Time and Consumer Behavior: a Historical Perspective

M. Venkatesan, Wright State University
Beverlee B. Anderson, Wright State University
ABSTRACT - There is a resurgence of interest in the temporal dimensions in sociology and consumer behavior. This paper traces the history and evolution of the concept of time and its uses in economics, psychology and sociology and relates it to consumer behavior.
[ to cite ]:
M. Venkatesan and Beverlee B. Anderson (1985) ,"Time and Consumer Behavior: a Historical Perspective", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 282-287.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 282-287


M. Venkatesan, Wright State University

Beverlee B. Anderson, Wright State University


There is a resurgence of interest in the temporal dimensions in sociology and consumer behavior. This paper traces the history and evolution of the concept of time and its uses in economics, psychology and sociology and relates it to consumer behavior.


Time is pervasive in a modern industrial lifestyle. We have not just discovered the concept of importance of time in human lives -- philosophers have been arguing about the existence of time independent of human beings as well as the concept of infinite time, for a long long time. However, concern with time and its relation to everyday life received attention from sociologists at the turn of this century, led by Sorokin. While sociologists were concerned about the-concept of time, economists started viewing time as a resource in the 1960s and psychologists had been focusing their attention on the "perception of time" by individuals and time element was considered by experimental psychologists as one of the crucial variables.

The topic seems to have experienced a period of benign neglect and there is now a resurgence of interest in temporal dimensions, both in the concept of time and in the use of allocation of time. While there is a resurgence of interest in the study of time dimensions and particularly as it relates to consumption activities and marketing actions, still there is very little progress in empirical research in this area. In this paper, our objective is to provide a historical treatment of time as it relates to consumer behavior. Since consumer behavior literature has been traditionally eclectic, our review will follow this tradition and focus on the three major disciplines which have contributed to the development of consumer behavior vix., economics, psychology and sociology.


Economists have tended to treat the topic of time from two different conceptual viewpoints. The first considers time as linear and unidirectional, with particular concern for the relevance of past, present, and future in economic decision-making. Recently, the more popularly studied concept of time views time as a scarce resource which must be valued and allocated by individuals.

Past, Present and Future

The linear time concept of past, present and future has traditionally been implicit rather than explicit in economic models of change, however, in the past 25 years, there have been attempts to explicitly state the role and function of this time concept in both micro and macro models. Some writers have tended to view time as a series of discrete points (Koopmans 1957; Debreu 1959), while others have conceptualized time as a continuous flow (Bausor 1983; Robinson 1980).

The importance of the past in economic behavior also tends to be viewed from differing viewpoints. The first, and perhaps more common, is to view an individual's past as indicative of knowledge at a given point in time (Boland 1978).

Economists have also viewed the past (Robinson 1980) as important to understanding where we are in the present. This implies that economic decisions made in the past determine the resources available in the present and consequently impact those available in the future.

The value of present vs. future has also been examined by several writers (Arrow 1978; Bierwag 1978; Kula 1984; Olson and Bailey 1981). This work primarily has examined economic future against the present and has attempted to discern the reasons for variations in time preference, which impacts on spending/saving behavior in a given time period. The work of Olson and Bailey (1981) has also attempted to examine the extent of time horizons used by individuals in economic decision-making. Their findings were that there are interacting influences, but generally individuals do tend to place higher value on the present and less on the future. Bohm-Bawerk (1959) had made the assumption that "people systematically undervalue .... future wants" which was more or less confirmed by Olson and Bailey; however, not all economic writers agree with this proposition. For example, Stigler and Becker (1977) strongly objected to this assumption. A slightly different perspective on the past, present and future is noted by Robinson (1980), which concerns temporal sequence. So, while the importance of sequence is recognized, there appears to be little work done which has incorporated temporal sequence.

Time as a Scarce Resource

Treating time as ' a scarce resource that could be valued was first explicitly addressed by Mincer in 1963. He introduced the idea that opportunity costs of time in consumption activities added to the total cost of goods. He further implied that the value of time to an individual would be related to income. Later, Becker's work (1965) was the first to truly consider household production time. His idea was that the household was both a consuming as well as a producing unit and that time was required in production as well as consumption activities.

Most early work in time allocation in economics used a dichotomy of work/leisure. Later work (Kraus 1979) has incorporated Johnson's (1966) ideas by recognizing that an individual may have preferences for both work and leisure, which leads to a valuation different from the wage rate.

