A New Perspective on Choice

Kathleen M. Rassuli, Indiana-Purdue University of Fort Wayne
Gilbert D. Harrell, Michigan State University
ABSTRACT - A variety of consumer researchers have suggested changes in the way we approach the study of consumer behavior. Part of the discontent with the present approach may lie in the limitations of modeling brand choice -- the definition of attributes, the approach to dynamics and in the directionality of the models. This paper proposes a new conceptual base; choice is depicted as the beginning of a consumption process. Consumption sets and consuming style are introduced. The broader treatment of consumption phenomena should provide a mechanism to tie together several divergent research streams and result in new insights into consumer behavior.
[ to cite ]:
Kathleen M. Rassuli and Gilbert D. Harrell (1990) ,"A New Perspective on Choice", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 737-744.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 737-744


Kathleen M. Rassuli, Indiana-Purdue University of Fort Wayne

Gilbert D. Harrell, Michigan State University


A variety of consumer researchers have suggested changes in the way we approach the study of consumer behavior. Part of the discontent with the present approach may lie in the limitations of modeling brand choice -- the definition of attributes, the approach to dynamics and in the directionality of the models. This paper proposes a new conceptual base; choice is depicted as the beginning of a consumption process. Consumption sets and consuming style are introduced. The broader treatment of consumption phenomena should provide a mechanism to tie together several divergent research streams and result in new insights into consumer behavior.


While some authors may disagree, the consumer behavior discipline seems to be in a state of flux (Holbrook, 1987). Several prominent scholars have expressed the need for additional research avenues in consumer behavior, particularly more encompassing yet theoretically sound (Kassarjian 1978, 1987; Hirschman 1985, 1986; Belk 1985; Holbrook 1987). The search for new approaches appears to be as intense as at any other time in the history of the discipline. Kernan (1987, p. 133) says: "[Holbrook's] plea is not the ranting of a lunatic fringe, but rather a position that represents a growing number of consumer researchers who, for whatever reason, have been unable or unwilling to express it." In response, this paper utilizes a new conceptual base. The intent is to show that the process of consumer behavior encompasses a great deal more than brand choice alone. The broader treatment of consumption, represented in the new conceptual model, provides a mechanism to tie together several divergent theoretical avenues.


In the minds of many leaders of the discipline, it appears that conventional theories and techniques have taken consumer researchers to a certain point in understanding the consumer but may have reached their limit. Mittelstaedt (1971) and Sheth (1979) criticize what the former refers to as the "eclectic borrowing" on the part of consumer behaviorists. The latter calls for consumer behaviorists to develop their own constructs rather than rely on psychology or sociology.

According to Sheth (1979), three main difficulties plague research in consumer behavior. The first is the implicit assumption of a rational problem-solving process, as exemplified by multiattribute information processing and brand choice models (ibid., p. 573; also see Olshavsky and Granbois 1979). As a remedy, Sheth suggests that researchers turn their attention to habit and conditioning, situationalism, novelty-curiosity, deviant, and obsessive consumer behavior. Along the same lines, Zajonc (1980) and Zajonc and Marcus (1982) suggest a shift from cognitions to affect. Gardner (1985) focuses on research to date concerning affective dimensions of mood states. Foxall (1983) suggests a shift to behaviorism implicit in such notions as habit and conditioning.

Sheth points to the overemphasis on the individual and the lack of focus on groups as the second and third problems in consumer research(1979, p. 573). Even such groups as market segments, social classes, and ethnic groups are studied as "aggregates of individual consumers rather than distinct group entities" (ibid.). Sheth suggests research should examine dyads, small groups, families, and organizations. Research is needed into nonproblem-solving group behavior (ibid.). Moreover, "research should be directed at the macro (group) rather than at the micro (individual) level" (1979, p. 514). Hirschman (1985), Belk (1985), and Uusitalo and Uusitalo (1981) have similarly called for more macro research. Alderson (1957) developed the rudiments of a consumer theory with the household as the unit of analysis. Glock and Nicosia (1964), Nicosia and Mayer (1976), Foxall (1976), and Zielinski and Robertson (1981) all have called for the interjection of sociology into the study of consumer behavior.

The literature has tended to treat consumer behavior as a static rather than a dynamic process. Calls for recognition and incorporation of a process orientation have been made (Jacoby 1976; Sheth 1979). Jacoby points out that the discipline uses static methods to understand dynamic processes (1976, p. 3) and suggests that the discipline should focus on consumption behavior as opposed to just buyer behavior (1976, p. 10). Alderson (1957) was among the first to call for such a shift, noting that there is a difference between buying behavior and consumption behavior.

