The Development of Consumer Behavior Theory

Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA
ABSTRACT - Theory in consumer behavior has developed from the grand formal approaches to middle range theories resulting in excessive fragmentation. Perhaps the time has come to turn back to a master theory that will help integrate the divergent pieces.
[ to cite ]:
Harold H. Kassarjian (1982) ,"The Development of Consumer Behavior Theory", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 20-22.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 20-22


Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA


Theory in consumer behavior has developed from the grand formal approaches to middle range theories resulting in excessive fragmentation. Perhaps the time has come to turn back to a master theory that will help integrate the divergent pieces.


To lament that the field of consumer behavior suffers from shortage of good theories has long become a popular claim within our discipline. And yet, we do not lack, and really have never lacked, good theories. For example, economic theory is essentially a model of consumer behavior given a simple set of assumptions. Veblen's ideas of conspicuous consumption have been around for eight decades (Ward & Robertson 1973). Learning theory emerging from psychological principles existed long before Kuehn's work on orange juice or the stochastic models that were to emerge in the 1960's.

By the post World War II era, theories based on the individual as a psychological entity became popular. The question of interest was "why," why does the consumer buy? The work of George Horsley Smith, Social Research, Inc., and the papers of Sid Levy were referenced often. What motivation research had done was to introduce into marketing one of the two most developed or grand theories of human behavior from psychology, the psychoanalytic views of Sigmund Freud and his followers.

In due course, a much more influential theory was introduced. The second master theory from psychology, Lewin's field theory that had emerged out of the work of the Gestalt psychologists in Berlin. It would be difficult to overestimate Lewin's contributions to social psychology and through psychology, his impact on consumer behavior. His influence permeated consumer behavior from studies on group dynamics to attribution theory, from cognitive organization to balance theories. But that theory did not have a dramatic debut, a grand entrance into the field with a specific event or publication that pin-pointed its place in history. Rather, it slowly seeped into the field coloring much of the thinking and conceptualizations that textbooks now define as the field of consumer behavior.

Consumer behavior had emerged out of a base of grand elegant theories; classical utility theory, psychoanalytic theory, learning theory and its mathematical off-shoots, field theory, etc. However, consumer behavior was not to be denied unified theories or models of behavior of its own. Often borrowing heavily from psychology, the grand models appeared: Nicosia in 1966, Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell in 1968, Howard and Sheth in 1969, and less comprehensive models such as Andreasen in 1965, the work of both Frank and Kuehn in 1962, Haines in 1969, and the inevitable deluge of computer flow chart types of models, each proposing to have modeled some aspect of consumer behavior. Testing of these models was sparse indeed. A study here, a paper there, a bit of empirical support with a small portion of the variance accounted for someplace else.

For some years, perhaps because of a dissatisfaction with the grand formal theories, Tom Robertson had been calling for the development of models on a less-grandiose level. He, along with Ward, felt that the greatest promise for advancing consumer behavior resides in what Merton had called middle-range theories. These are the theoretical or conceptual frameworks which do not constitute full-blown theories in and of themselves, but neither are they merely isolated empirical findings. Rather, middle range theories suggest explanations and predictions concerning some relatively circumscribed areas of inquiry (Ward and Robertson 1973). Merton had defined a middle range theory as intermediate to the minor working hypotheses and the all inclusive speculations comprising a master conceptual scheme. Merton felt that the field of sociology was not ready for the grand theory, and that it was premature to look for it. Robertson's view paralleled that of Merton. Consumer behavior was not ready for the master or grand theory.

And the middle-range theories poured forth. Personality and life style, dissonance, risk, low involvement, attitude models, attribution theory, information processing, reference groups, diffusion and innovation, consumer socialization, social class, and on and on.


[Portions of this section have been summarized from H. Kassarjian (1982).]

Let me now take a few minutes to summarize the middle range approaches that have been emerging within the past half-decade in consumer behavior research from three points of view.


Unfortunately, psychobiology is one of the least well understood areas in consumer psychology and has also been the most oversold and misused. The quality of research has ranged from over-touted black boxes such as the voice-pitch analyzer to highly sophisticated studies on eye movement and brain lateralization research.

