Consumer Involvement: Clarity Or Confusion After 35 Years

ABSTRACT - The vast amount of divergent research and theorising over the construct of involvement has created a lack of conceptual boundaries and spawned a construct that has become somewhat of an enigma in consumer behaviour research. There is still much to be done to delimit its boundaries and identify its real value in marketing.


Aron O’Cass (1996) ,"Consumer Involvement: Clarity Or Confusion After 35 Years", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Russel Belk and Ronald Groves, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 100-104.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1996      Pages 100-104


Aron O’Cass, University of New England


The vast amount of divergent research and theorising over the construct of involvement has created a lack of conceptual boundaries and spawned a construct that has become somewhat of an enigma in consumer behaviour research. There is still much to be done to delimit its boundaries and identify its real value in marketing.

Research concerning the involvement concept has passed the period of rapid growth and advanced toward the saturation point. In this development, involvement has achieved a nearly overarching status in consumer behavior. The time has now come to critically evaluate the ability of involvement to fulfill its promise. The purpose here is to evaluate different approaches to involvement in order to build an understanding about the usefulness and role of involvement in consumer behavior research and advance a view of reformulating and presenting some alternative approaches to the construct.


In an attempt to more fully understand consumer’s behaviour, marketing researchers have often utilised the construct of involvement. This intensive discussion has created a number of distinct involvement definitions, separate measures and operationalisations for involvement. A cursory review of the marketing literature points out a variety of labels or accompanying terms used in conjunction with the word invlvement. These conceptualisations have used terms such as, ego involvement, product involvement, issues involvement, felt involvement, enduring involvement, situational involvement, response involvement, message involvement, purchase involvement, purchase decision involvement (e.g. Houston & Rothschild 1978; Mitchell 1979; Bloch & Richins 1983; Zaichkowsky 1985; Greenwald & Leavitt 1984, Mittal 1988,1989). Within the field of consumer behaviour an important distinction has also been made between the behaviour of consumers low in involvement and those high in involvement. Even though involvement has been an important construct in consumer behaviour research for some three decades, there is still no commonly accepted definition, or a definition that has been consistently applied in many studies. Involvement is viewed, operationalised and or measured as a trait (Houston & Rothschild 1978, Kassarjian 1981, Celsi & Olson 1988, Muehling, Laczniack & Stoltman 1991) a state (Mitchell 1978, Andrews 1988, Antil 1984 & Gardner 1983) or a process (Ray, Sawyer, Rothschild, Heeler, Strong & Reed 1973, Rothschild 1979, Greenwald & Leavitt 1984). Most researchers however define involvement as a state, that is an individual state variable (Mitchell 1979; Andrews 1988; Muehling and Laczniak 1988). It is further discussed as a moderating variable (Catignon & Robertson 1985, Laurent & Kapferer 1985) or a mediating variable (Bloch & Richins 1983).

Some of the confusion in the literature has arisen in regard to the focus of involvement. For example there are discussions of involvement where the product is the focus of the person-product dyad. Further, particular message stimuli or situations are also seen as a focus of such involvement conceptualisations. However it must been seen that conceptualisations of involvement define the characteristics of the stimulus that are interpreted by the individual that are the focus of involvement. As such it is not the product, situation or message that is involving but the individual which is the focus of involvement. Essentially it is the meaning derived by the individual from the stimulus and not the stimulus that results in involvement.

Importantly the perspective taken in this debate, should be that the terms high involvement and low involvement product, purchase or advertisement etc. are imprecise. Fundamentally no product is inherently involving or uninvolving. Only consumers can be involved, and for any given product class, communication or purchase different consumers will either be low or highly involved. As such consumer behaviour conceptualisations of involvement should articulate that consumers as segments or individuals consider different products, communications or purchases to be differentially involving.

