Conscious and Unconscious Consumer Choice of Food Products

Master's Thesis 2013 31 Pages

Psychology - Work, Business, Organisational and Economic Psychology


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Consumer choice
2.1 The conscious in consumer choice
2.1.1 Bounded Rationality
2.1.2 The Elaboration Likelihood Model
2.2 The unconscious in consumer choice

3. Product attributes
3.1 Search attributes
3.2 Credence attributes
3.3 Experience attributes

4. Conscious and unconscious product choice

5. Methodology
5.1 Participants
5.2 Design
5.3 Materials
5.4 Procedure

6. Results
6.1 General results
6.2 H1 testing
6.3 H2 testing
6.4 H3 testing

General discussion


1. Introduction

When going for grocery shopping, some consumers make up their minds about what to buy and write down shopping lists. Others just go into the supermarket and do not really think beforehand about the things they need. Although in both situations, individuals engage in different ways of decision making on the purchase of groceries, when coming home and putting things into the shelve, they positively or negatively assess the things they bought. Whereas in some situations one gets a positive feeling because e.g. s/he purchased all the products on the shopping list. In another situation, a consumer might end up being bored because s/he just bought the groceries which are perceived as useful, and did not listen to his/her inner voice calling for more than just the fulfillment of utilitarian needs.

Generally, consumers can consciously do their purchases and decide for products after thinking on it, or can consider a product’s attributes and let their intuition decide. In the interest of the consumer, the question emerges how the consumer decides at best. Does a consumer receive greater satisfaction from consciously elaborating about the products s/he is facing, or is it better not to think consciously when facing product choices?

This question is differently assessed by different models on decision making. Whereas some authors (Ajzen, 2011; Bandura, 1986, 1997; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Payne et al., 1993) emphasize consciousness in decision making, there is also a large number of proponents of unconscious thought (Dijksterhuis, 2004, Dijksterhuis et al., 2005, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c, Levine, 1996, Bargh, 2002, and Wilson et al., 1993). Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b, p.96) argue for the superiority of unconscious decision making by mentioning that “...conscious thought is constrained by the low capacity of consciousness”, which results in sub-optimal choices. With regard to food products, this general superiority of unconscious thought is highly questionable. On the one hand, consumers constrain themselves in taking into account only specific products which respect certain criteria, as e.g. with diabetics and food products with less sugar content. On the other hand, food products are also bought because consumers want to confirm their conscience by purchasing e.g. fair-trade products which among other things are associated with a fair payment of farmers. Other products possess characteristics which are not verifiable before consumption. Such food products e.g. are consumed for their taste and for their smell. Respectively these characteristics are summarized by what in literature is referred to as search, credence and experience attributes. And indeed, do consumers best decide on products possessing each of these attributes, unconsciously? These different kind of variables make consumer choices increasingly difficult and prevent choices from being put on the same level of choice making, as suggested by Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b).

A clear favoring of unconscious thought over conscious thought, as stated by Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b) is absent, and a more weighted perspective is taken. Taken well-established consumer behavior models, in the upcoming pages it will be analyzed whether it is more satisfactory for the consumer to involve in conscious or unconscious decision making, depending on the product inherent attributes.

For status quo research in decision making, it is not known whether unconscious or conscious deliberation leads to more consumer satisfaction in situations of product choice. Despite that in the past, decision making or maximization of consumer satisfaction were approached by psychologists and consumer behaviorists likewise, analysis aiming at combining these two fields have not been undertaken.

