The Construction of Post-Consumption Comparison Standards


Mark P. Healey and Barbara R. Lewis (2003) ,"The Construction of Post-Consumption Comparison Standards", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 283-288.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 283-288


Mark P. Healey, UMIST, UK

Barbara R. Lewis, UMIST, UK

[Acknowledgements: The doctoral research from which this article was produced is funded by an ESRC postgraduate studentship award. The authors also wish to thank Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, for her valuable contribution.]


This article argues that post-consumption comparison standards for the evaluation of service experiences are often constructed for comparative evaluation at the point an evaluation is made, rather than determined prior to consumption and invoked unmodified. A unifying framework for understanding consumers’ use of comparison standards is presented that contains various propositions derived from a constructive conceptualization. Existing conceptual and empirical support for this is amalgamated. It is theorized that the construction of standards is mediated by situational and intrapersonal variables. Conceptual and methodological implications are reviewed, including suggestions for further qualitative research on post-consumption reactions.


A man might, indeed, argue that 'much’ was the contrary of 'little’, and 'great’ of 'small’. But these are not quantitative, but relative; things are not great or small absolutely, they are so called rather as the result of an act of comparison...The terms 'great’ and 'small’ indicate relation, for they have reference to an external standard. (Aristotle trans. 1928, p. 13-39, italics added)

From early philosophical writings through to contemporary research in social psychology, the axiom that evaluative responses to stimuli are inherently relative to some exogenous standard or context has influenced most conceptual frameworks which seek to elucidate human evaluation, appraisal, judgement, and assessments of affect. Nowhere is this fundamental principle more evident than in existing theories and models of consumers’ post-consumption reactions to experiences with products and services. Models of consumer satisfaction and service quality, for example, view these evaluative judgements as determined by explicit comparisons of performance to numerous and varying standards, including expectations, desires, and ideals. Significant conceptual and empirical contributions abound detailing the multitude of comparison standards that may be employed to determine consumer satisfaction. Yet no unified framework exists to explain the nature and function of the different standards that influence evaluative post-consumption responses.

It is asserted here that comparison standards are often constructed when an evaluation of a service experience is made, specifically at the post-consumption stage, rather than predetermined prior to consumption and automatically recalled for comparative evaluation. This thesis is positioned within the emergent constructionist perspective on evaluative responses and other cognitive phenomena (e.g. Reed, Wooten, and Bolton 2002). This paradigm conceives comparison standards as (re) constructed knowledge representations that are actively created via a dynamic, often purposive, process mediated by situational and intrapersonal memory factors. Based on this, we delineate a unifying framework for understanding the generic nature of the varying post-consumption comparison standards that consumers may employ, particularly when evaluating a service experience. The anticipatory assumptions of existing models of post-consumption responses are first analysed. A new framework is then proposed that integrates current thinking and findings on the constructive nature and function of post-consumption comparison standards. Propositions are outlined based on theoretical and empirical supports for the hypothesis that standards for post-consumption evaluations are often constructed on the spot. Several influences are described, including situational variables and intrapersonal cognitive states, which, from the constructive perspective, determine the standards a consumer instantiates. Finally, the implications of this perspective for understanding consumers’ evaluative and affective reactions to consumption are discussed.


Conventional cognitive models of consumer satisfaction formation typically view satisfaction as the result of an explicit, subjective post-consumption comparison between dimensions of perceived performance or consumption outcomes and varying pre-consumption standards, such as predictive expectations, interpersonal fairness norms, or experience-based norms (for a review, see Iacobucci et al. 1996). Operating in conjunction with performance perceptions, comparison standards are theorized to be the major influence on the direction and magnitude of satisfaction judgements.