A recent extension of Becker's time allocation work is that by Grossbard-Shechtman (1984) in which he argued that market conditions regarding marriage influence the value of time in the home. This is based on the idea that "marriage~related market mechanisms create a mutual dependence between men and women who want to work, buy or reproduce."

Looking at the household as a unit, Sander (1984) agreed with Linder (1970) that economic growth leads to increasing time pressure. The thrust of his concern is that with economic development, individuals place higher value on time which in turn leads to more capital intensive households, thus the reallocation of time from household production/consumption inter-relations to more economically efficient activities or leisure. Sanders particularly looked at the interaction of the household consumer with sellers and/or producers and how time devoted to this activity is reduced in economically developed countries.

Shopping behavior was explicitly examined by Crafton (1979) in which he decomposed time components into three activities: (1) consumption of time; (2) travel time; and (3) purchase time. He examined the trade-off between higher prices and time savings, concluding that this trade-off is based on the value one places on his/her time and-is related to income level of the household.


There are currently over 150 psychological studies conducted concerning time each year (Fraisse 1984) and currently bibliographies that reference time list in the thousands. Attempting to categorize the psychological approaches to time in a coherent and meaningful manner is a staggering task.

Perception of time is seen as having its base on internal (biological) or external (environmentally determined) factors. The extreme of the biological position is that the human body is purely a timing mechanism; while environmentalists argue that time/timing is a learned phenomena. one's perception of time has been examined to include personal characteristics of age, sex, mental and physical state, personality, motivation, culture, etc. Also studied have been various environmental factors such as intensity of activity, empty vs. filled durations, variations in stimuli and context, goal attainment, attention, rewards/punishment, time cues, and a variety of other environmentally controllable variables.

Influencers on Time Perception

one of the most comprehensive models that attempts to examine the influence of various factors on perception of time is Doob's (1971) The Taxonomy of Time. This taxonomy is the basis for his book, Patterning of Time, and explored the complex interaction effects on an individual's perception and use of time. The factors he viewed as having potential to influence temporal behavior are: culture, personality, biochemical processes, temporal motive, time orientation, and temporal information. He further identified what he considered to be the three most relevant dimensions of stimuli which may impact perception: the interval itself, the channel and the temporal symbol.

Levine et al.(1980) is one of the few cross-cultural studies conducted that examined perceptions of time. The work dealt with time perceptions in the United States and Brazil and findings indicate that there are substantive differences between the two cultures. Research among normal Ss with different personality traits has not been particularly plentiful; however, Cottle (1976) cites the work of McClelland (1951, 1961); Strodtbeck (1958) Wohlford (1964) and others to support the notion that individuals high on need for achievement will view time differently from individuals with manifest anxiety.

While the exact nature of a biological timing mechanism is debated, many writers conclude that the presence of such an internal clock is beyond question, given the numerous instances of undisputable evidence that exists in nature (flowers, oysters, etc., cited by Doob 1971) and the ability of animals (Zelenil 1907; Feokritova 1912) and man to learn time intervals. The exact nature of an internal clock is convincingly argued by Holubar (1961/1969) to be based on alpha waves (10/second), while Fraisse has flatly denied this. However, Coffin and Ganz (1977) findings tend to support Holubar's findings that the alpha frequency is correlated with time estimations.

Temporal Motive is seen as relating to the goal orientation of individuals. The importance of the goal as perceived by the individual will also determine whether the temporal motive will be energized as well as the perception of the temporal duration. Gjesme (1981) found that very important goals were perceived as much closer than unimportant goals. He also found that the more an activity was perceived as being instrumental in goal attainment, the shorter the perceived duration.

Whether one is oriented towards the past, present or future has also been found to influence perceptions of time. For example, McClelland (1961) found that future oriented people are less concerned with duration of the present. Gjesme (1981) also found that future oriented individuals tend to perceive durations as shorter. Cottle (1976) has an excellent overview of the concepts of past, present and future.

individual knowledge of objective time (hour, day, week, etc.) will also influence perception of time. The importance of temporal information is also stressed by Zerubavel (1982) as a key characteristic of modern Western civilization. The standardization of time and the availability of temporal information allow interaction and coordination that otherwise would not be possible. The presence or absence of temporal information has also been studied by Fraisse (1982) and commented on by Holubar (1961/1969) as well as many other writers in the field.

