Presidential Address Is Consumer Behavior Different?

Valerie S. Folkes, University of Southern California
[ to cite ]:
Valerie S. Folkes (2002) ,"Presidential Address Is Consumer Behavior Different?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-4.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 1-4



Valerie S. Folkes, University of Southern California

[Deborah Roedder John, Deborah MacInnis, Dennis Rook, Terry Shimp and David Stewart made many excellent comments on and criticisms of earlier versions of this address. I greatly appreciate their help.]

A fundamental issue in regard to our field has been raised at various points, most recently in an article on "Consumer Psychology" in the Annual Review series. I am consistently impressed with the way that authors of those chapters are able to synthesize a great deal of the current literature in consumer behavior. The recent chapter by Simonson, Carmon, Dhar, Drolet and Nowlis (2000) was no exception in its excellence.

A provocative question posed by Itamar Simonson and his colleagues (2000) is what distinguishes consumer research from other disciplines. They note that, "it is sometimes unclear what differentiates consumer research from other disciplines, except for the experimental stimuli used (e.g., choice between cars versus choice between bets) and the research positioning" (p. 263). Much of the research we conduct addresses issues that have general relevance rather than suggesting that our discipline has "a unique identity and purpose that separates it from other fields" (p. 262). Are we behavioral scientists who just happen to be using a consumer context to investigate general principles of human behavior? Why should we study consumer behavior if it is essentially the same as in other contexts?

Perhaps because of my training as a social psychologist and that discipline’s emphasis on the interaction between the individual and the situation, I believe that ours is a unique discipline. It is different not just because of its emphasis on certain stimuli (e.g., advertisements, brands) and behaviors (e.g., repurchase, word-of-mouth). If one accepts an interactionist perspective, it is the interaction of the situation and the individual that leads to behavior. The study of consumer behavior is justified as a separate domain of inquiry because when situational cues lead people to perceive themselves as customers, they then interpret the world differently than when they do not perceive themselves as customers, and that influences their behavior.

This is a perspective that is rarely emphasized in our literature. Many consumer behavior studies test general theories of human behavior, implicitly assuming that people respond the same way to stimuli when they have purchase goals as when they have nonpurchase goals. For example, the underlying process involved in attitude change is the same whether a message is about a politician or a product. People make attributional inferences whether it is in regard to product breakdown or romantic rejection. Consumer research that examines such general principles of behavior is valued because it cuts acros many domains. In the reviewing process, a broad contribution can be perceived as a "bigger" contributionBand so sized up as a major contribution to the literature. Peter Wright (1986) has suggested that consumer behavior researchers have focused our efforts on understanding basic human phenomenon because, working in a young field, researchers could more easily legitimize their work if it addressed general issues rather than those specific to the marketplace. In his 1986 Presidential Address he urged more research on our unique phenomenon. Terry Shimp’s (1994) Presidential Address urged us to depend less on other disciplines and examine "consumer behavior that occurs within the milieu of actual marketplace phenomena" (p. 5).

Over the past 15 years, our field has examined many phenomena that are unique to the marketplace. A good example is the mushrooming research on branding. Such research addresses issues dear to marketers while also contributing on a more general level to an understanding of how objects gain symbolic importance. However, relatively little research focuses on how consumer behavior is different from other domains (c.f. Richins 2000).

Perhaps little research has taken this approach because most of us believe that being a consumer is different. Many people in marketing already seem to accept the idea that taking the perspective of a marketer leads to different behavior than if one does not conceive of oneself in that role. Long ago, Phil Kotler and Sid Levy (1969) urged that the "marketing concept" be broadened to apply to nonbusiness organizations, such as government agencies, universities and museums. Government agencies were urged to consider citizens as consumers. Universities were urged to consider students as consumers. Museums were urged to consider art patrons as consumers. Kotler and Levy (1969) emphasized the benefits of using marketing principles to research and analyze markets. Attempts to broaden the marketing concept often imply that adopting the perspective of a firm marketing a product changes the institution or organization’s actionsBwhether the institution is a government agency, university, museum or religious institution. It does seem to do so. For example, customer satisfaction seems to gain in importance as an objective (c.f., Kotler and Levy’s point that an organization’s success depends on its being sensitive to, serving and satisfying its consumers).

We should also consider the reverseBthinking of oneself as a customer alters the so-called customer’s perception of the so-called marketer, the environment and other so-called customers. Consider an experiment in which half a student group is encouraged to think of themselves as customers of a university while the other half is encouraged to think of themselves only as students in a university. The student-consumers’ perception of the faculty might change so that respected professors become mere service providers at their beck and call, and the classroom is an entertainment venue (which might explain some students’ tendency to eat popcorn and other snacks during class).

Although relatively little consumer research directly compares consumption with non-consumption or customer with non-customer behavior, certain streams of research are founded on the belief that people are uniquely influenced by their situationBand by the consumption situation in particular. Take research on personality measures as an example. Some time ago Hal Kassarjian (1971) pointed out that broad-based individual difference measures have been poor predictors of consumption behavior. Many researchers have followed his advice in constructing personality measures tailored for the consumption context. Bill Bearden and his colleagues’ research on individual differences among consumers is an example of an approach that emphasizes an interactionist perspective (Bearden, Hardesty and Rose 2001; Tian, Bearden and Hunter 2001). The underlying notion is that the knowledge structures and self concepts that people acquire as consumers are uniqueBor at least are sufficiently context-bound that they are not captured adequately in global measures. Those cognitons distinguish consumer behavior from other domains.

