The Status of Consumer Behavior: Some Empirical Perspectives

Gary T. Ford, University of Maryland
Philip G. Kuehl, University of Maryland
Robert F. Dyer, The George Washington University
[ to cite ]:
Gary T. Ford, Philip G. Kuehl, and Robert F. Dyer (1975) ,"The Status of Consumer Behavior: Some Empirical Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 51-62.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 51-62

THE STATUS OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOR: SOME EMPIRICAL PERSPECTIVES

Gary T. Ford, University of Maryland

Philip G. Kuehl, University of Maryland

Robert F. Dyer, The George Washington University

[Gary T. Ford and Philip G. Kuehl are Assistant Professor and Associate Professor of Marketing, respectively, College of Business and Management, University of Maryland. Robert F. Dyer is Assistant Professor of Marketing, School of Government and Business Administration, The George Washington University.]

The state-of-the-art dimension of consumer behavior has received increased discussion in the consumer behavior literature in recent years. This paper provides empirical insights into three prominent issues in consumer behavior obtained from a sample of Association for Consumer Research members. The three issues investigated in this study include: (1) the interdisciplinary heritage of consumer behavior; (2) the development and use of consumer behavior research and (3) present needs of and future directions for consumer behavior research.

INTRODUCTION

The state-of-the-art of consumer behavior has been discussed by several authors in recent years. However, a review of these papers suggests that divergent opinions exist among consumer behaviorists regarding the development of the concepts, theory and practices which encompass the present status of the discipline. This paper reports some empirical perspectives on three important issues- which are frequently discussed in state-of-the-art reviews: (1) the interdisciplinary heritage of consumer behavior; (2) the development and use of consumer behavior research and (3) present needs of and future directions for consumer behavior research. The findings summarized in this paper were obtained through a survey of the membership of the Association for Consumer Research conducted in November, 1973. Since ACR members have a professional interest in the field, it is believed that a survey of these individuals is an acceptable approach for examining the status of consumer behavior by identifying opinions on the issues addressed in this study.

The findings contained in this study provide potentially useful insights for three groups of consumer behavior professionals. For corporate, public policy making, and consumer advocate users of consumer behavior research, findings discussed here highlight the theoretical assumptions and practical limitations inherent in applying this body of knowledge to decision-making environments. For academicians and practitioners interested in advancing consumer behavior theory, perspectives generated in this study contain insights which can be integrated with future conceptual developments in the field. Finally, this study assists consumer behavior practitioners, theorists and researchers to define three aspects of the existing status of the field from an empirical perspective. Such a viewpoint is particularly appropriate for consumer behavior--a subject of study that has experienced a two fold increase in its literature base during the last five-year period [Kollat, Blackwell and Engel, 1972].

This paper is organized in the following manner. First, the theoretical framework encompassing the survey is presented and research questions which define the scope and thrust of the study are identified. Second, the research methodology and characteristics of the sample are described. Third, the results and findings from the survey are presented and, finally conclusions and implications of the study are discussed.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

An examination of state-of-the-art reviews by Tucker [1967],sheth [1972], Engel, Kollat and Blackwell [1972, 1973] and Ward and Robertson [1972] Stimulated the identification of the three major issues examined in this paper. A summary of the positions taken in each of these earlier papers on these three issues are presented with accompanying research questions in this section.

1. The Interdisciplinary Heritage of Consumer Behavior

It is generally recognized that intensive interdisciplinary borrowing from the social sciences has been characteristic of and contributed immeasurably to the development of the body of knowledge of consumer behavior. This tradition of borrowing has in a very real sense created an identity crisis in consumer behavior and has stimulated discussion in two areas regarding: (1) where consumer behavior fits in relation to marketing and the behavioral sciences and (2) whether consumer behavior will return more to the other disciplines than it now borrows.

Tucker [1967] suggests that consumer behavior is a necessary dimension of the marketing process and, yet, is not independent of the behavioral sciences. Ward and Robertson [1973] believe that consumer behaviorists have borrowed almost all constructs from the behavioral sciences while attempting to understand behavior in the consumption role. Sheth, [1972], on the other hand, believes that consumer behavior is neither a subset of marketing nor a subset of the social sciences but is its own unique discipline. These viewpoints suggest that agreement does not exist among consumer behavioralists of the normative identity of the field or its relationship to marketing and the established social sciences.

