Consumer Research: Some Recollections and a Commentary

Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA
[ to cite ]:
Harold H. Kassarjian (1986) ,"Consumer Research: Some Recollections and a Commentary", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 6-8.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 6-8


Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA

[With appreciation to Kent Nakamoto.]

It seems that people who get an award often claim it is a humbling experience. Today, I understand why -- at a very personal level -- for upon accepting the title "fellow" awarded by my peers, it does humble one. Those fellows who came before Bill Wells and me, and those who will follow in years to come, may well be the only individuals who really know the feeling of honor that l am trying to express. To have been selected for this award is indeed an emotional experience. I consider this award to be the apex of my career.

But, alas, there is also a down side, for one must stand up here and address this audience. I am sure that those who have stood here before me -- the three living Fellow Award recipients and past ACR presidents, will agree -- it is a frightening experience. Nine hundred inquiring eyes await some significant comments. One is asked to be brilliant and creative, on demand. I assure you, it has led to some anxious moments over these past few weeks. The saving grace has been that my co-recipient may very well be brilliant and perhaps attention will be focused on him rather than on me.

In spite of, or perhaps because of that terror, this event has given me the opportunity to think and wonder about consumer research and the field of consumer behavior. We often hear that the field has matured and the excitement of nurturing the fragile coalition that we are, is no longer thrilling. There is nothing new that captures our excitement; that we are a field of fads; and that researchers are either like butterflies that flit from flower to flower, tasting but not drinking deeply; or statistically rigid methodologists who devise rigorous experiments with little understanding of validity. Is it really measuring what it purports to measure? Consumer behavior, we have been told again and again, has become boring.

It is true that we are maturing and perhaps we have become a bit boring. As a field matures, that is to be expected. Let me amplify that point by looking at the research life cycle (Kassarjian, 1979).


The first researchers to emerge with an idea, we can stereotype as innovators. Bright, sharp, the innovator may be exceptionally creative or he may be a creative borrower, but he or she is the first to come up with the idea or the first to do a study. The quality of that early work may not be the most sophisticated, but it is innovative. Festinger on dissonance or Bem on self-perception are examples from a sister discipline. Consumer behavior example abound and should be simple for this audience to generate: Levy's work on social class, Kuehn's work on linear learning models, Hupfer and Dave Gardner on low involvement, Haines and Bettman on information processing, the early contributions on personality, dissonance, attribution theory, multi-attribute attitude models and on and on.

Better quality research, advanced technology, sophisticated statistics and complex experimental designs are left to others. Merely the original, innovative, and creative thinking comes from the innovator. Without him, there is little that is exciting or new, and without him, there is no place for methodologists, statisticians, and experimental design specialists to ply their trade.

Following the innovator, comes the middle majority. Some of these are mainliners; alert to the literature and knowledgeable as to what is publishable. Their time has come when a topic has become a fad. Nothing very innovative or particularly brilliant emerges. Rather, their important contribution is much like that of a mason that lays bricks, one on top of another, and not the creation of the architectural design.

Co-existing with the mainliner is the technician. Highly trained, mathematically sophisticated, this person is the technical expert. He or she is capable of advancing the field rapidly as new variables, more attributes, interrelationships, and mass data processing skills are introduced. It is the data and its crunchability that excites this scholar. The emphasis is on method and he or she is not necessarily interested in the substantive content. Most of all, this individual is simply not concerned with external validity. His high-quality work is published in the best journals. His major contribution may be in development of sophisticated methodologies, but much more likely, it is in the rapid development of a concept and its hasty burial. For once, all the multi-variables are intercorrelated and controlled, interest in the topic drops.

The mainliners and the technicians follow the innovators to a new topic and the remaining work is left to the laggards. Perhaps the least interesting time in the research life cycle occurs after the innovators have left for greener pastures and the followers are near finished extracting from the second and third crushing of the grapes. Mainstream consumer research with its cognitive approach is in just that stage. The innovators have already left and moved on to new topics and the mainliners and technicians are finishing their work.