The current study tries to close this loophole and puts its focus on product choice, especially food product choice. Not only because of the human need to consume food, food products experience a special attention, but also because of the symbolical meanings consumers ascribe to it. According to several authors (Baker et al., 2002; Honkanen et al., 2006; Yiridoe et al., 2005; Zanoli & Naspetti, 2002), the peculiarity of organic food is that many attributes are not directly observable and “...that their ‘‘true’’ values cannot be verified by the average consumer...” (van den Heuvel et al., 2006, p. 297). Organic production method and local origin describe what predominantly is considered as credence attributes (Wirth et al., 2011). A consideration of credence attributes extends up-to-date research on decision making and provides this research field with a dimension which has not been considered so far. In addition to these credence attributes, food choice is also based on the usual search attributes (as e.g. price and size) and experience attributes (as e.g. taste and convenience). The fulfillment of needs, derived from this threefold attributes is the pivotal characteristic and difficulty in food choice, and will be researched in this study. A food product’s credence, search, and experience attributes are expected to operate differently on a conscious and unconscious level, hence differently impacting final choice and satisfaction from decision making. Based on these deliberations, the following research questions can be formed:

1. From the consideration of which product attribute in food choice in conscious or unconscious decision making does the consumer derive the highest satisfaction?

Sub-questions are:

1.1 From which product attributes does the consumer derive highest satisfaction?
1.2 What is the consumer’s satisfaction from conscious and unconscious choice?

The results to these research questions will contribute to consumer behavior and psychology research by providing a more balanced approach to research on decision making.

From the outcome of this study, marketing professionals and policy makers are able to derive recommendations for actions alike. A dominance of conscious or unconscious thought depending on search, credence or experience attributes gives insights for marketers for designing more consumer friendly advertising and product packaging. For food designers, insights are gained which allow for an appropriate balancing of perceived product attributes, in order to maximize consumer satisfaction, increase re-purchase and finally brand loyalty. Further opportunities for market practitioners arise ranging from supply of product information until in-store distraction. Policy makers on the other hand, receive insights in the possibilities to design more consumer satisfactory social marketing campaigns as well as to more positively influence healthy consumer choices.

2. Consumer choice

Research on consumer behavior has long been characterized by consumer decision making models, which placed consciousness at their core. According to Oettingen et al. (2005, p.668), scholars who regarded consciousness as an underlying principle of their theories are located in the field of goal setting and goal pursuit. Concordantly with Oettingen et al. (2005), Chartrand and Bargh (1999, p.463) refer to consciousness in models on motivation and self-regulation.

In the current part on conscious consumer choice, the theory of planned behavior is used for highlighting the dominant consideration of conscious deliberation in consumer behavior models. This theory, as one of the most influential models of consumer behavior in the last decades, shall be roughly outlined and its approval of conscious deliberation on behavior is illustrated. Also in the context of a conscious engagement in behavior, but rather aiming at a strong reduction of complexity in decision making, the theory of bounded rationality is going to be examined. According to Bargh and Chartrand (1999, p.463), in the field of psychology there was a change in research going on from perceiving a person’s behavior as an outcome of purely conscious deliberations, to so called “dual process models”. Dual process models understand attitude formation, thought or behavior as an outcome of two distinct processes which can be characterized as rather being effortful and conscious, or as automatic and effortless (Petty and Cacioppo, 1989; Smith and DeCoster, 2000). For current purposes, the Elaboration Likelihood Model is roughly depicted and its conceptualization of the peripheral process in consumer behavior is highlighted. In the following, this dimension is going to be deepened by the outlined investigations by Dijksterhuis (2004) and Dijksterhuis et al. (2005, 2006b, 2006b). According to them, the two cognitive processes in which an individual can get involved are conscious and unconscious thought. Dijksterhuis et al. (2005) argue that a large number of choices are actually made unconsciously and to a large extent influenced by the environment, which in complex decisions prevail conscious deliberation. In the following, Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b) introduced a theory of unconscious thought, which somewhat alleviates the superiority of unconscious thinking and bounds its advantageousness to some basic principles.