Another issue of concern to consumer behaviorists is whether other disciplines will begin to utilize concepts and techniques originated in consumer behavior. Sheth [19721 believes that borrowing from consumer behavior will occur in the less mature social sciences, in the hard sciences and especially in the social sciences which he says are facing crises of relevance. Tucker [1967] feels that consumer research and behavioral science research are coextensive and cosupportive. Ward and Robertson [1973] state that ideally consumer behavior research should add to the cumulative knowledge of the fields that provided the conceptual framework for the study, but appear pessimistic when assessing whether consumer behavior has contributed much to other fields

The positions taken by these authors on the two major issues concerned with the interdisciplinary heritage of consumer behavior led us to investigate the following questions:

(1) Is consumer behavior more of a behavioral science discipline than a subset of marketing?

(2) Will consumer behavior eventually contribute more to the social sciences than it now borrows?

(3) Has the study of consumer behavior really strengthened the body of knowledge of marketing?

2. The Development and Use of Consumer Behavior Research

A major issue which has permeated the development of consumer behavior concerns research practices in the discipline. State-of-the-art papers have generally castigated consumer behaviorists for their research practices ranging from borrowing irrelevant concepts from the behavior-al sciences to improper application of consumer behavior research findings. For example Ward and Robertson [1973] believe (1) that consumer behavior research is replete with unsystematic and irrelevant borrowing from the behavioral sciences and (2) that often times the assumptions of theories and constructs borrowed from the social sciences are not totally satisfied. Tucker [1967] comments that borrowing has been incomplete and very specific and that consumer behavior research results are of limited utility because of this. Engel, Kollat and Blackwell [1973] state that when theories are used properly they have led to insightful results but that too often theories are used improperly. Ward and Robertson [1973] see a danger in researchers concentrating too much on immediate applications for business without emphasis on the development of understanding. Tucker [1967] exhibits similar concerns when arguing that consumer behavior researchers should not confuse marketing theory with corporate practice.

These statements exhibit & common concern among state-of-the-art reviews regarding the development of consumer behavior research practices and led us to investigate the following questions:

(1) Do consumer behavior researchers borrow from other disciplines without properly evaluating assumptions.

(2) Do consumer behavior researchers rely on irrelevant or inappropriate concepts for the questions being investigated?

(3) Are consumer behavior models used properly or improperly by consumer behavior researchers?

(4) Is there a tendency for businessmen to misuse the results of consumer research?

(5) Would research findings have been different had they been based on comprehensive models?

3. Present Needs of and Future Directions for Consumer Behavior

When identifying the present needs of consumer behavior and future directions in which the discipline is likely to move, state-of-the-art papers discuss the following two issues: (1) long run theory development versus immediate applications, and (2) the need for and prospects for the development and evaluation of comprehensive models of consumer behavior

Ward and Robertson [1973] have stated that a basic conflict exists among the users and producers of consumer behavior research regarding whether more time should be spend on understanding relationships or on applications. Tucker [1967] recognizes the unique relationships and obligations existing between consumer behaviorists and businessmen but believes more time must be spent on developing more complete models.

Engel, Kollat and Blackwell [1973] concur with Ward and Robertson [1973] who state that consumer behavior research faces a "pay off dilemma" in that it has not led to any comprehensive and validated theories and simultaneously has not been very helpful in applications for business.

What then are the current needs of and prospects for the development of consumer behavior research? Ward and Robertson [1973] believe that the greatest hope for progress in the consumer behavior field lies in the future development of middle-range theories. Kollat, Blackwell and Engel [1972], however, believe that consumer behaviorists must begin relying on comprehensive models. Furthermore, they would not be surprised if over 90 per cent of research results would be different had they been based on complete models of consumer behavior. Therefore, Kollat, Blackwell and Engel see as a present need the development of comprehensive models of consumer behavior, while Ward and Robertson feel that the development and use of comprehensive models is premature. Sheth [1972] concurs with Kollat et. al. and sees a re-emergence of quantitative model building in consumer behavior research. Kollat et. al. also comment on the need for statistical evaluation of comprehensive models. Tucker [1967] believes that measurement problems must be solved before comprehensive models can be developed, while Sheth [1972] predicts that the measurement problems will be reconciled in-five years. Kollat, Blackwell and Engel [1972] and Ward and Robertson [1973] appear to be less optimistic regarding the resolution of measurement problems than is Sheth.

It is clear from this discussion that the problems of (1) the development of consumer behavior theory versus the applications desires of research users and (2) the divergent viewpoints regarding the best way to advance the discipline of consumer behavior have been of utmost concern in state-of-the-art papers. With these points in mind the following research questions were investigated:

(1) Should consumer behavior researchers be more interested in identifying and understanding relationships or in applications for business?

