Consumer Involvement: Definitional Issues and Research Directions

ABSTRACT - Though involvement has recently become a central issue to consumer researchers, substantial confusion exist as to its nature. In order to help reduce this confusion, the present paper identifies and discusses five distinct concepts which have all been labeled "involvement". The concepts of ego involvement, commitment, communication involvement, purchase importance, and response involvement are discussed as they relate to this evolving body of knowledge.


James A. Muncy and Shelby D. Hunt (1984) ,"Consumer Involvement: Definitional Issues and Research Directions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 193-196.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 193-196


James A. Muncy, University of Oklahoma

Shelby D. Hunt, Texas Tech University


Though involvement has recently become a central issue to consumer researchers, substantial confusion exist as to its nature. In order to help reduce this confusion, the present paper identifies and discusses five distinct concepts which have all been labeled "involvement". The concepts of ego involvement, commitment, communication involvement, purchase importance, and response involvement are discussed as they relate to this evolving body of knowledge.


The concept "involvement" has been discussed for about two decades in the consumer behavior literature (see Krugman 1965) and even longer in psychology (see Sherif and Cantril 1947). Interest in involvement has heightened in recent years by those studying the consumer decision process. Kassarjian (1978) has accused consumer researchers of anthropomorphism when they infer that buyers are always as involved in the purchasing process as they themselves are. Olshavsky and Granbois (1979) took Kassarjian's view of the low involvement consumer a step further. They argued that "for many purchases a decision process never occurs, not even on the first purchase" (p. 98).

As a result, a school of thought has developed which questions whether the classical view of the consumer holds for all purchase occasions. An emergent idea is that of the low involvement buyer: one who does not go through complex decision making and information processing. This new approach can be seen in several consumer behavior texts which devote special sections to involvement or the low involvement decision process (e.g., Assael 1981, pp. 74-190, Engel and Blackwell 1982, pp. 34-40, 539-564). Thus involvement is becoming a key element of consumer behavior thought.

Since the topic of consumer involvement has only recently begun to gain researchers ' interest, there exists the need for a significant amount of empirical research in the area. Such research will require the operationalization of involvement. However, before this can be done, researchers need to develop a clear understanding as to its nature. Jacoby and Kyner (1973) state:

Regardless of how sophisticated the operationalizations, before a phenomenon can be measured one must clearly define what it is and what it is not. According to the logic of modern science (Bridgman 1927), such conceptual definitions ought to precede and determine one's operationalization rather than vice versa. (p.1)

Thus before involvement can be fruitfully investigated, researchers should reach some agreement as to the nature of this construct. Such agreement does not presently exist. Lastovicka and Gardner (1979) state that there is "no clear statement or agreement on what this concept (involvement) represents" (p. 49) and Tyebjee (1979) observed that "there is little agreement about the definition of involvement" (p. 298). Upon reviewing the involvement literature, the reason for such confusion becomes clear. The term "involvement" has been used by researchers to denote at least five distinct (yet perhaps related) concepts. Though some researchers acknowledge the existence of different types of involvement (see Houston and Rothschild undated; Lastovicka and Gardner 1979; Mitchell 1980; Rothschild 1979), most researchers fail to make a clear statement as to which concept they are investigating.

The purpose of the present paper is two-fold. First, it separates and discusses the various concepts which have been labeled "involvement." The purpose here is not to provide an exhaustive literature review of involvement. Only those papers which best typify each concept are discussed. The purpose is to explain the fundamental nature of each.

Secondly, the present paper discusses those research areas which are particularly relevant to each type of involvement. Just as they are all distinctLy different concepts, they all contribute to consumer behavior thought in different fashions. The purpose here is to point to potentiaL research needs that each has fulfilled or can fulfill. Such a discussion is needed to add direction to this area which has been described as being a "bag of worms" (Lastovicka and Gardner 1979; p. 54). We propose that there are basically five concepts which have all been studied under the topic of "involvement": ego involvement, commitment, communication involvement, purchase importance. and response involvement.


Ego Involvement

The concept of "involvement" originated in social psychology and was substantially developed by the Sherifs and their colleagues (see Sherif and Cantril 1947; Sherif and Hovland 1961; Sherif, Sherif, and Nebergall 1965; and Sherif and Sherif 1967). It can be defined as the degree to which an object or idea is centrally related to the value system of an individual (see Ostrom and Brock 1968). A classic example of how a product can become ego involving was illustrated by Haire (1950). Se showed that women related the type of coffee purchased (i.e. around or instant) to the values associated with being a good wife and a good person. Though coffee may no longer be as ego involving (see Hill 1968; Webster and von Pechmann 1970), certainly substantial ego involvement exists within other product classes.

