The Epistemic and Sensory Exploratory Behavior of Hedonic and Cognitive Consumers

ABSTRACT - This paper identifies four groups of consumers based on their predispositions to seek experiences. These are hedonic and cognitive consumers, experience seekers and experience avoiders. Further, it defines two dimensions of consumer exploratory behavior: epistemic and sensory. Relationships between these two dimensions of exploratory behavior for the different groups are proposed and tested. Several interesting findings are reported. First, hedonic consumers, cognitive consumers and experience seekers exhibit more exploratory behavior than experience avoiders. Second, all consumers, regardless of predisposing tendencies predominantly use the sensory mode when engaging in information search. Third, individual differences influence different consumers perception of the same product as functional or esthetic.


Meera P. Venkatraman and Deborah J. MacInnis (1985) ,"The Epistemic and Sensory Exploratory Behavior of Hedonic and Cognitive Consumers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 102-107.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 102-107


Meera P. Venkatraman, University of Pittsburgh

Deborah J. MacInnis, University of Pittsburgh


This paper identifies four groups of consumers based on their predispositions to seek experiences. These are hedonic and cognitive consumers, experience seekers and experience avoiders. Further, it defines two dimensions of consumer exploratory behavior: epistemic and sensory. Relationships between these two dimensions of exploratory behavior for the different groups are proposed and tested. Several interesting findings are reported. First, hedonic consumers, cognitive consumers and experience seekers exhibit more exploratory behavior than experience avoiders. Second, all consumers, regardless of predisposing tendencies predominantly use the sensory mode when engaging in information search. Third, individual differences influence different consumers perception of the same product as functional or esthetic.


The predominant perspective in consumer behavior is that the consumer is a thinker. According to this perspective, consumers are rational, cognitive, and active seekers of verbal and factual information. They are utility conscious and evaluate and integrate large amounts of information when making purchase decisions. This perspective tends to focus on "functional" products; packaged goods, brands, and durables that consumers purchase in order to solve consumption problems (Howard, 1969; Bettman, 1979; Lussier and Olshavsky, 1979). A different perspective is that the consumer is a feeler. According to this perspective, consumers are hedonic. They consume products such as movies, art, novels, and opera for the multisensory sensations, feelings, images and emotions such products generate (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982).

Both perspectives have implications for the ways in which individuals explore their environments in general, and the consumer environment in particular (Berlyne, 1960). Exploratory tendencies have been extensively studied in psychology (Berlyne, 1960; Fiske and Maddi, 1961) and have been extended to the consumer behavior context (Venkatesan, 1973; Raju, 1980; Price and Ridgeway 1982). In a consumer context, these behaviors include exploration through shopping, interpersonal communication, brand switching, innovativeness, and information seeking (Raju, 1980). These exploratory behaviors can be parsimoniously classified into two broad domains: vicarious exploratory behavior (including information search, exploration through shopping) and exploratory purchase behavior (including variety seeking and innovativeness) (Price and Ridgeway. 1982).

Exploratory behaviors have generally been studied from the perspective of the consumer as a thinker. While this perspective has contributed much to our understanding of exploratory behaviors, it has neglected the feeling or sensory aspects of exploration. It seems reasonable to propose that while consumers engage in search (vicarious exploratory behavior) by seeking verbal and factual information,- they also seek information by sensorily experiencing products, seeing how they feel, look, taste, and smell. Similarly, consumers may not only variety seek and innovate with packaged and branded products, they may also do so with esthetic products.

We use two terms to describe consumer exploratory behavior. The term epistemic exPloratory behavior refers to responses that typify the "thinking" mode. In the context of search, epistemic exploratory behaviors include verbal information search, or the search for factual product information. In the context of exploratory purchase, epistemic exploratory behaviors include variety seeking and innovating with functional products. The term sensory exploratory behavior refers to exploratory behaviors consistent with the feeling mode. In the context of search, these include information gathered through the senses. In the context of exploratory purchase, sensory exploratory responses include variety seeking and innovating with esthetic products.

Integrating the information processing and hedonic perspectives raises several interesting questions. First, do individual differences influence the mode of exploratory behavior? In other words, are there some individuals who engage in epistemic (sensory) exploratory behaviors across consumption situations? Second, do intraindividual differences characterize exploratory tendencies? Are sensory (epistemic) exploratory behaviors engaged in more frequently relative to epistemic (sensory) ones? These two issues are the focus of the present study.