2.1 The conscious in consumer choice

Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior is a very influential conscious choice model in consumer behavior and is intended here to be used as an example for conscious deliberation on behavior. Generally speaking, the theory of planned behavior “...is designed to predict and explain human behavior in specific contexts” (Ajzen, 1991, p.181). It recognizes three factors of influence to predict behavioral intention which, if large enough, is transformed into actual behavior. These factors are attitude towards the behavior, subjective norm and perceived behavioral control. Attitude is based on behavioral beliefs, and implies that the intention towards the final behavior is positively influenced by a positive attitude and negatively influenced by a negative attitude. Subjective norm builds on normative believes and integrates a societal influence on behavior via social norms. Finally, control beliefs give rise to perceived behavioral control which concerns an individual’s confidence in his/her ability to act, past behavior related experience and felt obstacles to behave. The degree to which a factor influences behavioral intention is not fixed but depends on the kind of behavior as well as the environment.

Whereas it is not inherent in one of the factors of influence to be conscious or unconscious, Ajzen (2011, p.1116) explicitly states that the theory of planned behavior is built upon “...controlled aspects of human information processing and decision making.” The theory of planned behavior’s interests, as Ajzen (ibid.) continues, are the “goal-directed” and “conscious self-regulatory processes.” By further assessing consciousness as a “causal agent” in the theory of planned behavior, Ajzen (2011) does not merely assign consciousness to all the factors of influence of intention to behavior, but also recognizes that the resulting behavior itself needs to be conscious. When laying one’s focus on product choice as a form of behavior, the theory of planned behavior merely refers to conscious product choice. Whereas the existence of non-controlled and unconscious aspects in product choice have long been recognized by marketing specialists, this has to be considered as a major missing in explaining (consumer) behavior.

After all, Ajzen (2011, p. 1115) himself mentions that because of methodological boundaries the theory of planned behavior “...may be reaching the limits of reasoned action.” Ajzen (ibid.) further recognizes limitations to the theory of planned behavior in explaining low intention behavior, and herewith indirectly admits to have realized the above argued missing link to unconscious influences on behavior. Indeed, although the theory of planned behavior includes the dynamic consideration of situational changes to the extent of influence of the factors on the intention to behavior, any further (unconscious) influence of the environment on behavior is missing. Above all, with regard to product choice as e.g. in a supermarket, this unconscious influence of the environment, e.g. via music or odors, on final behavior is of crucial importance. Although considerable critique to the theory of planned behavior has been expressed in the explanation of environmentally sustainable behavior (Kaiser, 2006), the theory of planned behavior can nevertheless still be seen as a reliable model to predict behavioral intention and behavioral involvement (Armitage & Conner, 2001).

When utilizing the theory of planned behavior for product choice, because of the consideration of consciousness as a causal agent, a conscious consideration of attitude towards the act of choice and all of its constituting choice alternatives, norms regarding a socially acceptable choice, and a person’s conscious self-control accounting for temptations raised by products and their attributes, rises a level of complexity which is hardly bearable for the consumer. Hence, in the upcoming section a theory of decision making is presented which is equally ascribable to conscious engagement, but intensely eases product choice.

2.1.1 Bounded Rationality

Originally in critique to economics’ reasoning on human decision making, Simon (1957) introduced the so called Theory of Bounded Rationality (Selten, 1999). In this approach Simon (1955, p.99) aims at replacing an “economic man’s” characteristics of having complete knowledge of his environment, organized and stable preferences, and the skills to calculate the optimal outcome from a given set of choices of action, by a more realistic assessment. A new conceptualization of humans as decision makers, bridges a large knowledge gap dividing psychological theories and models in economics by respecting the limitedness of the human mind, which allows only bounded rational decisions. Rational decision, as defined by Simon (1955, p.101), implies a decision making that “controls”, and thus “optimizes” decision influencing variables.

According to Simon (1997, p.295), in situations of high complexity when for the human mind it is not possible to arrive at an optimal decision, humans strive at least for satisfactory outcomes. The search for a satisfactory outcome by Simon (1997) is called satisficing. The process of satisficing is oriented at a so called “aspiration level” (Simon, 1955, p.104). This consumer imposed boundary comprises goal variables which a product choice has to accomplish in order to be considered as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”.

