodological and conceptual extension of prior work. More work on these four levels would be beneficial. For instance, how general are these four levels across a wide spectrum of product categories? Are the choices among the four levels always ordered in the way discussed by Stanton and Bonner--i.e., product class first?

As a final note, another useful extension of the empirical portion of the paper would be the consideration of person-situation interactions. Stanton and Bonner separated their analysis of individual differences and situational factors. The literature on situational effects has consistently shown that the interaction of situational and personal factors accounts for the bulk of explained variance, as compared to "main effects" for either factor alone. Therefore, further analyses of the Stanton and Bonner data could be profitable in assessing the power of the interactionist model within a purchase situation context.


In his study, Srivastava (1980) approaches the problem of delineating product/market boundaries from the perspective of the consumption situation. This is a very promising approach to a critical marketing problem. Deciding on the scope of the relevant market for a good or service is a non-trivial task, and yet one of increasing significance as more and more marketers and corporate planners turn to relative market share as a key input to strategic decision-making.

The fundamental assumption underlying the approach employed by Srivastava is that consumption situations ultimately are reflected in terms of benefits sought by consumers in those situations. In light of the preceding paper by Stanton and Bonner, it seems reasonable to assume that anticipated or intended consumption situations could be meaningfully calibrated in terms of desired benefits. Purchase situations and actual consumption situations are probably less amenable to such an approach.

Nevertheless, the methodology used by Srivastava offers a useful alternative means of building a typology of situations. Previous taxonomic approaches have rested on a variety of other bases, such as:

Complete inventory of the physical setting (e.g., Barker, 1968)

Actual or intended behaviors (e.g., Endler & Hunt, 1969; Belk, 1974)

Emotional response mediators (e.g., Mehrabian & Russell, 1974; Lutz & Kakkar, 1975)

Perceptual variables (e.g., Kakkar & Lutz, 1975)

For a review of the various approaches, see Kakkar and Lutz (1980). Their success has been mixed, so the approach employed here by Srivastava is a welcome addition to the situational literature.

The method used to actually generate situational descriptions and assess product appropriateness within them is well-described by Srivastava. The goodness of fit observed in the data is extremely high and quite robust, even under rather drastic reductions in sample size. While these results bode well for the utility of the proposed model, it is not clear that the evidence is directly relevant to consumer choice per se.

A troublesome aspect of the method is the use of "appropriateness'' of alternative products in various situations as the key dependent variable. What, exactly, is the conceptual status of the appropriateness construct? There is no current theory of consumer behavior which explicitly incorporates appropriateness as a step in the choice process. Perhaps the notion of evoked set (Howard & Sheth, 1969) could be construed as related to appropriateness, but the relationship does not appear to be isomorphic. More plausible is the possibility that respondents are in some sense "intellectualizing" by trying to discern the possible appropriateness of an alternative in a situation, with less regard to whether they personally would actually consider using the product. To the extent that intellectualizing is accounting for the responses, that might account for the rather dramatic degree of response homogeneity observed across situations and respondents. Thus, more relevant dependent variables might be consideration (in the sense of evoked set), attractiveness (i.e., a measure of affect toward the alternative in that situation), or intention to use. All of these variables are more closely aligned with current consumer choice theory, and hence might be more useful in constructing a choice-relevant situational typology. At the very least, the conceptual status of appropriateness should be clarified in order to build more confidence in the method as a choice-related task. This essentially amounts to a plea for construct validation of appropriateness, particularly with respect to its nomological validity, i.e., its relationship to other aspects of consumer choice processes.

Park and Bahr

In their experimental assessment of marketer- versus non-marketer-controlled sources of product information, Park and Bahr (1980) have focused attention on the Communication Situation and its ultimate effect on consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction. The conceptual basis for the investigation is the notion of disconfirmed expectations, an emerging area of research interest in consumer behavior (Olson & Dover, 1976; Oliver, 1977).

The problem of disconfirmed expectations is an interesting one for both theoreticians and practitioners. Obviously, the role of advertising and other promotional activity is to create sufficiently high expectations such that the product will be purchased and consumed. But what is the effect of the initial level of expectation on the subsequent evaluation of product performance? As pointed out by Oliver (1977), to some degree assimilation effects could be expected, especially for products with rather ephemeral benefits (e.g., cologne). To the extent that objective evaluation of product performance is difficult, then promotional claims may be used as cues, or at least anchors, for judgments of product performance. On the other hand, when performance is perceived as discrepant from promotionally-induced expectations, a contrast effect may be evidenced. That is, judged product performance may suffer a decrement due to the "disappointment" created by the failure of the product to live up to its promotion.

Figure 2 depicts the hypothetical functional relationships pertinent to the satisfaction/dissatisfaction issue. Probability of purchase is shown as having the familiar S-shaped response function in relation to initial expectation level. A reverse S-shaped curve is hypothesized as portraying the relationship between initial expectation and post-consumption satisfaction, for those consumers who actually purchase the product. The shape of this curve is based upon the assimilation and contrast arguments offered above.

The height of the intersection of the purchase probability and satisfaction probability curves specifies the probability that any given consumer in the market, selected on a random basis, is a satisfied customer. Corresponding to this intersection is the optimal level of initial expectation (E') which would maximize the probability of finding a satisfied customer (or, proportion of satisfied customers, in aggregate terms). As shown in Figure 2, the proportion of satisfied consumers is constrained by the proportion of purchasers to the left of the intersection and by the proportion of satisfied buyers to the right of the intersection.