However, if one takes a slightly broader view, the changes that are upon us can make this field as exciting today as it has ever been. And this time, the changes that we are seeing are more dramatic than, say, the shift from multiattribute attitude models to information processing; for the innovators on this round are far more revolutionary. We are not just changing gears but rather are headed toward a new highway. But, let me back-up a moment.

On the surface, what seems to be in the doldrums is the revolutionary spirit, for consumer behavior had phenomenal growth, ferment, and excitement during the cognitive revolution in the social sciences. Having been freed from demographics, simple behaviorism, and psychoanalytic approaches in the early 1960's, the cognitive revolution was under way. From its early beginnings in cognitive dissonance to attribution theory, from attitude research and cognitive response to the complexity of memory factors in information processing, the cognitive revolution was upon us and we were part of it.

Now, I ask you to consider the 1985 ACR program. We have one session with attitudes in the title and almost a dozen sessions on information processing -- such topics as consumer knowledge, decision-making, information search, and memory. But, these are not in the majority anymore. Even more telling are the topics that have reappeared, those that had not been around for more than a decade. For today, we have sessions on emotional advertising, mood, emotional response, feeling, affect, learning and conditioned response, humanistic thinking, and even rituals. I count nearly a dozen such sessions and estimate perhaps three to four dozen such pieces.

Clearly, the innovators are again encroaching upon us. But this time, it is not just another new topic creatively borrowed from a sister field, for we are in the midst of a counter-cognitive revolution. And if nothing else, revolutions are exciting times. Our dependence on cognitive psychology is being seriously challenged. The cognitive model is giving way to a more exciting and more holistic approach on one hand and to a simpler conditioned learning paradigm on the other. After some two decades, we are swinging back.

But, it is not only us in consumer behavior who have a counter-cognitive revolution on our hands. Pribram (1985) has recently written, "Cognitive Psychology itself is feel its age. The vitality which characterized the revolution is ebbing. More and more experimentalists are concerned with refinements and, to outsiders, sometimes with trivia. There are suggestions of 'burn-out' -- that the revolution has come to an end, that activity will come to a standstill when it is realized that, after all, the radical behaviorists are right: language is too ambiguous to serve as the core of a science.

However, as an aside, it appears to me that the swings in our field are not like those of a pendulum -- we are not going back and forth -- but, rather, it is more like a spiral that narrows on top. With each swing or revolution, we seem to incorporate the best of that cycle and move to a higher level of understanding. Perhaps, once at the apex, we will have achieved a true appreciation of how and why the consumer behaves as he or she does. How high up that spiral are we? I suspect it really isn't very high and what we write about today will seem utter naive a decade from now on ACR's silver anniversary.

Although counter-revolutionaries have always been in our midst -- the motivation researchers, the humanists, those interested in physiological determinants -- we paid them little mind, for their work was not dubbed as "scientific" -- that is, it was not part of the prevailing research culture. The shock troops for the present counter-revolution were to come not only from the Freudians and the Pavlovians, but even more from those working in arousal and activation, and the low involvement researchers and theorists. It was these scholars who emphasized that much of consumer behavior involves trivial matters, stereotypic decisions, and psychobiological reactions -- behavior that does not require much in the way of cognitive processes. After all, how much cognitive effort goes into the purchase of a tube of toothpaste, or even a refrigerator? As Kroeber-Riel (1979) has pointed out, there are psychological and biological limits on the person's deliberate and conscious control of his behavior.


Deliberative, mindful, inferential, and multi-attribute evaluations are simply not all that prevalent in the marketplace. In part, that is what the counter-cognitive revolution is all about. As Langer, Blank, and Chanowitz point out (1978, but also see Folkes, in press), much of present day theory takes for granted that people think, "with the underlying assumption that people attend to their world and derive behavioral strategies based on current incoming information. The question raised here is not whether these formulations are correct, nor is it whether people are capable of thoughtful action. Instead, we question how often people outside of the laboratory are actually mindful of the variables that are relevant for the subject and for the experimenter in the laboratory, and by implication, then how adequate our theories really are.

Langer then argues, that which is commonly assumed to be mindful, may be, in fact, rather automatic. That is, much of behavior, and certainly the massive blocks of behavior we as consumer researchers are interested in, can best be described as mindless. "Mindless in the sense that attention is not paid precisely to those substantive elements that are relevant for the successful resolution of the situation."