In concluding this section, the call has gone out for new theories and new methods. A variety of alternatives have been proposed, some are radical. Solutions range from theoretical focus within brain function to changes in metatheory. Often a change in emphasis is accompanied by a change in method, or preceded by a change in metatheory. Included are the following: (1) change in focus from cognitions to affect; (2) change in school from cognitive learning to behaviorism; (3) shift from psychological theories to other related disciplines, such as sociology, and anthropology; (4) change in methodology, for example, from questionnaires to projective techniques, and/or from respondent answers to observation, and/or from correlation to causal modeling; (5) change in metatheory and ways of generating theories, for example, from logical positivism to humanism.


Part of consumer researcher's dissatisfaction might be explained by briefly looking at the major research streams that have attempted to discover variables that relate to, or predict, choice. Many seemingly disparate research streams have been dominated by attempts to explain choice. Models that deal directly with choice include the decision-making process, the communication hierarchy, and stochastic choice models, to name a few. Preference and attitude models often address choice; that is, while their main purpose is to explain preference, correlations with brand choice are often used to validate the models. Also, in the literature on information overload (Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn 1974) choice is touched on tangentially; correct product choice is used to determine overload. In fact, one taxonomy of consumer behavior models shows that all models (with the exception of pure evaluation models) touch on choice (see Lilien and Kotler 1983, p. 205).

The variables linked to choice can be classified into three categories. Individual difference variables are used to divide people into homogeneous groups (demographics, personality, and life-style). Process variables describe how choice occurs (preference and attitude formation). Broad environmental exogenous variables (culture and social class) help describe the influence of norms and societal variables.

Individual Difference Variables

Personality and Demographics Early research linking personality and demographic variables to product and brand choice found very low R2's (Evans 1959; Fry 1971; Alpert 1972). Saranson et al. (1975) analyzing 102 personality studies found an average R2 Of .045 for situational variables, .03 for personality variables and .01 for demographic variables. (Also see Peterson et al. 1985). According to Wells (1975, p. 196), "work with personality inventories has been judged 'equivocal'... The correlations have almost invariably been low, and the relationships uncovered have been so abstract that they could not be used with confidence in making real-world marketing decisions." (Also see Kassarjian and Sheffet 1975).

Psychographics Later, emphasis shifted to life-style research (see, for example, Levy 1963). Wells (1975, p. 196) called the area of psychographics a blending of personality inventories and motivation research. Darden and Perrault (1975), in a typical study, found that lifestyle accounted for about 15 percent of the variance in behavior (vacation choice). Andreason (1984) found a correlation coefficient of 0.14 looking at changes in life-style and in preferences. Some recent work on life-styles assumes that certain groups constitute "a life-style" and begins analysis at that point (for example, "housewives" and "working wives;" see Jackson et al. 1985; also see Andreason 1984). Wind and Green (1974, p. 106) listed five different ways life-style was measured and attribute the practice of using different measures to a lack of theory in the life-style research stream. Fenwick et al. (1983) draw a similar conclusion. "The components of this 'life-style' are both unspecified and by design unexpected" (1983, p. 71). Roscoe, LeClaire, and Shiffman (1977) point out that the purpose of psychographics is not to predict behavior, but to help explain and describe consumers.

The strength of relationships documented in the literature are summarized in Figure 1. Demographics probably predict life-style better than brand choice. Life-style (psychographics) predicts choice somewhat better than does personality or demographics.

Process Variables: Multiattribute Models

Consumer research has been dominated by the multiattribute attitude models (Sheth 1979). The multiattribute approach suggests that once attitude is known, it can help predict and understand preference (that is, affect), purchase intention, and choice.

Again, in this literature, the strength of the relationship between attitudes and behavior is varied (Harrell and Bennett 1974). In the psychology literature, Ajzen and Fishbein (1977) report correlations of between 0.02 and 0.49. The relationships reported in marketing have usually been between 0.20 and 0.30.

Disappointing results have been attributed to several factors. Ajzen and Fishbein (1977) felt that incongruence between the content of attitude questions (which focused on general attitudes) and the type of behaviors-or actions studied (specific) could account for weak relationships. Studies that measured the attitude-behavior relationship in the context of specific situations did, in fact, attain higher correlations. Bagozzi et al. (1979) noted that lack of consideration for the "tripartite" nature of attitudes, (cognitive, affective, and behavioral intention components) may account for the results.

Multiattribute models have been useful in deciphering various aspects of information processing, the components of attitudes, and relationships of attitude formation to other variables. However, it should be noted that these models are founded upon the assumption that attributes are important. Researchers then ask "which" attributes are important, "how" people use attributes in decision making (the evaluations component), and "how" people attach significance to attributes. However, none of these models ask why attributes are important. Therefore, research in this area has not addressed opportunities that explain and predict behavior as opposed lo information Processing.