An orientation of product choices at aspiration levels via the process of satisficing immensely eases choice situations. Figure 1 builds on the exemplary conscious influence factors of the theory of planned behavior and combines them with the concept of satisficing, as promoted by the theory of bounded rationality. On the one hand, the process of satisficing can be oriented at reducing complexity for every single factor, by respecting factor specific aspiration levels. On the other hand, since the influence of the single factors is also dependent on the actual choice situation, a factor independent more general satisficing can be employed. A positive influence resulting from the fulfillment from the consideration of aspiration levels is assumed to positively impact on the influence factors, which collectively influence behavioral intention. If the behavioral intention is high enough, the consumer engages in choice behavior.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Minimization of complexity in situations of product choice

The theory of bounded rationality in combination with a model assessing conscious consumer behavior, as e.g. the theory of planned behavior, positively contributes to a realistic assessment of consciously considered product choices. It complies with the human mind’s limitations by the implementation of a categorization of choice into satisfactory and unsatisfactory as an outcome of the satisficing process, and considers explanatory variables for an employment in behavior. But despite this advancement, a consideration of any unconscious influence is still missing.

2.1.2 The Elaboration Likelihood Model

The elaboration likelihood model principally deals with attitude formation and change via persuasive communication, as e.g. advertisement communication. In brief, an attitude change can be reached via a “central route” and a “peripheral route” (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). The central route of persuasion is characterized by a conscious and thoughtful elaboration of transmitted information. If individual and situational factors motivate and enable the consumer to process the communicated content and to put it into relation with his/her experience and current attitude (Lien, 2001, p.302), a high elaboration likelihood results which leads to a long lasting and stable attitude change.

But if elaboration likelihood is low since consumers are unmotivated, or they do not have the cognitive abilities available to process the communicated information sufficiently, then consumers are assumed to not consciously elaborate the communicated information, but to be susceptible for an change in attitude via “peripheral cues” (Petty et al., 1997). Lien (2001, p.302) identifies peripheral cues to be e.g. the number of given arguments or stimulus characteristics.

In contrast to the so far considered conscious models, the elaboration likelihood model is one of the first models which explicitly considers a less thoughtful and more associative way of consumer’s attitude access.

When not remaining on the surface by considering an attitude access via peripheral cues, but digging deeper to an access of beliefs, values, behavioral norms, one can speak of an access to an individual’s personal identity (Oyserman, 2009, p. 252). In addition to a personal identity, an individual possesses social identities consisting of group memberships and related beliefs on the groups’ perceptions of the world. Personal and social identities are assumed to jointly and constitutively construct the selfconcept (Howard, 2000), and to positively correlate.

With reference to the elaboration likelihood model and its intention of persuasive communication, an access to a consumer’s identities via the peripheral route highlights the possibility to direct a consumer’s behavior towards a confirmation of these identities.

In contrast to figure 1, the elaboration likelihood model in combination with the concept of an individual’s identities, emphasizes that consumers do not only strive for a product choice via conscious deliberation, but also search for a confirmation of one’s identities which is less intentional and thoughtful. Dijksterhuis and van Olden (2006b) put these two ways of deliberation into the extreme and researched on the conscious and unconscious deliberation of product choice. When confirming their existence, the question rises which route should be taken under which conditions in order to receive the biggest benefit.

2.2 The unconscious in consumer choice

For Dijksterhuis and van Olden (2006b), the answer is straightforward: post-choice satisfaction is higher from unconscious thinking than from conscious thinking. In their research, based on a study by Wilson et al. (1993), Dijksterhuis and van Olden (2006b) let the participants choose between a range of posters. It resulted that participants who decided unconsciously reported a higher satisfaction from their poster choice compared to participants of conscious and immediate choice. Based on these results and studies on the conscious weighting of attributes (Levine et al., 1996, Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006b), Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b, p. 99) formulated “The Weighting Principle” of the unconscious thought theory, which argues that unconscious decision making is better at naturally weighting attributes.

However, the weighting principle can be questioned since it is based on participants’ lower satisfaction from conscious thought based on the introspection about reasoning. In their experimental design, Dijksterhuis and van Olden (2006b, p.629) let the participants “...carefully analyze their preferences...” for liking or disliking, which is known for resulting in lower satisfaction (Levin, 1996; Wilson et al., 1993).

