Stress: an Ignored Situational Influence

ABSTRACT - Although a factor in the lives of many consumers, stress has had little attention paid to it in consumer research. This paper introduces the concept of stress, suggests dimensions of buyer behavior potentially affected by stress, and proposes future research issues.


Lawrence R. Lepisto, J. Kathleen Stuenkel, and Linda K. Anglin (1991) ,"Stress: an Ignored Situational Influence", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 296-302.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 296-302


Lawrence R. Lepisto, Central Michigan University

J. Kathleen Stuenkel, Central Michigan University

Linda K. Anglin, Central Michigan University


Although a factor in the lives of many consumers, stress has had little attention paid to it in consumer research. This paper introduces the concept of stress, suggests dimensions of buyer behavior potentially affected by stress, and proposes future research issues.


The concept of stress has generated an enormous amount of research. In a review of two literature bases, MEDLARS and Psychological Abstracts, Vingerhoets and Marcelissen (1988) found more than 1,000 articles a year that deal, in part, with stress, which is the body's reaction to a stimulus that generally is appraised as aversive or unpleasant. Given the salience and broad application of this concept, it would seem appropriate for marketers to explore the role of stress in buyer behavior.

Existing research on stress covers a bewildering variety of issues and approaches as described by Goldberger and Breznitz (1982, p. xi), "The stress field is a sprawling one, characterized by unevenness and lack of coordination. . . with pockets of substantial development separated by faddish, superficial, or one-time forays." This lack of precision is, in part, a function of the conceptualization of stress. In their discussion of the definition of stress, Morse and- Furst (1979) point out that Selye's 1950 adaptation of the physics concept "stress" was inadvertently applied to the reaction of the body (referred to as strain in physics) rather than to the causative factors (referred to as stress in physics). While Selye coined the term "stressor" for the causative factors, other researchers failed to differentiate between factors and reactions thus leading us to the current situation where both the cause and the result are called "stress" by different researchers.

Furthermore, Maes, Vingerhoets and Van Heck (1987, p. 567) define stress as a "state of imbalance within a person, elicited by an actual or perceived disparity between environmental demands and the person's capacity to cope with these demands." When stress is viewed as the result of the interaction between the stressor (causative factor) and the individual, modified by the person's state at the time (Morse and Furst 1979), it is unreasonable to expect stress to take only one form. This variability is further described by Schafer (1978, p. 27):

"Stressors vary in many ways or along many dimensions. They may originate inside or outside the person. They may be pleasant or unpleasant. They may be few in number or many. They may be mild or intense; chronic or acute; new or familiar. And they may be easily changed or difficult or impossible to change."

Kinds of Stress

Morse and Furst (1979) identify three kinds of stressors: physical, social and psychological. Physical stressors are external factors such as drugs, foods, noise, temperature, and trauma. Social stressors or life-change events are externally induced and result from the interaction of the individual with his/her environment, for example, death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, a move to a new city, or financial difficulty. Psychological stressors (intense emotions) -may be brought on by physical or social stressors and include frustration, worry, anger, happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, etc. This conceptualization further reflects the confusion of the concept of stress as both the causative factor (physical or social stressors) and the result/reaction (psychological stressor).

Stress Intensity and Duration

Adding to the confusion, stressors can be further categorized in terms of intensity (micro- and macro-stressors) and duration (Schafer 1978). Micro-stressors tend to be more localized to limited situations (Monroe 1983) and reflect those little hassles that are a part of everyday life (e.g., returning home from work and attempting to cook a meal with children demanding the parent's time). Macro-stressors are more intense pressures such as death, divorce, or a complex task. The duration of a stressor (acute or chronic) refers to how long the pressure exists. Stressors which last a relatively short time (last-minute Christmas shopping or relocation) are acute stressors while those lasting over a longer period are chronic stressors (e.g., managing career and household, income conditions, or family strains) (Pearlin 1983). Both acute and chronic stressors can vary by intensity.


Even though a common definition of stress still eludes researchers, some definitions are offered here that correspond closely to the orientation of situational influences. It is interesting to note the similarity between the disparity in definitions of stress and the disparity existing in the definition of situations (see Magnusson 1981). Keane (1985) summarized the definitions of stress as follows:

"While some researchers have defined stress by the individual's response to environmental events, others have defined stress as an environmental event (e.g., rape, combat) or a procedural variable (e.g., food deprivation, sleep deprivation). Still others have preferred to define stress as a person/environment interaction, a definition that has become increasingly well accepted in the psychological literature."

