Exploratory Behavior in the Consumer Context: a State of the Art Review

ABSTRACT - The areas of variety seeking and novelty seeking have not been adequately researched in the consumer behavior literature although they have major implications for advertising and marketing products. This paper discusses some of the major theoretical frameworks that have been proposed to study such behavior, termed exploratory behavior by psychologists. Specific applications of exploratory behavior in the consumer context are also discussed. Finally, some conceptual and operational issues in this area are briefly outlined.


P. S. Raju and M. Venkatesan (1980) ,"Exploratory Behavior in the Consumer Context: a State of the Art Review", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 258-263.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 258-263


P. S. Raju, The Pennsylvania State University

M. Venkatesan, University of Oregon, Eugene


The areas of variety seeking and novelty seeking have not been adequately researched in the consumer behavior literature although they have major implications for advertising and marketing products. This paper discusses some of the major theoretical frameworks that have been proposed to study such behavior, termed exploratory behavior by psychologists. Specific applications of exploratory behavior in the consumer context are also discussed. Finally, some conceptual and operational issues in this area are briefly outlined.


While there is a certain amount of preoccupation in the literature with consumer decision-making behavior and its culmination in repetitive behavior characterized by brand-loyalty, store-loyalty and the like, not much is still known about the processes and dynamics that relate to the decisions by consumers to seek variety and to try the new or novel product or to pay more attention to a new commercial or advertisement. The neglect is more due to a lack of a coherent theoretical framework appropriately modified for consumer behavior. However, such a framework and its attendant research results have enormous practical implications.

Marketing literature is replete with concern for the large number of new products and brands that are introduced and their high rates of failures. Elaborate procedures for concept testing (Wind, 1973) and for planning the features of new products (Green and Wind, 1974) have been prescribed. An understanding of why and how consumers are attracted to and seek new products will aid the task of new product planning and introduction immensely. The "adoption process" framework (Rogers and Shoemaker, 1971) for innovations, while adequate at the macro level, is neither adequate nor succinct in providing plausible explanations, at the individual level, about the process by which consumers become aware of the innovation (new product).

The number of empirical findings in consumer behavior literature that relate to variety or novelty seeking explanation are few and none have attempted to directly support any particular framework. For example, Maloney (1962), Morrison and Dainoff (1972) and Hewitt (1975) have investigated curiosity seeking behavior in the context of print and outdoor advertising. Ambiguity as an aspect of novelty seeking was investigated by Miller, Mazis and Wright (1971) and in the context of search behavior by Copley and Callom (1971) and by Deering and Jacoby (1972). Since variety seeking should vary by individuals, some researchers such as Grossbart, Mittelstaedt and Devere (1976) and Raju (1977) have examined the individual difference variables, such as "sensation-seeking", "intolerance for ambiguity" and "rigidity" in the context of seeking optimum stimulation from new environments (shopping experience) and in their intentions to engage in various types of variety seeking behaviors.

Conventional wisdom and common sense observations provide ample illustrations of consumers deliberately seeking out changes in their shopping environments and trying out new products, brands and the like. Faison (1977) correctly observed that if we follow the classical "instrumental" learning theory to its limit, we would conclude that the more times steak is consumed the stronger the bond would become, thus causing a preference for steak for the next meal. However, if steak is served every night one would tire of it quickly and would be screaming for change. Thus, he reasons that "in many cases what is desired is not a new or unfamiliar experience but simply a change of pace." (p. 173) This "seeking of change" phenomenon by consumers needs "process explanation" and also needs empirical support. Such a phenomenon has been briefly explained by some consumer theorists, (Howard and Sheth 1969, Markin 1974, and Kerby 1975) as a result of boredom. However, a number of elaborate theoretical frameworks in psychology have attempted to provide explanations for the novelty or variety seeking phenomenon in human behavior. A number of concepts have been provided by these frameworks most of which are not in agreement with each other. Therefore, a brief review of four of these explanations are provided in this paper. [This section on theories is based on the discussion of these theories in Raju (1979). For a complete discussion of these theories see Venkatesan (1974) and Raju (1977, 1979).] Only selected aspects of these theories are considered, as our concern is for their relevance to consumer behavior research and marketing. Only the concepts and relationships relevant to exploratory behavior are presented as exploration plays a large part in the processes of attention and information search by consumers. Such an approach, it is hoped, will provide a more complete explanation of consumer behavior in general and will also stimulate research in this neglected area of exploratory behavior of consumers. Therefore, this paper identifies some major conceptual issues that are likely to be encountered in researching consumers' exploratory behavior. Specific areas of consumer research where the concepts of exploratory behavior are applicable are also briefly discussed along with some directions for future research in each case.