Exogenous Variables

Attempts have been made sporadically to show that variables such as culture and social class are related to consumer decision making and choice. Social class provides a case in point. Social class came to prominence in marketing in the 1950s, but Bettman, Kassarjian and Lutz (1978) conclude there was little improvement in research beyond 1960. Coleman (1983) believes that social class, as a legitimate area of study in consumer behavior, was hampered by measurement problems and expense, as well as questions about when and how to apply social class, and because of sociologists disagreement about the "value and validity" of the concept. Coleman (1983) believes that the controversy over income versus social class led researchers to shift focus to other variables.



Nevertheless, both Fisher (1986) and Coleman (1983) emphasize that social class is still relevant to the study of consumer behavior. New research question should not focus on whether income or class is a better predictor of choice, but on the how class affects the use of income (Coleman 1983). Renewed interest in social class has come in the form of the "sociology of consumption" (see Mochis 1981 for a review of consumer socialization). This tradition examines institutions, cultural values, and role structures to determine their impact on consumption (Bettman, Kassarjian, and Lutz 1978). Here, social class merges with topics such as consumption symbolism (Belk, Bahn, and Mayer 1986; Solomon 1983) and consumption's cultural context (Hirschman 1985).


In attempting to answer questions about choice, one could argue that research has followed a rather specific and narrow path. Sheth and Garrett (1986, p. 460) note the over-emphasis on brand choice. While there appears to be tacit agreement about the significance of brand choice, the extent to which the focus on brand choice has influenced consumer research has gone largely undetected. Consider the diversity of models founded upon a brand assumption. The Howard and Sheth model is a brand choice model and while Engle, Kollat, and Blackwell do not make such an assumption explicit, their model also deals mainly with brand choice. Extensive, limited, and routinized decision-making behavior differ to the extent of prior knowledge of product category, and brand attributes. Clearly, the multiattribute models deal with brand attitude, preference and choice. Moreover, the demographic/personality literature began by trying to distinguish categories of brand owners. Finally, while research into exogenous variables as they relate to choice is often at the product form level (Westbrook and Fornell, 1979), here, too, brand choice plays a significant role.

We believe the implications of this brand focus have not been fully explored. While brand decision-making may represent a large portion of consumer decision-making, it only explains part of consumer behavior. Consumers in the position of making brand choices must be so aware of their needs, that brand attributes tend to become synonymous with needs, benefits, and consequences Attributes, then, are defined as "outcomes, consequences or benefits people obtain from a product" (Wilkie 1986, p. 438) and might be used interchangeably with values and consequences, as some of the multiattribute literature uses attributes (see Cohen, Fishbein, and Ahtola 1972, p. 456). Then, brands tend to be viewed as the means and attributes as the ends of consumer behavior (Wilkie 1986, p. 460).

The ramifications of this simple brand assumption become enormous when one recognizes that modeling consumer behavior in this way narrows the focus of research. If attributes are synonymous with needs, benefits and consequences, then understanding consumer behavior becomes an overly simple matter. The reasoning might be as follows: If a researcher understands the attributes and attitudes toward attributes, it should be possible to predict brand behavior (choice or purchase) and thus understand consumer behavior. However, this scenario might accurately describe the theoretical "never-never land" against which Kassarjian (1987) rails.

Research to date in many fields of consumer behavior has provided an exceptional view of brand choice. Research results have been of much use to individuals in developing sales and promotional strategies, and short term marketing plans. However, the propensity of modeling of brand choice explains much of the discontent in the consumer literature. Clearly, it turns out that the evaluations of attributes only partially explain choice behavior. And while arguably cultural values and life-styles are important, they do not add to our ability to predict brand choice because (as attributes are defined in the literature) values and other variables are often defined and modeled in ways that tend to repeat the information contained in attributes.

Therefore, in attempting to advance the literature, researchers have concluded that we must be missing any number of other variables: the situation (Belk 1975), reference group pressures, the family influence, emotions (JCR "Call for Research on Emotions, 1985), feelings or affect (Zajonc 1980, Zajonc and Markus 1982), hedonic tendencies (Holbrook 1981), irrationality (Sheth 1979), collecting behavior and having behavior (Belk 1982), and materialistic tendencies (Belk 1985).


Directionality. What may be missing in consumer research is an understanding of how a product becomes part of a consumer's life. This is implicit in Jacoby's call for a look at processes and "consumption" and in Sheth's suggestions about consuming life-styles. In other words, part of the explanation for why people buy might be found in how the product will fit into a consumer's life. Rather than ask why people buy or on what basis people make their choice of products, one might inquire how the choice of a product, and its constituent attributes, contributes to a person's life.