Affective conceptualizations of product and, particularly, service satisfaction also view consumers’ emotional responses as determined by cognitive appraisals of disconfirmation of, or incongruity with, some standard. Recently developed models posit that consumers compare their actual arousal levels to their prior affective expectations (Wirtz, Mattila, and Tan 2001), or that they evaluate the discrepancy between affective expectations and experienced affect (Phillips and Baumgartner 2002). Moreover, appraisal theories of emotion view emotional responses as determined by an evaluative comparison of one’s actual state with a desired state (Bagozzi, Gopinath, and Nyer 1999). Therefore, whilst there may be a distinction between the evaluations that produce the affective response conceptualised as satisfaction, and satisfaction itself, this distinction does not diminish the importance of understanding evaluative comparisons to standards when seeking to comprehend the affective nature of satisfaction. As recently asserted, "a psychological comparison of some sort is a central component in the conceptualization of the satisfaction process" (Wirtz and Mattila 2001, p. 181).

In terms of other responses, regret is "influenced by the comparison between what is and what could have been" (Tsiros and Mittal 2000, p. 403), and the recently explored construct of delight is thought to result from "surprisingly unexpected pleasure" (Oliver, Rust, and Varki 1997, p. 329) where some expectancy is theorized to serve as a predictive or anticipatory standard. Consistent with the tenets of discrepancy theory, consumer perceptions of service quality are similarly postulated as determined by evaluations that compare performance referents with various preconsumption standards such as predictive, normative, and ideal expectations (Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1994). Thus, most theorists appear to concur with two propositions. Firstly, experiences with goods and services have little evaluative meaning outside of the norms and standards invoked, either explicitly or implicitly, in appraising them. Secondly, the value consumers attach to the performance of consumption stimuli, and thus the way in which they react to these, are influenced considerably by the standards that contextualize evaluations.

Comparison Standards as Stable, Enduring Constructs, Determined Prior to Consumption

A key assumption of most satisfaction models is that preconsumption standards determine customers’ evaluative judgements. According to the expectancy disconfirmation model, "consumers are posited to form preconsumption expectancies, observe product (attribute) performance, compare performance with expectations, form disconfirmation perceptions, combine these perceptions with expectation levels, and form satisfaction judgements" (Oliver 1993, p. 418). Indeed, a comprehensive review of early research on the determinants of the response concluded that "satisfaction is found to be determined by a pre-experience comparison standard" (Yi 1990, p. 111). Subsequent reviews have observed this trend continuing (e.g. Iacobucci et al. 1996), and contemporary research continues to emphasise comparisons of performance with pre-computed standards, such as pre-consumption desires (Spreng, MacKenzie, and Olshavsky 1996). The prevailing paradigm holds that prior beliefs and associated evaluations are recalled unchanged to evaluate comparatively at the end of an experience, irrespective of the focus of the actual evaluation or situational and intrapersonal influences.

Despite the acknowledged powerful influence of exogenous knowledge on post-consumption judgements, no coherent framework for understanding the instantiation of comparison standards currently exists in the literature. A still pressing need exists to identify which standards consumers use for satisfaction evaluations, and the situations in which one type of standard is used rather than another, as previously argued by Yi (1990). This issue has remained largely ignored in favour of proliferating support for different standards, whilst a lack of understanding of the operation of different standards has consistently been highlighted as a conceptual problem in need of address (e.g. Parasuraman et al. 1994). Consequently, an organizing framework that addresses some of these limitations from a constructive perspective is now presented.


The fundamental premise of this framework is that the comparison standards that influence evaluative outcomes, such as judgements of satisfaction, are often not determined prior to a consumer experiencing service performance in the way habitually theorized. Rather, comparison standards are often instantiated or constructed either during consumption, that is at the various points a consumer experiences and evaluates performance referents, or after consumption, whereupon a cumulative evaluation of the service experience is made. Where pre-consumption standards are explicitly formed, we argue that these may not necessarily be used to contextualize subsequent evaluations. The standards constructed at post-performance points may be qualitatively and quantitatively different from the standards that may be formed, and which are often conceptualised and measured, prior to the consumer actually evaluating a product or service. Moreover, we contend that the comparison standards invoked during an evaluation are often not established prior to consumption. It is assumed here that at some point soon after a service encounter, the consumer evaluates the experience as a bounded whole. That is, the experience is appraised as a distinct entity, based on its attributes or outcomes. Whilst services are evaluated at many, if not all, stages of consumption, evaluations made immediately after consumption, such as satisfaction judgements, assume a privileged position in influencing future behaviours.

