Choosing to Misbehave: a Structural Model of Aberrant Consumer Behavior

Ronald A. Fullerton, Providence College
Girish Punj, University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - Aberrant consumer behavior violates the generally accepted norms of consumer behavior in exchange settings. It has financial, psychological, and social costs for both consumers and marketers. Much such behavior appears to result from the interaction of individual traits and predispositions with marketplace influences rather than either in isolation. Drawing upon a sizeable literature in the sociology of deviance, criminology, and psychology, this paper presents a preliminary structural (i.e., input/output) model whose interaction framework characterizes the consumer decision to misbehave or not.
[ to cite ]:
Ronald A. Fullerton and Girish Punj (1993) ,"Choosing to Misbehave: a Structural Model of Aberrant Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 570-574.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 570-574


Ronald A. Fullerton, Providence College

Girish Punj, University of Connecticut


Aberrant consumer behavior violates the generally accepted norms of consumer behavior in exchange settings. It has financial, psychological, and social costs for both consumers and marketers. Much such behavior appears to result from the interaction of individual traits and predispositions with marketplace influences rather than either in isolation. Drawing upon a sizeable literature in the sociology of deviance, criminology, and psychology, this paper presents a preliminary structural (i.e., input/output) model whose interaction framework characterizes the consumer decision to misbehave or not.


Aberrant consumer behavior (hereafter ACB) may be defined as behavior in exchange settings which violates the generally accepted norms of conduct in such situations and which is therefore held in disrepute by marketers and by most consumers. The three major outcomes of ACB are: 1)destruction of marketer propertyCvandalism; 2)abuse, intimidation, and physical and psychological victimization of other consumers and marketer personnel; and 3)material loss through various forms of theft including insurance, credit card, and check fraud, and shoplifting. ACB includes both individual and group acts. It can result in serious financial, physical, and/or psychological harm to marketing institutions and their employees, and to other consumers. Recent news accounts put annual total losses for automobile insurance fraud at $10 billion, shoplifting at $30 billion, and phone service fraud at $1 billion (e.g., Keller 1992; Kerr 1992). These costs are ultimately born by consumers. The psychological costs to those victimized by misbehaving consumers have not been measured, but clearly include discomforting levels of stress, anxiety, and even fear.

ACB also has social costs arising from its potential to make the marketplace an arena of disillusionment rather than of fulfillment for both marketers and consumers. ACB can cast a pall over the aspirations of a highly developed consumer society.

Despite its clear impact upon consumer costs, indeed upon the entire consumer experience, ACB has been a neglected topic among consumer and marketing researchers. Authors have acknowledged the possibilities of misbehavior by marketers, but have slighted those by consumers. The topic is ignored in marketing, consumer behavior, and business ethics texts, and aside from a few studies of shoplifting little has appeared in the marketing and consumer journal literature during the past dozen years. In current practitioner-oriented literature, on the other hand, ACB receives a great deal of attention, suggesting that many marketing practitioners consider it to be a significant problem (e.g., Bernstein 1985, Caggiano 1987).

Studies in other disciplines such as the sociology of deviance, criminology, and abnormal psychology, however, provide a starting point for enquiry by consumer researchers. Well-developed research traditions in these disciplines have produced a rich array of theoretical works and case-based studies which can illuminate ACB. Drawing upon this body of work, the present paper provides a preliminary structural (i.e., input/output) model to characterize the consumer decision to misbehave or not. Hopefully the model will encourage consumer researchers to investigate this important but neglected phenomenon.


Available research indicates that ACB is pervasive among consumers (Johnson 1987). At the minimum, occasional misbehavior appears to be widespread. Two thirds of the general population studied by Ray (1983) admitted to having shoplifted at least once. The perpetrators of most acts of deviant consumer behavior, moreover, are ordinary-seeming people who cannot be differentiated from other consumers on sexual, genetic, socioeconomic, racial, educational, or lifestyle grounds. In fact, much of the time, those consumers who have misbehaved, do not necessarily do so again, at least not in a consistent manner (See Sutherland 1937). Misbehavers are representative of consumers overall, not a group apart. The challenge for researchers is to identify those factors or interactions of factors which are likely to lead some consumers to misbehave some of the time.

