Deviant Consumer Behavior

George P. Moschis, Georgia State University
Dena Cox, Georgia State University
ABSTRACT - Although sociologists and psychologists have been studying deviant behavior and delinquency for several decades, consumer researchers have ignored specific aspects of product acquisition and consumption processes which can be characterized as "deviant" consumer behaviors, including various types of negligent and fraudulent behaviors. The purpose of this research is (a) to present an approach for studying certain aspects of consumer behaviors which can be considered to be deviant, and (b) to present a framework for future research.
[ to cite ]:
George P. Moschis and Dena Cox (1989) ,"Deviant Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 732-737.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 732-737


George P. Moschis, Georgia State University

Dena Cox, Georgia State University


Although sociologists and psychologists have been studying deviant behavior and delinquency for several decades, consumer researchers have ignored specific aspects of product acquisition and consumption processes which can be characterized as "deviant" consumer behaviors, including various types of negligent and fraudulent behaviors. The purpose of this research is (a) to present an approach for studying certain aspects of consumer behaviors which can be considered to be deviant, and (b) to present a framework for future research.


Traditionally, most consumer behavior research has been aimed either at improving firms' marketing activities or increasing the effectiveness of consumers themselves. As a result, the focus of much of consumer research has been on behaviors which are desirable either from the marketer's point of view (e.g.,brand loyalty and store loyalty) or from that of consumers (e.g., comparison shopping and information seeking). Considerably less attention has been devoted to understanding undesirable consumer behaviors, that is, those that have negative consequences for businesses and/or for society as a whole. Such behaviors might include "negligent" activities, such as product misuse, credit abuse and not using seat belts (Faber and O'Guinn 1988; Lastovicka et al. 1987; Mowen 1987), as well as fraudulent behaviors, such as shoplifting and coupon misredemption.

The purpose of this paper is to show how previous behavioral research on "deviant" human behavior can offer insights into what might be termed "deviant consumer behavior," and provide a framework for research.


Deviant Consumer Behavior

Behavior is generally defined as "deviant" when it differs from some norm or standard (Deutsch and Kraus 1965; Sarason 1972). These standards or norms are in the form of customs, manners, rules and regulations, laws, and mores. To the extent the individual's behavior deviates from such norms it is considered by society to be undesirable, unacceptable, or dysfunctional--i.e., deviant.

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that society prescribes criteria for its members' behaviors; and that relevant criteria are based on normative theories of human behavior, reflecting efforts on the part of some society's members to regulate the behavior of other members so that certain desirable consequences follow (Brim 1966). Deviancy then can also be defined in terms of frequency or degree to which the individual deviates from society's norms and prescribed behaviors. For example, an individual may exhibit a non-conforming behavior more frequently than others; or s/he may commit several types (number) of deviant behaviors.

Prescribed criteria can also vary in terms of specificity/clarity and importance to society. For example, society expects its members to be "rational" consumers in the marketplace, but rationality is neither explicit nor clear. Generally, society appears to make few demands when the prescribed norm is not explicit and does not directly affect the functioning of the societal system. For example, use of unit pricing information is a desirable behavioral norm but it does not have clear adverse effect upon other consumers in the marketplace. For behaviors which can disrupt the functioning of a system, society tends to- be more demanding upon its members by passing legislation and regulating behaviors. For example, exchange is fundamental to the healthy functioning of the marketplace, and society mandates its desires to its members through rules and regulations governing the exchange process. Thus, certain aspects of desirable or normative behaviors are not regulated, other aspects are regulated and are mandatory.

The distinction between regulated and nonregulated normative behaviors appears to be important, since deviance in each area would have different consequences upon the individual deviating from the norm and upon society. For example, product misuse or compulsive behavior can at best be termed as "negligent," but violating the law is a crime. Even for criminal behaviors, however, society has sanctions based upon the seriousness of the crime (e.g., parking ticket vs. arrest due to drunken driving).

The preceding discussion about the distinction between normative vs. deviant behavior and regulated vs. nonregulated can be summarized in the Figure. This figure is not by any means to represent the definitive typology of consumer behaviors from a societal perspective; it is merely used to provide some direction at preliminary stages of research in this area.