Standard Construction is often Contingent upon Situational Determinants

Standards are often constructed for the purposes of a specific evaluation. Frequently, the comparison standards employed are not waiting to be discovered in the archaeological sense, but are constructed on demand during an evaluation, a process more metaphorically akin to architecture (after Bettman, Luce, and Payne 1998). From this perspective, the focus of the actual post-consumption evaluation will frequently determine the standard invoked. Once a salient performance referent is selected for directed evaluation, stored comparative representations are activated either purposively or via automatic processes. When the referent is a specific attribute, representations of similar comparative attributes, including exemplars or typical attributes from previous experiences, will be evoked for comparison. When the focal referent is an abstract dimension denoting outcomes or consequences, different standards need be employed from a higher level of the means-end hierarchy (see Gardial et al. 1994).

Miller and Prentice (1996) demonstrate that individuals may purposively select a comparison standard in a given evaluation by choosing amongst alternate potential sources of comparison. They argue that social norms and standards are "constructed as needed, rather than pre-stored and retrieved from memory" (p. 800). In this view, the standards consumers employ obtain the specific quantitative value accorded for comparison only when actually invoked and applied in the current evaluation. This situational weighting principle suggests that a comparative representation may be given different values when constructed in different contexts and situations. Evidencing this, comparison standards can be assigned higher values when applied in highly involved situations than when the same standards are invoked in low involvement situations (Bolfing and Woodruff 1988). We contend that this is due to the standard being constructed in the current context. Furthermore, because comparative representations are often invoked by the specifics of a situation, as the situation or context varies the resulting standards also vary. Cadotte et al. (1987) found that an exemplary best brand standard was applied by consumers to comparatively evaluate a formal restaurant experience whereas informal experiences were subject to less stringent comparisons to typical norms. If we consider satisfaction as the outcome of an evaluation, then one could argue that a consumer has as many potential satisfactions as they have comparisons to different standards (Tesser 1978).

Comparison standards are also best viewed as constructed since some standards can only be formed after performance has been experienced, such as counterfactual standards. Such standards cannot be determined prior to consumption, since counterfactuals are alternatives to performance, and a representation can only be an alternative to a known element. Tsiros and Mittal (2000) demonstrate that a consumer’s motivation to construct counterfactual standards is determined by "situation-specific characteristics" (p. 404), such as outcome valence. Thus, given different situational characteristics, different comparison standards will be constructed, and these will result in differential effects on satisfaction judgements.

Standards Can be Constructed Based on the Performance Referents Evaluated

Perhaps the most fundamental principle of the current argument is that comparison standards are often devised and invoked based on the target performance referents being evaluated. This principle draws on the notion of backward processing, as emphasised by Kahneman and Miller’s (1986) norm theory:

Norms are computed after the event rather than in advance each stimulus selectively recruits its own alternatives and is interpreted in a rich context of remembered and constructed representations of what it could have been, might have been, or should have been. Thus, each event brings its own frame of reference into being Reasoning flows not only forward, from anticipation and hypothesis to confirmation or revision, but also backward, from the experience to what it reminds us of and makes us think about (p. 136-137).

We expound here how this principle contributes to a constructive perspective of standard use in consumption evaluations. Upon experiencing a service, a focal stimulus activates an evoked set of representations, or elements. These elements may be representations of similar objects or episodes, category norms, prototypes, or specific exemplars. For example, a specific experience with a service employee such as a bank clerk may activate from memory a previous similar experience with a bank clerk, such as one’s most recent experience, representations pertaining to typical attributes of the category 'experiences with bank clerks’, or a specific past experience recalled as an exemplar for the category. Relevant attributes of these representations and their values may be summed to establish the norm for a dimension such as 'employee helpfulness’ (Kahneman and Miller 1986), or a specific representation may be selected for evaluative comparison. Thus, experiences can be compared evaluatively to an ad hoc norm constructed from various representations. These are invoked at the point of interaction by the salient features of the stimulus being evaluated. Although the specific propositions of norm theory remain untested, preliminary support for the basic principle is evident (see McGill and Iacobucci 1992).