The four frameworks that are presented in this paper have some similarities and some differences. All of the frameworks are based on the concept of optimum stimulation and the idea that such levels vary from individual to individual. The concept of optimum stimulation is that every organism prefers a certain amount of stimulation. In such a view, when the actual level of stimulation is below or above the optimum level, the individual would attempt to increase or to decrease it to the desired stimulation. All of the major theories dealing with exploratory behavior recognize the individual's attempt to maintain this optimum level of stimulation. Some theories assert that human beings have the motive or drive to seek variety (variety drive) or novelty (curiosity drive) etc. to maintain the level of stimulation. Accordingly, the motivation to maintain this optimum level of stimulation is inherent in human beings. A related aspect of exploration is that the optimum stimulation is viewed as varying from individual to individual and therefore individual difference variables such as personality traits, demographic variables etc. are likely to be related to seeking different optimal stimulation levels by different individuals. Thus, all of the four formulations rely on the idea of an optimum level of stimulation sought by the individual which is characteristic of the individual.

The second concept relevant to maintaining this optimal level of stimulation has to do with certain properties of the stimuli which have "arousal potential." That is, not all stimulus properties are capable of this arousal potential, but only certain properties such as novelty, incongruity, ambiguity, uncertainty etc. Such properties are viewed as causing arousal in the organism and arousal reduction activities termed as "exploration" take place to attain the optimum arousal potential by altering the stimulus field.

Novelty Seeking Approach

Berlyne (1960, 1963) believes that certain properties of the stimuli have "arousal potential." These properties are termed "collative properties" and include such characteristics as novelty, surprisingness, change, ambiguity, incongruity, uncertainty and the like. These properties of stimuli motivate the organism to engage in exploratory behavior in order to reduce the "arousal." Thus, exploration is aimed at altering the stimulus field so as to attain an optimum arousal potential. According to Berlyne, when the arousal potential from the stimulus is below the optimum level, the result is boredom; and when the arousal potential is above the optimum level of stimulation for the individual, the stimulus causes discomfort because it produces conflict, as the stimulus is in some ways similar to and in some ways different from the stimulus experienced earlier. In Berlyne's theory, exploratory behavior is manifested under both of these conditions. For example, when the arousal potential is below optimum, exploration is manifested to seek stimuli with higher arousal potential. Such exploration is termed "diversive exploration." On the other hand, when the arousal potential is above optimum, exploration is undertaken to become more familiar with the stimulus causing the conflict and such exploration is termed "specific exploration."

Variety Seeking Framework

Fiske and Maddi (1961) utilize a concept called "activation'' (energizing mechanism) and propose that the individual finds an optimum level of activation to be most comfortable. The level of activation is a direct function of the variation, intensity and ambiguity of the stimuli. According to this approach, exploratory behavior is manifested whenever the environmental stimulation is below optimum in order to seek stimuli that are closer to optimum. In above optimum conditions, this approach implies that stimulation can be reduced more easily by withdrawing from the novel or incongruous stimulus. Thus, according to this conceptualization, the individual attempts to maintain environmental ambiguity at an optimum through exploration, as large deviations from the optimum level of activation are seen to be accompanied by negative affect.

Hunt's Incongruity Concept

Hunt (1963) postulates an intrinsic motivation, of a cognitive nature, inherent within the organism and terms it "motivation inherent in information processing and action''. In this view, incongruity occurs whenever perceptual interaction with the environmental inputs fail to match expectations. This incongruity causes exploratory behavior. Since an individual is seen to most prefer an optimum level of environmental incongruity, Hunt's framework suggests that the optimum of incongruity determines the division of pleasant approach from unpleasant withdrawal which is more likely under above-optimum conditions.

