Special Session Summary Consumer Information Processing and Behavior At the End of Life


Fredric Kropp (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Information Processing and Behavior At the End of Life", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 533-535.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 533-535



Fredric Kropp, Bond University

Consumer decision-making processes have been thoroughly studied for a fairly wide range of products, however, consumer decision processes under extreme stress or in high emotional contexts have attracted less attention. The term liminal, originally used to refer to the threshold between life-cycle stages (cf. subliminal, as below the threshold), is now used to refer to the transition stage at or around the time of death (Gentry, Kennedy, Paul, and Hill 1995). A better understanding of consumer decision-making processes and consumer behavior at this stage in the life-cycle can help marketers to better fill peoples’ needs during a difficult and emotionally stressful period. In addition, as consumers are particularly vulnerable in the liminal situation, there are public policy implications, specifically, to provide protection for an extremely vulnerable population.

Previous research identifies three major approaches to consumer behaviour: the decision-making perspective, the experiential perspective, and the behavioural influence perspective (Mowen 1988). In the decision-making perspective, the consumer can be viewed as a rational problem-solver and the approach used is a function of involvement (see Zaichkowsky 1985). In typical high-involvement purchases, as the purchase increases in personal relevance or consequences, people are more motivated to engage in extended problem solving and devote cognitive effort to evaluate the true merits of product (Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983). Extended problem solving is usually associated with more expensive products, infrequent purchases, high consumer involvement, and unfamiliar product classes or brands (Solomon 1996).

In low-involvement purchases, those characterised by low risk, low cost products, frequent purchases and/or familiar product classes or brands, the consumer will engage in limited or habitual decision making. In these situations, consumers process information passively, often relying on heuristics or habit, with limited evaluation of alternatives. Although the level of information processing is less for low-involvement decision making, it still represents a cognitive approach (Solomon 1996).

The experiential perspective suggests that consumers may not always engage in rational decision making prior to making a purchase but are often guided by affect or emotions. Rather, rational explanations can be constructed after the decision is made (Mowen 1988). Emotionally-based consumer behaviours include reactance, impulse behaviour, and variety seeking. While the dominant paradigm for gift giving views human behaviour as instrumental exchange, embodying the rational decision-making perspective, an alternate view places it in the experiential perspective, that purchases are based on feelings and can be an expression of agapic love (Belk 1976, 1993). (The behavioural influence perspective starts with the concept that the behaviour is elicited by environmental stimuli including situational factors and the societal and group norms. As this perspective plays less of a role in liminal consumer behaviours, it will not be discussed further in the summary of the special session .)

The traditional approach to decision-making theory would place consumer activities associated with "final arrangements" squarely in high-involvement decision making C funeral preparations are high cost, infrequently purchased, uncommon services and products, and carry great emotional risk. Yet, people in grief often do not use strategies typical of high-involvement purchase situations (Gentry, Kennedy, Paul, and Hill 1996). The pain of grief can affect physical and mental functioning, leading to pain and confusion (Gentry and Goodwin 1995). As an example, in a study of vulnerability of those grieving the death of a loved one, one respondent said "I never had problems making decisions. After my wife died, everything was confusing. I didn’t want to make decisions" (Gentry et al. 1996).

Stress associated with grief may make people more willing to entertain the suggestions of others or even relinquish decision making to another party (Andreasen 1984). It seems likely that, under certain conditions, such as the death of a spouse, funerals might also be seen as a gift to the deceased (cf., Canine 1996; Doody, Jr. 1994). It also is possible that preplanning a funeral can be perceived as a gift to the survivor. For example, a promotional brochure from a crematoria society is entitled "The Considerate Decision." (The Neptune Society of Northern California 1996).




James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska

Cathy Goodwin, Nova University

The influence of the consumer information processing paradigm lingers despite the recent trends in consumer research to incorporate experiential, emotional, and social context perspectives. This paper discusses observations of instances where the active consumer information processor is unlikely to exist C we presented observations of consumer decision making during time periods following the loss of a loved one, noting the frequency of decision avoidance. Numerous accounts of personal systems shutting down, of disorientation and lack of the ability o concentrate, and even of destructive consumer behavior, such as ,excessive drinking and spending, occur.