Psychologists have experimented with time intervals from milliseconds to minutes and in some cases hours. According to some findings, individuals can best replicate time intervals in multiples of 10 (Holubar equated this with the 10/sec. alpha rhythms). Fraisse's work (1984) found that when the intervals were in hours and there was an absence of perceptual stimuli, the perception of duration tended to be substantially underestimated. The intensity of the duration has also been found to influence perception. Additionally, there is consensus that activity tends to produce boredom, and that interesting, enjoyable activities are perceived as having less duration than unpleasant or uninteresting tasks. Contextual changes during the interval have also been found to influence temporal judgements (Block 1982).

Finally, the role of expectations for the interval are found to influence its perceived duration. if there is closure (expectations are met) the time interval is perceived as shorter. But if, on the other hand, the expectations are not met, duration is perceived as longer (Block, et al. 1980; Fraisse (1984). Whether or not the stimulus produces a cue to objective time will also influence temporal perception. Environmental cues such as light, darkness, or hands on the clock will cue an individual to time perceptions and in many cases these will subjugate other temporal perceptions.


The recognition that time constitutes a dimension of social reality came from the 20th century sociologists. Sociologists were curious to discover how individuals spend their time, in what type of activities and with whom, to provide a picture of how individuals function within their total environment.

It appears that the first study focusing on the use of time by households was done in the Soviet Union in 1924 by Starumlin (Chapin 1974). In the United States, the first such study appears to be the study by Bevans (1913) focusing his attention on the expenditure of time by working men. A second study that appears to have made a great impact is the study by Lundberg et al. (1934) focusing on the use of leisure time in the county of Westchester. However, Sorokin (1939, 1943); Gurvitch (1963) and Moore (1963) are regarded as the pioneers in their efforts to develop a sociology of time.

Concept of Social Time

Sorokin and Merton (1937) and Sorokin (1943) make a distinction between physical time (clocktime) and social time. According to them, the concept of social time is qualitative, uneven, and is not infinitely divisible. It is an expression of the change or movement of social phenomena in terms of other social phenomena taken as points. of reference. They point out that the concept of week, month, year, etc., is a purely sociocultural creation, as none of them is a natural time period but only a reflection of the social rhythm of our life. For example, weeks of five days, eight days and sixteen days' have been found to have been associated with the market. In Sorokin's view, we use these concepts of week, month, etc., as the point of reference in our time orientation and time apprehension. Sorokin identified three functions associated with social time and they are: (1) synchronization and coordination (sequential timing); (2) organization of time; and (3) facilitation of rhythms. In this context, Moore (1963) has identified three elements of the social time, viz: (1) synchronization; (2) sequence; and (3) rate.

In the early sixties, a veritable explosion of studies in the use of time emerged both in Eastern and Western Europe, by sociologists who were interested in the expenditure of time by urban households. These studies (Meier 1962; Kranz 1970; Chapin 1974; Szalai 1972) were interested in observing how people elect to spend their time. The concept of "time budget" was utilized in these studies. A time budget is thought to describe, when, where, and what, as well as how much time is allocated to activities during a defined period of the budget, such as the typical day, week, season or year. As Robinson (1977) pointed out, that the term "budget" in these studies implied the presence of an underlying rationale in allocating time to activities.

During the 1960s and 1970s concern has been with the allocation of time and very little progress was made in conceptual homework. The two noteworthy conceptual advances have come from Robinson (1977) and Lauer (1981). Robinson conceptualized four types of time uses: (1) cross-time; (2) cross-section; (3) cross-national; and (4) cross-activity. Cross-time focuses on the changes between two periods, while cross-sectional deals with observations between two groups; cross-activity is concerned with changes in behavioral patterns and cross-national, as its name implies, looks at patterns between countries. He portrayed time use as being determined by four sets of factors, viz., personal, role, resource, and environmental. Personal factors, such as age, sex, etc., are linked to social roles and such role factors in turn interact with environmental factors and resources.

Lauer (1981) is the first sociologist to provide a cogent and cohesive explanation of social time. After reviewing different formulations of social time, Lauer indicates that time is not something that exists independently of human life, and social time is the central and fascinating aspect of human life. In Lauer's view, social time is a more inclusive concept than the clock time and the latter is unimportant or irrelevant as it has no necessary correlation with social time. He has provided a classification for the structure of social time, which breaks down that phenomenon into facets that are amenable for empirical research. Lauer has identified three broad aspects of social time, which are: (1) temporal pattern; (2) temporal orientation; and (3) temporal perspective. In Lauer's classification, the temporal pattern consists of five elements: (1) periodicity; (2) tempo; (3) timing; (4) duration; and (5) sequence. Periodicity refers to the various rhythms of social life. Tempo simply refers to the rate of activities, while timing involves the adjustment of various social units and processes with each other. Duration is the time period of which the individual is conscious and sequence concerns with the requirement for ordering of actions. The second aspect, temporal orientation, refers to the ordering of past, present and future. As opposed to this, temporal perspective refers to the image of the past, present and future.