The influence of comparison standards evoked in momentary evaluations may also endure further than the immediate appraisal. Once a standard (e.g. an exemplary past service experience) has been activated for comparative evaluation, the association created between the target object and the standard invoked may increase the likelihood of further comparisons with this standard. Subsequent evaluations of different referents may be prone to comparisons with the previously activated representation and with other dimensions of this. Thus, constructed standards may exert repeated differentia influences on consumers’ evaluations, either indirectly through their prior influences on retrieved evaluations, or directly via re-evaluations influenced by the enduring association formed between a target stimulus and a comparative representation.

Reconstructed Expectations as a Comparison Standard

Pre-consumption expectations are the predominant standard operationalized in models of satisfaction or service quality evaluations. Yet, one of the principle problems facing the prior-expectancy-as-standard conceptualization arises because the uncontaminated retrieval of prior expectancies is problematic once service performance has been observed. When the outcome of an event is known, consumers’ subsequent judgements of prior expectancies are backward assimilated towards outcome information (Oliver and Burke 1999). Moreover, several authors verify that hindsight expectations invoked and reported immediately prior to actual satisfaction evaluations explain significantly greater variance in both disconfirmation and satisfaction judgements than do prior predictive expectations (e.g. Zwick, Pieters, and Baumgartner 1995). These findings are particularly germane to the argument that comparison standards are (re) constructed at the point of evaluation.

Firstly, these authors’ results demonstrate that post-consumption standards influenced by performance perceptions and situational variables may be the standard which consumers actually employ to make disconfirmation and satisfaction judgements. These results persisted even under conservative conditions; in natural evaluations such stringent conditions may not exist. Prior expectations may often be indistinct, of low personal significance and comparison relevance once the purchase choice has been made, and may not be explicitly formed. Furthermore, the duration between prior expectation formation and post-consumption evaluation may be considerable, and consumers may not be explicitly motivated to accurately recall and employ prior predictive standards. Rather, given free choice of comparison, they may use a wide variety of standards conducive to current appraisal goals (see Gardial et al. 1994). Consequently, it is logically coherent to hypothesize that in many natural evaluations of services, the potential for the reconstruction of expectancy standards is even greater than that found by Zwick and colleagues.

We can also theorize that cognitive reconstruction is the mechanism most likely used by consumers to instantiate expectancy standards when the prior expectation presumed to exist is unavailable, inaccessible, or not salient to the current goal, since a re-judgement is necessitated in these circumstances. Thus, if a consumer did not generate a specific expectation relevant to the current evaluation target, then this must be constructed ad hoc. Since consumers commonly base evaluations on referents not central to pre-consumption goals, we argue that this is often the case. Moreover, several studies show that the effects of hindsight bias on judgements are largely due to reconstructive processes (e.g. Dehn and Erdfelder 1998).

Halstead (1993) provides evidence of a different kind of constructive process influencing consumers’ retrospective reporting of their expectations. In her study, consumers evidently made no attempt to accurately reconstruct initial expectations as a comparison standard, but used their satisfaction judgement as a reference point to infer that their expectations must have been consistent with their reaction. Finally, Ritov (2000) extends the notion of backwards processing discussed above to the function of expectancies in comparative judgement, reasoning that "expectations are often formed during the judgement process itself on the basis of an evoked set of alternatives" (p. 346). In sum, conceptualizing expectations as a standard reconstructed in the specific post-consumption evaluative context may present a more accurate view of the standards influencing post-consumption disconfirmation evaluations.

Purposive Construction of Comparison Standards

Many of the cognitive models explaining post-consumption reactions assume that consumers employ (mostly pre-consumption) standards to current evaluations in a manner which suggests that the process of instantiating a standard is pre-defined, or automatic, and that the standard hypothesized by a given model is the default standard employed (e.g. Spreng et al. 1996). From this standpoint, the consumer apparently exercises little volition over the choice of standard employed. This perspective, however, ignores the important role of current goals, processing objectives, and evaluative motivations.