Several factors have been used to explain ACB. These have been drawn from two broad categories: 1) consumer traits and predispositions (e.g., Cox, Cox, Moschis 1990); and 2) characteristics of marketing institutions and exchange settings (e.g., Smigel 1956). Typical of this type of an approach is the finding that a particular factor may lead to a particular form of ACB, for example, that thrill seeking may lead to vandalism (Levy-Leboyer 1984). Concentrating upon these singular (direct) explanations of ACB, however, is likely to limit our understanding of the phenomenon. While some incidents of ACB can be adequately explained in this manner, there is growing evidence that most misbehavior by consumers results from interplay among several individual and marketer influences (Moore 1984; Steiner, Hadden, & Herkomer 1976; Zimbardo 1977). In order to study these interactive influences, an interaction framework of the type proposed by Endler and Magnusson (1976) is needed.

By using an interaction framework to study ACB it eventually becomes possible to identify both the direct and indirect effects of any and all singular influences on ACB. Further, the framework will provide a basis for assessing the relative impact of the various influences either separately or in interaction with one another. Overall understanding of ACB will thereby be enhanced.

At this point the prediction of specific acts of ACB is not our objective. This would be as elusive a goal as predicting particular acts of acceptable consumer behavior. It is more reasonable for now to focus on delineating the scope of aberrant consumer behavior, seeking to distinguish it from acceptable consumer behavior, and focussing on the various influences that can lead to both. In so doing we are also likely to better understand the boundaries between the two, i.e., how and why certain influences lead to unacceptable behavior on some occasions and acceptable on others. The model presented in the next section is an attempt to gain such an understanding. It is a necessary step before attempting to understand and predict specific forms and types of ACB.


As mentioned above, the model is drawn from two sets of factors and the interactions between and within them: 1)consumer traits and predispositions and 2)the characteristics of the exchange setting and marketing institutions. Within each set of factors there are subsets. These factors, subfactors, and their interactions are presented below. The overall model, which is shown thematically in the figure, attempts to explain behavioral propensities to misbehave or not.



I. The Consumer

A. Demographic Characteristics

Age: all age groups are represented, but not equally for all forms of ACB. There is more shoplifting, vandalism, and rowdyism by adolescents, who are generally more prone to violent and overtly daring conduct than are adults; more insurance and credit card fraud by adults, who are more likely than adolescents to have the savvy and opportunity to perpetrate such misbehavior (See Hirschi & Gottfredson 1983).

Sex: Both sexes participate fully but, again, the forms of ACB tend to vary, e.g., males are more likely to vandalize (Levy-Leboyer 1984).

Economic status: perpetrators of ACB come from all income levels, but their motivations may be different (greed vs. need).

Education/occupation: as with other demographic characteristics, this 1)cuts across all levels, but 2)forms of ACB tend to differ, e.g., price tag switching, credit card, and check frauds are usually committed by better educated people (Steiner, Haden, Herkomer 1976). Increased education may enhance consumer ability to carry out sophisticated frauds.

B. Psychological Characteristics

Personality traits. Much of the relevant literature on ACB in other disciplines identifies relationships between personality traits and forms of misbehavior. The traits are used here to predict general tendencies towards misbehavior. Several personality trait schemes are available. We chose that presented in Ward & Robertson 1973 (pp. 181ff) because it provides a specific personality measurement instrument for each trait; these are given in parentheses:

- need for affiliation (EPPS)

- need for aggression (EPPS)

- need for compliance (EPPS)

- need for dominance (EPPS)

- emotional stability (GPP)

- impulsive (TTS)

- need for order (EPPS)

- responsibility (GPP)

[The full names of these instruments are: EPPS - Edwards Personal Preference Schedule. GPP - Gordon Personal Profile. TTS - Thurston Temperament Schedule.] These traits are related to tendencies towards and against consumer misbehavior. Therefore it is difficult to predict the precise effect of any one of them in isolation. However, we would expect traits such as responsibility and the need for order to work towards restraining consumers from aberrant behavior. A trait such as the need for aggression, on the other hand, would likely heighten the possibility of violent forms of consumer misbehavior such as physical and verbal abusiveness and vandalism. Traits such as the need for affiliation and for compliance could lead either towards or away from misbehavior, depending upon the dominant behavioral norms in the group with which compliance or affiliation is being sought.