We propose that there are individuals who use one mode of exploration more extensively than the other in different consumer contexts. Some individuals are primarily thinkers. These "cognitive individuals" are rational and logical and enjoy cognitive stimulation, such as discovering how things work. Their cognitive curiosity is likely to make them exploration oriented in a consumer environment. Their exploratory behavior may, however, take a particular form.

It is proposed that cognitive consumers make extensive use of verbal information when searching for products, and satisfy curiosity about products by finding out how they work. They are likely to seek out factual information, such as how products rate across various attributes based on reports in independent product testing magazines (Thorelli and Engeldow, .980; Anderson and Engeldow, 1977). Furthermore, they are likely to engage in such behaviors as reading advertisements that contain a lot of information (Raju, 1980). Cognitive consumers may investigate new brands of functional products, and brand switch or variety seek with common, packaged goods. They may also choose products, not because they are functional, but because they are cognitively stimulating (Hirschman, 1982)

Other individuals, whom we call "hedonic individuals" are primarily feelers. They enjoy receiving stimulation since it provides intrinsic gratification, arousal and emotion. Given their desire for stimulation, they are also likely to be explorers in novel consumption environments. They explore, however, in ways different from cognitive individuals. Information search for them refers to sensory information search. For example, they would like to touch and feel products when shopping. They are hypothesized to engage in exploratory purchase behaviors (variety seeking and innovativeness) with products that provide sensory stimulation, emotion and images. These are mainly esthetic and hedonic products (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1980; Holbrook, 1980).

Some consumers may have both cognitive and hedonic orientations. We term such consumers "experience seekers" Like cognitive and hedonic consumers, experience seekers are likely to engage in exploratory activities; however, they are likely to use both modes of experiencing in their exploratory behaviors. They may use both factual/ verbal and sensory information when searching, and may variety seek and innovate with esthetic and functional Products.

Diametrically opposed to individuals who are both cognitive and hedonic are individuals who are low on both cognitive and hedonic tendencies. We term these individuals "experience avoiders". [The typology presented here is consistent with one by Hirschman (1982). Several differences should be noted. We did not include a "novelty seeking" consumer because cognitive, hedonic and experience seekers are all proposed to be novelty seekers. Second, we include experience avoiders as a baseline group against which exploratory tendencies can be compared. Third, while Hirschman has focused on consumption, we extend the discussion to include search as well.] In a consumer context, they are hypothesized to be neither predominantly cognitive nor hedonic in their mode of search and purchase. Rather, they are likely to prefer established ways of purchasing and are most likely to prefer known to unknown products and experiences, both of a functional/ cognitive and esthetic nature.

It is hypothesized that consumers exhibit epistemic or sensory exploratory behaviors in a way that is consistent with cognitive or hedonic predispositions. Consumers with a cognitive orientation are hypothesized to exhibit primarily epistemic exploratory behaviors verbal/factual information search and variety seeking md innovativeness with functional/cognitive produces) relative to consumers who are not cognitive in their orientation. Thus, experience seekers and cognitive consumers should exhibit more epistemic exploratory behaviors than hedonic consumers and experience avoiders. Consumers who are hedonic in their orientation are hypothesized to exhibit primarily sensory exploratory behaviors (sensory information search, variety seeking and innovativeness with sensory/esthetic products) relative to consumers who are not sensory in their orientation. Therefore, experience seekers and hedonic consumers should exhibit more sensory exploratory behaviors than cognitive consumers and experience avoiders.


While the first issue examines differences between individuals in exploratory behaviors, this issue focuses on intraindividual exploratory tendencies. It examines the tendency of consumers to use epistemic (sensory) exploratory behaviors relative to sensory (epistemic) ones. Do individuals in general make greater use of sensory than verbal information searching? In the domain of exploratory purchase, do individuals prefer to variety seek and innovate with functional products or esthetic ones? Or is it the case that there can be no consistencies found across all individuals in the type of searching or purchasing they prefer?

It is hypothesized that hedonic consumers will exhibit significantly higher sensory exploratory behaviors than epistemic ones. Cognitive consumers are hypothesized to exhibit significantly greater epistemic exploratory behaviors than sensory exploratory behaviors. Neither experience seekers nor experience avoiders are expected to show more epistemic as compared to sensory exploratory behaviors.