Post-consumption evaluations are processed for varying motivations, and to achieve varying goals, such as guiding future approach/avoidance behaviours or defending one’s ego. Anderson (1990) suggests that the goals an individual is pursuing will constrain current cognitive processing, and that a crucial step in understanding a particular type of process is to comprehend the dominant goals which shape its processing. Might different standards be employed where different processing objectives are shaping an evaluation? In the social judgement literature, Miller and Prentice (1996) affirm that people exert considerable control over what they compare their experiences and possessions to, and outline the principle of motivated selection to account for this. Motivated selection propounds that evaluative comparisons are influenced by personal goals and motives, primarily self-enhancement and utilitarian motives. Viewed thus, consumers may exert two kinds of psychological control over the standards they use: selection of complementary standards and negation of superior standards.

Wills (1981) theorizes that individuals who experience negative events may actively engage in downward comparison to worse-off others where the evaluative goal is to improve subjective judgements of their own affairs. Buunk, Oldersma, and de Dreu (2001) note that engaging in downward comparison may boost relational satisfaction, and that "individuals often bring to mind others in comparison with whom they look better, think about dimensions on which they are still better than others, or cognitively create worse-off comparison targets" (p. 453), which often take the form of comparative exemplars. Similar goals may also restrict the instantiation of particular standards. Miller and Prentice (1996) note that, where an evaluative goal is self-enhancement, individuals may exclude from comparison norms, or minimize the weighting of, threatening standards, since these would result in judgement outcomes unfavourable to the experience and thus the self. Given such goals, if a consumption experience engenders high situational involvement, or elicits feelings of personal responsibility, standards such as 'ideals’ or other paragon-like exemplars may deliberately not be employed for comparative evaluation.

Different evaluative processing goals, combined with different situational variables, may result in consumers invoking different standards. For instance, consider that consumers experiencing negative consumption outcomes are more likely to generate counterfactuals than those experiencing positive outcomes. Tsiras and Mittal (2000) reason that consumers motivated to avoid future similar negative outcomes construct more preferable hypothetical alternatives as guides for future decisions and behaviours. Their empirical results (study 4) suggest that the generation of counterfactuals as standards increased consumers’ regret and, consequently, that positive counterfactuals were generated with the guidance of future behaviours activated as the evaluative processing goal. In contrast, consumers motivated to alleviate the tension resulting from a negative affective state may be more likely to construct hypothetical worse outcomes as comparison standards to boost evaluative outcomes (Gilovich and Medvec 1995). Such findings suggest that the current motivations and processing goals determining evaluations may influence the standards actively selected, which will in turn influence satisfaction. The consumer is viewed here as a goal-directed, active participant in the satisfaction formation process, rather than as the passive bystander often portrayed in the post-consumption response literature.

Intrapersonal Factors Mediating the Construction of Comparison Standards

So far, we have considered that the construction of standards is governed by mainly situational factors. The balance is redressed now by outlining several intrapersonal factors that may influence the standards a consumer invokes for evaluative purposes, considering briefly knowledge activation and socio-cognitive individual differences.

It is increasingly understood that the standards that influence satisfaction judgements are varied, and may include exemplars from other categories, ideals, desires, and other norms. Whilst the use of a specific standard is heavily influenced by the evoking context, cognitive circumstances will also influence which standards come to mind and are activated for use. Where appropriate standards are not available for direct retrieval from memory, they must certainly be constructed, such as when fixed choice measures incorrectly assume prior expectations exist for specific attributes evaluated post-consumption. Further, Higgins (1996) purports that highly accessible and salient standards are more likely activated for comparison, where accessibility is determined by recent priming, chronic accessibility, and expectancies. The standards applied to judge one’s satisfaction with different service encounters would then shift over time where different representations become more salient or accessible in different contexts. A given standard is also more likely to be employed for comparative evaluation where it demonstrates both applicability, (relevant feature similarity to the appraisal target and current goals), and judged usability (Higgins 1996). In addition, Stapel et al. (1998) have shown that the selection of a standard is also governed by the comparison relevance and distinctness of the potential standards available for construction in relation to the specific appraisal target.