The important point about Figure 2 is that there is, in reality, a family of buyer satisfaction curves, specified by varying levels of product quality. That is, ultimate satisfaction is not only a function of initial expectation, but also is dependent upon the actual level of product experience. A family of hypothetical buyer satisfaction curves is shown in Figure 3. As is readily discernible from the figure, the optimal level of initial expectation increases with product quality. This relationship suggests the need for thorough pretesting of the product in use in order to arrive at the most productive level of promotional claim.



Park and Bahr attempted to assess the impact of two levels of initial expectation on post-purchase satisfaction. The use of a field experiment to address this issue is commendable and one of few field experiments reported in the consumer behavior literature. Unfortunately, the experiment was not well controlled and hence does not allow causal inferences about the impact of expectations on satisfaction. Media vehicles were confounded with message treatments, and subjects self-selected themselves into one treatment or another via their media habits. Further, there was no control or measurement of subjects' actual product use, a major determinant of product satisfaction, as shown in Figure 3. Some subjects may have used the product several times, others not at all. This latter problem is referred to as a history effect (Campbell & Stanley, 1963). Thus, the lack of random assignment of subjects, the differences in message treatments, and the uncontrolled effects of history combine to fatally damage the internal validity of the experiment: the observed differences in satisfaction cannot be unambiguously attributed to the promotional messages. Nevertheless, the Park and Bahr study is useful in that it serves to illuminate the intricacies of the relationships among promotional effort, product quality, and product satisfaction, certainly a topic of concern in this age of consumerism.

Rothschild and Houston

The issue of involvement is perhaps one of the hottest emerging topics in consumer research. Rothschild and Houston (1980) have offered both conceptual and methodological contributions to the involvement literature in their study of voting behavior. Choice of a candidate is not any different, in a conceptual sense, from the choice of a brand of a product, so their study can be viewed as dealing with purchase situations.

It is perhaps worth clarifying the role of involvement as a situational construct. As an individual difference variable, involvement can be construed as an intervening response variable which mediates the impact of the situation on consumer choice. Thus, the involvement construct dictates the incorporation of an S-R-R paradigm (Lutz, 1977), with the situation providing the external stimulus, involvement representing the initial response, and choice or other consumer behaviors representing the subsequent response.

Rothschild and Houston, in an adaptation of Sherif, Sherif and Nebergall's (1965) work on social judgment, have used the notion of latitude of acceptance to specify the amount of response involvement expressed by an individual. Response involvement is distinguished from situational involvement and enduring involvement within the context of an S-O-R model. The S-O-R distinction is rather curious, since involvement is inherently an internal variable. Nevertheless, the distinctions among the types of involvement are definitely useful, even if the labels are somewhat confusing.

Response involvement, the focus of the Rothschild and Houston paper, was measured via the involvement matrix, such that large numbers of dimensions with few acceptable levels represent high involvement, and few dimensions with large latitudes of acceptance represent low involvement. The basic notion is that, the more complex the cognitive structure, the higher the degree of involvement. This assumption may be questionable for a situation in which a consumer is very brand loyal. In such a case, there may be a relatively simple cognitive structure present (e.g., "My brand is best. Period."). Thus, the curvilinear relationship depicted in Figure 4 may be a plausible rival hypothesis regarding the relationship between cognitive complexity and response involvement.



Given the presence of an alternative relationship between the involvement matrix (i.e., cognitive complexity) and actual response involvement, the generation of alternative measures is dictated. In order to build a strong case for response involvement as measured, a multitrait-multimethod investigation would be very useful.

In general, the Rothschild and Houston paper is a very important step in the necessary direction of clarifying the conceptual basis of the involvement construct. They delineate three forms of involvement. Other classification schemes are also possible. For example, various authors have discussed the following kinds of involvement:

Media (McLuhan, 1964)

Product class (Robertson, 1976)

Brand (Jacoby & Kyner, 1973)

Advertising-specific (Krugman, 1965)

Advertising-general (Bauer & Greyser, 1968)

Decision-making (Lutz, 1979b)

Message (Lutz, 1979a)

This is undoubtedly only a partial list. There is clearly a continuing need for a thorough conceptualization of the involvement construct, and the Rothschild and Houston paper represents a good first step in that direction.


The collection of papers reviewed here spanned the three general situation types outlined by Hansen (1972)--communication, purchase, and consumption. All three of these situation types are important in their own right, and the papers reviewed here have offered unique insights into the various possible situational effects, albeit to different degrees.

Of the three situation types, communication situations have been perhaps the most intensively studied in marketing to date. Virtually any study of promotional effects on consumer behavior can be brought to bear on the study of communication situations. Consumption situations (or at least anticipated consumption situations) have received most of the recent attention in the situational domain per se. Consumption situations are perhaps the most fundamental from the perspective of building situational effects into a more general theory of consumer decision-making. Purchase situations are the least investigated, due to the obstacles encountered in studying consumer behavior at the actual point of purchase. Nevertheless, the study of purchase situations is of obvious interest to retailers and conceivably to marketers in general, The ultimate interest in situational factors lies in their impact on consumer decision-making; therefore, to the extent that decisions are made at the point of purchase, then the purchase situation takes an increased significance.


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