One avenue that needs adoption in empirical work is the suggestion by Andrews (1988) that indicators tapping involvement should be used as a measure of involvement. Essentially this proposes that we focus on conceptualisations, operationalisations and measures that tap involvement itself, not its antecedents or consequences which has been the focus of authors such as Laurent & Kapferer 1985, Petty & Cacioppo 1986, Cohen 1983 for example. This is important because there is a tendency in much of the research and theorising to infer involvement from its proposed antecedents or consequences with no direct measure of involvement itself. However this is not to argue against measures of antecedents or consequences, but they should be related to measures of involvement itself. This is important if we are to truly understand involvement and develop unique and valuable theories of involvement in consumer behaviour. The considerable amount of empirical and theoretical effort has unfortunately in many respects also likely contributed to a lack of definitional and operational clarity in this domain.


During the last thirty years the concept and meaning of inolvement has developed to be one of the most central research topics in consumer behavior. Research has centered mainly around defining involvement and hypothesising about its effects on consumer behavior.

One such approach or solution to this diversity was proposed by Laurent & Kapferer (1985). Laurent and Kapferer (1985) proposed "that marketing researchers stop thinking in terms of single indicators of the involvement level and instead use an involvement profile" to more fully specify the nature of the relationship between a consumer and a product category" (1985:41). They viewed involvement as a combination of the constructs prevailing conceptualisations. According to them the nature of involvement should not be studied in terms of distinct involvement types but in terms of involvement profiles, which allows both the level and the nature of involvement to vary continuously. The proposition made by Laurent and Kapferer should be seen as a step toward or arguments for a new developmental phase in involvement theorising.

As such attempting to reinvent the wheel poses an overarching question. Is it theoretically possible to form a conceptualisation of involvement by combining the extant separate views of involvement. Fundamentally there is no simple or straightforward answer available and only time will tell. This is so because of the degree of disagreement about the conceptual content of involvement. As a result some researchers have called for better conceptualisations of involvement before hypothesising about its effects (Kassarjian 1981).

However there are those who oppose such views arguing that there has been too much theorising about involvement and that emphasis should now be put on empirical research (Rothschild 1981 and Zaichkowsky 1990). Importantly the need for empirical research is obvious, however it is inappropriate without first specifying the conceptual basis of involvement, in the given research setting. Cohen (1983) argued, researchers should take the trouble and make an effort to carefully define the concept being investigated and place it within a theoretical framework before proceeding with any empirical inquiry.

Cohen was fundamentally referring to the problem that there is great diversity in involvement research both in terms of the content or the basic conceptualisation and context or the theoretical framework of studies. Clarification of the concept can, be achieved as Finn (1983) proposed when specifying the context to be the cognition stage of an information-processing hierarchy and studying the different contents given to involvement within the proposed framework. The problem was approached differently by Muncy and Hunt (1984) for example by proposing and examining the different contents of involvement and attempting to identify the relevant research areas for the specific conceptualisations. As such both the content and context of involvement was varied.


To some extent the progress on involvement in consumer behaviour has not been that great, only the body of work has grown and the construct itself still has much work to be done to clarify its true meaning and usefulness. Interestingly some authors argue that it now a cold research area, however it is the authors who have presented what they argue as being generalisable scales to measure involvement that make this argument. Before this can be true surely replication of these very conceptualisations and measures to assess reliability and validity are needed to lay the involvement debate to rest.

A major conclusion drawn from the literature is that the culmination of knowledge on involvement is hampered by the lack of conceptual clarity and rigor, the seemingly uncontrolled application, the overlap with antecedents and consequences and the lack of consistent and rigorous operationalisations and measures. The extant conceptualisations of involvement do not allow a description of its scope whic is in large part due the lack of boundaries of the concept itself. As such because the scope is limitless so is the research on involvement and involvement’s conceptualisation may to all intense and purposes continually grow. Involvement is an important and necessary concept in consumer behaviour, but its conceptualisation needs adaptation to avoid confusion and to allow improved operationalisations and measures and integration into the broader domain of consumer behaviour. This may stem the uncontrolled growth and unwarranted application and delineate involvement from other similar but distinct constructs to exploit its fundamental meaning and inherent value.