(2) Should researchers be working on comprehensive models or on middle-range theories?

(3) Must measurement problems be reconciled before comprehensive models can be developed?

(4) What are prospects for the development of criteria and standardized tests to evaluate comprehensive models of consumer behavior.

The preceding discussion has highlighted the theoretical framework of and the type of research questions investigated in this study. Findings presented in the subsequent sections provide an indication of the opinions of a sample of ACR members regarding these issues.

METHODOLOGY

To evaluate the status of the issues investigated in this study, a structured mail questionnaire was sent to 463 ACR members. A total of 277 questionnaires (59.8 percent) were returned and 258 (55.8 percent) of these were usable for data analysis. Since this was intended to be an exploratory empirical study of the status of consumer behavior, this response rate was regarded as satisfactory and no follow-up procedures were employed.

The sample respondents included professionals from a variety of academic disciplines concerned with consumer behavior research and theory. For instance, 55.4 percent of the respondents held degrees in marketing, 12.0 had training in psychology, 7.3 percent were behavioral scientists, and 6.1 percent held economic degrees. Fifty-five point nine percent of the sample held doctorate degrees, and an additional 21.4 percent of the respondents had earned masters degrees. Occupationally, 60.9 percent of the respondents are academics, 16.6 percent are business executives, 13.0 percent are graduate students. and 5.1 percent are independent business consultants.

FINDINGS

The percentage of respondents agreeing or disagreeing with Likert-type statements concerned with the interdisciplinary heritage and development of consumer behavior is summarized in Table 1. Factor analysis, as described in the Appendix, was used to construct and verify the consistency of the Likert statements which are grouped for discussion purposes in each of the three tables contained in this article. Table 1 results give an indication of the opinions of a sample of ACR members regarding where consumer behavior fits relative to marketing and the social sciences and its contributions to marketing and the social sciences. Table 1 shows that a majority of the respondents view consumer behavior as more closely aligned with the behavioral sciences than with marketing. Similarly a majority of the respondents also believed that consumer behavior will also borrow more from the behavioral sciences than it will contribute. However, it was also felt that consumer behavior has contributed both to marketing and to the behavioral sciences.

TABLE 1

THE HERITAGE AND DEVELOPMENT OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

The statements contained in Table 1 were further analyzed according to those educated in marketing and those educated in other fields. These results indicated that 42.1 percent of the marketers and 72.7 percent of the other field majors agreed that consumer behavior is more behavioral science than marketing. Also a greater percentage of marketers (79.8) than other field majors (66.0) disagreed that consumer behavior will contribute more to the behavioral sciences than it now borrows. Therefore, it appears that consumer behaviorists with a marketing background view their discipline as a marketing discipline which will continue to borrow concepts from the other social sciences for application to marketing problems. Furthermore, answers to where consumer behavior fits relative to marketing and the social sciences appear linked to the respondents training.

Table 2 reports findings regarding ACR members opinions on consumer behavior research practices. The responses to the statements contained in Table 2 indicate that consumer behaviorists generally agree that problems exist with consumer behavior research practices. Furthermore, since the statements investigate different stages of the research process from improper and irrelevant borrowing of concepts and constructs of the social sciences through the improper use of consumer behavior models and to potential incorrect applications by business, it is fairly clear that the respondents believe the research practices problems are extensive. In addition, the results show that consumer behavioralists believe that research based on comprehensive models would have led to different results than those evolving through the application of partial or mid-range models to research processes. Also, the statements from Table 2 were analyzed by years studying consumer behavior, educational backgrounds and occupational areas of the respondents and no substantial differences were detected among respondent groups. In fact 56.0 percent of the businessmen agree that businessmen might misuse research by taking it out of its original context.

The statements contained in Table 3 provide information about ACR members opinions on present needs and future directions of consumer behavior research. The findings indicate that consumer behaviorists should simultaneously spend more time on understanding relationships and be attentive to the practical uses of their studies. Apparently the "pay off dilemma" mentioned by Ward and Robertson [1973] is well recognized by consumer behaviorists. The responses also show that consumer behaviorists should not attempt to start predicting the future behavior of consumers until greater theoretical and conceptual advances are made.

If a general belief exists that comprehensive models would have led to different findings, what are the prospects for some of the major problems impeding the development of comprehensive models? Generally it is believed the more complex models will be developed in the future and that approaches to measurement and evaluation problems will be developed. Furthermore when the responses were analyzed by years studying consumer behavior, educational backgrounds and occupation of the ACR members the only large difference in responses was with statement 3-1, where 44.7 percent of those in business and 65.1 percent of the academics felt more time should be spent on understanding relationships. Therefore, the percentage responses shown in Table 3 hold across respondents with different amounts of experience, educational backgrounds and occupations.