Because the marketplace is not homogeneous i n terms of individual needs, values and behaviors, consumers are not likely to always agree upon consumption norms (e.g., areas where smoking should be restricted). Furthermore, consumer behaviors which simply deviate from norms held by the majority of consumers and which are dysfunctional for society may not always constitute deviant consumer behaviors. Thus, for example, a person may deviate markedly from food consumption norms (e.g., being a vegetarian) or may engage in behaviors which may be considered dysfunctional (e.g., impulse buying, materialism, brand loyalty) because such behaviors may not result in efficient allocation of resources (Aaker and Myers 1971; Maynes 1976). Yet, it could be argued that these behaviors would not be deviant because they may result in greater consumer satisfaction and shopping efficiency, and even economic well-being.



Although we cannot dismiss the importance of socially desirable norms (assumptions such as "the world would be better off if people did more comparison shopping and conserved more energy"), "true" deviant consumer behavior (for research priority purposes) should focus upon those behaviors which society through formal agencies (e.g., law enforcement and judiciary systems) imposes restrictions and sanctions upon its members so that certain desirable consequences will follow. Because regulated aspects of consumption are always consistent with norms of some groups (usually the majority) they are also likely to be desirable for society in general. Thus, the empirical test for classifying an aspect of consumer behavior as deviant is whether or not the specific behavior (or its consequences) is regulated by a formal agency or system.

Furthermore it should be noted that the distinction between desirable and undesirable (deviant) consumer behaviors is unique to a particular culture, time, or social setting (Sarason 1972), and is subject to change as society imposes new regulations and sanctions. For example, nol use of car seat belt laws is now considered to be a deviant form of behavior as a result of recent mandatory car seat belt laws in some states. Similarly, driving speed limit laws are unique to a given country (e.g., they do not exist in Germany) and have changed over time. The learning of new patterns of behavior (e.g., wearing seat belts, driving at lower speeds) falls into the classic area of resocialization (Brim 1966; Riesman and Roseborough 1955).

Theoretical Perspectives

Deviancy is a subject of "abnormal psychology" which is preoccupied with the study of human failures and inadequacies, often referred to "personal maladaptations" (Sarason 1972). The history of the concepts about deviancy and maladaptation is a rich and fascinating one, dating centuries ago in the works of Greek, Roman and Arabic scholars (Sarason 1972).

Social scientists have used a variety of approaches to the study of deviant behavior. Such approaches relied on psychoanalytic, psycho-social, sociological and even biological perspectives (Sarason 1972). Although these approaches represent different views, they have been recently viewed as complementary to the study of the phenomenon. Sarason (1972) notes: "Increasingly ... these divergences are viewed as complementary approaches to conceptualizing the broader social context within which maladaptive behavior occurs" (p. 118).

Most of these perspectives emphasize the processes which characterize the development of deviancy, and deviance is generally viewed as a consequence of poor socialization. Specifically, deviant behavior is viewed as a consequence of deviant socialization experiences--that is, socialization to deviant norms--or of an inappropriate or inadequate communication of norms, or it might result from the individual's emotional or rational rejection of norms (Clausen 1968).

Robert K. Merton, a sociologist and author of an influential theory of anomie and the effects of accepted status goals on individual behavior, is believed to have made an important contribution to our understanding of the way in which deviant behavior develops (Deutsch and Krauss 1965, pp. 198-203). In his book, Social Theory and Social Structure (Merton 1957) he offers rich insights into the way in which such deviant behavior is produced by specific types of social structures. According to Merton, each cultural or social system defines legitimate goals for its members as well as legitimate means for attaining these goals (Merton 1957, 132-33). For example, in our culture, affluence is a near-universal goal, but fraud is not a legitimate means of attaining it. The socially acceptable means are often referred to as "institutionalized means" (Deutsch and Krauss 1965, p. 199). When the integration of goals and means is lacking in a social structure of a culture, a state of "anomie" results and the individual may employ several modes of adaptation, two of which are associated with deviant behavior: innovation and rebellion (Merton 1957).

Innovation may occur when a person accepts a cultural goal but rejects the institutionalized means of attaining it. Instead, s/he may select means which are not legitimate in terms of the culture's value system, seeking adaptation to the culture via deviant behaviors. For example, when monetary success is a cultural goal but is prohibited to some individuals due to race or religion, new means of goal attainment can be expected (e.g., fraud, robbery). Rebellion, on the other hand, as a mode of adaptation "consists of both a rejection of the culture's values and institutions and the substitution of a new set of values and institutions" (Deutsch and Krauss 1965, p. 201).

Merton has contended that most forms of deviant behavior can be explained by social structure variables, particularly social class. According to Merton, deviant behavior arises as a result of lack of opportunity to succeed through legitimate means within the social structure. The individual either is likely to reject society's sanctioned routes to goal attainment as inappropriate for him/her or is more vulnerable to pressures to behave deviantly.