Level of moral development. Moral constraints are checks against conduct perceived to be wrong. Their presence and strength appears to play a large role in differentiating misbehaving from other consumers, since both are exposed to the same stimuli in an exchange setting. To the misbehaver, acts of ACB are simply not perceived as immoral; a common variant of this idea is the belief that an act may be immoral in general, but is not really wrong in the perpetrator's case (Moore 1984; Kallis & Vanier 1985).

Unfulfilled aspirations (Merton's "Strain" Theory): The sociologist Merton's well-known "Strain" theory attributes deviant conduct to the discrepancy between widely held material aspirations and the availability of legitimate means to realize them (Merton 1968; Messner 1988). Merton believes that marketing activities have overstimulated and thus magnified consumers' desires to the point where misbehavior in order to realize them has become a common phenomenon.

Propensity for thrill-seeking: The sociologist Lofland (1969) theorizes that the quest for thrills is a basic motivation for misconduct. Some shoplifters and vandals, for example, experience a powerful, sexual-like, sensation of release when they have been successful (Katz 1988). There is also evidence that some consumers engage in misbehavior to enliven otherwise drab lives (Moore 1984).

Psychological problems: Some aberrant consumer behavior clearly reflects deeply disturbed, abnormal, psyches (Pfohl 1984, pp. 96-100).

Attitude towards big businesses: Consumers tend to be more willing to victimize large rather than small businesses (Smigel 1956; Moore 1984). Explanations for this deal with consumer perceptions of impersonality, size, and social distance.

C. Social/Group Influences

Differential association: Based on the sociological theories of Sutherland (1947) and Cohen (1966), differential association is the idea that misbehavior is learned in and engaged in, by small groups, whose norms are antithetical to those of larger society. Misbehavior helps promote group identity and cohesiveness, and can serve as an initiation ritual. Consumers can be socialized into misbehavior through differential association (Moschis & Cox 1988). This can also be true of some misbehavior which is learned in a group but performed on an individual basis.

D. Consumer's Frame of Mind

Antecedent state: A consumer's mood state or high anxiety level can sometimes increase proneness to misbehave, through weakened self control. When this happens, consumers are likely to attribute their actions to influences beyond their volition, including supernatural ones.

II. The Exchange Setting & Marketing Institution

Conditions here can influence the consumer's motivation towards, and sense of opportunity regarding, ACB.

Type(s) of products/services offered: The key elements here are the mix of merchandise or services offered and how they are presented, extended services such as access to credit and return policies, and the extent of self service.

Physical environment: location, size, lighting, layout, noise, aromas, type of display (open vs. closed counter), colors and materials employed (e.g., concrete vs. wood).

Type and level of deterrence/security: Security and deterrence can be active and visible, or passive; in some cases it is hardly existent. Marketer willingness to aggressively prosecute misbehavers - and to signal such willingness to consumers - can influence misbehavior.

Attitudes and conduct of marketing employees: The degree to which marketer employees are helpful, alert, informed, and polite, can also either exacerbate or diminish consumers' propensities towards misbehavior.

Public's image of marketing institution: This refers to a firm's image as, for example, a good or bad corporate citizen, and the extent to which it is perceived as friendly or intimidating. Mills (1979) reported that department stores which projected an image of intimidating power were more likely to be victimized by consumers.

Antecedent state: This refers to conditions in the exchange environment which are known to be related to ACB and which vary across time - the extent of crowding, changes in store hours, times associated with above normal stresses and/or aggressiveness among consumers (Friday evenings, weekends, the Christmas season, full moon).

III. Interaction Effects

Many of the above factors form components of interactions that affect misbehavior. In some instances the interaction effects are subordinate to the main influences discussed above. In many other situations, however, the interaction effect is the dominant influence. In some such situations we can expect the components of an interaction to offset one another, thereby precluding misbehavior. A consumer's strong moral inhibitions or need for order could checkmate the lure of open, alluring, unguarded displays in a retail store. In other instances, however, the components can be synergistic with one another, intensifying the likelihood that misbehavior will occur. The precise nature of each interaction is, however, a subject for further research.