To explore these issues, measures which tap cognitive and hedonic predispositions were needed. Also needed were measures of exploratory search (both verbal and sensory) and exploratory purchase behaviors (variety seeking and innovativeness) for different types of products (functional and esthetic)

Cognitive Orientation

To identify the cognitive consumer, the objective was to select a test that assessed the extent to which consumers are rational, logical, and cognitive. Several measures of rational cognition seeking have been suggested by Hirschman (1982, 1984). Of these, the Cognition Seeking Scale seemed most appropriate because it measures the desire for cognitions across a wide variety of experiences and not intellectual ability. This measure was developed by Swanson (1978) and was first used in the consumer behavior literature by Hirschman (1982). It has a standardized reliability coefficient of .64 (Hirschman, 1982).

Hedonic Orientation

As defined earlier, the term hedonic encompasses experiencing through the senses (touch, feel, taste, sight, and aroma), and the feelings of fantasy and emotional arousal (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1982). A test measuring desires to seek these multisensory experiences was, therefore, needed. A number of scales that measure this construct have been developed. The more well known are (l) the Zuckerman Sensation Seeking Scale (Zuckerman, 1979) and (2) the Arousal Seeking Tendency Scale (Mehrabian and Russell, 1974). The Zuckerman Sensation Seeking Scale was selected for this study. It measures the desire for varied, novel, and complex sensations. Research demonstrates that it measures both internal sensation seeking (through imagery and fantasy) and external sensation seeking (through direct sensory stimulation and adventurous activities) (Pearson, 1970). The scale has a reported reliability coefficient of .75 (Zuckerman, 1979).

Exploratory Behavior

Measures of six exploratory behaviors were developed for the purposes of this study. These are (l) verbal information search, (2) sensory information search, (3) variety seeking with functional products, (4) variety seeking with esthetic products, (5) innovativeness with functional products and (6) innovativeness with esthetic products. These measures were developed in accordance with Churchill's (1979) guidelines for scale development. A literature review was first conducted to determine the domain of sampling for the items that would comprise the scales. This ensured the content validity of the scales. A set of six to eight items was then generated to represent each of the six hypothetical constructs. Items were drawn from scales developed by Raju (1980), Hilgard (1979), Swanson (1978), Mehrabian and Russell (1974), Pessemier and McAlister (1981) and papers from the Symbolic Consumer Behavior Conference (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1980). Half of the items were recast to be negatively stated.


Data Collection

The Cognition Seeking Scale, the Sensation Seeking Scale and the six scales of exploratory behavior were administered to 309 undergraduate male and female students from two universities. Data for 10 students were eliminated because of incomplete information or failure to fill out the questionnaire properly. Thus 299 subjects represented the final subject pool.

Purification of Measures

Following data collection, the first objective was to purify the measures of each construct. Item-to-total correlations and standardized Cronbach's alpha coefficients were calculated to assess the reliabilities of each scale. Items were deleted from their respective scales if item-to-total correlations were low and if items did not contribute to the reliability of the scale. The scales and their standardized Cronbach alpha reliability coefficients are presented in Table 1.



The reliability coefficients for the six exploratory scales ranged from .43 to .64, with all but one scale showing a coefficient greater than .50. These coefficients are modest and may in part be attributable to the small number of items comprising each scale (Nunnally, 1978). However, given the small scale size, and the fact that the scales are in their developmental stages, they are adequate for this exploratory research. They satisfy the criteria for a reliable scale suggested by Nunnally (1978).

The 40 items Sensation Seeking scale had a standardized Cronbach's alpha reliability coefficient of .82, while the Cognition Seeking Scale with 14 items had a reliability coefficient of .69. Both coefficients are consistent with reliability estimates obtained in previous research (Zuckerman, 1979; Hirschman, 1982).

Index Formation

Scores on the Cognition Seeking Scale and the Sensation Seeking Scale were calculated by adding the scores on each item. Based on a median split, the four groups were formed. Experience avoiders were operationally defined as those scoring below the median on both the Sensation Seeking and Cognition Seeking scales (n=94). Cognitive Consumers were defined as those who scored above the median on the Cognition Seeking Scale but below the median on the Sensation Seeking Scale (n=72). Sensory Consumers were defined as those with above median scores on the Sensation Seeking Scale and below the median on the Cognition Seeking Scale (n-70), while experience seekers were defined as those above the median on both Sensation Seeking and Cognition Seeking scales (n=63). The six exploratory behavior scales were calculated by summing scores on items comprising each scale. Each scale was then divided by the number of items so that the scores could be compared between and within groups.


Interindividual Comparisons

A series of one way analyses of variance confirmed that between group differences existed for each dependent variable. To examine the exact nature of these differences, t-test comparisons were performed. The results for the interindividual comparisons (comparisons between the four groups on exploratory behaviors) are presented in two parts. The first compares hedonic consumers, cognitive consumer and experience seekers with experience avoiders. It determines whether the exploratory behaviors of the first three consumer groups differ from those of experience avoiders and if so, how? The second set compares experience seekers, hedonic consumers and cognitive consumers to determine whether the proposed differences between groups are supported.