In addition to being focused on choice, all conceptual-schemes of consumer decision making assume that consumers move toward choice of a brand or product. It is noteworthy that in all of the Brand conceptualizations of consumer behavior, the arrows representing consumer decision making, move in the direction of choice. With the possible exceptions of the satisfaction literature and the dissonance literature, little consideration is given to what occurs after the purchase. Only recently has a small body of literature sprung up concerning what consumers do with products after purchase (see Belk 1982). While all models include feedback loops, these generally deal with feedback to evoked sets, decision rules, satisfactions, and perceptions. Notably conspicuous by their absence in consumer decision making models are feedback loops to lifestyle, social class/status or cultural values.

Dynamics For grand consumer behavior models, since exogenous variables are largely taken as given for the type of consumer decisions under study, change is not relevant to the research. At the extreme, one moves from one given state of the environment to another given state of the environment. The dynamics are captured, as it were, in a series of "snapshots" rather than a motion picture. Rather than understanding the process of change, the level of analysis becomes what Frankenberg (1967, p. 83) would call exogenous comparative statics.

Implications Taken as a whole, the problems outlined -- the lack of feedback and dynamism, along with the focus on brand choice -may account for the consumer research focus on rational decision making, and the inability to answer questions about macro consumer behavior, as well at to incorporate the influence of exogenous variables.


To ease the restrictions imposed by brand research, the solution is to posit that underlying single occasion consumer behavior is a dynamic, circular, long-term process. If such is the case, brand decision making becomes a special case of that more general model. The purchases of consumers are related to one another in nontrivial ways, which do not depend on the typical assumption of a rational consumer. The suggested changes are, first, to recognize consumer behavior as encompassing those processes that occur after (as well as during and before) purchase, but to shift focus to those processes that occur after purchase; second, to incorporate assortments into consumer behavior models; and, third, a detailed look at the information contained in the attributes of products.

Current models of consumer behavior assume a flow from culture to values to life-styles to beliefs to attitudes to purchase and its outcomes of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Many streams of research, such as those discussed in an earlier section, look for a simple relationship -demographics to purpose;- life-style to purchase; attitude to purchase, and so forth. Marketers are interested in purchase and consumer theorists have tended to seek the reasons for purchase. But, in their search consumer researchers have asked what factors result in purchase. By posing the question in that form, the search tends to focus on the antecedents of purchase.

In the past, authors have suggested a change in focus from buying behavior to consuming behavior (Alderson 1957; Jacoby 1976; Nicosia and Mayer 1976). Alderson (1957; p. 166), for example, posits that buyer behavior is derivative of consuming. However, "derivative" implies that buying behavior results from consuming behavior. Here again, one might be led to search for the antecedents to purchase.

A number of scholars have also called for a change in the focus of marketing from brands to assortments (Wind 1977; Nicosia and Mayer 1976), but thus far little change has been forthcoming. Green, Wind, and Jain (1972) discuss measurement of item collections, but they look at a single purchase occasion (a meal) and implicitly assume that each item contributes one characteristic (attribute) to that occasion. Within the framework of the multiattribute models, McAlister (1979; 1982) developed a technique for looking at assortments of substitute brands in an inventory (different brands of soft drinks), but she did not extend her model to assortments of apparently disparate items. The challenge is to develop a framework for incorporating the notions of feedback and assortments into a model of consumer behavior.

The perspective proposed here is that choice and purchase could be viewed as inputs into a process, not merely the end of consumer decision-making efforts. In this way one recognizes the feedback from choice to other consumer behavior variables. Such a feedback loop has been suggested by Carman (1978). He has proposed that values, subculture and consumption actually form a "closed loop." While his insight is significant to the model proposed in the next section, Carman doesn't specify the nature of the feedback. Nicosia and Mayer (1976) also outline a circular process whereby consumption activities feed back to cultural values and institutions.



The outline of the proposed model of consumer behavior might appear as shown in Figure 2. If, indeed consumer behavior is a circular process, then why not view choice as the beginning of the process? As depicted choice is not solely the output of a discovery and evaluation process as in many consumer behavior theories. Rather, choice is viewed as an input, a means, not an end. Although the arrows go in both directions, we believe the field would be best served by focusing on the new direction, i.e., choice to consumer variables, as opposed to the reverse. Furthermore, the model as shown is tentative; other relationships are not precluded and remain to be explored.

The following two new theoretical units help to form the basic building blocks of a new theory. The initial definitions provide an indication of the nature of these constructs. Tighter theoretical definitions and operational measures remain to be developed.