Harel (1988) feels these definitions are in line with socio-ecological theory which "stipulates that factors external to the individual and the individual's reaction to these factors influence behavior, adjustment, and well-being" (p. 576). In view of this definition and the previously presented conceptualization for stressors, life situations and episodes can be linked directly to types of stress/stressors. Sjoberg (1981) examined life situations and episodes as the basis for situational influence on behavior. He defined the individual's life situation as a relatively stable set of needs, abilities, conceptual structures and external conditions. Episodes were defined in terms of time, from very brief to very long. These definitions parallel those for micro-, macro-, chronic, and acute stressors. This clearly puts stress in the domain of a situational influence. As a situational influence, stress can be applied to each of the three definitional viewpoints of a situation. objective, subjective, and person/environment (Leigh and Martin 1981).

The Objective Situation

For those theorists who view situations as objective in nature (Belk 1975), stress can be examined in relation to the five situational characteristics: physical and social surroundings, task definition, temporal perspective, and antecedent states. These characteristics can be considered as stressors or causative factors creating a stressful situation. For example, physical stressors might include a crowded mall (Harrell, Hutt, and Anderson 1980), a dirty supermarket, lack of parking or product assortment. A person encountering any one of these factors may consider it a stressful situation. Social stressors could include salespeople, shopping with children, shopping alone, or shopping with an indifferent friend or spouse. The intent to select, shop for or obtain information about a purchase refers to task definition. Such tasks as gift-giving, last-minute Christmas shopping, or failure to obtain the needed information to make an optimal decision may serve as stressors.

Time constraints, a temporal perspective, have been addressed in both the stress and situational influence literature. The definition of stress (see p. 2) offered by Maes, Vingerhoets and Van Heck (1987) points out the disparity between environmental demands (e.g., shopping, household chores, or job-related demands) and a person's capacity to cope with these demands (i.e., handle these tasks within the limited time available). This disparity of demands and available time is common in two-income households (Burke 1986; Lewis and Cooper 1987) and in persons experiencing job-related stress (Pavett 1986). It might be even more applicable to single parents who have no one with whom to share responsibilities. In contrast, for older consumers, the excess of available time associated with retirement is often found to be stressful (Palmore, Cleveland, Nowlin, Ramm and Siegler 1979).

In the consumer behavior literature, time pressure has been reported to influence store choice and store attribute saliencies (Mattson 1982). The increased importance of immediate salesperson attention, broad product selection, and store familiarity were revealed as factors important to time-pressured shoppers. Park, Iyer, and Smith (1989) maintain that store knowledge and available time for shopping affected unplanned buying, brand switching, and level of purchase volume deliberation. Under time pressure, the frequency of failure to make intended purchases increased.

Finally, stress can be related to the fifth characteristic of objective situations, antecedent states (i.e., moods and/or momentary conditions). These conditions are stipulated to be immediately antecedent to the current situation in order to distinguish between those states which the individual brings to the situation and those which result from the situation. Research in psychology and medicine suggests stress can lead to such emotional states as anxiety and panic (Schafer 1978), depression (Brown and Siegel 1988), guilt and distress (Janis and Mann 1977), a variety of diseases (Cooper 1983; Hendrix, Steel and Schultz 1987), alcohol abuse (Palmore et al. 1979), and marital difficulties (Plummer and Koch-Hattem 1986). Further evidence is offered by consumer behavior researchers. Gardner and Vandersteel (1984, p. 525), suggest "mild, transient, pervasive feeling states or 'moods' may influence one's ongoing behavior."

It is important, however, to recognize that stress does not always have a negative impact. Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snock and Rosenthal (1964) report that in some situations stress can be an energizer resulting in increased motivation. Janis and Mann (1977) suggest that stress can be an incentive in the "work of worrying" that forces a person to be more thorough and complete. In Sjoberg's 1981 life situation study, "instrumental actions" (toward a goal) tended to be deeper in intention, and also tended to be carried out in somewhat more tense and unpleasant moods.

The Subjective Situation

Theorists supporting the subjective definition of situations [whether and how the subject perceives, processes, and responds to the situation (Kakkar and Lutz 1981)], can view stress as suggested by Lazarus, DeLongis, Folkman, and Gruen (1985, p. 770):

"...our view is that stress lies not in the environmental input but in the person's appraisal of the relationship between that input and its demands and the person's agendas (e.g., beliefs, commitments, goals) and capabilities to meet, mitigate, and alter these demands in the interests of well-being."