One set of studies within the last few years have tended to focus on arousal and activation. Activation is provoked by stimulating a sub-cortical unit, the reticular activation system in the brain stem, which figuratively "alerts" other functional areas of the brain to take a "stand-by" position (autonomic nervous system activity). Simultaneously cerebral areas are aroused involving information processing, perception, thought and memory. Today, much of this work is emerging from the University of Saarland laboratory under the direction of Kroeber-Riel (1979). The belief is that cognitive and psychological processes originate from physiological ones and that there are biological limits on the person's deliberate and conscious control of his behavior. Further, verbal methods of measuring arousal or even cognitive activity such as information processing are either not sensitive enough or involve a needless detour (the measurement of the perception of responses in the nervous system) when the response itself can be measured directly.

A good deal of the physiological level of research has tended to revolve around the measurement of eye movement as a surrogate or superior measure of information processing (e.g. van Raaij 1977, Russo 1978). Basically, this stream of research records eye movements while the subjects are presented with stimuli (e.g. advertisements, information on brands or products, etc.). By analyzing the patterns of fixations, choice strategies are hypothesized.

A second and perhaps more exciting trend in the past few years involves the differential activities of the right and left brain halves. Several ACR sessions and numerous papers have followed up the original work by Krugman buttressing the dozens of-studies in psychology and physiology. These data indicate that among normal subjects, the left hemisphere is primarily responsible for traditional cognitive activities and the ability to report consciously. The right brain is more concerned with pictorial, geometric, timeless, and other non-verbal information (Hansen & Lundsgaard 1981). The left brain is causal, logical and argumentative in contrast with the right brain processes which are more diffuse, spatial, intuitive, and musical. Normally both hemispheres are active together interacting through the connecting corpus callosum, but according to Lundsgaard (Hansen 1981), some people tend to be left-brain dominated and others are right brain dominated.

If this turns out to be so, the potential of the concept in consumer behavior is great, moderating many of the present day findings. The problem is one of measuring hemisphere domination, if indeed it exists among normal subjects. At present, Hansen and his associates in Denmark are in the midst of developing a short paper-and pencil instrument to measure lateral domination. If development of the scale is successful, and preliminary data is encouraging (Hansen & Lundsgaard 1981, but also see Hansen 1982), this would be a major contribution accelerating research and avoiding the difficulties of electro-encephalographic instrumentation.

The Cognitive Consumer

Turning away from the molecular level of analysis, we get to the cognitive consumer. Perhaps no topic in cognitive psychology has captured greater interest among consumer researchers that the field of attitude formation and attitude change. Interest eventually turned to the expectancy-value theories of Rosenberg and Fishbein. from just a few papers in mid-1970 the field exploded to literally hundreds by 1980. And just as rapidly as it emerged, interest began to decline. Interest shifted to Fishbein's extended attitude-behavior model and modifications of it. However, in consumer psychology, the newer approaches have not generated as much research as the earlier formulation. Perhaps it was getting too complicated for the simple middle range theories that consumer researchers were seeking, or more brutally, perhaps the fad had passed to other topics.

And, other topics were in the wings awaiting their turn, for example, cognitive response. The basic tenet of this theory is that cognitive responses or thoughts are evoked by persuasive communications and these are crucial mediators of attitude change (Petty 1977). The studies conducted to date seem rather impressive. Cognitive arguments do act as mediators between the stimulus and the attitude, and are related to a wide assortment of cognitive variables including beliefs, purchase intentions as well as attitude change. And it may even operate in cases of low involvement - a class where few earlier theories and studies seem generalizable (Olson, Toy & Dover 1978). In fact, indications are that research on attitudes, persuasion, information processing and several other areas are converging on cognitive response - where arguments come from, and how and under what conditions they are triggered.

Except for attitude research, probably it is the middle range approach of information processing that has led to more research in consumer behavior than any other topic. Its ascent has been meteoric in recent years and it is now enjoying its peak in popularity. The central focus of the information processing perspective is on viewing consumers as cognitively active problem solvers and understanding the strategies and plans used in decision making, typically product purchases and choice between brands (Mitchell 1978). Stimulated by a number of high quality papers and in particular Bettman's splendid monograph (1979), I would venture that more dissertations in consumer behavior are being written today on the topic of information processing than all other topics combined.