Rather, perhaps because of earlier learning, emotional state, or simple non-involvement and disinterest; behavior is stereotypically reenacted. This, then, is not a thinking, reasoning problem-solving individual capable of transforming, storing, and evaluating sensory inputs for every pound of coffee acquired or even the purchase of a refrigerator. Mindlessness, indeed, is a superior description of most consumer activity. And, I would venture that most of our data, particularly those collected outside the laboratory, would be quite consistent with the belief of the mindless consumer.

So that I am not misunderstood, by no means do I purport that the consumer is stupid, a mindless robot controlled by advertisers, package designers, motivation researchers, or nefarious un-nice people. Nor do I wish to claim that he or she is completely controlled by the adrenal cortex or the production of epinephrene or nor-epinephrene. Rather, I claim the consumer is quite shrewd and does not clutter his mind with the often irrelevant and even more often nonsensical information that impinges on him for every silly or significant purchase.

Once that individual is brought into the laboratory, read precise instructions under pretested conditions, little wonder he or she may become self-conscious. As Langer concludes, "This self-consciousness may be thought provoking and habit inhibiting." Thus, too often, "we are left with the situation where we are studying the responses of thinking subjects and then generalizing too successfully non-thinking people."

Perhaps, it is just such thinking that has excited both proponents and opponents of the importance or silliness of the Belk odyssey -- next summer -- a group of researchers who intend to spend the summer observing, recording, and videotaping, not in the laboratory, but in the field, the behavior of consumers -- at a wedding, a county fair, a swap-meet, a Beverly Hills jeweler, or a midwestern feed store.


And yet, most of those in the forefront of the counter-cognitive revolution would surely not purport to say that complete mindlessness is the appropriate description of the consumer. Those who are studying affect and mood, emotion, condition response, and holistic rather than piece-meal cognitive processing surely are not entirely dealing with mindlessness. By no means do I wish to obliterate the thoughtful thinking consumer for some purchases and under some conditions. I do not wish to deny that, at times past, perhaps, thoughtful information processing did occur. But, also, as Joel Cohen (1982) has pointed out in a delightful ACR paper, so too has the consumer learned schemas, categorization, stereotypes, and nonanalytic concept identification.

Rather, I wish to observe that research on the concept of a conscious mindful information processer has seen its day and even its most doctrinaire proponents are beginning to consider affect, and those other attributes of the counter-revolutionaries. However, it seems to me that there are potholes on our newly refurbished highway. Our recent attempts to take human responses, such as emotion, affect, and even conditioned response and squeeze them into our cherished models of cognitive processing and models of memory are probably counter-productive.

Many highly regarded researchers have tried to incorporate emotions with conditions by claiming that affect is an interactive node in the memory model or an additional box in the ubiquitous flowchart. But, there are also others who view affective states more or less as independent of cognition -- a physiological reaction rather than a cognitive one. Further, it is clear to me that affect is so much more powerful that it completely dominates rational processing. Unfortunately, I am not persuaded that most of us are equipped to study emotions or that they can be measured by paper-and-pencil questionnaires or by laboratory manipulations.

The revolution in the 1960s led to the flurry of excitement in our field once it was freed from its bonds to earlier modes of thinking. So too, the counter-revolution is upon us, having been freed to its bonds to cognitive psychology. What is wrong with the current paradigm in cognitive psychology, as Pribram (1985) has pointed out, is that it is based solely on the analogy with the serial processing computer and Von Neuman architecture. Serial Programming is excellent for symbol manipulation, but fails to provide access to the richness of texture involved in the totality of consumer behavior.

Interestingly, from its earliest days, the Association for Consumer Research has been promulgating the concept that consumer research is interdisciplinary. It never has been successful in reaching that goal, but it may very well be that within the counter-revolution, some of those interdisciplinary ideals may come to fruition. It will not be called interdisciplinary; but, rather, I expect, we will see it in the integration of the thinking of the old guard with the thinking of the counter-revolutionaries. If I remember correctly, that is really what we meant when we said interdisciplinary at the time this organization was formed. What we really wanted to do was to integrate the thinking of economists and psychologists and sociologists into a new field that would be called consumer behavior. It is now coming to pass. For, as I mentioned, I don't believe that the swing back is analogous to the movement of a pendulum, but rather having been freed from the cognitive bonds. we are ready to move up the spiral.