In consumer behavior, the study of ego involvement addresses the question of how a consumer's value system is engaged when purchasing a product. For this reason, the construct of ego involvement can provide insights when researching areas which involve consumer values or value systems (e.g., life style analysis or cross cultural buyer behavior). Ego involvement is probably also related to the other types of involvement discussed in this paper.


Commitment is another concept which has been studied under involvement. The distinction between ego involvement and commitment was never fully resolved in the social psychology literature. Freedman (1964) noted that many authors fail to distinguish between involvement with a particular position on an issue (which would be commitment) and invoLvement with the issue itself. Some have also failed to make this distinction in marketing. Robertson's (1976) work, and those citing it, uses the terms involvement and commitment synonymously. Further, Lastovicka and Gardner (1979) identify commitment as one of two underlying components of involvement.

Consumers can become committed to a brand or store when that brand or store becomes ego involving to them. Many organizations have tried to produce such commitment by attempting to tie their product to the central value systems of individuals (examples are prevalent in the product classes of personal hygiene and alcohol).

Though they may be related, ego involvement and commitment are not isomorphic. Ego involvement can exist without commitment. For example, someone may feel that the type of automobile a person purchases is related to that person's worth, resulting in a substantial amount of search occurring before an automobile is purchased. Once the purchase is made, the person may become committed to his or her decision. However, the ego involvement preceded the commitment. Commitment could also exist without ego involvement (e.R.. due to high perceived risk).

Commitment has perhaps been one of the most researched areas in consumer behavior . Under the title of "loyalty," it has been hypothesized to be related to much of buyer behavior (including importance of purchase which is another type of involvement discussed in the present paper: see Assael 1981; Howard and Sheth 1968; Jacoby 1971; Jarvis 1972). Due to its numerous implications to both consumer behavior thought and marketing practice, commitment will continue to be a central issue in consumer research. However, before substantial contributions can be made in this area, several conceptual and methodological issues need resolving (see Jacoby and Chestnut 1978).

Communication Involvement

The writings of Krugman (1965, 1966, 1971, 1977, 1979; Krugman and Hartley 1970) were instrumental in introducing the idea of "involvement" to consumer behavior. Perplexed with "knowing that advertising works but being unable to say much about why" ('Krugman 1965, p. 351), he began investigating the extent to which the low involvement nature of many advertisements might explain their effects. His definition of involvement is based on the number of connections a person makes between a communication and something existing in their life.

There are two important characteristics which distinguish communication involvement from ego involvement. The first is that ego involvement is involvement with an object or idea. This causes it to be relatively permanent or enduring. In communication involvement, the involvement is with something which is occurring at a specific time (i.e. the communication), making it situationally specific and transitory. When communication involvement exists, it occurs only during the communication; it will not begin before the communication starts and it will only continue as long: as the communication does . Its presence or absence is completely determined by a person's reaction (or lack thereof ) to a particular communication. In contrast, once ego involvement is established, it becomes a relatively stable characteristic, transcending many situations .

The second important characteristic of communication involvement is that the connections are made with any aspect of the person's life, not just those which are related to the person's central value system. Thus a person can become involved with a communication only minimally related to his or her central value system (one must however be careful not to confuse communication involvement with attention, interest, or excitement: see Krugman 1965, p. 355). An example of this would be when a person is involved in a communication simply because of its utilitarian value (such as a consumer paying attention to supermarket prices in newspaper advertisements).

Communication involvement is particularly relevant in research on consumer information processing. Factors such as the media in which the communication is present, the editorial content surrounding the communication, and certain demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the individual have all been related to communication involvement (Krugman 1966). It may also affect retention via the primacy/recency effect (Hovland 1957; Krugman 1965), whether a person uses heuristic or systematic information processing (Chaiken 1980), whether the information is processed in the right or left hemisphere of the brain, and whether information is stored in words or images (Krugman 1977; Hansen 1981). It has also been related to the amount and nature of attitude change (Petty and Cacioppo 1980; Krugman 1965, 1971), and the amount of counter-argumentation (Mitchell 1980). This indicates that much if not most of the domain of information acquisition and processing has been discussed in relation to communication involvement, thus strongly supporting the position that the effects of promotional campaigns on consumer behavior can only be understood against the backdrop of communication involvement.

Purchase Importance

Importance of Purchase was introduced as a variable in one of the first comprehensive theoretical structures in buyer behavior (Howard and Sheth 1969). It was defined as:

A variable in the buyer's frame of reference that corresponds to intensity of Motives. It is product class specific only and does not distinguish among brands. It is the saliency of one product class with respect to another... It is variously labeled degree of involvement, importance of task, and seriousness of consequences. (P- 419)

Importance of Purchase was classified as an exogenous variable affecting output variables through key hypothetical constructs.