The findings are based on more than 35 in-depth interviews with individuals who suffered the recent loss of a family member and, unfortunately, on participant observation in this process. The paper discusses the stated preferences for more ritualized consumer sequences (such as the funeral ritual itself or frequent visits to the graveside) and for the desire to avoid new thinking in terms of consumer decisions. Further, despite the pro-change bias so frequently observed in Western marketing, some consumers’ desires to focus on exit roles (displaying a wish to return to past situations) rather than the active adaptation to entry roles, that is, the norm in Western culture ("it is time to get on with your life"). The focus on exit roles presents an additional barrier to the consumer transitions often mandated by the loss of the expert consumer in the household (the grocery shopper, the financial officer, the yard maintenance person, etc.) beyond the consumer learning process more frequently noted by marketers. The paper ends with suggestions concerning how service encounters with people in the transitional processes associated with the loss of a loved one can be improved and ways to avoid unnecessary and clearly unintended service failures.



Fredric Kropp, Bond University

Aviv Shoham, TechnionBIsrael Institute of Technology

Gregory Rose, University of Mississippi

The authors of this paper propose that consumer decision making processes at the time of funeral arrangements are shaped by individual factors, situational factors, culture, subculture and religion. Examples of the individual factors include, age, gender, marital status, and previous experience with death. While these factors will influence individual differences, the authors of this study propose that the situational factors can have a strong influence on consumer decision-processing and consumer behavior at the end of life. The major situational factors are: the suddenness of death and/or perceived need, whether arrangements are preplanned or unplanned (also known as pre-need and at-need), the nature of the relationship between the person making the arrangements and the deceased, and the perceived fairness, justice or equity of the death.

The paper presents propositions, based upon the combination of the situational factors, that predict whether the decisions will follow typical high-involvement processes, will be relinquished to others, or will follow an emotional gift-giving behaviour(to others or to one’s self). For example, in very close relationships where the death is sudden and the funeral is unplanned, the survivor is expected to either relinquish the decision-making process or follow a gift-giving process where the final arrangements will be viewed as a gift to the deceased. As the relationship becomes more distant and/or the liminal period lengthens, the decision-making process will exhibit more characteristics associated with rational high-involvement decision making. The perceived "fairness" of the death will act as a moderating factor. For example, even though the death of a child may be expected, have a long limination period, and have the arrangements planned, the perceived unfairness of the death will make it more likely that the final arrangements will be viewed in the gift-giving paradigm.

The presentation discussed a series of interviews conducted to validate the theoretical framework with funeral directors, care-givers and hospice workers, grief counsellors, clergy, thanatologists and other researchers and academics working in this area. It represents a first step in understanding consumer-decision making and behaviour at or around the time of death. Although the literature on grief is vast and encompasses a wide range of areas, and initial work on discontinuities in household consumption patterns have been examind (Gentry, Kennedy, Paul, and Hill 1995), the impacts on consumer decision making processes and patterns have not been well explored. Second, as a model for high emotional stress situations, an understanding of liminal consumer behaviour will help understand other high stress decision making processes. Third, a better understanding of the consumer will have strategic implications for the industry designed to help meet consumer needs at this critical time. Fourth, as consumers are extremely vulnerable at or around the time of death, this study will have important public policy implications for the regulation of service providers



Carolyn Y. Nicholson, Clarkson University

Larry D. Compeau, Clarkson University

Rajesh Sethi, Clarkson University

While there is little doubt that death is one of the most devastating life-stages with which individuals must come to grips, we have yet to fully understand the consumption experiences and implications of funerals. After the death of someone in an individual’s close circle of relationships, the circle’s social and personal networks are damaged. Indeed, for the individuals in that circle, their lifeworlds become ill-defined, confusing, even overwhelming. The result is a sense of ontological chaos, the feeling that the individual is without control, a rudderless ship.

We explore in this research, based on first-person experiences of funeral rituals, the role that the funeral ritual itself may have in helping individuals come to grips with the task of defining new lifeworlds. Using data collected from in-depth interviews, focus groups, and first-person self-report narratives, we discuss the importance of various aspects of the funeral experience. In particular, we discuss how individuals may seek to reconstruct meaning in their lives by resolving, often through introspection and self-debate, critical paradoxes associated with death and the funeral ritual. It is through these contradictory ritual meanings that individuals attempt to re-establish social ties and, as a result, their own place in the new order of the circle.

Research into funeral rituals is critical to our understanding of vulnerable consumers. The sense of ontological chaos unleashed by a death may significantly impair many individuals’ abilities to make clear decisions with understanding of the long-term implications of those decisions. Instead, it may be that, until the lifeworld is re-enacted, in part through funeral experiences, these consumers remain vulnerable.