Interwoven with the above factors, the consumer’s degree of situational involvement and experience with a focal product may influence the standard used. Bolfing and Woodruff (1988) demonstrated that different standards are superior predictors of satisfaction in high versus low involvement situations. Here, consumers employed a favourite brand norm in low involvement situations, perhaps because this standard could be realised via the activation of an actual exemplar, requiring less cognitive effort to instantiate than the ad hoc construction of a product category norm. Construction of standards may also be influenced by a consumer’s degree of experience, and the influence of involvement may be mediated by this variable (see Park and Choi 1998).

Socio-cognitive individual differences may also influence the type and nature of standards invoked. We theorize that consumers high in the need to evaluate (Jarvis and Petty 1996) will be more likely to employ multiple standards when evaluating service experiences, since they are likely to undertake more evaluations of attributes and outcomes, both during and after consumption. In terms of repatronage behaviours, consumers who have a greater need to evaluate may also engage in further evaluations subsequent to post-consumption satisfaction appraisals (Petty, Jarivs, and Evans 1996). These may involve evaluative comparisons with new standards, and the resulting judgement outcomes may reshape repatronage intentions in the time between post-consumption satisfaction formation and any repurchase decision. Furthermore, low need for cognition customers may be less inclined to construct and employ ad hoc standards that require relatively high cognitive effort (Cacioppo et al. 1996), such as amalgamated typical product norms or counterfactuals. It is important to note, as we have attempted to do throughout, that the factors determining how consumers construct comparison standards are interrelated. Indeed, it is a key principle of the constructive framework that situational, contextual, and intrapersonal situational variables interact to determine the operation of particular standards. These factors, and thus consumers’ standards, are rarely constant across different contexts and experiences.


The framework proposed has a number of generic implications. Firstly, conceptualizing comparison standards as representations constructed during an evaluation is quite different from viewing standards as determined prior to consumption. We hope that one contribution of the article will be to stimulate greater study of the use and influence of ad hoc post-consumption standards, and the way in which the situational and intrapersonal factors highlighted determine consumers’ use of different standards, and thus influence satisfaction. Specifically, further research is needed to establish the influence of processing objectives on satisfaction evaluations, and how socio-cognitive differences mediate satisfaction formation through standard construction. Furthermore, the constructive view assumes that the standards that actually determine post-consumption responses are often not constructed until the evaluation is made, and may be constructed based on performance referents and situational factors. Consequently, models relying on pre-consumption or predefined standards may not reflect the standards that actually determine satisfaction unless mediating variables are controlled or otherwise accounted for.

Pre-specified fixed response measures, even direct disconfirmation measures used at the post-consumption stage, may create reactive demand effects such that measuring a standard primes it for use where otherwise, given a choice free from manipulation, different standards might have been employed. Qualitative post-consumption methods, which capture standards and referents at the point they are invoked and determine reactions, offer distinct advantages since they permit unconstrained response. Such methods have been employed only in limited ways thus far. Yet, adoption of these methods in discursive formats raises a further issue; namely distinguishing whether a standard is causally influencing the valence of an evaluation, or is invoked to justify the valency of a pre-established reaction. To this end, direct qualitative measures focussing on evaluations as they occur, rather than on describing them retrospectively, may be fruitful.

Finally, whilst we have argued that standards are often constructed, it is appreciated that the expectancies, desires, and knowledge structures consumers bring to a consumption experience will influence the standards that are constructed to evaluate an experience. However, expectancies and related anticipatory cognitions may not actually be the standards used, and to develop a more potentially realistic view of the way consumers evaluate consumption experiences, we must understand how standards are constructed ad hoc.


In responding to calls for theories bringing use closer to the psychologically dynamic nature of post-consumption reactions, a framework has been delineated that describes how comparison standards are often constructed at the point of evaluation. Our contribution is that, by pulling together findings and theoretical propositions from various literatures, we have outlined support for a constructive meta-perspective on how comparison standards influence evaluative reactions such as customer satisfaction. It is hoped that this will be useful for post factum interpretation, and that its propositions may influence new conceptualizations and guide future empirical work to build homeomorphic models of post-purchase reactions.


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Mark P. Healey, UMIST, UK
Barbara R. Lewis, UMIST, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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