Capricious Consumption and the Social Brain Theory: Why Consumers Seem Purposive Even in the Absence of Purpose

Joseph Cherian, University of Illinois - Chicago
Barbara Harris, University of Illinios - Chicago
ABSTRACT - Research on the consumption process is fueled by many viable theoretical traditions. Even so, there are aspects of the consumption experience that are destined to be inaccessible partly because of physiological reasons. One reason stems from the Social Brain Theory which posits, in contrast to previous thinking, that there are several modules in the human brain, all of which can work in parallel, not all of which are capable of verbalizing, and the one capable of verbalizing imputes a purposiveness to the self that may not exist. The required shift in consumer research is both ontological and methodological.
[ to cite ]:
Joseph Cherian and Barbara Harris (1990) ,"Capricious Consumption and the Social Brain Theory: Why Consumers Seem Purposive Even in the Absence of Purpose", 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: 745-749.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 745-749


Joseph Cherian, University of Illinois - Chicago

Barbara Harris, University of Illinios - Chicago


Research on the consumption process is fueled by many viable theoretical traditions. Even so, there are aspects of the consumption experience that are destined to be inaccessible partly because of physiological reasons. One reason stems from the Social Brain Theory which posits, in contrast to previous thinking, that there are several modules in the human brain, all of which can work in parallel, not all of which are capable of verbalizing, and the one capable of verbalizing imputes a purposiveness to the self that may not exist. The required shift in consumer research is both ontological and methodological.


The methodologies that are used to investigate phenomena, including consumer behavior, are directly linked to the investigators conception of the phenomena (Hirschman and Holbrook 1986, p. 213; Laudan 1977). Thus, even in consumer research, 'consumption communities' develop; they subscribe to different worldviews, and use different methods to look at their inter-subjectively validated world(s). Conversely, one may peculate that the more investigators are committed to one method the more locked in they become to one theory about a phenomenon. Further, when different investigators studying a common phenomenon 'incontrovertibly' establish their particular views, the dilemma is particularly troublesome. In the context of physics, scientists are unable to conclusively show whether light is a particle or a wave, since choosing to look at it as a wave yields valid 'wave' results and choosing to look at it as a particle yields valid 'particle' results (e.g. see Capra 1976).

Several recent papers have argued for the acceptance of such multiple and concurrent realities in consumer research. Three such examples are reviewed next to highlight philosophical, pragmatic and psychological rationales.

(i) Hirschman and Holbrook (1986) propose that a consumers reality has many aspects since it involves a complex and reverberating network of thought, emotion, activity and value. This prompts the use of several methodologies that are consistent with their relativistic epistemology;

(ii) Belk (1986) argues for multiple and complementary orientations, e.g. art and science, in order to arrive at essential understandings. In a sense, this appeal for multiple orientations is made on a strictly utilitarian basis since limiting methods of looking only reduces what can be known about the focal problem; and

(iii) Hudson and Ozanne (1988) propose that we entertain an interpretivist approach because, among other things, reality is socially constructed (Berger and Luckman 1967) and individuals create reality by distorting received stimuli so that they can make sense of the world (Burrell and Morgan 1979, Kant_1982).

Although these studies exemplify the research on the need for multiple approaches to multiple realities, none of them has argued that the interpretivist approach might be physiologically preordained. To make this point, this paper will first examine the perspective of an eminent brain researcher, Michael Gazzaniga; after examining his view of brain functioning some important implications for consumer research will be highlighted.


Several theories exist about the functioning of the brain; in fact Hampden-Turner (1981) illustrates_over sixty notions dealing with how the brain has been thought to work. One unifying aspect of many of these models is the view that the brain is a unitary system with well-defined serial linkages among its-modules; different tasks such as vision, movement, etc., use different modules. If such strictly serial linkages existed it would mean that the brain sequentially processed external stimuli and fabricated a consistent version of reality from these stimuli. Simplistically, this is similar to an assembly line programmed by the consciousness module CM) to transform a variety of fundamental inputs into a variety of intended outputs; all of the inputs are potentially discernable in the output. If the brain indeed functioned in this manner all outcomes, e.g. behavior, could be explained since the outcomes would be tainted with inputs. The consumer would be able to (i) be aware of and (ii) articulate all relevant influences on a purchase decision.

Social Brain Theory (SBT) does acknowledge that the brain has specialized modules for different tasks. The primary distinction is that the processing of information is parallel, not sequential; in this respect it is much like a social network. When reading this sentence, some modules in this 'social' network are processing the symbolic content of the letters and words, some modules are sensing the colors and textures, etc., independently of each other (Minsky 1986). In other words, these modules are not aware of each others processing efforts or results, and therefore have multiple and simultaneous processing of sensory inputs. CM then puts together the outputs to form a consistent image of reality.

