International Choice Modelling Conference, International Choice Modelling Conference 2015

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Goals constrain choices: the role of goals in choice set formation
Flavio Freire Souza, Joffre Swait, Jr., Christine Eckert

Last modified: 11 May 2015


Past research has supported the existence of choice set formation (CSF) processes as a means to ease the cognitive burden arising from individual decision making (Hauser, 2014; Roberts & Lattin, 1997; Swait, 1984). The motivations for decision makers to use screening/CSF processes are varied and restrictions that motivate the filtering criteria are diverse (Botti et al., 2008). More generally, constraints to choice range from characteristics of the individuals, to contextual factors and to attributes of alternatives, among others (e.g., Swait, 1984). In this paper we propose that goals can exert an influential, even primary, role in the filtering of alternatives, in addition to their role in final choice deliberation itself (Li, 2013). Our statement that goals play a significant role in CSF is not merely speculation, but based on past research demonstrating that products are perceived as means for the attainment of desired end-states (e.g., van Osselaer & Janiszewski, 2012). In this sense, the subjective value of a product is derived from its compatibility with the active goals that lead to these end-states (Markman & Brendl, 2000).

Consider the following situations which highlight the importance of understanding goal-based CSF. A traveller interested in history and religion may refrain from considering visiting Jerusalem so as “to avoid feeling unsafe”; or yet other individuals may prefer to travel by bus rather than airplane “to avoid the fear of flying”. Participants in an auction may do so “to gain social status”, not “to acquire rare goods” or “experience the thrill of pursuing a difficult objective”. A consumer may choose a decadently delicious ice cream because he wants “to indulge himself through eating”, rather than fruit pieces when his goal is “to stick to healthy diet”, or yet may compromise with some gelato or frozen yoghurt in an attempt to reconcile both goals. Strawberry gelatine, not perceived as contributing towards either active goal, might not be considered for this choice situation.

To test whether goals act as CSF screeners, we conducted two studies in each of two categories (tourism destinations and dessert selection). The main objective of the first study for a category was the identification of relevant consumption goals to be used in the second study. Additionally, we also intended to explore the influence of multiple simultaneous goals for each category, investigate their relative occurrence among cited goals, identify their association with desired outcomes (see: Carver, 1996; van Osselaer & Janiszewski, 2012), as well as gain insight into popular tourism destinations and dessert options for the sample. The main questions collected open-ended responses supported in real time by a text mining algorithm. This approach allowed the instrument of the first study to more closely align with qualitative laddering techniques, conventionally used to understand the “why’s” underlying decision-making, by probing respondents with their own answers.

In each category, we designed the second study on the basis of goals and alternatives observed in study one. The main task for each category consisted of discrete choice experiments with manipulated goal conditions. For both tasks, the dependent variable referred to respondents indicating whether they perceived the presented set of alternatives worthy of consideration for the given goal condition. Our between-subjects design randomly allocated respondents to one of three experimental goal conditions for each category. We selected one approach (A) and one avoidance goal (B) (Carver, 1996) from the list of goals previously elicited, to account for any potential differential effects (Florack, Scarabis, & Gosejohann, 2005), as well as a third combined-goals (both A and B) condition. We used a Balanced Incomplete Block Design, with 13 alternatives being presented in groups of four, in 13 different scenarios. A total of 367 valid responses were collected across both categories.

Our results strongly support differences in choice set evaluation for both of the categories as a function of the activated goal conditions: i.e., the perceived quality of a set of alternatives varied according to the goals respondents were given. These findings suggest that alternatives were considered on the basis of their perceived attainability of the activated goal(s). Managerially, this suggests that changes in product bundling impacts the perceived usefulness of the members of that bundle. Understanding how this phenomenon can be incorporated into existing models of decision-making, in particular how goal-based cut-offs are implemented by decision-makers, is a promising outcome for research that is currently being undertaken to develop extended goal-sensitive models of choice behaviour.



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van Osselaer, S. M. J., & Janiszewski, C. (2012). A Goal-Based Model of Product Evaluation and Choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 260-292. 

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