GIAL Hypothesis

According to Driver and Streufert (1965), based on past experience, organisms come to expect certain levels of incongruity in the environments they encounter. This expectation is similar to the optimum and represents the adaptation level (AL) of the organism. Incongruity occurs when information received by an organism is in disagreement with one or more stored concepts. Thus, more or less incongruity than the expected amount is uncomfortable.

As the basis for their theoretical framework, "General Incongruity" refers to the total amount of novelty, ambiguity, surprise, imbalance, dissonance, disagreement, conflict etc. which an organism encounters, on the average, across numerous situations. Through experience, organisms evolve general expectations for the "normal" amount of incongruity to encounter in their environment. This expectation of general incongruity is labeled General Incongruity Adaptation Level (GIAL). Organisms which have experienced a considerable amount of incongruity in the past will generally develop high GIALS and organisms which have experienced mostly routine and familiar situations in the past will generally develop low GIALS. Thus, deviation from the GIAL motivates cognitive action to get back to the GIAL and hence exploratory behavior takes place. They claim that objects and events that are moderately below optimum should be explored primarily to provide novel incongruous stimulation. Objects far below the optimum will not be explored, possibly due to boredom. Similarly, objects moderately above the optimum will be explored if they are likely to yield congruous information which will bring the incongruity closer to optimum. Objects far above the optimum will not be explored, possibly due to the fear they may induce, and escape or withdrawal behavior is more likely.

It would seem that comparing and contrasting these four formulations will be helpful to gain maximum insight into theoretical formulations in this area and to develop a new framework suitable for consumer research. To aid such comparisons and contrasts Table 1 is provided which classifies these frameworks on the basis of four dimensions: (a) basic motivating mechanism, (b) operationalization of environmental stimulation, (c) relationship between environmental stimulation and affect, and (d) relationship between environmental stimulation and exploratory behavior.


In this section we shall discuss some fruitful areas of research on exploratory behavior in the consumer context. At the present time it is possible to visualize four major streams of research in relation to exploratory behavior. These are: 1) impact of stimulus characteristics on exploratory behavior, 2) exploratory behavior as an aspect of information search, 3) effects of stimulus repetition, and 4) individual differences in exploratory behavior. Each of these areas is briefly discussed below in terms of existing findings and future research potential.

1. Impact of Stimulus Characteristics on Exploratory Behavior.

Stimulus characteristics such as novelty, ambiguity, and incongruity play a major role in the consumer decision process. Using Berlyne's theory (1960, 1963) as the basis, Howard and Sheth (1969) postulated an inverted U-shaped relationship between stimulus ambiguity and attention in relation to a specific stimulus. In other words, a certain optimum level of ambiguity maximizes the attention to the stimulus. Goodwin (1979) has recently found supporting evidence for this in the consumer context. Miller, Maxis, and Wright (1971) suggested that brand ambiguity can influence the development of attitude toward the brand. They hypothesized that the consumer will shift his affective reaction to a specific product characteristic in the negative direction when that characteristic is linked to an unfamiliar (highly ambiguous) brand name, and that the magnitude of this distortion is inversely related to the prior exposure to the brand name. The results of their study supported the hypothesis the authors concluded that very high levels of brand ambiguity, as used in their study, may cause consumers to disregard the brand or evaluate it very negatively.



Morrison and Dainoff (1972) examined another stimulus characteristic, complexity, in relation to looking time (an aspect of attention). The results were in conformity with expectations and showed that ads which are visually more complex are looked at longer. Morrison and Dainoff (1972) however distinguish between looking time and memory. In their study higher looking time did not result in better memory in all cases.

Bettman (1979) suggests that stimulus characteristics such as novelty, ambiguity, incongruity etc. play a major role in the attention and perceptual process. According to Bettman (1979) such aspects of environmental stimuli can interupt information processing activities and cause a rearrangement of goals and plans. Bettman (1979), as do Howard and Sheth (1969), agrees with Berlyne (1960) that the underlying construct for such stimulus properties is conflict. Conflict is caused by competing and incompatible response tendencies. This often arises because parts of the environment or perceptual field are competing for attention (as in the case of novel stimuli), something perceived does not match expectations (as in the case of incongruous stimuli), or there are competing interpretations for a stimulus (as in the case of complex stimuli). With respect to stimulus characteristics, therefore, the following seem to be generally true: 1) Collative properties of stimuli are effective in terms of capturing attention. However, very high levels of such properties cause withdrawal and perhaps lead to the formation of negative attitudes. 2) Collative properties may interrupt information processing activities and cause a reformulation of goals. 3) The basis for the effects of collative properties seems to be conflict.