The differences between the two notions of brain functioning are dramatic. In the first, a purposeful CM pulls together a consistent view of reality by harnessing the talents of appropriate processing modules; for example, to read this sentence, CM harnesses (lets say) the symbol-recognition module and the interpretation module to get to desired results. SBT says that the various modules do their processing undirected, and the consciousness-module is left to put the results from relevant modules together, in a consistent manner. To vividly see the difference, use the following metaphor: the former models say that consciousness builds the house of reality brick- by-brick and layer-by-layer; SBT says that consciousness puts this house together from prefabricated walls that are made by unsupervised and independent units in the social system.

Under the SBT scenario, consumers would be able to consult CM in order to account for their behaviors. Unlike the earlier models, SBT would predict that consumers might (i) not be aware of the influences on their behaviors and (ii) not be able to articulate the rationale for their behaviors correctly. In other words, a consumer could become conscious only of a vague sense of dislike for a blue car without knowing the reason; CM senses a negative valence from the memory-module but does not get the reasoning. Furthermore, if pressured for the reason behind disliking the car, CM would impute a logical rationale which may or may not be correct. Specific instances of these behaviors are amply illustrated later in the paper; before that, SBT must be differentiated from what appears to be a similar theory -- hemispheral lateralization.


The left brain/right brain theories, which were in vogue in consumer research in the early 80's, envisaged complete lateralization in the tasks performed by the brain. At the very extreme, an incoming stimulus would be marked for the hemisphere that specialized in doing the necessary task. Such specializations were viewed as being both beneficial (Zajonc 1968; Lindzay and Norman 1977) and deleterious (Hansen 1981).

The left cerebral hemisphere is typically depicted as rational, realistic, a linear processor, specializing in verbal, mathematical and symbol-related tasks; and the right cerebral hemisphere is depicted as intuitive, metaphoric, a holistic processor, with noncognitive gestalt perception (Bogen 1971); for a more comprehensive overview see Hansen (1981).

In the consumer behavior context, the right hemisphere has been hypothesized to control the continual environmental scanning part of the attention process; the cognitive left hemisphere is activated only when the right hemisphere gives a stimulus significant enough to warrant detailed and concentrated attention. Similarly, recognition is believed to be a right hemisphere function, while recall is attributed to the left hemisphere (Broadbent 1977; Krugman 1977). Studies involving EEG recordings report a high level of bilateral activity in subjects watching television rich with verbal, rational variables and low levels of bilateral activity in subjects watching advertising with emotionally-based and non-verbal variables, indicating the involvement of both hemispheres only when the task demands it (Rothschild et al. 1988).

Elements of choice behavior are similarly attributed to separate hemispheres. The right hemisphere is the primary determinant in low involvement purchase decisions for which past behaviors, holistic and pictorial information and emotion are determining factors; brand loyalty is therefore a right hemisphere phenomenon. The left hemisphere is responsible for high involvement consumption decisions in which information must be processed and a deliberate choice made (Krugman 1977).

Although SBT agrees that the cerebral hemispheres, each modular in composition, differ in the nature of their processing of information, there are three important distinctions: (i) SBT credits only one module with verbal activity; all other modules must be accessed through CM in order to bring their outcomes into awareness; (ii) The processing within the nonverbal modules in not UNconscious but CO-conscious. Information is processed in several modules, within each hemisphere, simultaneously and differently; unless the consciousness-module is involved the processing lies outside of conscious awareness; and (iii) All the independent modules are capable of producing behaviors; those behaviors activated by modules in the right hemisphere may occur outside of conscious awareness; There is extensive empirical support of sorts for these three claims (Gazzaniga 1984). The next section examines some of the non-conscious elements in consumer behavior.


Consumer behavior researchers have often noted the non-conscious and non-cognitive aspects of experiential consumption, attitude formation, and precognitive preference development; often these approaches seem to have parallels to hemispheral lateralization type notions. Let us consider three specific examples from literature and highlight the differences between the nonconscious processing explicated by them and SBT.

(1) Experiential Consumption: Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) went beyond the logical, problem-solving approach adopted by the information-processing model to find an explanation for the consumption of nonutilitarian goods and services. They developed an 'experiential' view of consumption in which products were imbued with attributes such as 'symbolic meanings, hedonic responses, and aesthetic criteria'; all these attributes are typically appealing outside the logical consciousness of the consumer. The drives behind experientially motivated consumption behaviors are believed not to be unconscious and therefore unrecoverable; but rather, the drives are believed to be preconscious or subconscious and could be recovered. Some techniques like participant observation and projective interviewing techniques could circumvent sensitive or covert motivations behind the behaviors which a consumer is hesitant to admit (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982).