It is conceivable that two persons encountering the same environmental situation will react quite differently. For example, two drivers may react differently to rush hour traffic (a stressor) even though both encounter it on a daily basis. One may find it to be very stressful while the other has little reaction.

Lazarus et al. (1985, p. 770), however, expressed concern with the subjective approach to defining stress: 'The searching whether and how relational, cognitive approaches to psychological stress, which draw on subjectively defined assessments of stress, can overcome the dangers of confounding and circularity." Cote (1985, p.40) shares the same concerns in discussing the subjective definition of situations, "This definition, in fact, contains two separate issues, what is a situation, and what is the subject's response to the situation. Taken to the extreme, the subjective definition of situations is actually a type of behavior because it is concerned with response.' If a consumer's stress level increases because they are not able to find "just the right gift for Uncle Lou" the resulting stress can be viewed as a predisposition taken to the next situation. This circularity issue can be limited by examining relational definitions

The Person/Environment Situation

Finally, for those theorists adopting the interactionist approach to situations (Magnusson 1981; Snyder 1981), a view that encompasses both the actual and perceptual dimensions, stress can be included as a person-bound variable. It can be both a predisposition brought to the situation and a response to the interaction between the person and the environment (e.g., a chronically stressed consumer may experience acute stress when encountering a crowded shopping mall with only one hour to complete their purchasing). In this situation, the crowded shopping mall and time constraints can be viewed as acute or episodic stressors, that in interaction with the predisposition "stress," could result in a situation described as stressful.

While much of the psychology and marketing literature suggests that situations represent an understandable and predictable source of consumer behavior variance, Cote (1985) proposes that situation research should not focus on explaining variability, but rather on why and how situations affect behavior. Having established that stress is a plausible situational influence, the discussion will now turn to how consumers might respond to stress in their buying behavior.


Coping Behavior

Situational stimuli that influence behavior may be processed either consciously or unconsciously. Conscious behavior may then be determined, in part, by those cognitive processes which govern the encoding and categorization of incoming stimuli. As a result, the individual can attend to salient environmental features, and respond with an appropriate problem solving or learned behavioral strategy (Snyder 1981). In a stressful situation, individuals react through the invocation of coping patterns, with coping defined herein as "the use of cognitive processes and problem-solving behaviors that are invoked to reduce or manage anxiety and other distressing emotion states" (Folkman and Lazarus 1988). Janis and Mann (1977) identified five coping patterns that affect decision-making: (1) unconflicted adherence; (2) unconflicted change; (3) defensive avoidance; (4) hyper-vigilance; and (5) vigilance. Unconflicted adherence would occur when a person perceives no serious threat from his/her current course of action and no change in behavior is warranted. Unconflicted change occurs when a stressor is perceived and the appropriate reaction is readily apparent, such as looking for a gas station when the gas gauge approach empty. Generally, unconflicted adherence and unconflicted change would occur in low stress situations.

When stress is higher, a person may practice defensive avoidance. A person may avoid making any decision when a stressor is perceived and no acceptable alternative is readily apparent. Hyper-vigilance occurs when potential risks are high, little decision-making time is available, and behavior is automatic, e.g., in situations such as when a tornado is present and heading to the basement is the obvious decision. A less excited state is vigilance. In this situation the threat is serious but potential alternatives are still considered. Unlike a person in a panic-like (hyper-vigilant) state, a person in a vigilant state can still gather information and consider alternatives. In these situations, improvement in decision-making could result from training, e.g., teaching pilots to deal with emergencies.


It is not the intent of this paper to provide an exhaustive review of the stress literature but rather to illustrate the potential links between stress, the coping patterns employed, and consumer behavior. Research in both psychology and management indicates that the type of coping pattern adopted in response to stress can affect an individual's ability to process information and identify and consider alternative solutions. It is proposed that these phenomena are rich in implications for understanding consumer information processing and identification of alternatives.

Information Processing

Stress literature suggests that high levels of stress can impair information processing by narrowing perceptual attention and limiting the ability to assimilate available information (Janis 1982). The effects of stress on information processing depend, in part, on the amount of time available to make the decision. Janis and Mann (1977) maintain that given the belief that an acceptable course of action in a stressful situation exists, and that there is a sufficient amount of time to discover that action, an individual will engage in a vigilant coping pattern. In this case, stress may be perceived as positive because it could result in heightened information processing (i.e., individuals would search actively for all relevant information regarding the problem). Alternatively, if the individual perceives that an appropriate course of action exists but does not believe an appropriate amount of time can be allocated to its discovery, a hyper-vigilant coping pattern may emerge, and information processing could be impaired because of high emotional arousal. Individuals in this state will be overly reactive to the MOST AVAILABLE types of information. However, when no real alternative is believed to exist, individuals may cope by using a defensive avoidance pattern. This individual may suffer from impaired information processing because of the tendency to either exaggerate positive consequences, or minimize the negative.

