Determinants of Consumption Cue Utilization in Impression Formation: an Association Derivation and Experimental Verification

Russell W. Belk, The University of Utah
ABSTRACT - This paper reports the results of two studies investigating the characteristics of product and service choices that tend to make these choices useful cues for inferences about the personality and social class of those who are observed consuming such items. The first study is a regression-based analysis of these determinant characteristics across a set of 39 types of products and services. Utilizing three characteristics that this analysis suggested are the strongest determinants of the usefulness of these product and service choices in impression formation, the second study experimentally varied the characteristic properties of a single consumption item choice in order to verify the results suggested by the regression model. The results tend to support the utility of cost and decision involvement as determinants of the item's influence on impressions about its user, but did not support s similar influence from the amount of variability in the choice set.
[ to cite ]:
Russell W. Belk (1981) ,"Determinants of Consumption Cue Utilization in Impression Formation: an Association Derivation and Experimental Verification", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 170-175.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 170-175


Russell W. Belk, The University of Utah


This paper reports the results of two studies investigating the characteristics of product and service choices that tend to make these choices useful cues for inferences about the personality and social class of those who are observed consuming such items. The first study is a regression-based analysis of these determinant characteristics across a set of 39 types of products and services. Utilizing three characteristics that this analysis suggested are the strongest determinants of the usefulness of these product and service choices in impression formation, the second study experimentally varied the characteristic properties of a single consumption item choice in order to verify the results suggested by the regression model. The results tend to support the utility of cost and decision involvement as determinants of the item's influence on impressions about its user, but did not support s similar influence from the amount of variability in the choice set.

While a person's choice of products and services is certainly not the only source of cues for assessing that person's character and position in society, certain choices that are visible to others may be among the only cues available when observers encounter someone with whom they have had little or no prior interaction. [Cue visibility is in fact one of the characteristics examined in this paper as a potential determinant of cue reliance.] Although there has been little formal investigation of the role that consumption choices play in communicating information about the consumer to others, [For reviews of the research which has been done see Belk (1978, 1980) and Holman (1979, 1980)] it seems clear that certain consumption choices such as furniture and clothing selections are generally perceived to be more expressive than other consumption choices such as insurance and menu selections. The particular choices among items within a product or service category may convey different consumer information depending upon factors such as the item's color, style, brand name, and condition. In addition some types of products and services may be better cues to the consumer's characteristics than others because, for instance, they are more familiar, costly, unique, or represent a longer commitment to the choice. This paper is concerned with the identification of the consumption choice characteristics which make that choice act as a weaker or stronger cue for inferring the states and traits of consumers observed using products and services with these characteristics.


Because of the lack of previous research directly investigating the consumption cue attributes that result in the utilization of certain cues in impression formation, it is necessary to begin by considering the nature of products and services that have been found to influence such perceptions of people and then attempt to infer the characteristics of these consumption choices which cause them to be treated as reliable clues to personality and social class. One category of consumption cues which has been most clearly documented to affect impression formation is clothing. While we have departed from the era when only royalty were allowed to wear certain colors and fabrics such as sable, there is strong evidence that clothing still imparts messages concerning social status (Douty 1963; Hoult 1954; Rosencranz 1962; Laswell and Parchall 1961; Wise 1974; Sommers 1964; Dellinger 1977; Bickman 1971; Lefkowitz, Blake, and Mouton 1955; Veblen 1899). It is also clear that clothing can serve as a strong cue for inferences about other user traits and can affect subsequent actions toward these consumers (Buckley and Rosch 1976; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1978; Lefkowitz, Blake and Mouton 1955; Coursey 1973; Gibbins 1969; Rosenfeld and Plax 1977; Hamid 1968, 1969, 1972; Johnson, Nagasawa and Peters 1977; Thornton 1944; Thibaut and Riecken 1955; Holman 1980, forthcoming; Darley and Cooper 1972; Suedfeld, Bochner, and Maims 1971). Automobile ownership and selection is suggested by the literature to be another product area with definite implications for inferences about the owner's status and personality (Jacobsen and Kossoff 1963: Bruce-Briggs 1977; Green and Wind 1973; Doob and Gross 1968; Ferber 1962; Porter 1966; King and King 1980a, 1980b; Martineau 1957). And the literature suggests That homes or residences also commonly allow inferences about the personality and social class of their residents (Canter, West, and Wools 1974; Belk 1978; Wedin, Avant, and Wolins 1973; Vershure, et al. 1977). Furniture and furnishings within a home, even including appliances, seem to serve similar purposes for impression formation (Sommers 1964; Chapin 1935; Ferber 1962; Laumann and Mouse 1970). Nevertheless, Felson (1976, 1978) provides evidence that suggests that et least for inferences of social status, clothing, automobiles, housing and furnishings are no longer as reliable a set of cues as they were in earlier decades in the United States. Blumberg (1974) has suggested that such a decline in the usefulness of certain consumption cues for inferences of social status (and we may speculate, for inferences of personality traits as well) may be due to rising availability of such goods and declining constraints of income on the ability to choose freely within these product classes. This explanation also finds some support in extensions of Stock's (1968) commodity theory that support the hypothesis that scarcer goods are better able to convey messages concerning the status or uniqueness of the consumer (Fromkin, Slash, Dipboye, and Barnaby 1971; Szybillo 1975; Worchel, Lee and Adewole 1975). Thus one key feature of product and service choices which appears to affect their utility as cues for impression formation is their current uniqueness.