This 'experiential view' focuses primarily on aesthetic products -- films, arts, 'fun'-products. This limits the nonconscious elements discussed by Hirschman and Holbrook (1982) to specific product categories. SBT would anticipate non-consciously deliberated purchase in all categories; indeed, impulse buying behavior has been noted to include high-priced, high-involvement products such as appliances (Rook 1987).

(2) Preferences without Inferences: Zajonc and Markus (1982) consider patterns for preference development other than what was expected by traditional-theory (i.e. cognition leading to affect leading to preference). They showed that affect-based preferences could precede cognition-based preferences; indeed, affect and cognition could operate independently in some cases. Reasons given by subjects to explain a preference may merely be a rationalization since the individual could be unwilling to admit emotion-based attachments. Note that neither familiarity, nor subjective recognition, nor frequency of exposure is given as the basis for preference even though these variables have been empirically demonstrated to 'cause' preference. Clearly, the reasons given by subjects to explain a preference are not entirely credible.

Self-reports on nonconscious processing presents problems. Even if the individual is willing to report on the motivation for a behavior, or the affect behind the formation of a preference, or the preconscious antecedents to conscious attitude formation, s/he may be unable to do so. The nonverbal modules can process information, retain results, and activate behaviors -- all outside the awareness and control of the conscious mind (Gazzaniga 1985).

(3) Preconscious Processing: Janiszewski (1988) approaches the noncognitive aspect of attitude formation from a preconscious-processing perspective; the antecedents to the formation of an attitude are not necessarily related to the conscious deliberation involved. Preconscious preferences can be generated independently of conscious thought. Once preconscious processing has occurred the preference that is developed, prior to conscious thought, may actually have the ability to reinforce the preference that is developed during conscious processing. Because this influence occurs outside the conscious awareness, the consumer may not be aware of any preconscious antecedents.

According to SBT, some sorts of information can be processed and stored in the brain in the nonconscious modules; CM, the 'speaker' of the bicameral mind (Jaynes -1977) can take advantage of the result of the nonconscious processing, but be unaware of the nature and mechanics of the calculation that produced it. Further, these nonconscious modules can activate real behaviors; SBT allows for the possibility that CM will be aware that a behavior activated by a nonconscious module has occurred and yet CM may not know the purpose beneath the behavior. The conscious mind sees this behavior to have come out of nowhere, out of pure caprice! How does the mind respond to such caprice?


All creatures are capable of being classically conditioned but the human brain is singular in its ability to make inferences about happenings in the external environment (Gazzaniga 1985). Pavlov's dog merely salivates when the bell rings; however, when Pavlov hears his wife slam the kitchen door, and then sees that she is late, and he surmises that dinner will also be late. Consumer behavior recognizes this inference-drawing ability. Perhaps, one curious extension of this is the notion of Symbolic Interaction. Essentially, symbolic interactionists assume that consumers do not merely regard a thing purely in and by itself; rather they imbue it with personal symbolic meaning. The ensuing behavior vis-a-vis this thing is partly a reaction to the objective reality and partly a reaction to the symbolic, subjective reality (e.g Solomon 1983). In other words, the individual does not react to a thing per se; rather s/he first changes the idea of the thing, then infers the correct interaction with this thing, in the given context, and only then does the individual act (Perinbanayagam 1985).

Just as the brain is capable of drawing inferences about the outside world, the brain should be capable of drawing inferences about the inside world. Symbolic consumption theorists have noted

the consumers ability to send and to receive messages, through products or services consumed, both to self and others (Belk 1988; Solomon 1983; Hirschman 1983). If an action occurs the brain is compelled to interpret it through inferences. Thus, if a nonverbal module activates a novel and somewhat surprising behavior, tasting caviar for example, the mind will surmise: if I'm trying caviar, there must be a logical reason for it -- I guess I want to expand my horizons (Gazzaniga 1985).

According to SBT, the only module capable of drawing inferences about external or internal environments is the CM. This module is built to make inferences such as 'what is the purpose of this action?'. If no relevant data exist, this module will impute a purpose, thereby creating a motivation that never existed. This little module tirelessly generates these plausible conscious purposes to explain every action whether these purposes existed in reality or not. In this sense of explaining action, the mind relentlessly 'explains' even what it cannot explain. The constant need to maintain a consistent view of the self and the constant imputation of rationality has interesting consequences for consumer behavior.