Another important contributor to the theory of social structure and anomie is Cloward (1959) who observed that individuals have access to institutional means of attaining culturally prescribed goals as well as to illegitimate means of goal attainment. The availability of legitimate and illegitimate means of goal attainment are both limited and differentially available, depending upon the person's location in the social structure.

Both Merton (1957) and Cloward (1959) stress the importance of social environment in the development of deviant behavior. For example, Merton observes that socialization among the middle class emphasizes the importance of rules and obedience; therefore, members of the middle class would be less likely to use innovative means of achieving culturally accepted goals. Rather, innovation is the typical mode of adaptation in lower-social classes where less stress is placed on the importance of rules. Similarly, Cloward (1959) emphasizes the social environment within which socialization to deviant behavior occurs, referring to (a) "appropriate learning environments for the acquisition of values and skills associated with the performance of a particular role" (p. 168), and (b) opportunities to perform the role once the skills are acquired.

Brim (1966) also discusses the acquisition of dysfunctional behaviors, norms and attitudes from a socialization perspective. According to Brim, the main responsibility (causal factor) for deviance lies in the ways in which society (through its socialization agents) has socialized the person. Brim emphasizes the socialization perspective not only in explaining the roots of deviance, but in prescribing its treatment as well. He suggests that society can treat deviance through resocialization, using techniques in line with the reasons for behavior.

Where ignorance is the cause, education; where lack of ability is the difficulty, improved training; where motivation is the problem, a planned and deliberately executed program of manipulation of rewards and punishments to reorient the individual to appropriate goals and behavior (Brim 1966, p.43)

The work of Sutherland (1937) also deserves attention. His theory offers insights into the development of criminal behavior and it has influenced efforts to resocialize criminals. Sutherland's differential association theory, which has much in common with learning theories of criminality (cf. Sarason 1972), argues that criminal behavior is learned the same way as behavior that conforms to the norms and expectations of society, with the criminal receiving reinforcement (usually from deviant peers) for behaving antisocially.

Finally, developmental psychologists (e.g., Erikson, Kohlberg) have offered insights into deviant behavior by suggesting that deviant behavior may be the result of the person's inability to engage in moral reasoning because of incomplete cognitive development (Kohlberg 1976). However, unlike sociological theories, developmental theories explain behavior primarily at earlier stages in the life cycle.

Deviant Consumer Socialization

The socialization approach to the study of deviant behavior is not only the underlying theme of the various theoretical perspectives, but also a frame work for integrating these theories and studying them as complementary rather than divergent views (Moschis 1987; Sarason 1972). Thus, using the general notions of socialization to deviant behaviors, norms and values, one can define socialization to deviant consumption-related orientations as the process of acquisition of those consumer orientations considered to be illegal. Thus, within a broader context of socialization and existing models of consumer learning (e.g., Moschis 1987; Moschis and Churchill 1978), the criterion variable is the outcome of deviant consumer socialization--i.e., deviant consumer behaviors. Explanations for specific types of deviant behavior can be sought in two types of variables which not only are commonly used in consumer socialization literature but they are also suggested by deviant theory: (a) antecedent variables which locate the person in a social structure, and (b) specific agent-to-learner relationships (commonly referred to as "socialization processes").

The presence and influence of specific antecedent variables, socialization processes on outcomes are suggested by theory and research. For example, as a social structure, social class is a key condition for maladaptive and deviant behavior according to theoretical notions advanced by Merton (1957) and Cloward (1957), whereas age (another antecedent variable) is an explanatory factor in cognitive developmental models (e.g., Kohlberg 1976); and socialization processes are the explanatory factors in sociological models (e.g., Brim 1966, Sutherland 1937). The influence of antecedent variables in the consumer socialization model may not only be direct but also indirect via socialization processes (Moschis and Churchill 1978), and similar possibilities exist for deviant consumer socialization (e.g., Cloward 1959; Merton 1957; Sarason 1972).

While deviant consumer behavior and socialization to deviant orientations may occur at any age, research which focuses on youths might be particularly rewarding for two reasons: first, consumer socialization and contemporary delinquency-deviance literature suggest that childhood and adolescence may be the most crucial periods for the acquisition of consumption-related orientations, both desirable and undesirable (e.g., Klemke 1982; Moschis 1987; Moschis and Churchill 1978); second, these age groups are the most likely to commit deviant behaviors (e.g., shoplift) (Stores 1971; Verill 1978).