The problem of involvement may be located in its inherent plausibility or conceptual self evidence which prevents the user from explicitly considering the question of its uniqueness and contribution to the discipline. This renders it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish involvement from competing, but closely related concepts in the consumer behaviour literature such as needs, values, interest, drive, arousal, motivation and importance and from its antecedents and consequences. Rather than focusing on the very conceptualisation of involvement itself, the literature presents and inventory of different levels of involvement, different types of involvement, different properties of involvement, different antecedents and different consequences of involvement. Fundamentally the literature argues that it is a hypothetical construct and implies we do not know what involvement is, but we can measure and manipulate to produce various combinations and permutations of involvement. By result the concept of involvement emerges as a loose conglomeration of various underlying notions, explicit or implicit whose central and fundamental meaning and value and mutual relationships to consumer behaviour remains obscure. By representing a number of more or less similar concepts that are portrayed as equivalent, involvement is logically and not surprisingly argued to be a significant construct in consumer behaviour literature in explaining the behaviour of consumers. However what remains as the burning question, is what extent the behavioural variance can be attributed to involvement per se.

The following will examine three approaches of conceptualising involvement, before proposing an alternative view. The purpose being to examine the some of the different approaches at a theoretical level in order to evaluate their contribution to the involvement debate.


Three appropriate methods of defining the content of involvement can be utilised; response approaches, individual state variable approaches and cognitive approaches. These approaches have been used in connection with several aspects of consumer behavior. Conceptually the primary point of interest of the context of involvement is the level at which the concept has been or is modeled.

Response Approach

Response based definitions determine involvement by describing the different static or dynamic responses of an individual created by a stimulus object (Ray 1973, Houston and Rothschilds 1978, Batra and Ray 1983 and Stone 1984). For example, according to Houston and Rothschild (1978:185) response involvement refers to "the complexity and extensiveness of cognitive and behavioral processes characterising the overall consumer decision process". As such low involvement is when limited cognitive and behavioral responses were manifested.

Response Conceptualisations tend to view involvement as an actualised response pattern and describe it in terms of intensity or of a temporal pattern of response behavior. Further, involvement is usually seen as a dichotomous variable, the level of which is either high or low. Consequently the accompanying responses have been classified as being either high or low involement behavior. These definitions are commonly used when studying information processing, although also other aspects of decision process have been focused on, such as alternative evaluation and the development of brand-consistent behavior, number of stores shopped for example.

However, it is widely acknowledged that involvement is a mediating variable and therefore questions should be raised as to how it can be a response variable. As such, inferring the level of involvement from a given response is justified only if the following two conditions are fulfilled: first, there are no other determinants (such as importance, familiarity & commitment and trial etc.) besides involvement that directly affect the particular behavioral outcome. Secondly, the specific level of involvement can only lead to a priori known processing form, which is included in the specific involvement definition. However, it seems that neither of these two conditions are valid, involvement is not the only determinant for behavior (Mitchell 1979 and Ray 1979), and we do not know the exclusive type and extent of processing at specific involvement levels. At the current stage of knowledge development there is not enough information in order for a priori determination of all possible response patterns at different involvement levels (Mittal 1985, Park and Young 1986). These studies may be valuable and provide a starting point in that they provide broader understanding about the nature of consumer processing. However it would be more realistic or correct to view these processes as the assumed involvement created response effects and not as involvement per se.

Individual State Variable Approaches

Individual state conceptualisations focus on the mental state of an individual evoked by a stimulus or stimuli when determining involvement (Mitchell 1979, Mittal 1982, Cohen 1983, Antil 1984, Park and Young 1986, Muehling and Laczniak 1988 and Hastak 1990). Such definitions conceive involvement as an actualised individual state variable that possesses direction and intensity. The content of involvement has usually been determined merely as being synonymous with certain expressions describing an individual’s motivational state of mind, such as arousal, interest and/or drive. As such it is questionable whether any progress is being made by replacing previously used concepts with the term or concept of involvement.