However, information processing does not exhaust the circumscribed theories of recent interest. For example, attribution theory has produced its share of empirical research. On overview, the evidence now seems to indicate that consumer experience and feedback mechanisms are neither as simple nor as automatic as early interpretations of attribution theory and self-perception theory had implied. But like so much else in consumer behavior, these mini-theories do explain some portion of the variance of the behavior of individuals in the marketplace.

Low Involvement

As might have been predicted, there has also been a reaction to the over-dependence on cognitive psychology. The basic difficulty lies in the assumption of an involved information extracting individual seeking the correct decision or brand or product. Of course, in many cases and under many conditions the consumer does behave as a thinking, information processing individual. But under other conditions, particularly in low-involvement products, he simply could care less. Olshavsky and Granbois (1979) in fact present evidence that a substantial portion of purchases does not involve decision making at all, even on the first purchase. This distinction has not yet been incorporated into the research stream on cognitive processing.

The concept of low involvement effects many of the views of the cognitive consumer. Product selection, brand loyalty, advertising, hierarchy of effects, behavior modification and even the selection of political candidates (Robertson 1976) are areas where the concept of the uninvolved, plodding, muddling consumer challenges our cherished views and threatens generalizations based on earlier middle range approaches.

A Molar Perspective

When one turns to a more molar or societal perspective, the applications of concepts and theories has not been as prolific as from the cognitive perspective. Numerous papers do exist on such topics as reference groups, societal influence and power, social class and the ever popular innovation and diffusion; and a few have taken true sociological perspective (Nicosia & Mayer 1976). However, the greatest recent ferment has been in family decision making and consumer socialization.

As Robertson and Zielinski (1981) suggest, it is becoming increasing clear that the appropriate unit of analysis for much of consumer behavior should be the family unit and not the individual. However, little of the research in consumer behavior has explored how families make decisions or the process of family decision making. This stream of research on the family is still in a very early stage and much of it tends to be descriptive. Mini theories such as role bargaining, negotiations, exchange, and the interaction process have yet to be studied. Once one turns from individual decision making to group decision making, much of the prevailing knowledge in consumer psychology simply may not apply.

The socialization of children as consumers, on the other hand, has generated considerable ferment in the field stimulated in large part by actions of regulatory bodies. What has not yet been examined is how this information merges with other studies on socialization, or how the decision making process among children or within the family unit can be reconciled with what we know of the cognitive consumer or the physiological consumer. Still other streams of research stemming from concerns about public policy such as corrective advertising, comparative advertising, and labeling, similarly suffer from a lack of integration with the rest of the knowledge that has been gleaned about the behavior of the consumer.


Although the term "interdisciplinary" or "multidisciplinary" has often been applied to the field of consumer behavior, it is in- fact not all that interdisciplinary, and perhaps a better term would be "fragmented." For, we seem to have taken Robertson's word seriously that, "the greatest promise for advancing consumer behavior resides in the development of middle range theories." The typical pattern of activity has been to modify a middle range theory or concept and apply it to behavior in the marketplace. And in the near future this trend should continue for there are yet many significant topics to be explored: situational factors, motivation, humor, time, product dispossession... The list is almost limitless.

However, I wonder, if what the field realty needs now is one more topic to apply to the consumer. Although the trend has been away from creating comprehensive theories, and I am not sure we are yet ready for a grand or master theory of consumer behavior, what is desperately needed at this point is integration of the various topics in the field.

For example, it seems obvious that cognitive processing, physiological arousal, left brain activity, and high levels of involvement are somehow interrelated. Low commitment behavior does not necessarily need a new set of theories but does somehow involve right brain activity, situational influences, learning, and perhaps behavior modification. In some manner the fragmented nature of the work needs to be tied together and individual researchers need to be alert to the implications of their work to researchers in other areas. It is quite clear that research on eye movement eminating out of information processing is directly relevant to the psychobiological work of the Kroeber-Riel laboratory. Family decision making is somehow related to learning and cognitive processing and exchange theory.

Although this field simply does not need another flow chart, it is perhaps time to somehow fit the various pieces together. The middle range theories obviously are interrelated and co-vary. In its present fragmented state, the interaction effect, the confounding of one model with another, is being ignored or relegated to the error term. Little wonder that reasonable colleagues turn away from a deterministic view of the consumer and claim that behavior is nothing but a gigantic stochastic process. Just perhaps, ready or not, it is time to turn back to a master theory that will help integrate the divergent pieces.


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