Other researchers also propose that high levels of stress effect information processing. Beach (1982, p. 190) states that "if time constraints are imposed under high stress, the result is a frantic search for a way out, shortsightedness, impulsive selection of an action without seeking or appraising relevant information or consideration of consequences." Others report that stressed individuals are more likely to weigh negative information most heavily (Wright 1974), cope by suppressing thoughts and feelings about the stressful event, and "selectively ignore" certain information (Parkes 1984). Gray and Calsyn (1989) report that stress causes some people to seek out information and advice, as well as, moral support.

From a consumer behavior perspective, information processing is thought to be fundamental to the assimilation and utilization of information used in making consumption-related decisions. Since stress does appear to have an influence on information processing, it is proposed that this phenomenon could be, in part, a determinant of patterns of consumer behavior. It can be inferred that consumers in stress situations would attempt to selectively process information. In a study examining role overload for husbands and wives, Foxman and Burns (1987) argue that when one spouse is underloaded and one overloaded, information acquisition activities will be carried out by the underloaded spouse. In contrast, when both spouses experience role overload, shortened information acquisition activities, minimal joint decision-making, and extensive use of convenience items will prevail.

In some stressful situations, consumers will engage in vigilant coping behavior. Locander and Hermann (1979) found higher levels of anxiety were related to social information seeking. In an earlier study, Bell (1967) found automobile shoppers with low psychosocial certainty and high performance certainty, were more likely to take friends with them on shopping trips for social support.

Other consumers will employ defensive avoidance when faced with a stressful situation. Sjoberg (1981, p. 272) states, "Perhaps people strive less for the satisfaction of needs or the fulfillment of value-based commitments than they strive to avoid unpleasant actions and situations." In family purchase decisions, when stress results from conflict among family members Peter and Olson (1990, p. 388) state, "Some consumers might procrastinate, ignoring the problem and hoping that the situation will improve by itself." This suggests that, where possible, consumers may seek to avoid a purchase decision in a stressful situation.

A major component of the stress management literature offers techniques to provide escape or diversion from chronic stress (Morse and Furst 1979). These techniques allow a person to become involved in an activity to change his/her focus away from stressors or to find activities that have a rejuvenating effect. The objective is a change in mood. Gardner (1985) outlined the literature on mood and describes how mood can affect buyer behavior. Consumers participate in activities such as hobbies, sports, meditation, and exercise to alter moods. Products like liquor, books, and music also provide escape from stressors.

Identification and Consideration of Alternatives

As noted previously, decision-makers experiencing high levels of stress may suffer from impaired information processing. Stress can also result as decision-makers attempt to find ways to simplify their decision by ignoring long-term implications (Simon 1987), practicing premature closure (Keinan 1987), and utilizing fewer data dimensions (Wright 19:.74). Premature closure occurs when a decision is made before all available alternatives have been considered. This is a result of reduced perceptual attention and limited ability to assimilate available information. In "restraint coping" behavior, consumers might intentionally hold off on a decision so as not to act prematurely (Carver, Scheier and Weintraub 1989).

A related facet of decision-making is an individuals' ability to evaluate information systematically. Keinan (1987) defines the inability of a decision-maker under stress to evaluate information systematically as nonsystematic scanning. Nonsystematic scanning is the consideration of alternatives in a nonsystematic and disorganized fashion. Isenberg (1981) found that time-induced stress resulted in more emphasis being placed on the speed with which the decision was made rather than the accuracy of the decision. From a consumer behavior perspective, Park, Iyer, and Smith (1989) suggest that this is more likely to occur when consumers cannot rely on memory or routine to assist in their decision-making.

Janis (1982) suggests that stressed decision makers are likely to experience reduced problem-solving capabilities and consider only a narrow range of alternatives. These decision- makers will also have a tendency to overlook long-term consequences, engage in inefficient search, erroneously assess expected outcomes, and use over-simplified decision rules. When confronted by a stressful situation, Janis suggests the more common types of decision rules invoked: (1) a minimally satisfactory criterion of choice (satisficing); (2) confining the alternative choices to small incremental changes when gross changes are needed; (3) deciding on the basis of what people seem to want without considering the outcomes; (4) giving undue weight to historical analogies; and (5) relying on either a general formula based on ideological principles or an operational code as a guide to action without carrying out detailed analysis of the specific issue at hand.