Comparisons of Cognitive Consumers Hedonic Consumers and Experience Seekers with Experience Avoiders. Cognitive individuals engage in significantly more verbal information search than experience avoiders, however the two groups do not differ in epistemic purchase behaviors (Refer Table 3). They do differ significantly in the purchase of esthetic products, with cognitive consumers exhibiting more variety seeking and innovativeness with esthetic products than experience avoiders. Thus, cognitive consumers seek more verbal information than experience avoiders and exhibit significantly higher esthetic purchase behaviors.

Hedonic Individuals do not use more sensory information search than experience avoiders. Nor do they engage in more variety seeking behaviors with esthetic products than experience avoiders. They do, however, engage in more innovative behavior with esthetic products. As expected, the two groups do not differ on verbal information search, or variety seeking with functional products, however, hedonic consumers innovate more with functional products than experience avoiders. In summary, hedonic consumers are significantly more innovative with both functional products and esthetic products than experience avoiders.

As hypothesized, experience seekers differ significantly from experience avoiders on all dimensions of exploratory behavior Experience seekers are significantly more likely than experience avoiders to make use of verbal and sensory information during search. They prefer variety seeking and innovating with functional and esthetic products significantly more than experience avoiders.

In general, there is support for the proposition that experience seekers, hedonic consumers and cognitive consumers exhibit significantly higher exploratory behavior tendencies than experience avoiders. The pattern of differences that emerges differs from expectations and is explored in later sections.



Comparisons of Hedonic Consumers, Cognitive Consumers and Experience Seekers. As indicated in Table 3, cognitive consumers use verbal information search significantly more than hedonic consumers, however, none of the other differences in exploratory behaviors were significant. The proposition that cognitive (hedonic) consumers exhibit significantly higher epistemic (sensory) exploratory behaviors than hedonic (cognitive) consumers was not supported.

Consistent with the hypothesis, hedonic consumers do not differ significantly from experience seekers in tendencies to engage in sensory information search or variety seeking with esthetic products. It was found, however, that experience seekers are significantly more innovative than hedonic consumers with respect to esthetic products. It was expected that hedonic consumers would exhibit significantly fewer epistemic exploratory behaviors than experience seekers. This hypothesis was confirmed for search, however, no differences were found for epistemic purchase behaviors. In sum, experience seekers seek more verbal information and innovate significantly more with esthetic products than hedonic consumers.

No significant differences between cognitive consumers and experience seekers in epistemic exploratory behaviors were expected. This hypothesis was supported for verbal information search and variety seeking with functional products. Experience seekers were found to be significantly more innovative with functional products than cognitive consumers. For sensory exploratory behaviors, the results indicate that experience seekers do innovate with esthetic products significantly more than cognitive consumers, however, the groups do now differ from each other on other sensory exploratory dimensions. In sum, experience seekers innovate significantly more than cognitive consumers with esthetic and functional products.

Discussion of the Interindividual Differences

The broad conclusions that can be drawn for the inter group comparisons are that experience seekers generally exhibit greater exploratory tendencies as compared to functional or hedonic consumers. Also, the exploratory behavior tendencies of hedonic consumers are generally similar to those of cognitive consumers. The most significant difference between cognitive and hedonic consumers is in the area of search. Cognitive consumers tend to be more search oriented than hedonic consumers, making extensive use of information, from both sensory and verbal sources. Hedonic consumers, search less, but when they do search. use more sensory info f al ion

Few differences emerged between the groups on the variety seeking dimension. It may be that these scales fail to tap variety seeking behaviors appropriately. Alternatively, it may be that variety seeking simply does not differ among consumers with different exploratory tendencies. A third hypothesis is that consumers do not classify products as either esthetic or functional in the same manner that marketers do. Rather, cognitive consumers may see functional attributes in every product, while the hedonic consumers may see esthetic attributes in every product. Thus, hedonic and cognitive consumers may variety seek with the same product, but for different reasons.

Experience seekers are significantly more innovative than the hedonic and the cognitive consumers, who are generally more innovative than the experience avoiders. In general, innovativeness does differentiate between the groups of consumers, though the pattern of differences in epistemic and sensory innovativeness is not as expected. Again, it may be the case that innovativeness, like variety seeking, needs to be examined in terms of the products as seen from the eyes of the consumer, rather than the product as apriori defined. This possibility represents an intriguing one which the authors felt needed additional research.