The direction of involvement has been specified in terms of stimulus object (e.g. advertisement or product or brand) or goal. The intensity of involvement has been viewed as continuous, ranking from low to high according to the level of arousal, interest or drive etc. As such involvement is viewed as temporal in nature and as being connected to goal achievement. The level of involvement will reduce or diminish when the goal is reached.

The level (and type) of involvement has been argued to affect the extensiveness and nature of consumer information processing, attitude formation, brand selection and behavioural responses. Involvement’s base has been seen to be the goals of an individual at a particular point in time (Mitchell 1981), which are posited to be determined by different needs and motives (Mittal 1982 and Park and Young 1984). Within this conception of involvement the stimuli impacting on the consumer at the specific decision, purchase or use occasion. Thus, in a product choice situation it is not only the product but also the characteristics of the marketing activities as well as the social context of the purchasing and consumption that affect the amount of involvement. In addition to the situational factors confronting consumers previous experience will also likely influences the level of involvement.

As such involvement is seen as a construct formed or created by a combination of the internal and external determinants of behavior. Because of this, involvement and its relationships to other contiguous concepts (such as importance, familiarity and commitment) remains vague. For example, the relationships between perceived riskor perceived brand differences or familiarity and involvement are not well specified (Bloch 198lb, Mittal 1982 and Zaichowsky 1984). This has meant that we have traditionally accepted involvement as directly influencing behavioral outcome without theorising or examining the possibility of other mediating variables acting between involvement and purchase or responses for example.

Concern with the view of involvement as a composite stems from the fact that involvement has been defined as a state of actualised goal directed arousal and it is difficult to distinguish the effects of various and numerous factors affecting this state. However, if involvement is defined as in Park, Assael and Chaiy (1984) and Park and Mittal (1985) as arousal capacity, the domain of involvement becomes a little more focused and clear. This means that the effects of situational factors, familiarity and learning for example need not be seen as working through involvement but as companion variables acting alongside involvement. This proposition of involvement as a latent capacity for arousal as opposed to an actualized arousal state brings the concept of involvement closer to those definitions which view involvement as an enduring phenomenon and cognitive construct.

Cognitive approaches

The cognitively-based definitions stress the cognitive linkage between an individual and object when determining the content of involvement (Hupfer and Gardner 1971, Lastovicka and Gardner 1979, Engel and Blackwell 1982 and Zaichkowsky 1984). These definitions generally view involvement as referring to the perceived personal importance or relevance of an object to an individual. This perceived importance has been seen to be determined by such factors as the strength of the linkages between the object and the consumer’s self concept, values or motives. Tyebjee (1979) argued that product involvement depends on the number, strength and centrality of the product-related values. As such high involvement exists when a product is intensely related with consumers central values. The structural characteristics of the object-related attitude can be used as a basis to interpret such definitions. Particularly so with respect to the number and centrality of values, beliefs or benefit bundles included in the attitude (DeBrucker 1979, Tyebjee 1979).

Fundamentally the level of involvement varies according to the complexity of the object-related attitude structure. The object-related attitude structure and the object related cognitive structure are treated synonymously as such. Importantly Lastovicka and Gardner (1978) posited that the level of involvement influences the complexity of cognitive structure, however, here involvement actually refers to the complexity of the cognitive structure and is not a determinant for it. As such involvement is dependent upon the structural characteristics of the attitude and not on its makeup. Essentially the level of involvement could be the same even though the content of the attitude structure varies. If the content of the attitude structure is to be brought into the domain of involvement we could then also focus on the nature of involvement. This would be similar to the distinction between expressive and functional involvement created on the basis of the underlying motives (Mittal 1982, Park and Young 1983, Park and Mittal 1985, Mittal and Lee 1989). This orientation is founded on the interaction between the object and the individual. On the basis of the direction or object of involvement it is possible to examine product involvement, purchasing involvement and media involvement for example. The level and form(type) of involvement manifests itself differently depending on the complexity of the cognitive structure and underlying attitude contents.

