Temporal Incongruency in Consumer Behavior

Philip E. Hendrix, University of Michigan
Claude R. Martin, Jr., University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - Temporal incongruency is presented as a potentially useful concept in consumer behavior. A consumer who spends more or less time in an activity than he prefers may be labeled temporally incongruent with respect to that activity. Explanations for the presence of temporal incongruency are presented and problems with operationalizing the concept are briefly discussed. Tentative results from empirical analyses suggest the usefulness of the concept.
[ to cite ]:
Philip E. Hendrix and Claude R. Martin, Jr. (1981) ,"Temporal Incongruency in Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 182-186.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 182-186


Philip E. Hendrix, University of Michigan

Claude R. Martin, Jr., University of Michigan


Temporal incongruency is presented as a potentially useful concept in consumer behavior. A consumer who spends more or less time in an activity than he prefers may be labeled temporally incongruent with respect to that activity. Explanations for the presence of temporal incongruency are presented and problems with operationalizing the concept are briefly discussed. Tentative results from empirical analyses suggest the usefulness of the concept.


Like money, time may be regarded as a scarce resource which consumers spend. The allocation of time to activities is quite analogous to the allocation of money for goods and services. One faces a (time) budget constraint--say 1,440 minutes per day--which limits the total time spent in all activities. Likewise, there exists a set of activities over which time must be allocated. The analogy is not perfect, however, as time cannot be stored and therefore must be spent as it becomes available. A basic decision facing an individual, then, is the amount of time to spend in alternative activities.

Of course, the allocations of time and money are not independent--in fact, the processes are inextricably related. Consumers spend their money for goods and services which either complement or substitute for their time spent in various activities. For instance, a wide array of products complements the time spent in activities typically regarded as leisure pursuits--witness the significant growth in demand for shoes, apparel, and information brought about by the jogging phenomenon. Other goods and services are purchased as substitutes for the time spent in such activities as home maintenance, e.g., maintenance-free siding, long-life light bulbs, etc., and meal preparation, e.g., convenience foods, microwave ovens, and meals away from home.

Some have argued that because of its scarcity, time may well be the crucial dimension of consumer behavior (Nicosia and Mayer 1976, p. 68). Certainly an increase has occurred in the number of marketing strategies in which time is implicitly reflected: express lanes and expanded hours by retailers; incentives for consumption at "non-peak" times in travel, communication, and utilities; new product offerings aimed at meeting the growing demand for convenience foods and meals away from home; and others. Our limited understanding of the temporal dimension of consumer behavior has undoubtedly impeded the development of marketing strategies consistent with consumers' actual or preferred patterns of time use. While various models of time allocation have been proposed and to varying degrees tested (Arndt and Gronmo 1977, Becker 1965, Chapin 1974, Linder 1970, Morgan et al 1966, Walker and Woods 1976), none is adequately specified. As argued elsewhere (Hendrix 1980), these models are notably deficient in their treatment of subjective needs and characteristics of the individual. The usefulness of specifying subjective as well as objective measures in models of time use was demonstrated for several activities by showing that the time which an individual spends in an activity is positively related to the extent to which the individual enjoys the activity. Such a premise is consistent with the cognitive theory of motivation.

One must question, however, whether this premise holds equally across activities and, for a given activity, whether this premise hold equally across segments of the population. In fact, we doubt that it holds unequivocally across either activities or segments. Rather, we suspect that consumers are less successful in spending the preferred amount of time in some activities than in others and that some consumers are more successful than others in spending the desired amount of time in a given activity. In view of the interdependence of the allocations of time and money, the identification of groups of consumers who spend more or less time in an activity than they prefer would facilitate the development of marketing strategies designed to alleviate this disequilibrium. We will label such consumers temporally incongruent with respect to that activity.

Our thinking was stimulated in part by Hobson and Mann (1974), who developed an overall measure of an individual's well-being by comparing his preferred time expenditures to his actual time expenditures. Consistent with their objective, they examined this relationship on an aggregate basis across activities. We feel that for purposes of marketing planning it is most useful to examine this relationship between time expenditures and preferences at the level of the activity. Analysis at this level permits one to examine the degree of temporal incongruency for each activity and to identify groups of consumers who are temporally incongruent with respect to a given activity, e.g., which consumers spend more or less time in the activity than they prefer.

Finally, we wish to emphasize that our primary objectives are to propose the concept of temporal incongruency and to illustrate its potential usefulness in marketing planning. Issues associated with operationalizing the concept are discussed but by no means resolved. For purposes of demonstration, we present an operationalization using available data and discuss the findings. In so doing, we hope to stimulate much needed research addressing the difficult task of adequately measuring temporal incongruency.