Explanatory Variables

Sociological theories and research on crime and delinquency, as well as theories of social and moral development provide useful bases for studying relationships between specific variables in the context of socialization to deviant consumer behaviors. In this section, examples of relevant antecedent variables and socialization processes are presented and guided by such theories, and only variables which can be derived from, or interpreted in the context of theory and research are proposed. Thus, the list of variables chosen from each category in the socialization model is not necessarily exhaustive; and it would vary by specific type of deviant consumer behavior investigated. The direct effects of antecedent variables are examined first, followed by the main effects of socialization processes and antecedent-process interactions.

Antecedents of Deviant Consumer Behavior. Maturation can help us understand certain aspects of development and change in dysfunctional consumer behaviors. Kohlberg (1976), for example, has focused our attention on adolescence as a period of moral growth during which a person develops the ability to engage in moral reasoning. During this period the youth is expected to lose the ego-centric orientation developed during childhood and to begin considering relevant others and society. Beginning in early adolescence the child becomes increasingly concerned with the mandates of society and the internalization of the belief that morality is defined by law and moral codes. This process is believed to be completed by the time the adolescent has entered adulthood, at which stage the importance of laws and rules to the functioning of society have been completely internalized.

Social class has also been linked to delinquency and dysfunctional behaviors. Theory suggests that children from upper classes are more likely to obey society's rules than their lower-class counterparts (Merton 1957). Research also has found that low educational level and poor educational achievement among young people are related to the tendency to seek danger on-the road (Maki, Tallqvist and Prigogine 1975) .

Hess (1970) cites broken homes as an antecedent factor contributing to delinquency. According to Hess, children in families where parental attention and warmth are lacking are more likely to become alienated and commit behaviors not approved by their parents. The presence of both parents is expected to enhance the likelihood of receiving parental support; parental absence may deter it, leading to alienation and delinquency.

Deviant Socialization Processes. Theoretical explanations for the reason "significant others" may be deviant socialization agents can be found in Sutherland's (1937) differential association theory, Linden and Hackler's (1973) affective ties theory, and Klemke's (1982) deviant socialization hypothesis. Although these writers are not very explicit with respect to specific types of socialization agents involved, all of them include peers as potential deviant socialization agents.

The influence of peers is contingent upon a host of interpersonal and antecedent variables. For example, sociologists have stressed the importance of the nature of the relationships youths have within their immediate social networks and within the larger social structure (Cohen 1955; Cloward and Ohlin 1960; Empey 1978; Hirschi 1969; Matza 1969; Polk and Schafer 1972). As a social system, the family appears to play a significant role in defining the extent to which peers affect the youth's involvement in delinquent activities. Reliance on peers may also be a function of the amount of time the youth spends with his/her parents. In families where parents, especially mothers, dedicate their time to outside careers, youths tend to gravitate toward nonfamilial peer groups. Specifically, in homes where one or both parents are frequently absent the child is likely not only to become more dependent on peers but also to become more alienated, a condition which may lead to performance of activities disapproved by parents, including delinquent behaviors (Sebald 1968). In fact, the somewhat limited data available on social, psychological, and behavioral correlates of youthful drinking and driving problems indicate some association between feelings of rebellion, hostility and alienation and increased numbers of traffic violations and accidents (Cameron 1982).


Previous consumer research has focused on understanding normative aspects of consumer behavior, contributing to higher sales for businesses, effective and efficient allocation of resources, more satisfied consumers, and the like. Considerably less attention has been devoted to understanding those aspects of consumer behavior which have undesirable consequences on businesses in the form of higher costs and upon society in the form of higher prices for consumers. This research has shown how the field of consumer behavior can expand its boundaries to include the examination of deviant consumer behaviors, along the same lines social scientists have investigated several aspects of deviant behavior. - Future research could examine consumer deviancy based on theories of deviant behavior within the context of socialization. Research that would focus on the development of a typology of deviant consumer behaviors could be particularly useful in helping researchers approach the area in a systematic and consistent way. The present research has attempted to present an approach to the study of deviant aspects of consumer behavior. By taking advantage of past work in other fields, select variables were identified having their roots in theory and research on deviant behavior. Based on these and other variables, hypotheses can be developed for several aspects of fraudulent and negligent consumer behaviors. This research has hopefully expanded the knowledge on consumer behavior by addressing the ignored area of deviant consumer behavior and has provided a research approach for its examination.


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