There are other related concepts, such as self-time, interaction time, institutional time and cyclic time (Lewis and Weigert 1981). Suffice to conclude here, that there is resurgence of interest in providing appropriate concepts for the study of temporal dimensions of social behavior.


Treatment of time in consumer behavior literature ranges from providing conceptual basis for considering activities related to time/use in consumption activities, to its incorporation in the models of consumer behavior. Some have viewed time as a resource while others have viewed time as a constraint. However, the major concerns appear to have been with allocation of clocktime and with classification of activities.

While most of the consumer behavior models do not explicitly include time as a variable, there have been concerns with time dimensions. Of the available consumer behavior models, only two have explicitly treated time as a variable. The first to do that was the model provided by Howard and Sheth (1969) wherein time is treated as a constraint and their concept of time pressure in their model explicitly recognized that time pressure affected both purchasing behavior and consumption. The other model that has recognized the importance of time dimension in consumer behavior and therefore has incorporated it as part of their model is the one provided by Engel and Blackwell (1982). Their model views time as a constraint and treats time budget as parallel to money budget. Some other models of consumer behavior have implicitly incorporated some aspects of time, such as past, present and future (Nicosia model 1966) and decision and choice time in consumer contexts (Hansen 1972). Nicosia and Mayer (1976) have now come to advocate including time explicitly in consumer behavior models. Other "models" that have been presented in various consumer behavior text books do not explicitly or implicitly include time.

A number of consumer behavior researchers have focused their attention on time, with a view to understand its place and distinguish a number of conceptual issues. The earliest writer to focus on time was Wroe Alderson (1965). In his view, "behavior was activity occupying time," and therefore, allocation of total time available to the individual was of interest to him. With his concept of "hedonomics" focusing on the management of the capacity for pleasure, time was viewed by him as a basic scarcity when goods are abundant.

Schary's (1972) conceptual views follow closely that of the economists and, not surprisingly, he views time as a scarce resource, and limited and thus he posits that consumers will make their choices of goods and time such that they get highest possible satisfaction. Hawes (1978) has looked at different meanings of time, while Settle and his associates (1978) were concerned with time orientation of individuals. Graham (1981) has looked at three differing concepts of "perception of time", viz., (1) linear-separable; (2) circular-traditional; and (3) procedural-traditional. He pointed out that differing perceptions of time come into play in interpreting the time allocation by consumers.

Jacoby et al. (1976) provided a thorough review of the literature with respect to time and its treatment. However, this effort focused more on the evaluation of research. They proceeded to treat time as a resource and made some effort to provide a scheme for its allocation.

Traditionally time had been viewed as worktime and nonwork time. In a special issue of The Journal of Consumer Research, devoted to consumption of time, Feldman and Hornik (1981) had focused on the structure of time, viz., associated with time use. The recent modifications had to do with classifying the nonwork time into nondiscretionary and discretionary time or into nondiscretionary time and leisure. Engel and Blackwell (1982) have looked at worktime as "paid time" and nondiscretionary time as "obligated time" and leisure time as "discretionary time." Hendrix et al. (1983) have examined time spent in various activities as both constraining and motivating factors.


The importance of time in explaining consumer and consumption behaviors is now well recognized (Berry 1979; Sheth, 1983). A historic perspective is taken in this paper which has looked at the concepts employed by economics, psychology and sociology. There is resurgence of interest in temporal aspects in sociology and in consumer behavior. It appears that consumer behavior literature is still focusing on two areas of time dimensions, viz., time allocation via time-budget studies and classification of activities. Thus, while the sociologists are explaining, expanding and explicating the concept of social time, very little conceptualization has taken place in consumer behavior. There is really no conceptual framework at this time to look at the activities of consumers in their decision-making and consumption related activities. One framework of social time has recently been presented to facilitate looking at service marketing activities (Venkatesan and Anderson 1984). However, there is a need for a conceptual framework, defining the time concepts and dimensions that are relevant to consumer behavior and not principally focused on clock time and clock time allocations. Research efforts will flourish only when we understand the concept of social time as it seems to have the most relevance for consumer behavior.


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