Much of the recent conceptual and empirical work on involvement has centered on purchase importance. Hupfer and Gardner (1971) and Lastovicka and Gardner (1979) operationalized involvement by having subjects state the "importance" of the product class. Assael (1981) defined high and low involvement by stating: "High involvement purchases are purchases that are important to the consumer... Low involvement purchases represent purchases that are not important to the consumer" (p. 11). When Kassarjian (1978) challenged consumer behavioralists to consider the role of involvement more seriously, he was discussing purchase importance. He stated:

But of the dozens, if not hundreds, of mundane decisions made each day by the average consumer, I wonder just how many are important to high, just how many are significant or high involvement decisions. (p. xiii, emphasis added)

Purchase importance has been confused with ego involvement. This is easy to do, since purchase importance can be a result of ego involvement (i.e. if a purchase is ego involving, it will surely be high in importance.) However, other factors such as perceived risk can cause high purchase importance. For example, the purchase of automobile tires might not be ego involving; however, this purchase might be quite important due to functional risk (i.e., "If one blows out, I might be killed") or financial risk (i.e., "If one blows out, I am oat another 580.00").

Purchase importance has many implications for further consumer behavior research; but first, several fundamental questions must be answered. The determinants of purchase importance are only incompletely specified. The two factors identified in this paper were risk and ego involvement. What other factors cause a purchase to be important? What are the exact effects of these two factors?

Research is also needed on the consequences of purchase importance. Howard and Sheth (1968) hypothesize it to affect brand loyalty, information search, and size of consumer's evoked set. Others have postulated that consumers go through different types of decision processes based on the level of purchase importance (e.g. Assael 1981; Engel and Blackwell 1982; Kassarjian 1978; Ray 1973).

Isolating the exact effect of purchase importance on a buyer's behavior could significantly change current views of the consumer. However, failing to distinguish it from commitment, ego involvement, communication involvement, or response involvement will greatly retard progress.

Response Involvement

A fifth way of viewing involvement was presented by Houston and Rothschild (undated). They introduced the term "response involvement" which was defined as "the complexity of cognitive and behavioral processes characterizing the overall consumer decision process" (p. 4). High response involvement would represent situations where individuals are highly active, information processing beings, trying to gain as much information as possible, then using this information in attempting to arrive at the optical choice. Low response involvement would reflect a fairly passive choice situations, where individuals are interested in minimizing the physical and psychological effort required to obtain a product.

Houston and Rothschild distinguish between internal factors (termed enduring involvement) and external factors (termed situational involvement) which can affect response involvement. Their paper presented a structure for researching the way such internal and external factors affect response involvement.

Consumer behavior theory has long recognized that the consumer's level of cognitive and behavioral processing can vary for different purchases. Howard and Sheth (1968) proposed that consumers go through three stages to reduce the level of complexity of buying situations: extensive problem solving, limited problem solving, and routinized response behavior. However, the antecedents for differing strategies have yet to be fully explicated. Howard and Sheth describe them as sequential steps in repetitive decision making. As noted earlier, Olshavsky and Granbois (1979) argued that no decision process ever occurs for some products. This perspective is quite different from the one presented by Howard and Sheth. Substantial research on response involvement (perhaps based on paradigms like Houston and Rothschild's), is needed to resolve such issues. This research needs to determine if differences in response involvement are due to differences in purchasing situations, product categories, personality variables, or other factors. Since response involvement does differ across buying situations and since the cognitive and behavioral processes leading to a purchase can be seen as the core of the study of consumer behavior, this area should be of primary interest to consumer researchers.


Confusion regarding the exact domain of a construct being studied can result in a whole stream of research becoming impotent. A classic example of this has been brand loyalty research. After reviewing over 300 brand loyalty studies, Jacoby and Chestnut (1978) concluded that the area has been kept alive "more because of promise than result" (p. 119). A basic reason for this is that most researchers fail to distinguish brand loyalty from other types of loyalty. Though Brown (1953) warned against confusing brand loyalty with price, store, and convenience loyalties, this was done for several years, resulting in a large body of literature which has been described as lacking many solid contribution" (Jacoby and Chestnut 1978, p. 119).

Those investigating involvement must be careful to not make a similar mistake. To say a person sees a purchase as being important is not the same as saying the cognitive and behavioral processes are complex, the person's personal value system is engaged, the person is committed, or the person is an active participant in the communication process. The failure to distinguish between these concepts in research can result in findings that are inconsistent, confusing, and/or ambiguous.

The present paper reviewed five major types of involvement which have been discussed in the literature. They were all identified as conceptually distinct constructs, with separate (yet perhaps related) domains. Each concept has its own unique potential for future research. Studies using these concepts may hold great potential for future developments in consumer behavior. Nevertheless, such potential will never be reached as long as researchers fail to clearly state which concept they are investigating.


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James A. Muncy, University of Oklahoma
Shelby D. Hunt, Texas Tech University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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