Decisions, Decisions... - A Behavioural Perspective on Hedonic and Utilitarian Choice

It might seem a given that most of us base our consumer choices between more overtly pleasurable, hedonic options and more practical, utilitarian concerns. But most behavioural decision theory has centred on the cognitive aspects of decision-making, largely neglecting the key emotional factors affecting individual consumer choice. Associate Professor of Marketing Klaus Wertenbroch and co-authors U. Khan and R. Dhar expand upon the William F. O'Dell Distinguised Award in Marketing-winning article, written by Wertenbroch and Dhar.

by Klaus Wertenbroch, Ravi Dhar, Uzma Khan
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The doughnut or the celery stick ... go to a party, or study for an exam.... take the apartment close to the office, or the one with the stunning view and accept the nightmare daily commute. It might seem a given that most of us base our consumer choices between more overtly pleasurable, hedonic options and more practical, utilitarian concerns. But most pioneering work in behavioural decision theory has centred on the cognitive aspects of decision-making, largely neglecting the key emotional factors affecting individual consumer choice.

Associate Professor of Marketing Klaus Wertenbroch and co-authors U. Khan and R. Dhar appreciate that "to fully understand the pattern of choice, it is important that any explanation of consumer behaviour is accompanied by a complete understanding of the interplay between a consumer's functional goals and experiential preferences within the decision context". Their working paper considers the two different theoretical perspectives that attempt to clarify the reasons determining hedonic or instrumental purchases.

The first is explicitly concerned with the context effects involving the various tradeoffs that come into play when choosing between the hedonic and the utilitarian. The second perspective characterises goods according to their ability to tempt and encourage impulsive buying at the expense of future negative consequences.

Unfortunately, the distinctions within and across both perspectives have largely co-existed without much integration, because they were largely derived from different theoretical paradigms in the absence of consumer research and decision-making. The authors attempt to clarify and organise the various conceptualisations, and review the empirical findings that may be rooted in these differences.

The study supports recent literature, which tends to maintain that both hedonic and utilitarian buying are fundamentally discretionary. This school tends to subscribe to the view that the difference between the two is in essence one of perception or degree. Moreover, it is too often overlooked that products can be simultaneously high and low in both attributes.

A pair of quality running shoes, for example, could be chosen for both their durability and their visual appeal. The authors propose that most personal goods evaluations are based largely on the degree to which various alternatives satisfy both desires.

The authors consider research done within the context of time inconsistency, which contrasts the factors involved in consuming for immediate pleasure, or for more non-immediate benefits. They discuss "shoulds" vs. "wants"; affective vs. cognitive preferences; "vices" vs. "virtues", response mode effects, and how "self-control" is commonly exercised through an variety of affective, cognitive and motivational processes.

They also describe the body of research on counteractive self-control, which suggests how people impose self-constraints on their otherwise preferred freedom of choice. This frequently involves complex strategy formulations that make personal benefits and rewards contingent upon acting in accordance with perceived longer-term interests.

After illustrating points of departure between the two theoretical perspectives, the authors indicate their commonalities and how they can be integrated. They then propose a model explaining consumer choice among hedonic or utilitarian options in terms of personal self-attribution.

They conclude with an effort to provide a common framework, claiming that "the two conceptualisations can be linked from two perspectives, in terms of the temporal streams of consequences of consumption, and in terms of the goals that consumers pursue in their decision-making processes".

INSEAD 2004

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