As a mediating variable involvement has been assumed to affect certain response or behaviours, such as attitude strength and stability, ongoing responses and information processing and brand selection. Regardless of the specific research context, involvement can be seen to influnce a predisposition to respond. Fundamentally this means that involvement is not to the only determinant for behaviour. Nor should it be seen as a composite concept combining the effects of other mediators. It should essentially be regarded as only one determinant for behaviour accounting for the effects of the relationship between the object and an individual at a cognitive level. From this view involvement affects the extent to which a consumer’s behaviour is determined by internalised elements and/or situational stimuli.

The cognitive foundation has advantages over the individual state variable approaches. Primarily because the object and direction of involvement is well specified and tightly focused. For example, the level of involvement will not be affected a purchase by advertising. However advertising will influence the level of arousal. Further, the domain and boundaries of involvement become delimited. Learning will impact on involvement only by its alteration of cognitive structures and not simply through development of routine purchasing behaviours. Consequently, the relationship between perceived risk and involvement is conceived differently to for example from Laurent and Kapferer (1985). In this light involvement is seen to be one determinant for perceived risk. Perceived risk as such in not an antecedent to involvement. Importantly because involvement is not seen here as situation specific we can as such on a priori basis determine the level of involvement.


The divergence in the approaches of involvement is derived clearly from the conceptual analysis and the question that has not been answered or even asked is whether the various approaches and treatments of involvement can logically be viewed as fundamentally being reflections of the same underlying construct or as inherently disunited concepts. Further, the need for response-based definitions and the need for composite-type involvement definitions can and should be severely questioned. The minimum required when such heterogeneity prevails is that the conceptual nature of involvement should be clearly defined in each individual study. This is essential if construct validity is to be evaluated. Further it is argued that involvement refers merely to the intensity of attitude and not to its nature. This means that involvement is one character of attitude profile. It is not however the complete as suggested by for example Laurent and Kapferer (1985).

The central question in determining the level of involvement is then how to ascertain the nature of the object related attitude structure. Instead of using profile approaches such as Laurent and Kapferer (1985) to produce antecedent combinations it would be perhaps more appropriate to utilise profiles to operationalise cognitive structure, which forms the initial phase when determining the level of involvement. Fundamentally this opposes the argument that marketers should stop thinking in terms of single indicators of the involvement level. It is argued here that involvement should be indicated by a single index based on the interpretation of the profile describing the cognitive structure.

The functional and expressive involvement typologies developed by Mittal (1982) and Park and Young (1983 and 1984) and Park and Mittal (1985) founded on underlying motives is one possible taxonomy of the dimensions of the object related attitude organisation. Whether these dimensions are labeled as involvement is of concern, because this would mean moving toward accepting the view that involvement itself is an attitude structure. However involvement as described here fundamentally refers to the intensity of the object-related attitude and that the value and motive based dimensions are descriptions of the nature of this attitude structure. The main characteristics of the involvement construct, as understood here, are level and direction. The direction of involvement refers to object or activity relatedness. As such involveent should always be studied in relation to a specified phenomenon, and should be included in any general involvement definition in terms of "the object related attitude". The level of involvement should be seen as continuously varying according to the structural characteristics of the attitude. Characteristics such as value and motive based dimensions included in the specific attitude, the centrality and the object’s relatedness to such values. This has been suggested as bases for determining the level of involvement by Ostrum and Brock 1968 and Tyebjee 1979 for example. When the object is related strongly with a number of central values and motives the consumer is seen to be highly involved.

The vast amount of divergent research and theorising over the construct of involvement has created a lack of conceptual boundaries and spawned a construct that has become somewhat of an enigma in consumer behaviour research. There is still much to be done to delimit its boundaries and identify its real value in marketing. Involvement is an important and necessary concept, but its conceptualisation needs adaptation to avoid confusion and to exploit its fundamental meaning and inherent value.


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Aron O’Cass, University of New England


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1996

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