Michael R. Solomon, Auburn University

This session highlights the need to more thoroughly consider how major life eventsCincluding the cessation of lifeCimpact and are impacted by consumer behavior issues. A host of consumption choices accompany the death of a loved one. Our assumptions regarding the rationality of consumer decision making must be seriously questioned in the face of a barrage of emotion-laden coping strategies. A key question is, can consumers be rational decision makers given the powerful effects of denial, guilt, and grief, as well as the subjective state of disembodiment, reported by many mourners?. Perhaps, gradations of rational decision making can be explored in these situations by considering how cognitive activity is mediated by the classic grieving states articulated by Kubler-Ross (1969) , i. e., denial, anger, depression, resolution, and acceptance. Decisional dislocations during this time also have important public policy implications. For example, a departure from rational decision making potentially makes consumers vulnerable to those who assume the burden of decision making. In some cases, where the new decision maker is a family member, a member of the clergy, a benevolent care-giver, or a socially responsible funeral director, the new decision maker makin will try to maintain the consumers interests. In other cases, the surrogate decision maker may attempt to maximize his or her own self interest (see Mitford, 1998).

Other potentially fascinating issues include the role of consumption in reaffirming disrupted social networks caused by the loss of a loved one (e.g., the use of food and drink in some cultures to commemorate the dear departed). Another interesting issue is cross-cultural and gender differences in death rituals and in the sanctioning of emotionality. More work is needed on "product disposal." In service marketing terms, a funeral represents a great opportunity for dramaturgy. It represents an opportunity for post hoc reconstruction of identity through eulogies (make a saint out of a sinner), ritual, and showmanship. Lasting monuments to the deceased can be establish in the form of an elaborate headstone or a vase filled with ashes that perches forever after on the hearth.

This session served a valuable role as an impetus to more research on a delicate, yet tremendously important aspect of consumer behavior that, along with taxes, is sure to affect all of us. After all, the odds of dying are one in one.


Andreasen, Alan R. (1984), "Life Status Changes and Changes in Consumer Preferences and Satisfaction," Journal of Consumer Research, 11, 784-94.

Belk, Russell W. (1976), "It’s the Thought that Counts: A Signed Digraph Analysis of Gift-Giving," Journal of Consumer Research, 3, 155-162.

Belk, Russell W. and Gregory S. Coon (1993), "Gift Giving as Agapic Love:An Alternative to the Exchange Paradigm Based on Dating Experiences," Journal of Consumer Research, 20, 393-417

Canine, John D. (1996), The Psychosocial Aspect of Death and Dying, Stamford, Connecticut, Appleton & Lange.

Doody, Jr. Alton F. (1994), Reinventing Funeral Service: Volume 1, Product Merchandising, Columbus, Ohio, Center for Advanced Funeral Practise Management.

Gentry, James W. and Cathy Goodwin (1995), "Social Support for Decision Making During Grief Due to Death," American Behavioral Scientist, 38, 4, 553-563.

Gentry, James W., Patricia F. Kennedy, Katherine Paul, and Ronald Paul Hill (1996), "The Vulnerability of Those Grieving the Death of a Loved One: Implications for Public Policy," Journal of Public Policy and Management, 13, 2 , 128-42.

Gentry, James W., Patricia F. Kennedy, Katherine Paul, and Ronald Paul Hill (1995), "Family Transitions During Grief: Discontinuities in Household Consumption Pattersn," Journal of Business Research, 34, 67-79.

Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth (1969), On Death and Dying, New York, MacMillan.

Mitford, Jessica (1998), The American Way of Death Revisited, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Mowen, John C. (1988), "Beyond Consumer Decision Making’" Journal of Consumer Marketing, 5, 1, 15-25.

Petty, Richard E., John T. Cacioppo, and David Schumann (1983), "Central and Peripheral Routes to Advertising Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Involvement," Journal of Consumer Research, 19, 135-146).

Solomon, Michael R. (1996), Consumer Behavior, Sixth Edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall.

The Nepturne Society of Norther California (1996), Preplanning with the Neptune Societ of Northern California: The Considerate Decision, 2740 Hyde Street, Suite 100, San Francisco, CA 94109.

Wertz, Frederick J. (1983), "From Eveyday to Psychological Description: Analyzing the Moments of Qualitative Data Analysis," Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 12 (4), 197-241.

Zaichowsky, Judith Lynn (1985), "Measuring the Involvement Construct," Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 341-352.



Fredric Kropp, Bond University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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