Why would an individual spend an amount of time in an activity other than that which he preferred? Why would an individual spend any time in an activity, such as meal preparation, which he dislikes? Conversely, why doesn't an individual spend his or her time only in those activities which he or she most prefers? Various factors affect one's ability to spend time as one might prefer. One of the most significant factors is the frequent incompatibility, of immediate and longer term preferences, An individual may be forced to engage in activities which he regards as less preferred in the short run to secure longer-term rewards--work, education, personal care, and home and auto maintenance may represent examples of such activities. Juster (1978) quite aptly labels such behavior "investment"--one foregoes present benefits to obtain future benefits, behavior which is, by definition, investment. We know in fact that investment motives create some temporal incongruency. In response to the question, "Would you say that you do a lot of things that you don't like to do so that your life will be better in the future?" some 50% of the respondents in the ISR Time Use Study described below replied yes or depends.

Other activities require complements which may not be present--for example, weather conducive to the activity; a suitable location; other individuals; and so on. Norms and role orientations may also compel individuals to spend more or less time in an activity than might be expected on the basis of their enjoyment of the activity.

Such factors may singly or collectively suppress the expected congruence between actual and preferred time expenditures. Examining the disparity between the actual and preferred time spent in an activity requires, perhaps obviously, valid measures of each. Less obvious, though, are the difficulties in obtaining such measures.


Methods of gathering time expenditure data fall into two major categories: self report and observations by a second party. The latter is subject to its own limitations (Wells and LoSciuto 1966) and, due to cost, is practical in only a limited number of situations. There are a number of approaches to eliciting time use information directly from respondents. Perhaps the most prevalent approach has required the respondent to estimate his or her "typical" time expenditures over some limited period, e.g., a week (Hawes 1977), or frequency of participation over an extended period of time. The accuracy of such estimates has been questioned, however, by recent validity studies (Robinson 1977; forthcoming). Though it too relies on self report, the time diary method is generally regarded as the most accurate source of time use data.

The time diary is an instrument in which the respondent records (either synchronously or shortly thereafter) the activities in which he or she engages over the period of interest, usually 24 hours. Typically recorded for each event are beginning and ending times, concurrent activities (e.g., watching television while eating lunch), location and others present. Figure 1 shows a few of the entries corresponding to more or less discrete events in s hypothetical time diary containing the elements mentioned above.

A time budget showing the allocation of time, say 24 hours, to various activities can be constructed by summing the time devoted to each activity during the day. Hence, the hypothetical respondent whose diary appears in Figure 1 spent 8 of his 24 hours in sleep. Aggregates of the time devoted to other activities may be derived similarly. These measures complement the fine-grained data found within the diary itself.

Since the diary collects data for a fairly short period of time, estimates at the individual level of time spent in activities in which individuals infrequently engage are subject to wide variation. For instance, an activity in which a respondent engages once a week only has a probability of 52/365 of showing up in his time diary for a given day. One way to reduce this variance in estimates of an individual's time expenditures is to collect a larger number of time diaries.

The analyses in this paper utilize a subset of dace collected by the Survey Research Center of the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, in a major study of time use among Americans in 1975-1976. The national probability sable consisted of respondents, 18 years of age and older, and their spouses (1,519 and 887 respectively for a total of 2,406 individuals). The design specified that each individual provide on four separate occasions, approximately three months apart, a time diary for the previous 24 hour period. Considerable attitudinal, behavioral, and demographic data pertinent to the use of time were also obtained across the four waves of the study. In addition to controlling for seasonal variations in time use, the design avoided the bias due to differences between weekdays and weekend by collecting time diaries from each individual for two weekdays, a Saturday, and a Sunday. This complex design yielded the most reliable, representative measures of time use available for a national sample. A time budget containing estimates of the number of minutes spent in each of some 89 activities during a given week was derived for each individual from his or her time diaries.


As suggested earlier, there exists a set of activities over which time must be allocated. Thus, one might regard activities as objects of choice capable (to varying degrees) of satisfying an individual's needs. Given an individual's hierarchy of needs, their saliences, and subjective reports of the extent to which various activities satisfy chose needs, relatively preferred activities may be determined, perhaps relying on an approach analogous to multi-attribute modeling of product preferences. Though no one to our knowledge has used such an extensive approach, considerable information could be gained pertinent to preferences for alternative activities as well as underlying attributes of activities which determine their ranking.



An alternative approach is to ask the respondent directly to articulate his or her preferences for activities, e.g., in which activities would the respondent prefer to spend his or her time. Such an approach assumes, of course, that the respondent can array his preferences. Moreover, it ignores the potential effect of situational factors on preferences--for example, the hierarchy for an evening following an 8 hour day at work is likely to differ from the one for a Saturday evening. Though simpler, this approach does not permit one to determine why one activity is preferred over another. One is forced to regard these preference measures as exogenous, which may be unacceptable for certain analytical purposes.