The most promising area for research on stimulus characteristics seems to be the examination of relationships between the various callative properties and the operationalization of such properties. The operationalization and measurement of conflict seems to be a particularly interesting area where considerable work is needed. As pointed out by Bettman (1979), in the case of conflict "the important need is for the development of an integrated theoretical and measurement scheme", (p. 103)

2. Exploratory Behavior and Information Search.

Information search is an important facet of exploration and optimum level theorists have offered various suggestions as to why information search often takes place outside a problem solving context. Berlyne (1960. 1963), for example, considers that in below optimum conditions of arousal potential, an individual manifests diversive exploration, i.e., looking for something new and exciting. When arousal potential is moderately above optimum, the individual explores the stimulus that is the cause of the conflict or discomfort. However, when arousal potential is far above optimum, withdrawal is more likely. Bettman (1979) has applied these notions to information processing and states that higher levels of information processing are likely under below optimum and moderately above optimum levels of conflict. When conflict is far above the optimum, extended choice or search processes may not be used, but rather simple rules in order to escape the situation. Howard and Sheth (1969) utilize the distinction between diversive exploration and specific exploration to categorize search into two types: search for information with respect to the brand being considered and search for interesting stimuli. Berlyne (1960) also identifies a third form of search behavior called "epistemic behavior" which is caused by the acquisition of knowledge for anticipated future use. This often results when a stimulus causes "conceptual conflict", i.e., conflict between the elements of the cognitive structure.

Streufert and Driver (1971) have also explicitly linked their approach to information search. We have presented below a very simple discussion of this approach. The reader is referred to Streufert and Driver's original work for a more elaborate discussion.

The relationship between environmental stimulation and affect proposed by Streufert and Driver is shown in Figure 1.



The abscissa has been divided into four regions. in other words, the stimulus an individual is exposed to, at a point ill Lime, might fall into any one of the four regions in terms of its incongruity or stimulation value. The type of search behavior manifested by the individual is likely to be different in each of -the four regions.

In region 1, the stimulation value is very low. The stimulus causes negative affect due to boredom. Since the stimulus is very far from the optimum, efforts by the individual to seek out novel aspects within the stimulus through exploration are likely to be unsuccessful. Hence the most likely behavior is escape. In other words, the individual will be actively engaged in the search for all entirely new or different stimulus which is closer to the optimum.

In region 2, the present stimulus is somewhat below optimum but is still associated with positive affect. Due to the positive affect, the individual will not actively seek out another stimulus. However, he would be passively receptive to other stimuli which can move him closer to the optimum. He might also attempt to increase the stimulation value by unearthing novel aspects and incongruities in the present stimulus, or by perceiving the stimulus in a new or different way.

In region 3, the stimulus is slightly above optimum. As in region 2, the affect value is still positive. Therefore, the individual will not actively seek out another stimulus but may be passively receptive to other stimuli which are closer to the optimum. He might also attempt to decrease the stimulation value of the present stimulus through exploration aimed at familiarizing himself more with the stimulus or reducing its novelty, incongruity, etc.

In region 4, the stimulus is again much above the optimum and accompanied by negative affect. Since exploration is not likely to bring the stimulation value to the optimum in a short span of time, the individual would manifest escape behavior and actively seek out another stimulus that is closer to the optimum.