Among the other product and service choices that have most frequently been found to alter inferences about the personality and social class of consumers are cosmetics (Calder and Burnkrant 1977; McKeachie 1952; Belk 1978; Sommers 1964; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1978), books and magazines (Green and Wind 1973; Porter 1966), foods (Haire 1950; Belk 1978; Woodside 1972; Sommers 1964), and leisure products and activities (Porter 1966; Belk 1978; Bishop and Ikeda 1970; Soomers 1964). One factor these consumption categories seem to have in common is that they all provide a large number of substantially different choices. Without the freedom to make distinct choices which this characteristic provides, there would be little information conveyed in a consumption choice. Thus the variety of choices available may be a second determinant of the reliance placed on a particular product category in forming consumption-based impressions of others.

Several additional cue attributes appear to be related to consumption-based impression formation when the literature cited is carefully examined. One such cue attribute, especially for inferences of social status, is the cost of the consumption item. Generally the more costly the item, the more related it seems to be to inferences about social class. Two potentially related cue attributes which may nonetheless be independent of cost in many cases, are the length of time to which the consumer is committed to a choice and the amounts of time and thought that go into the selection decision. Here it would be expected that where there is a more long-term commitment to the product choice (e.g., choice of colleges versus choice of restaurants) and where the decision is commonly more carefully thought out (e.g., choice of magazine subscriptions versus choice of television programs), the choice will be a more reliable cue to inferences about the consumer, especially that consumer's personality.

For more axiomatic reasons it may be seen that another property related to the use of the foregoing consumption cues is their visibility or noticeability. A cue must be able to be detected before it can possibly have any effect on impression formation. While the consumption items found to serve as cues differ in their visibility, they are all more visible than, for instance, underwear or furnaces. Two exceptions distinguishing visibility from noticeability may be the cases of innovations and gifts. In both instances items that may not normally be visible may become evident through heightened interest and conspicuous display.

Two final cue properties that may elevate consumption choices to the status of consumption symbols are the complexity and the rate of stylistic change currently associated with the item. Complexity may be capable of endowing a consumption choice with surplus meaning about its consumers because of the objective ambiguity created when a product or service is beyond moat observers' ability to fully understand and objectively evaluate. In these circumstances the choice not only evokes a degree of mystery, it also may give rise to more subjective inferences than would be likely for a simpler product. A product or service subject to frequent or substantial style changes may produce a similar atmosphere of mystery and subjectivity because its selection is presumably more "a matter of taste," and such tastes presumably stem from personality and social class.