The possibility that consumers with different predispositions engage in exploratory purchase for different reasons was tested for the innovativeness domain. The sample of 299 subjects was used. The respondents were given a set of 18 items that consisted of two motives each for innovating with nine products. For each product, a sensory reason and a cognitive reason for innovating was provided. For example, one "functional" product used was the newspaper. Consumers were asked to respond on a 5 point likert scale of agreement whether they "Liked to read a new newspaper like the USA today because they contained information on all fifty states (cognitive motive!." They also indicated how much they "Liked to read a new newspaper like the USA today because they liked to look at the colored pictures (sensory motive)."

Subjects received a score of 1 on the variable "cognitive reasons" if their cognitive motive score was higher than their sensory motive score for the same product. They received a score of l on the variable "sensory reasons" if their score was higher for the sensory motive than the cognitive one. These scores were summed to create two variables, cognitive reasons and sensory reasons, each of which had a potential range of 0 to 9. Together, they added to a score of 9.

As hypothesized, cognitive consumers innovate not with respect to "functional or cognitive products", but because or cognitive reasons associated with these innovations' Similarly, hedonic consumers innovate not with respect to "esthetic" products but for sensory motives. The analysis presents an interesting hypothesis for the pattern of results found for the exploratory purchase behaviors. It suggests that the apriori classification of products as esthetic or functional may not be appropriate. One has only to think of the movie freak who remembers the case of practically every movie or the housewife who buys Charmin because it is soft to support the thesis that every product has both hedonic and functional value. How consumers view the product depends upon their predispositions.

Intraindividual Comparisons

While the previous set of analysis examined differences in exploratory behaviors across groups with different hedonic or cognitive orientations, this analysis examined the frequency of exploratory behaviors within groups of consumers with the same predisposition. The comparison here is between sensory and epistemic behaviors within the same group of individuals. The question is, do consumers use more sensory (epistemic) exploratory behaviors relative to epistemic (sensory) ones?



On the information search dimension, a consistent pattern of results was found (Refer Table 4)* For every group, consumers make greater use of sensory information as compared to verbal information when searching. In a typical consumer search context therefore, sensory information search dominates verbal and factual information search. Several factors may explain these results. It may be that sensory information is often more readily available than verbal information. Furthermore, it is easier to make use of sensory information than verbal and factual information. Sensory information may also serve as a heuristic for more complex search behaviors.

The other consistent finding is that across all groups, consumers variety seek with "esthetic" products no more than they do with "functional" products. Individual differences in predisposing tendencies, therefore, have no bearing on which type of product consumers tend to variety seek with relative to another type of product. Again, this result may be due in part to the fact that reasons, rather than products, contribute to variety seeking tendencies.

The results for innovativeness seem to indicate that the consumers are more likely to innovate with esthetic products than they are with functional products. Thus, while there are no intra-individual differences for sensory and epistemic variety seeking, differences do exist for epistemic and sensory innovativeness. The results, however, are strongest for the cognitive consumers and the experience seekers.


This research reports three interesting findings. First, individuals with hedonic and/or cognitive predispositions tend to be explorers in the marketplace relative to those without cognitive or hedonic predispositions. This was most clearly the case for experience seekers who differed from experience avoiders on all types of exploratory behaviors studied here.

Second, hedonic and cognitive consumers engage in exploratory purchase because they value the sensory or cognitive attributes they perceive in particular products. Given the same product, they may value it for different reasons. Hedonic consumers perceive the hedonic aspects of a product, whether it is bathroom tissue, movies or opera. Cognitive consumers, on the other hand, see the practical/functional value of a product, be it football or peanut butter. The results do not support the hypothesis that consumers predispositions influence exploratory purchase with products that marketers define as "functional", "cognitive", "sensory" or "esthetic".

Third, information search is primarily expressed through sensory information search. Consumers prefer the sensory modality of search over the verbal and semantic mode regardless of hedonic or cognitive predispositions. This is an interesting finding since it suggests that exploratory search may primarily be a sensory activity, not a cognitive one. If this is true, much of the current work in consumer exploratory behavior has focused on the least prevalent and perhaps least interesting aspects of search. Future research needs to explore the nature of search as a sensory or esthetic experience. More of a hedonic rather than an information processing perspective can be fruitfully brought to bear on the nature of exploratory behaviors.


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Meera P. Venkatraman, University of Pittsburgh
Deborah J. MacInnis, University of Pittsburgh


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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