Application of these principles in the consumer context leads to some interesting conclusions. When a stimulus, say a brand, is extremely familiar due to repeated buying, it will most likely fall in region 1. The consumer, thus, would be very likely to buy another brand due to its novelty value. Region 2 represents a consumer who has purchased a brand a few times and hence is only slightly bored with it. He would explore the present brand for information that makes it more interesting, novel, or incongruous. Thus, information put out by a competitor about a negative aspect of the brand might catch the eye of the consumer due to its incongruity value, which would make the purchase more challenging or exciting. Also, information on previously unimportant dimensions may be sought in order to learn something new about the brand. Region 3 represents a typical cognitive dissonance situation. Here the consumer might have bought a new brand out of necessity only to find that it is a little too novel, unfamiliar, or incongruous. Hence the consumer might find congruous information, such as from others who have bought the brand, reassuring. Region 4 typifies a consumer who chooses not to buy a brand because it is too novel or different. A couple of additional hypotheses are suggested by the above discussion:

1. In regions 1 and 2 the consumer is likely to be more receptive to information about competing brands due to its incongruity value.

2. In regions 3 and 4 emphasizing the similarity of a new brand to existing alternatives should make the brand appear more familiar and hence make the information more persuasive. In regions 1 and 2, on the other hand, the appeal of novelty or dissimilarity from existing alternatives should work better.

3. Effects of Stimulus Repetition

Thus far it has not been explicitly mentioned that the arousal potential of a stimulus is not a fixed quantity. Arousal potential decreases as the stimulus becomes more familiar. Thus, if a stimulus has optimum arousal potential to begin with, it will become less attractive with increasing exposure to it. In cases where the arousal potential is initially above optimum, increased familiarity would increase the attractiveness of the stimulus until it attains the optimum arousal potential. Beyond that, increased familiarity would decrease attractiveness. This explanation provides a compromise to the conflicting findings in the psychological literature regarding the effects of repeated exposure to a stimulus. Zajonc (1968), for example, found repeated exposures to increase the liking for a stimulus, whereas Berlyne (1970) found just the opposite. For a discussion of several competing explanations for the effects of repeated exposures the reader is referred to Sawyer (1977).

Just as continued exposure to a stimulus leads to a decrease in arousal potential, a period of non-exposure to an already familiar stimulus can cause it to regain some of the lost arousal potential. This regain of arousal potential is likely to occur to only a limited extent, however, since novel or complex stimuli, once explored, can never be as novel or complex again.

The above ideas can be applied fruitfully to the area of advertising repetition. It would be worthwhile to characterize ads in terms of their arousal potential and pretest them with respect to the number of exposures required to create the most positive feelings toward the ad and the brand. A recent study by Messmer (1979) found that in the case of some advertisements for beer and pet food, one exposure was most effective in creating favorable attitudes but further exposures led to a drop in such attitudes. It would be useful to have such information before the ads appear in the media. Sawyer (1977) has reviewed a number of other studies in relation to repetition of advertising. The results are not conclusive and there is considerable scope for theory development and empirical testing in this area.

Another area where these principles are applicable is "brand switching", especially for repetitively purchased product classes with little brand differentiation. A consumer may often keep switching between brands for variety.

Jeuland (1978) has proposed a way of mathematically modeling this type of behavior. His framework is based on multi-period utility maximization and, to put it simply, suggests that the utility of a brand is affected by the degree of past experience with the brand. Jeuland (1978) admits that his framework is a very preliminary attempt and that there is much to be done with respect to precise modeling of variety seeking behavior.

4.  Individual Differences in Exploratory Behavior

As stated earlier, there is evidence in the psychological literature to show that "optimum stimulation level" varies from individual to individual and is related to certain personality traits and demographic variables. Also "optimum stimulation level" seems to be directly related to the degree of exploratory behavior manifested. These relationships have been examined in the consumer context only to a limited degree but seem to have considerable potential for application.

Two recent studies have investigated optimum stimulation level in relation to consumer behavior. Grossbart, Mittelstaedt, and Devere (1967) found stimulation needs to be related to consumers' acceptance of recycled urban retail facilities because these facilities offered shopping experiences different from the typical shopping situation. Mittelstaedt, Grossbart, Curtis, and Devere (1976) examined the relationship between optimum stimulation level and the adoption decision process for new products and services. They hypothesized that high sensation seekers (corresponds to those with high optimum stimulation levels) are likely to exhibit a greater awareness of and a greater tendency to evaluate, symbolically accept, try, and adopt new products and retail facilities. Most of their hypothesis were supported. In addition, their study showed that high sensation seekers have a significantly shorter decision time from awareness to trial of new products. They attributed this result to the fact that high and low sensation seekers behave differently with respect to trial; the former use trial to make the adoption decision whereas the latter first symbolically evaluate the alternative and try it only if it is acceptable. High sensation seekers, therefore, proceed quickly to the trial stage and take a greater risk that the product will be acceptable.