In summary, a consideration of possible reasons why a scattered literature suggests that only certain product and service selections are commonly related to inferences about their owners led to hypotheses about eight consumption cue attributes. Consumption choices are predicted to be more useful to inferences about the social class and personality of their users when these choices possess or involve: uniqueness, variety, high cost, long-term commitment, thoughtful selection, noticeability, complexity, and stylistic change. All eight of these characteristics were investigated associationally in Study 1 which acted as a screen on the characteristics to be investigated experimentally in Study 2.



Sixty-eight undergraduate students were drawn from first year business students at the University of Illinois in both studies. All 68 completed ratings of the 39 products and services shown in Table 1. The products were broken into three sets to avoid fatigue and were rated by subjects on the eight characteristics derived above using a 5-point scale of agreement that a selection from the product or service category was ______.[The attributes are shown in Table 2 as they appeared in the data collection instrument.] In addition each product or service was rated on the same scale as to whether it was "a good clue to personality" and whether it was "unrelated to social class".

Two types of regression analyses were conducted using the 39 products or services as observations, personality or social class ratings as dependent variables, and the eight other ratings as predictor variables. In the first type of regression the mean scores over subjects were used for both the dependent and predictor variables. In the second type of regression, 68 separate regressions were run for each dependent variable, using the scores of one subject at a time. The two sets of results were then compared.



Table 2 shows a summary of the mean scores regression analysts for the two dependent variables. While there is some multicollinearity in the data, the full equations showed four partially overlapping variables to be significant predictors of both dependent variables. The three shared predictors were variety, thoughtful selection, and high cost. In addition noticeability was strongly significant in the personality equation and uniqueness was a significant predictor in the social class equation. As expected, all but the one non-significant simple correlation coefficient (uniqueness with personality) were positive, shoving that the hypotheses derived from the literature are substantially correct according to the average judgments of these subjects.

In the 68 within-subject regressions, the results are highly supportive of the mean scores regression. These results are summarized in Table 3.





In fact, the numbers of positive beta weights are in almost exactly the same rank orders over the eight predictor variables as the rank orders of beta weights in the mean score regressions summarized in Table 2. This lends strong support to the conclusions that products available in greater variety, involving more thoughtful selection, and costing more are thought to be better clues to personality and social class, and that personality inferences are also based on more noticeable consumption cues just as social class inferences favor mere unique cues. Because of the intercorrelations of the predictor variables no claim can be made that each of the significant variables in the regression equations is a better predictor than each of the non-significant variables. However we can be more confident that the significant predictor variables which are shared for the two dependent variables are judged to be strong cues to personality and social class even when the other variables are taken into account. But this conclusion is based on judgments of cue usefulness rather than actual utilization of these cues, is based on judgments of cue attributes rather than objective differences in cue attributes, and is based on associational evidence rather than an experimental investigation. Therefore the second phase of this research took the three best shared predictor variables found in the regression study (variety, decision thought, and cost) and sought to test their ability to alter actual impression formation in an experimental context.



The three consumption cue properties identified to be predictors of social class and personality were investigated in a 2 x 2 x 2 factorial experimental design. In order to gain additional control over extraneous variables all three predictors were manipulated in the context of a single product--an attachT case. Business student subjects were asked to attempt to describe the market which they felt would be attracted to a new attachT case to be marketed by a luggage specialty store. The further description of the store and product contained the manipulations. The following description shows the two levels of cost, selection involvement, and variety respectively:

A luggage specialty store will be selling a new attachT case made by Samsonite next month. The attachT case is medium in size and comes in tan naugahyde. The suggested retail price is $29.95 [59.95], which is an average price for an attachT case today. This particular case incorporates the new slim look with hidden latches and minimal hardware, Most attachT cases including the Samsonite products change their designs and materials about every five years. The salespeople of the luggage store have noticed that most customers buying attachT cases spend about 10 minutes in the store and examine 2 or 3 [30 minutes...and examine most] of the dozen [three dozen] models which the store carries, prior to deciding.

