An Introduction to a Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective of Consumer Behavior

Thomas M. Aslin, University of Michigan
Michael L. Rothschild, University of Wisconsin
[ to cite ]:
Thomas M. Aslin and Michael L. Rothschild (1987) ,"An Introduction to a Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective of Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 566.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Page 566


Thomas M. Aslin, University of Michigan

Michael L. Rothschild, University of Wisconsin

The field of consumer behavior has traditionally borrowed from the behavioral sciences--particularly cognitive psychology--in developing models of consumer decision processes. However, the dominant models of cognitive psychology do not seem to be appropriate for explaining low involvement consumer behaviors. In response, behavioral learning theory has been used to describe low involvement cases where consumers put little thought into decision making and the cost of a "poor" decision is (Rothschild and Gaidis, 1981; Nord and Peter, 1980).

The purpose of this paper is to introduce an integrated cognitive-behavioral perspective and to show the potential theoretic value of using the integrated framework. The term "cognitive-behavioral perspective" reflects recent attempts, primarily from clinical psychology, to integrate cognitive and behavioral views. Mahoney (1977) has suggested that the following propositions characterize the perspective:

1. The human organism responds primarily to cognitive representations of its environments rather than to those environments, per se.

2. These cognitive representations are functionally related to the processes and parameters of learning.

3. Most human learning is cognitively mediated.

4. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors are causally interactive.

The cognitive behavioral learning (CBL) model claims that the memory construct is comprised of schemata, or packets of knowledge, that integrate information about a particular generic concept, and that schemata are made of scripts that contain dynamic representations of the actions associated with a concept.

The CBL model also recognizes external structural causes of behavior. The external or situational structures primarily provide the consumer with information which can be broken into two types of information cues discriminative stimulus cues and reinforcing stimulus cues. Discriminative stimulus cues appear in reinforcement situations in which they announce the reinforcement opportunity, but they are not necessary for reinforcement to occur. Examples of these cues would be a model's actions (but not the outcomes) in an advertisement and a company's logo. Reinforcing stimulus cues include vicarious and experiential reinforcing cues. These are viewed in a cognitive sense (as signals) rather than as necessary conditions for learning. Vicarious reinforcing are incurred when an individual observes the outcomes another person's action. Experiential reinforcing stimulus cues are incurred when an individual directly experiences the outcomes of his/her own actions.

The CBL model proposes that important cognitive processes occur between the input of information and the output of behavior. Two types of processes--cognitive learning and behavioral learning--are proposed by the model. Cognitive learning requires the acquisition of much external information and is associated with the development of an observer script. This type of learning involves the assimilation of small bits of information (i.e., vignettes) about a situation into a script. Behavioral learning requires the acquisition of minimal external information and is associated with the elicitation of an observer or a participant script. The model considers the two learning processes to be complementary and to occur sequentially; a minimal amount of cognitive learning must occur before behavioral learning will take place (i.e., before behavioral incentives will be effective). Thus, either of the two types of learning may dominate the cognitive processes in a particular consumer situation. Cognitive learning occurs primarily when a consumer is unfamiliar and/or involved with a product or service, while behavioral learning occurs primarily when a consumer is familiar and/or uninvolved with a product or service. Familiarity is reflected in the degree of cognitive development a consumer has concerning a product or service- the more experienced a consumer, the more developed his/her script and schema.

Cognitive behavior modification (CBM) is proposed for inducing consumer behaviors and cognitions. This approach has evolved from the recent work of several cognitive-behavioral researchers--most importantly Meichenbaum (e.g., 1977). In contrast to behavior modification, CBM stresses observational experience and observational- and self-incentives, rather than direct experience (i.e., behavioral practice) or external incentives. The goal of the CBM strategy is to develop or alter a consumer's cognitions (i.e., cognitive representations of actions and their consequences) in an ultimate effort to develop or alter the consumer' 8 behavior.

Most of the information provided during the CBM strategy is experienced vicariously (e.g., watching advertisements) rather than directly (e.g., actual purchase) because of the risk involved in an actual purchase. Since the consumer is unfamiliar and/or highly involved with the product, s/he will be reluctant to purchase it. Thus, vicarious learning of information is accomplished through cognitive or covert modeling in which a model (e.g., actor in an advertisement) displays the appropriate behaviors and cognitions that are emitted during these behaviors.

Cognitive modeling could be used in conjunction with both advertising and personal selling. By using a model to demonstrate (1) the product being used or bought and (2) the self-statements associated with using or buying the product (through the model's dialogue or a voiceover), the ad can help a consumer develop a product script. Covert modeling can be conducted by using advertising which allows the modeled behavior and cognitions to be easily imagined.

This paper has introduced an integrated cognitive-behavioral perspective that can be applied to the study of consumer behavior. Moreover, a cognitive-behavioral learning model was proposed to explain what structural causes of behavior and cognitive processes dominate in different consumer involvement cases.


Mahoney, M. J. (1977), "Reflections on the Cognitive-Learning Trend in Psychotherapy," American Psychologist, 32, 5-13.

Meichenbaum, D. (1977), Cognitive Behavior Modification: An Integrative Approach, New York, Plenum Press

Nord, W. R., and J. P. Peter (1980), "A Behavior Modification Perspective on Marketing," Journal of Marketing) 44 (Spring), 36-47.

Rothschild, M. L., and W. C. Gaidis (1981), "Behavioral Learning Theory: Its Relevance to Marketing and Promotions." Journal of Marketing, 45 (Spring), 70-78.