In another study, Raju (1977) examined the relationship of optimum stimulation level with certain selected personality traits, demographics, and exploratory behavior. Both homemaker and student samples were used, In the case of personality traits, both "intolerance of ambiguity'' and "rigidity" were found to have significant negative correlations with optimum stimulation level. "Dogmatism" did not have a significant correlation with optimum stimulation level. With respect to demographics, those with higher optimum stimulation levels were found to be younger, more educated, and more likely to be employed. Relationships between optimum stimulation level and intentions to engage in various types of behaviors produced some striking results. Risk taking and innovativeness had the highest correlations with optimum stimulation level, brand switching and tendency to engage in repetitive behavior had intermediate correlations, and interpersonal communication, information seeking, and interest in shopping had the least correlations. These three sets of behaviors seem to roughly correspond to the dimensions of risk taking, variety seeking, and curiosity. On this basis it would seam that stimulation needs are satisfied most by risk taking, followed by variety seeking, and the least by curiosity.

The above results have considerable significance for the promotion of new products and for segmenting consumers based on their response to new products. For example, it may not always be to the marketer's advantage to place the promotional emphasis on reducing perceived risk. This could turn away those who prefer to take risks. Also, further research might reveal that those with higher optimum stimulation levels are different with respect to their decision process relating to new products. This issue is worth pursuing in future research.


We have identified three major problem areas which need to be resolved, in order to be able to advance consumer research in the area of exploratory behavior. They are: (1) questions relating to the optimal level (2) differentiation between extrinsic vs. intrinsic motives for exploration, and (3) the selection of an appropriate framework for consumer research.

Optimal Level

Various suggestions for operationalizing environmental stimulation have been made by these theoretical formulations. However, actual measures of environmental stimulation, especially those that are suitable for application to the consumer context are unavailable. Issues regarding measurement are generally not addressed by these frameworks. Therefore, one important task for consumer behavior researchers is to determine what is the best method of operationalizing environmental stimulation and to design specific measures for this purpose.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Exploration

Intrinsic exploration is viewed as resulting purely from a desire to maintain arousal potential at the optimum level. When such exploration is means to an end, that is, in order to attain specific goals it is termed extrinsic exploration. In such a situation, the issue becomes one of distinction between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motives.

If we detach exploration from the motives that caused it, we would have to find independent criteria for specifying what constitutes exploration. On the other hand if we define exploration on the basis of motives, one would say that the act of buying a new product or brand a priori does not constitute exploration. Thus, the goal of researchers in this area is to study the exploratory component of behavior no matter what behavior it is.


The most important problem facing consumer researchers is the selection of a suitable framework for studying exploratory behavior. Although it is difficult to say which approach is best without rigorous empirical testing, analysis of these four frameworks reveals that a new framework combining Berlyne's ideas with those of Streufert and Driver seems to be a viable approach for consumer researchers. Such an approach is already taken and a framework suitable for consumer behavior research in this area is provided by Raju (1979). Because of space limitations, this framework is not presented here.


The processes and dynamics relating to consumers' exploratory behavior has been a neglected area in consumer decision-making research. This paper has briefly reviewed four frameworks and suggests a combination of two of the existing theoretical approaches which may be suitable for research in consumer behavior. What is needed is an operationalization of a new framework so that exploratory behavior of consumers can better be explained and be made more relevant to the understanding of new product introduction.

The paper also discusses four major areas of application of exploratory behavior principles in consumer behavior. These are: 1) the impact of stimulus characteristics on exploratory behavior, 2) exploratory behavior as an aspect of information search, 3) effects of stimulus repetition, and 4) individual differences in exploratory behavior. Existing findings and future research potential in each area are briefly outlined. Finally three conceptual and operational issues in the area of exploratory behavior are identified. Resolution of these issues would greatly benefit theory development and empirical testing in this area.


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P. S. Raju, The Pennsylvania State University
M. Venkatesan, University of Oregon, Eugene


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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