Introduction: Experimental Research and Theories of Consumer Choice

Penny Baron, The University of Iowa
Gerald Eskin, The University of Iowa
[ to cite ]:
Penny Baron and Gerald Eskin (1975) ,"Introduction: Experimental Research and Theories of Consumer Choice", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 655-656.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 655-656

INTRODUCTION: EXPERIMENTAL RESEARCH AND Theories OF CONSUMER CHOICE

Penny Baron, The University of Iowa

Gerald Eskin, The University of Iowa

A principal objective in organizing this session was to bring together persons who share an interest in consumer choice but whose research starts from somewhat different perspectives.

Research on consumer choice has typically followed one of two rather distinct paths. The first of these is more common in marketing research. It is empirical in its orientation and it purports to be at least somewhat concerned with obtaining practical results. The second path is primarily theoretical. This approach derives mainly from economics and mathematical psychology. It seeks to develop theories which are rigorous and precisely formulated. The area of consumer choice has attracted a large number of highly competent researchers who pursue one or the other of these paths. But inadequate professional exchange has occurred between these two groups. Each has conducted its research uninformed by the needs and objectives of the other group.

This situation often results in research efforts which suffer from important limitations.

Much of the work based on empirical investigations of consumer choice behavior is informed by a series of conceptual frameworks rather than a single well-developed theoretical system.

Each framework suggests a lengthy list of important categories of variables. Each category in turn is composed of an extensive list of relevant variables. This procedure does result in comprehensive coverage but it is not clear how it directs empirical work. The lists give us no way to decide which variables are important and which are not. We have no basis for preferring one list over another. In the absence of an encompassing theoretical guide, it is difficult to evaluate the merits of alternative research plans in advance. As a result, the empirical "facts" discovered often turn out to be trivial, uninterpretable or relevant only to a particular time and place.

These limitations are especially serious if there are major changes in the conditions of the market place. Most conceptual frameworks are constructed for a particular set of marketing conditions. If these conditions change lists cannot help us to anticipate these changes or to understand why they occur. In order to have some reasonable ideas about how changed circumstances might cause things to come out differently, we need to understand why things occur. Theoretically informed research produces results which occur for known reasons. It suggests why things come out one way rather than another.

The second, primarily theoretical, approach to the study of consumer choice also has important limitations. For example, the results of economist's theories of consumer choice depend on numerous propositions about the behavior of the various economic actors. These propositions are based on several, usually untested, assumptions. For instance, the preference orderings of consumers which lead to their choice behavior are often assumed to be complete and to be characterized by convexity and nonsatiety. Consumer's preferences are assumed to have these properties. Whether they actually do is left an open question. Do people's preferences really have these various properties? Until we establish that they do, we cannot claim that the theoretical results apply to anything in the real world.

This orientation tends to produce a one-sided concern with theoretical rigor. As a result, important questions about consumer choice, e.g. what does the consumer choose to buy, and how much of it does he purchase, are often ignored because they are theoretically intractable. It is easier to generate a rigorous discussion about alternative commodity bundles than about two G.E. televisions and a Farberware toaster vs. one goat and a used Ford Pinto.

Clearly a more active interplay between those who do serious theoretical work and those that do empirical investigations is needed. Recently, there has been a considerable increase in interest among theoretically oriented researchers in empirical work and in experimental methods of testing their theories of consumer choice. Concern for systematic theory on the part of applied researchers is also on an upturn. With these considerations in mind, we sought participants who were active in either theoretical research on consumer choice or who had attempted experimental tests of those theories. The papers which follow are a partial result of that effort.

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