Furthermore, Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b, p.96) introduced a principle of the unconscious thought theory which is called “The Capacity Principle”. They argue that the conscious mind is characterized by a very limited capacity compared to unconscious thinking, resulting in suboptimal choices. Apart from Miller (1956), the capacity principle’s underlying literature either focuses on rationally assessable attributes of objects (Dijksterhuis, 2004) or on the introspection about attitudes of objects (Wilson & Schooler, 1991).

Although there is no doubt on the limitedness of the conscious mind in elaborating huge amounts of rational information, a number of scholars (Simonson, 2005, Rey et al., 2009, González-Vallejo et al., 2008) strongly doubt the general superiority of the unconscious in elaborating large amounts of information. Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b) extend the quality of unconsciously deliberated choices covered by the capacity principle by referring to Wilson and Schooler (1991). Participants in Wilson and Schooler’s (1991) experiments mention a lower satisfaction from consciously deliberated choices on strawberry jams. The reason for this low satisfaction, again, cannot be found in conscious thinking itself, but in introspection about the underlying reasoning for an attitude. More in detail, analyzing one’s own preferences forces an individual to access his/her attitudes, but because the reasons for one’s attitude are not always accessible and retrievable, foci may be laid on a subset of reasons. In the subsequent attitude judgment, this subset of reasons may receive a stronger emphasis than appropriate, resulting in less satisfaction from choice.

Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006b, p.103) integrate the weighting principle and the capacity principle into the “deliberation-without attention effect”. They argue (ibid.) that “... the deliberation-without- attention hypothesis predicts that the quality of unconscious decisions is always fairly good.” More in detail, it is argued that because of the capacity principle, the weighting principle and the tendency of the unconscious to make summary judgments built on the available information, an unconscious elaboration is more advantageous.

The deliberation-without attention effect does not recognize any difference in the kind of given information the unconscious has to deal with and apart from situations when an individual implements boundary conditions on choice, it assumes a superiority of unconscious thought. Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999, p.279) take a more balanced view towards elaborating information and assume processes underlying thought which are “cognitive in nature” and “affective in nature”. Cognitive processes are identified to be controlled, dependent on processing capacities, and result in considerations about the consequences of behavior. Affective processes, on the other hand, are rather automatic, independent of processing capacities, and result in emotions, feelings or moods.

In their experiments Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999) proved that when an individual’s cognitive processing capacity is fully utilized, i.e. when an individual’s consciousness is blocked, the product which is higher on an affective scale will be chosen. It needs to be considered that this does not only hold to be true in extreme cases, when a product is highly loaded with affective associations and a second product is not loaded at all with affective associations, but also to less absolute cases. Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999, p.279) refer to such differences in the relative loading of affective associations by expressing that “...the consumer is likely to choose (reject) the alternative that elicits the most intense positive (negative) affect.”

This peculiarity highlights that in situations of product choice, the consumer chooses this product which relatively to the other products is more positively associated with affect. Whereas Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999, p. 279) assess cognition and affect as standing at the end of processes which are respectively more or less likely “...affected by the availability of processing resources...”, the deliberation-without attention hypothesis integrates the characteristic of resource availability of cognitive and affective processes into conscious and unconscious thought.

For later experiments, the notions “conscious choice” and “unconscious choice” are used which are respectively defined as a choice behavior which is based on conscious and unconscious object and task relevant considerations (Dijksterhuis and Nordgren, 2006b, p.96). Conscious choice takes the consumer’s attitude towards two or more products and their attributes into account, and does not question the attitude itself. Whereas in conscious choice, attention is supposed to be focused on the object of interest, in unconscious choice attention is distracted.

The combination of the theory of planned behavior and the theory of bounded rationality accounts for conscious choices and a strong reduction in complexity faced by the consumer.



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conscious unconscious consumer choice food products




Title: Conscious and Unconscious Consumer Choice of Food Products