Both the main (i.e., direct) and the interaction effects are manifest in the exchange setting. The exchange setting is thus the flash point for ACB.

The interactive effects on ACB have not been explicitly recognized. Several of the reasons advanced for ACB in the literature are actually components in interactions which may or may not lead to misbehavior. It is the purpose of this model to help us isolate those components which play a major role in interactions leading to ACB. Some illustrative examples are:

Hedonic deviance: Deviant hedonic impulses interact with the type and level of perceived deterrence. The more deterrence, the greater the risk and hence the greater the thrill for the misbehaving consumer. Thus this influence is highly situational as argued by Dotter and Roebuck (1988).

Perceived size and impersonality of business: The larger and more impersonal a business is perceived to be, the greater the propensity to misbehave by consumers. The propensity would be more likely realized, however, when it interacts with such components as a low level of moral development and a personality trait such as the need for aggression.

Calculating opportunism: Involves rational assessment of the risks and rewards of acts of misbehavior. "Good" opportunities are then acted upon. Calculating opportunism is considered by many practitioners and theorists to be biggest single cause of aberrant behavior (Becker 1968; French, Crask, & Mader 1984). The sense of opportunity is known to be enhanced by such exchange setting characteristics as open displays, liberal return policies, easily-switchable price tags, difficult-to-monitor nooks, seeming indifference towards losses from ACB (e.g., by insurance firms), and perceived weak deterrence. Whether acts of ACB are then realized, depends upon such consumer characteristics as the level of moral development, the frame of mind, differential association, and age and sex.

Consumer's personal disaffection with marketer: In some cases consumers do not stop with conventional complaining behavior when dissatisfied, but rather become vindictive and attempt to achieve revenge through such acts of misbehavior as verbal or physical abuse of marketing employees or vandalism (Curtis 1971, pp. 55-56). The consumer's dissatisfaction may be intensified by such antecedent conditions such as long queues and crowding.

Provocative situational and temporal factors: Crowding, unsettling amounts of heat and noise, unguarded enticing displays, and some music. Any or all of these, when experienced by a consumer whose psychological problems have made him/her highly volatile, or by one with high impulsiveness and need for aggression, could trigger acts of ACB, especially those directed against other consumers or marketer employees.


The model has scientific as well as managerial uses and implications. It can help make scientifically respectable use of the voluminous anecdotal material which exists on ACB in journalistic accounts and practitioners' heuristics. Interactions are implicit in much of the anecdotal material. Anecdotes are not replicable, of course. If, however, one decomposes an anecdote into its components, i.e., those comprising the interaction, these can be replicated and hence made subject to scientific inquiry. A extensive study of the interactions in the above manner could help us define the sometimes elusive boundary between acceptable and aberrant consumer behavior. Using an interaction model enhances the potential for measuring the relative individual influences on ACB. Where prior research has focussed on description, we have proposed a framework which is amenable to measurement.

The model has managerial implications. It can help managers to distinguish between those interactions leading to ACB which can be dealt with, and those which cannot. As an example, it would give guidance as to whether to use visible or passive deterrence to prevent thrill-seeking by teenage packs. Each managerial situation is much like the instance just mentioned, i.e., it is unique. To base ACB policy upon the generalized experience of other marketers as presented in anecdotes, is problematic. Each manager needs to decide what his/her own interactive situation is. Does for example more ACB come from thrill-seekers than coolly calculating opportunists, or are angry and revenge-prone customers the biggest problem? Then the manager can design a realistic policy for dealing with misbehavers, using the components presented in the model.

Future research.

ACB clearly merits more attention from consumer researchers. The model presented here is an effort to encourage such attention. To expand the work here, future research should proceed along three lines. The first is to refine the conceptualization of ACB, in particular dealing with the question of who shall decide precisely what it is (e.g., marketers, lawmakers, law enforcement personnel, consumers themselves). Second, the typology of consumer misbehaviors should be expanded to take into account the ever-growing variety of ACB, whose ever-new manifestations indicate rapid seizing of social and technological opportunities (e.g., widespread CATV theft). Third, new factors and interactions, going beyond those shown here, need to be identified and analyzed.


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