In some situations, stress can act as an incentive. Stress may lead to heightened vigilance, and hence, motivate decision makers to anticipate the situation, to engage in efficient and systematic search, and to employ appropriate choice heuristics (Arthur 1987; Beach 1982; Janis and Mann 1977; Kahn et al. 1964). Use of heuristics to make product choices results from efforts by consumers to compensate for impaired information processing. Bettman (1979, p. 188) states, "there may be strong impacts of task or situational factors on use of heuristics, so that the same individual may use different heuristics in different choice situations." When facing a purchase decision under stress, the consumer can utilize a heuristic to simplify decision-making. Bettman suggests consumers may use a type of hybrid heuristic (phased strategy) to help reduce the number of alternatives that need to be evaluated and to simplify a complex choice. When using a phased strategy, the consumer first eliminates some alternatives from consideration and then makes comparisons among the reduced set. Miller and Ginter (1979) found consumers when making restaurant decisions under time pressure increased the salience of service quickness. Price served as a basis for eliminating alternatives in a study concerning women's clothing (Haines 1974 cited by Bettman 1979).

In summary, decision makers experiencing high levels of stress will not only engage in inefficient search activity, but also may use a simplified decision heuristic. When levels of stress become more moderate, however, decision makers may be more likely to engage in a rational problem solving process -- engaging in higher levels of systematic search, and employing appropriate choice heuristics.


While the links have been theorized, little is understood about the role of stress in consumer behavior. Although this paper suggests more questions and issues than answers, future research can take direction from those examined. First and foremost, studies should be limited in scope. Eulberg, Weekley and Bhagat (1988) suggest models including stress as a situational variable need to be clear, specific and conceptually tight as opposed to comprehensive and trying to account for too many related themes. Only by limiting their focus can findings be integrated and mid-range theories made more meaningful. Second, methods of measuring stress in a consumer behavior context need to be developed. While a variety of measurement approaches are available (psychological scale Campbell, Converse and Rogers 1976; daily hassles scale - Folkman and Lazarus 1982; and Life Events Scale - Holmes and Rah-e 1967), it is not clear which scales are appropriate for consumer research.

Third, once scales have been adapted, the role of stress in consumer behavior can be explored. The roles of chronic stress and acute stress must be differentiated. Each type of stress might expect different coping behaviors with differing degrees of urgency. Other literature, such as the medical literature, can be explored to identify potential relationships with consumer behavior. Chronic stress, while perhaps more intensive than that generally experienced by most consumers, may lead to insights for consumer research. While the existing stress literature has placed substantial importance on the role of temporal factors, most studies have looked at stress as a static variable and ignored its dynamic nature (Eulberg, Weekley and Bhagat 1988). This presumes stress is an enduring characteristic and overlooks the adaptive capacities of consumers. Work is needed to provide likely theoretical linkages to guide future research.

Fourth, an understanding of the impact of stress necessitates an examination of mediating variables. More emphasis is needed on process theories rather than variance theories. Examining the relationships between a person and the environment seem to befit a process approach. It might be that furthering the understanding of coping strategies and behaviors may be more beneficial than the measurement of stress.

Finally, while these issues have not yet been resolved, this exploration of the effects of stress on consumer behavior does have some managerial implications. First, marketers must be sensitive to the existence of stress in consumer's lives, whether it be their lifestyle or some episodic encounter. For proponents of the marketing concept, this recognition may lead to strategy changes that try to accommodate and/or relieve some of the "daily hassles" faced by today's consumers. For a retailer, these strategies might include extended hours, increased customer service, better trained salespeople, home delivery, soothing atmospherics, increased usage of point-of-purchase displays and consistent merchandising. The periodic changing of product location within a store may increase stress as consumers spend more time trying to find the new location, leaving less time for other purchases which may result in failure to make intended purchases. Manufacturer's strategies could include active marketing research efforts to identify stressors, development of more convenience products and/or more direct marketing through catalogs.


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Lawrence R. Lepisto, Central Michigan University
J. Kathleen Stuenkel, Central Michigan University
Linda K. Anglin, Central Michigan University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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Consumer Attachment Styles and Preference for Sharing Products

Kivilcim Dogerlioglu Demir, Sabanci University
Ezgi Akpinar, Koc University, Turkey
mehmet okan, ITU

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H1. How Anthropomorphized Roles Influence Consumers' Attitude Towards Innovative Products

yuanqiong He, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, China
Zhou Qi, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, China

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