Consumption Set: the assortment or portfolio of complementary and substitute attributes and attribute combinations that a consuming entity holds at a particular point in time

Consuming Style: the manner in which a consuming entity furnishes the requirements of the consuming behavior aspects of life.

The long-term nature of the consumer behavior process can be made explicit by considering the individual prior to his/her first choice, and then following the individual through time. Every individual is born into a world surrounded by sets of products; e.g., that chosen by his/her family (the household consumption set), which is a subset of all the attribute combinations available in society (a societal consumption set). If one were able to focus on the individual's first choice/purchase of a good, the scenario in Figure 3 would depict that. Familiarity with other sets provides the context for the decision. The consumption sets encountered during a consumer's childhood act as a reference point for the current purchase. Over time, the individual fills in the empty consumption set; the second choice Is partially contingent upon the first and so forth. Consequently, as depicted in the new model, choice is not merely the output of a process, but rather, an input. Choice is not an end; choice is a means toward the end of accumulating a workable consumption set. The process of developing a consumption set should be considered an ongoing process whereby one continually creates, renews, replenishes and destroys the set.

The theoretical model, as briefly outlined, would enable consumer researchers to incorporate aspects of culture, social class and values, captured in consumption sets and consuming style, into models of consumer behavior. In the scenario depicted in Figure 3, culture (i.e., the material and symbolic aspects of culture tied up in the attributes found in the societal consumption possibilities set) is shown to have a direct influence on the individual's purchase decision. Moreover, different social classes would be expected to have somewhat overlapping, yet distinct consumption sets. Furthermore, demographic variables (e.g., geographic location and income) should be related to a person's exposure to aspects of the societal set. Likewise, life-styles help define the constituent components of a set. Thus, as posited, the model is able to incorporate the influence of groups and the influence of other products (those already part of a consumption set) on choice. More importantly, the model enables one to study consumer behavior as a process rather than an isolated event of brand choice. So that brand choice models become a special case of a more general model of choice. Dynamism enters this formulation of consumer behavior in the sense that the set is continually changing due to new acquisitions and the deterioration of old acquisitions.

Assortments and Attributes. The model calls for the incorporation of assortments, defined here as a consumption set. Alderson (1957, pp. 198-99) observes that products are not useful in themselves; utility arises in an assortment of complementary goods.

While the discussion so far has been couched in terms of goods, by convention in marketing, goods are defined as "bundles of attributes" (for example, Kotler 1988, p. 187). Thus, the fundamental element of a consumption set is an attribute. Attributes can be thought of as descriptive characteristics sought by consuming entities. The terms feature, aspect, property, and element are alternatives for the word attributes. Earlier in the paper it was noted that thus far little attention has been given to the question of why attributes are important. According to the present line of reasoning, attributes are important because they provide the building blocks or ingredients of sets. Thus, attributes take on significance because of their place in a set and are therefore not the ends of consumer behavior, as in some multiattribute models. Perhaps the set issues, i.e., recognizing the significance of other products and of the entire set in choice, would help improve our understanding of multiattribute decisions.




In the present model, consumer behaviors would be viewed, in the main, as instrumental to the development of a consumption set and a consuming style, which in turn enable the consumer to produce desirable outcomes. Consumption sets and consuming style produce utility for consumers because, in the process of developing a style, consumers take a meaningless variety of isolated goods/attributes and turn them into a meaningful, workable consumption set. Consuming need not be considered an end in itself; clearly it is only one possible end. Consuming may facilitate other goals, including learning, creating, resting/sleeping, exploring, nurturing, educating, and worshiping.

If choice is an input into a process of creating sets and styles, then what is the output? Any answer to this question by consumer researchers would include: creating a life-style (perhaps harmony, order/disorder); creating a personality/self; playing role(s); surviving (in a physiological sense); being an individual; belonging to a group; expressing oneself; signaling membership; entertaining oneself, and so forth. Ultimately, in creating a consumption set and developing a consuming style, the consumer creates possibilities to deal with life's multiple demands.

Based on the model as outlined, research directions could take the field down many avenues. First and foremost, one must determine whether consumers actually do create sets and/or think about products/attributes in set terms. If they do, then a whole series of unanswered questions remain. How do consumption sets and consuming style affect one another? How are attributes combined? What determines whether an element of a set remains or is destroyed?- What are the most important determinants of consuming style? Are different styles possible, do styles evolve, is there a typology of styles? Certainly the model has important implications for incorporating earning/maturation into consumer research. Moreover, the satisfaction literature may benefit from considering the set effects on satisfaction.


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