TABLE 2

THE DEVELOPMENT AND USE OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOR RESEARCH

TABLE 3

PRESENT NEEDS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOR RESEARCH

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

There are several important conclusions that can be drawn from this empirical evaluation of the status of consumer behavior. One of the most important findings is the relatively high degree of consensus found among ACR members concerning the three major issues explored in this study. It may be argued that ACR members are somewhat homogeneous and it is not surprising that they agree on these points. However, we believe that one of the marks of a maturing discipline is common recognition of the current status of the field, of the problems which need to be resolved and of the prospects for their resolution. Remarkably, the sample respondents did exhibit consensus on almost every point being investigated. Furthermore, when the Likert statements were investigated for likely differences in responses due to occupation, educational background or years studying consumer behavior in most cases, no significant differences (chi squared) were found. This result implies that the opinions exhibited in the tables are not substantially different from different individuals but are recognized in common by the respondents to this studs.

Sample respondents generally held similar beliefs on issues related in the interdisciplinary heritage of consumer behavior. While interdisciplinary borrowings have been utilized in an applied context by consumer behavior specialists, the nature of the borrowing process was not evaluated favorably by study respondents. Too often, these findings show, consumer behavior professionals have not assessed the assumptions and relevance of social science constructs in terms of a market behavior context. In addition, the unidirectional nature of the borrowing process suggests that consumer behaviorists have not successfully integrated knowledge from allied fields in a manner that promotes contributions from consumer behavior to such other disciplines. However, respondents do believe that the study of consumer behavior has immeasurably strengthened the foundations of marketing.

Respondents also recognized that many consumer behavior research practices have been of questionable quality in the key areas of appropriateness and relevance of borrowed constructs, and in the improper use of consumer behavior research findings. Respondents also believe that many research findings are invalid because of reliance on incomplete theories.

Finally, in spite of the past problems experienced in consumer behavior research, ACR members generally expressed optimism regarding future prospects for the development of more complex models and of criteria to evaluate these models.

Two caveats must be noted when assessing the results of this study. First, the authors exercised subjective judgment in selecting the three major issues examined in this study. Other students of consumer behavior may desire to examine different topics in future research efforts. Second, while the sample utilized in this study encompassed a group of individuals with consumer behavior interests, similar investigations using different samples may produce other findings about the status of consumer behavior. However, this study provides an empirically based perspective of the current status of the field within the context of these limitations and serves as a benchmark study for future research.

REFERENCES

Engel, J. F., Kollat, D. T. and Blackwell, R. E. Consumer behavior. New York: Holt. Rinehart and Winston. Inc.. 1973.

Howard, J. A. New directions in buyer behavior research. Proceedings, Fall Conference, American Marketing Association, 1971, 375-80.

Kollat, D. T., Blackwell, R. D, and Engel, J. F. The current status of consumer behavior research: Developments during the 1968-1972 period. Proceedings, Annual Conference, Association for Consumer Research, 1972.

Sheth, J. W. The future of buyer behavior theory. Proceedings, Annual Conference, Association for Consumer Research, 1972, 562-75.

Tucker, W. T. Consumer research: Status and prospects. Proceedings, Winter Conference, American Marketing Association, 1967, 267-69.

Ward, S. and Robertson, T. S. Consumer behavior: Theoretical sources. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973.

APPENDIX

VERIFICATION OF INTRA-TABLE STATEMENT HOMOGENEITY

In order to increase our confidence that the statements included in each of the three tables in this paper were in fact investigating common dimensions concerning consumer behavior, we employed the following analysis procedure. The table of eighteen different statements from all three tables were grouped together and a principal components factor analysis (BMD 03M) was run. All factors with an eigenvalue of greater than 1.00 were then rotated according to the varimax rotation procedure and the resulting factor loadings were examined. We believed that if statements from the same table belonged together, they would exhibit high factor loadings on the same factors. Conversely, if statements from different tables loaded highly on the same factors we would be less confident concerning intra-table statement homogeneity.

Following this analysis procedure, seven factors accounting for 58 percent of the total variance were extracted and rotated. The results of this procedure are given in Table 4 which shows for each factor all statements with a loading of at least + .35. For all factors the statements showing the highest loadings are from the same table, therefore, lending support to our grouping of Likert statements within tables.

TABLE 4

STATEMENTS WITH HIGHEST LOADINGS ON EACH FACTOR

----------------------------------------