Attribution Theory and Consumer Behavior (Abstract)

Bobby J. Calder, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Robert E. Burnkrant, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
[ to cite ]:
Bobby J. Calder and Robert E. Burnkrant (1974) ,"Attribution Theory and Consumer Behavior (Abstract)", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 432-433.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 432-433


Bobby J. Calder, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Robert E. Burnkrant, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Other investigators (Settle, Faricy, and Warren, 1971; Settle, 1972) have implied that attribution theory (Kelley, 1967, 1971; Jones and Davis, 1965) best applies to how consumers make inferences about products. It would seem, however, that there are many theories of decision making and information processing which may better serve this function. A better application of attribution theory lies in attempting to specify the social context in which consumer behavior occurs Reactions to the product-communications stimulus are not the sole determinant of consumer behavior. It is our contention that beliefs about what a behavior will imply about a consumer are also an important determinant. Attribution theory is best viewed as a set of ideas about the variables which control the nature and intensity of such beliefs.

The purpose of our research in this area has been to demonstrate that people do make attributions on the basis of consumer behavior and that these attributions are systematically affected by variables such as choice and the social desirability oz a product. Subjects have been asked to read descriptions of a purchase situation and then to make personality attributions about the individual involved. In addition to choice and social desirability, two of the major variables in attribution theory, our research also varied the type of product, in terms of its conspicuousness and need-relatedness (mascara versus deodorant), and the situation of use, public or private.

Subjects in this research were quite sensitive to all four variables, type of product, choice, social desirability, and public-private situation of use. The major results for the personality attributions may be summarized as follows: High social desirability implied a greater positive social evaluation (a factor composed of the traits such as attractiveness, status, sociable, popular, etc.), and this effect was even greater for the private use of mascara and the public use of deodorant. In contrast, high social desirability also indicated lesser personal effectiveness (a factor composed of traits such as wise, mature 5 successful, informed, etc.). Low social desirability indicated greater personal effectiveness for the deodorant purchase but not for the mascara purchase. Thus, the purchase of a high social desirability deodorant implied a socially popular but not especially competent person. In addition, high social desirability led to greater attribution of sincerity and generosity, except for the private use of deodorant. Buying the high social desirability product suggested the consumer was more talkative, more impulsive, and, under low choice, less critical. Again high social desirability implied the consumer was socially positive but not very thoughtful.

We believe that the systematic nature of these effects illustrates how attribution theory variables may be used to better understand the social context in which consumer behavior occurs. It remains for future research (1) to specify the effects of attribution variables more fully, (2) to develop a coherent theoretical explanation of these effects, and (3) to demonstrate that consumers are indeed sensitive enough to these attribution effects for them to affect their behavior.


Jones, E. E. s Davis, K. E. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. II, New York: Academic Press, 1965.

Kelley, H. H. Attribution in social psychology. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1967, 15, 192-238.

Kelley, H. H. Attribution in social interaction. New York: General Learning Press, 1971.

Settle, R. Attribution theory and acceptance of information. Journal of Marketing Research, 1972, 9, 85-88.

Settle, R., Faricy, J., and Warren, G. Consumer information processing: Attributing effects to causes. Proceedings. 2nd Annual Conference, Association for Consumer Research 1971, 278-288.