In using this direct approach, problems with interpretation may arise unless one employs an unambiguous term "descriptive of a person's affective state" (Jones and Pierce 1977, p. 298). For instance, a set of activities may be arrayed quite differently if one is asked to rank them from "most satisfying" to "least satisfying" versus from "most enjoyable" to "least enjoyable." Respondents may interpret the first scale to allow for intrinsic/extrinsic, concomitant/ non-concomitant reinforcement corresponding to an activity while the second scale is likely to be interpreted as allowing only for intrinsic, concomitant reinforcement.

The point of this brief discussion is that alternative approaches to measuring activity preferences exist. Unfortunately, we know little about the comparative validity of measures obtained from any one of these approaches. Respondents in the ISR Time Use Study were asked to rate some 22 activities on a scale of zero (dislike a great deal) to ten (enjoy a great deal). To improve the comparability of these ratings across respondents, we standardized the scores by respondent, e.g., for each respondent, his or her ratings of the 22 activities were used to compute a mean and standard deviation which were then used to convert the 22 "raw scores" to standardized scores. Thus, negative scores reflect relatively less enjoyable activities, and vice versa, in the individual's subjective estimation.


In the sections which follow, the reader should keep in mind that our data only permits us to infer the presence of temporal incongruency. That is, we do not know that a respondent would prefer to spend some amount of his time in the activity other than that which he is spending. Nevertheless, we think it reasonable to suspect that temporal in-congruency exists if an individual is spending large amounts of time in an activity regarded as relatively unenjoyable, or a small amount of tine in an activity regarded as relatively enjoyable.

Collapsing the time expenditure and enjoyment measures into three subsets of equal numbers and cross-tabulating the two trichotomies resulted in Table 1 for the activity of meal preparation. Approximately 58% of the sample falls in the off-diagonal cells of Table 1, tentatively suggesting the presence of temporal incongruency. Nearly 28% (above the main diagonal) appears to be spending less time than preferred, while 30% (below the main diagonal) appears to be spending more time than preferred. The latter proportions provide some insight into the nature of temporal incongruency which exists with respect to the activity.




One approach to disaggregating a sample into segments in which the relationship between y and x differs is an infrequently used variant of the AID algorithm called AID covariance analysis (Sonquist et al 1978; Rao et al 1976). Typically, AID is employed to sequentially partition a sample into mutually exclusive subgroups so as to maximize between group variation (or equivalently, minimize error sum of squares) with respect to the mean levels of some dependent variable y. In the covariance mode, AID uses mean levels of y and a covariate x to disaggregate the sample. The analysis begins with a simple regression of y on x--here, the time spent in the activity on the corresponding measure of enjoyment. The initial error sum of squares is that left unexplained by the regression. The algorithm then examines subgroup regressions of y on x within alternative dichotomous partitions of the original group--say, within groups defined by age, sex, income, or other plausible bases. The sample is split on that predictor which maximally reduces error variation and satisfies other user specified constraints, e.g., minimum group size. The partitioning is repeated for subgroups, stopping when the variance reduction and minimum groups size criteria can no longer be satisfied.

The results of the AID covariance analysis for meal preparation are presented in Figure 2. Again, the dependent variable is the time (number of minutes per week) spent in the activity while the covariate is the level of enjoyment corresponding to the activity, The predictors--bases upon which the sample may be partitioned--included both demographics and psychographics which may be expected to moderate the relationship between time and enjoyment for reasons discussed earlier.


The AID covariance analysis provides some insight into the factors which may generate temporal incongruency with respect to meal preparation. Segment 6, for example, comprised of single, non-employed women, spends less time in cooking on average but enjoys the activity more than does the overall segment of women. Segment 11, on the other hand, spends a relatively large amount of time in an activity which they regard as relatively enjoyable.


We stress once again that our data permit us to only indirectly examine temporal incongruency. Though subject to this and other caveats noted throughout the paper, the findings from the above analyses will serve as the vehicle for suggesting the implications of temporal incongruency.

The extent and nature of temporal incongruency with respect to an activity such as meal preparation is a useful barometer of probable shifts in future demand. For example, the respondents who spend more time than preferred in preparing meals are likely to be responsive to microwave ovens, convenience foods, meals away from home, and other goods and services which allow them to reduce this time expenditure. As this segment grows, the demand for time-saving products is likely to intensify. Conversely, the respondents who are spending less time cooking than desired may continue to demand time-intensive foods and modes of preparation and ignore time saving goods and services.

Uncovering the reasons for this temporal incongruency is also useful. From Figure 2, it appears as though women who are employed full-time enjoy meal preparation nearly as much as all women on average and yet spend nearly 200 minutes per week less. Has the time devoted to employment reduced the time which these women have available to spend in the activity? Which activities, if any, provide the reinforcement which previously resulted from cooking? Can these considerations be incorporated into product development and promotional strategies?


The process by which consumers spend their time is not well understood. Neither is the interdependence between the allocation of time and the allocation of money (or, equivalently, the interdependence between the selection of activities and the selection of goods and services) fully appreciated. We hope that this discussion of the concept of temporal incongruency will stimulate research which improves our understanding of these important facets of consumer behavior.




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