The work that is occurring, for example, on mood and affect has incorporated within it much of what it is we have learned during our cognitive days. Obviously, the work on attitudes, memory, and choice heuristics are not to be repudiated, but, rather, integrated into the new work that is emerging. The seeds of integration have already been planted by Bettman (1982) and Cohen (1982) in ACR papers presented in St. Louis. Very recently, I received a working paper by Debraix and Vanden Abeele (1985) along those same lines

No, these are not boring times. For there is room, not only for the cognitive types, but also the humanists, the physiological researchers and even those that get excited by the Skinner Box and Pavlov's dog; not to mention situational and social determinants. Although ACR has always promulgated that this field was open to all, I am not persuaded that it has always been true.

Obviously, there is nothing particularly new in these comments other than to emphasize how very subtly the counter-cognitive-revolution has appeared on the scene and has overtaken much of our thinking. The encroachment started perhaps half a decade ago, and today, it is in full swing. Indeed, these are exciting times for both participant and nonparticipant observers.


I would guess that we are approaching a middle ground that is more realistic and less pristine. The next turn in the spiral will bring us not to a mindful or a mindless consumer, not to a thoughtful or thoughtless decision-maker, or one driven by hormones, rather than frontal lobe activity, but rather to a relatively different conceptualization: the individual that muddles through (Lindblom, 1959; Park, 1982). Decisions are made, purchases are consummated, children are sent to school, and bills are paid; all in due course, as the consumer gets on with the business of living.

The muddling-through consumer: one that flows with his emotions and learned responses, and processes information, but only when absolutely necessary; a cognitive miser, well protected by selective perception and selective attention, a satisficer, rather than a maximizer, one who invokes prior experience when it is essential and one who does not clutter his mind with variables we researchers today consider relevant. I expect to see the integration of mindlessness with deliberativeness, along with greater recognition of the ability of the consumer, perhaps automatically, to prioritize what is and what is not important in the business of living. As consumer researchers, we are wonderfully equipped with a subject matter that is indeed relevant and subjects, who as consumers, are indeed expert in the Art and Science of Muddling Through.


Bettman, James R. (1982), "A Functional Analysis of the Role of Overall Evaluation of Alternatives in Choice Processes," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 9, ed. Andrew A. Mitchell, Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research, 89-93.

Cohen, Joel B. (1982), "The Role of Affect in Categorization: Toward a Reconsideration of the Concept of Attitude," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 9, ed. Andrew A. Mitchell, Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research, 94-99.

Derbaix, C. and P. Vanden Abeele (1985), "Consumer Inferences and Consumer Preferences: The Status of Cognition and Consciousness in Consumer Behavior Theory," Onderzoeksrapport Nr. 8501, Leuven, Belgium: Department Voor Toegepaste Economische Vetenschappen, Katholeike Universiteit Leuven, (Unpublished Working Paper), 33. pp.

Folkes, Valerie S. (in press), "Mindlessness or Mindfulness: A Partial Replication and Extention of Langer, Blank, and Chanowitz," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1979), "Marketing, Consumer Behavior, and Raymond A. Bauer," in Diffusing Marketing Theory and Research: The Contributions of Bauer, Green, Kotler, and Levitt, eds. Alan A. Andraesan and David M. Gardner. Proceedings Series, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 108-121.

Langer, Ellen, Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz (1978), "The Mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36 (June), 635-642.

Lindblom, Charles E. (1959), "The Science of Muddling Through," Public Administration Review, 19, 79-88.

Kroeber-Riel, Werner (1979), "Activation Research: Psychobiological Approaches in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, S (March), 240-250.

Park, C. Whan (1982), "Joint Decision Making in Home Purchasing: A Muddling-Through Process," Journal of Consumer Research, 9 (September), 151-162.

Pribram, Karl H. (1985), "Holism Could Close Cognition Era," APA Monitor, 16 (September), 5-6.