SBT has one major implication for research on consumer behavior and one major implication for research methodology. First, for theory, the primary impact of SBT is to upset the theory of self. It is usually believed that people seek, express, confirm and ascertain a sense of self through what they consume. Indeed, philosophers have believed that possessions exist solely for the purpose of self-definition (Belk 1988). This sort of self definition rests squarely on the assumption that all behaviors are consciously and freely willed by the self. In other words, first there is purpose and then there is behavior. According to SBT, this need to feel that the self is in control is so strong that the CM is willing to 'fudge' a purpose if no purpose is apparent. In other words, there is purpose (P), then there is behavior (B), and if purpose (P) is not easily understood or surmised, CM readily provides a plausible purpose (Pp) as a reflex.

Although this inference-making keeps the sense of self intact, it jars the theories of consumer behavior research as a science. Researchers are essentially presented with the possibility of a subject who (1) cannot account for the motivation behind some, or perhaps even a great deal, of their consumption behavior; and (2) cannot discern what was a real motivation and what was a contrived motivation. This raises the very real question of whether the self is different from who the self implies it is; in other words, am I different from who I imply I am? Among other issues, one theoretically fascinating issue is the illusion of consistency. For example, what does it mean if for each time that motivation P occurs, behavior B follows, and the subject consistently states that the purpose was really Pp? Does this consistency mean that a theory based on Pp is validated since it seemingly leads to correct predictions? Even more complex, what happens to theory-testing when, for a variety of purposes (P1-Pn), the subject behaves the same way (B) and attributes the same purpose Pp?

This problem has been dealt with for some product categories. Hirschman (1983) noted that in the consumption of aesthetic products the consumption is a means to a goal rather than the goal itself. The consumption of aesthetic products is mainly experienced internally; therefore, identifying the rationale for a purchase could be extremely difficult due to the private nature of the experience. One way to get a handle on such fuzzy phenomenon might be to find the salient attributes. However, it would probably be impossible to identify an attribute such that there was (i) consensus, i.e. everyone agrees what any attribute is; and (ii) completeness, i.e. enough attributes of the phenomenon are captured. Further SBT suggests that even if such attribute description were in some way available, it would still be extremely difficult to find what the importance of each of them were. Asking the consumer for a self report could result in the consumer either (a) knowing, (b) not knowing, (c) not knowing about not knowing and thus end up merely imputing an importance value. Again, what is theoretically disconcerting is that there seems to be no work done to enable a subject or a researcher to tell these three situations apart; the subject could answer with equal alacrity and aplomb in each of the three situation described above.

The second SBT implication is for research methodology. Although SBT precludes conclusively knowing what lies within, the interpretivist approach may offer a substitute for direct access to the nonconscious modules. The essence of interpretivism is that reality is essentially mental and perceived (Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Just like SBT states, the interpretivist school maintains that individuals "create devices, such as theories and categories, to help them make sense out of their worlds" (p.509). The interpretivist research focuses on discovering these 'devices' which help the individual create their environment.

An absolute understanding of the research subject and the 'devices' is never achieved in interpretivist research rather, a temporal understanding susceptible to change emerges as the research process unfolds. The main thrust is to understand the individual from the individual's own perspective. This entails the use of tools such as empathy, intuition and translation (Hirschman and Holbrook 1986; Hirschman 1986). The methodology does not lead to predictive power; rather the focus is shifted to one of better understanding the problem at hand (Lincoln and Guba 1985).


SBT primarily showed that there are structures in the brain that make it difficult to trust any consumer self-report. Even without desiring to deceive, a consumer can find it extremely hard to provide an honest answer to questions. The primary reason for this is that there is a module in the brain that ceaselessly provides the self with plausible rationales for behavior if a real one is not immediately apparent. In short, the mind explains even when it cannot explain. The primary outcome of SBT for consumer research is that the notion of self needs to be rethought. Specifically, three areas of work can be suggested: (i) how does the self relate to the self? e.g. how do you 'catch' a consumer imputing reasons instead of discerning the real reasons in a consumption context? (ii) how does the self relate to others? e.g. how can do you read the motivation of symbolic purchases? how do you read into the elaborate rationales that are used to justify purchases as simple fabrications? how can 'discovered' goals be separated from bona fide a priori goals? (iii) how does the self relate to decision-making? e.g. what are the idiosyncratic attributes used in individual purchases? do the decision-models really have a physiological basis? In the area of research methodology, SBT suggests that the interpretivist scheme be used as often as possible since a consumer's behavior may be more easily intuited than measured. To the extent that SBT can be a reasonably correct model of consumer behavior, we must view the usual representations of consumer-decision making with even more skepticism than we did ten years ago when we were asked "Consumer Decision Making -- Fact or Fiction?" (Olshavsky and Granbois 1979).


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