Subjects were then instructed to make their best guesses about the average demographic characteristics of customers for the new product (average age, average income, percent who are female, most likely type of occupation [7 choices arrayed by status], average education [5 levels, percent who are single, and percent who have children). Of these characteristics, three were combined into an additive index of social class for further analysis: occupational status (level from 1 to 7, multiplied by 2 to increase its relative weight), income (in thousands of dollars per year) plus education level (some high school or less - 1...advanced degree - 5). In addition, subjects were asked to estimate typical customer personality traits on 13 bipolar adjectival scales with 7 scaling positions. [These adjectives were selected based on the work of Rosenberg, et al. (1968) and Schlenker (1975).] Although a multivariate analysis of variance showed a significant effect on this set of ratings for the main effects of two of the three treatment variables (coat and decision involvement) it was felt that univariate analyses of variance would prove more enlightening. Since there were 10 subjects in each of the 8 cells of the experimental design, it was not feasible to conduct within cell factor analyses of scores on the 13 personality traits, so a single factor analysis with all 80 subjects was performed in order to reduce the number of dependent personality variables and increase the reliability of the measures through the use of factor scores. Table 4 shows the results of the final factor analysis retaining 4 factors that captured just over 76 percent of the variance in responses. It appears that the personality factors derived might be labeled "maturity", "likeability", "warmth", and 'happiness". Factor scores for each of these four dimensions were derived using regression-based procedures. These factors as well as the social class index formed the final dependent variables for analysis of the experiment.




A manipulation check was included after all other results had been collected. Based on t-tests on mean differences between treatment level means for 5-point scales to estimate the amounts of "variety available", "care and thought going into the purchase decision", and "cost" for an attachT case compared to other types of purchases, all three manipulations were successful with a type I error probability of 5% or less.

Table 5 presents the results of the analyses of variance on these four personality factors and the social class index. It may be noted first that the variety manipulation was not significant as a main effect and was only marginally significant in the three-way interactions for likeability and warmth. The other treatment variables were however significant as main effects for social class and for at least two of the four personality factors. All of these effects were positive (e.g., greater cost led to judgments of higher social class). However, the interaction of cost and decision involvement for the last three personality factors shows that customers were judged to be more likeable, warmer, and happier under the combination of higher cost/less decision involvement as well as the combination of lower cost/more decision involvement.




The regression results suggesting that cost and decision thoughtfulness (involvement) are positively related to the tendency to use a consumption cue to form judgments of the consumer's personality and social class are supported by the experimental results. Such is not the case for the selection variety available for a product or service however. Contrary to the regression results the manipulated levels of variety did not affect judgments of either social class or any of the four personality factors derived. [Significant effects for a treatment on any of the personality factors are sufficient to support the hypothesis that that the treatment affects inferences about personality.]

While these results can be properly taken as strong evidence that the cost and decision involvement in selecting a product affect the likelihood that the selection will be used in forming social class and personality impressions of the product user, they should not be considered to be strong evidence that decision variety (or any of the other significant cue properties from the regression model) is unrelated to the usefulness of the consumption item in impression formation. For one thing, the untying of cue properties from the product or service category in the experimental phase of this research is artificial and, even thought the manipulation checks were successful, may not have reflected the richness of differences in available variety which occur across product and service categories. Another constraint was the limited and entirely verbal information that was made available about the visual details of chosen and unchosen alternatives. Finally, the dependent variables probably do not reflect the full range of inferences which may be made about people on the basis of their consumption choices. For instance, although the personality variables ware chosen from those derived by Rosenberg, Nelson, and Vivekananthan (1968) and by Schlenker (1975), they are probably not exhaustive enough to capture all of the possible nuances in the impressions formed of various product and service users.

Thus the present studies support the conclusion that products and services that are more costly and involve more carefully thought-out decisions are more likely to be utilized in forming impressions of users of these products and services. At the same time this does not rule out the possibility that some of the other cue properties investigated are also determinants of consumption cue utilization in impression formation. Specifically, the regression model suggests that the noticeability and selection variety of a product or service category enhance its usefulness for personality inferences and that uniqueness and selection variety help to determine the usefulness of product and service choices to social class inferences about consumers. In order to evaluate these predictions more fully, additional experimental testing is needed using both within-and between- product-category manipulations of the predictors.


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