The consumer socialization literature is another research stream that emphasizes the unique role of being a consumer. Debbie Roedder John (1999) and many others have documented the challenges children face as they gain an understanding of what it means to be a consumer. Children acquire that understanding at various rates so that at different ages children perceive, reason about and interpret their world differently.

We might think about the problem of mapping out our field in topographical terms-conceptualizing domains as forests, and deciding whether we should study the distinctive features of our forest or the trees. Like several neighboring forests, the various domains of behavior might be adjacent and have rather indistinct or arbitrary boundaries (e.g., when a person is a consumer, the person perceives the world somewhat similarly to when the person is a student or when the person is a patient, and yet there are also differences). Further, a person who is a consumer makes choices and changes attitudes, as does a student and a patient. (As an analogy, we might think of separate forests that each have oaks, poplars and firs.)

In addition to studying general principles about choice and attitude processes that apply across domains, we should also study how choices and attitudes differ in our field as opposed to others. Perhaps little research has taken this approach because we see the diverse situations that differentially affect behaviors within the consumer behavior domainBthe treesBand find it difficult to take a perspective that ignores that variation. But we should try to identify the prototypical customer perspective while acknowledging the fuzzy boundaries and the rich, within-category variation. A research strategy that pretends as if there are chasms dividing our domain from others might be useful.

To understand how consumer behavior is unique, we need to identify such factors as the goals consumers set for themselves, their knowledge about behavior in the consumption domain and the social interaction rules that people adhere to when they are consumers. The perception that one is a customer activates certain knowledge structures, with the individual behaving in accordance with that knowledge. The customer as actor fulfills a role that is anticipated to evoke certain responses from his or her audience (c.f. Solomon, Suprenant, Czepiel and Gutman 1985).

A central goal differentiating consumer behavior from other domains is ownership. The notion of ownership is conceptually imposed on the world, yet is a basic relational knowledge structure (Miller and Johnson-Laird 1976; Radvansky, Wyer, Curiel and Lutz 1997). Ownership conveys control over objects or another’s behavior. That may be partially why people are motivated to be consumers. Ownership is valued partly because it is a way of controlling one’s worldBand the desire to exert control is a fundamental motivation. For example, people use their possessions to influence others’ impressions of them (e.g., Belk 1988). Hence, one way our field differs from others is that we focus on a particular route an individual might use to exert control over his or her world.

An ownership goal should influence how a person perceives, comprehends and evaluates his or her environment. Some consumer research that supports this notion. We know that a consumer’s goal directs the individual’s attention to different aspects of a persuasive message (e.g., MacKenzie and Spreng 1992; Shavitt, Swan, Lowrey and Wanka 1994). Gurhan-Canli and Maheswaran (2000) have shown that people process information differently when their goal is to evaluate different countries than when their goal is, as for the typical consumer, to evaluate different products. Their research suggests that people will often fail to relate information learned in a consumption context to a non-consumption context.

Additional research suggests that what consumers learn is domain specific. People seem to learn problem solving strategies that are linked to specific domains. When faced with a consumer problem, olderadults are more problem-focused than when dealing with an interpersonal problem (Blanchard-Fields, Chen and Norris 1997). In interpersonal conflicts with friends they are more likely to engage in denial or to avoid the problem. Blanchard-Fields et al. (1997) suggest that consumers differ because of accumulated experience in a domain in which the actions needed to address the problems are very straightforward.

Vanessa Patrick and I have explored some other differences that seem to be unique to consumer behavior. In the context of services, when the goal is purchase, people seem to see a person who works for a company as part of that larger groupBas just another service provider. When purchase is irrelevant, people perceive the person as more of an individual and distinct from other employees. We believe those differences are due to the typical need in a consumption situation to categorize people and products by brands.

Thinking of oneself as a consumer is also likely to influence how we interact with others. People have various relational schemaBinternal representations of regularities in patterns of relationshipsBthat help them navigate their world (Baldwin 1992). Obviously, a central relational schema for consumers is the buyer-seller relationship. The power of these roles is illustrated in a study of negotiation. Merely using the labels "buyer" and "seller" to describe the negotiators’ role, as compared to when those role labels were absent, was sufficient to change the negotiators’ behavior (Neale, Huber and Northcraft 1987).

Comparisons of buyer-seller relationships with other types of relationships should be a common contribution of consumer research. Whereas consumer researchers have rarely taken that tack, sociologists and psychologists have compared exchange relationships to communal relationships. Although the difference between exchange and communal relationships may be one of degree rather than kind, the contrast between communal and exchange relationships can be quite sharp (c.f. Price and Arnould 1999). You may have experienced some of the oftentimes uncomfortable discontinuities between the two types of relationships if you have ever accepted an invitation to a friend’s party only to discover that it was an Amway party, or if you have ever bought a used car from a friend.

In communal relationships, "members feel a special obligation to be concerned about the other’s welfare. Thus, they pay attention to the other’s needs, give the other benefits in response to those needs and feel good when they have helped the other" (Clark and Taraban 1991, p. 325). In contrast, people in exchange relationships track which person contributes what, expecting to receive comparable benefits for their payments. These distinctions may help us to understand why people might sometimes be motivated to think of themselves as customers.

It may be that thinking of oneself as a customer is appealing because it simplifies the evaluation standard. A transaction can be measured against the customer’s perception of whether he or she is satisfied with the outcome rather than taking into account other standards. What a physician thinks is good for you as a patient decreases in importance if you can simply evaluate your treatment from a consumer perspective according to whether you, the patient, are satisfied. .

A distinguishing feature of an exchange relationship is the goal of maximizing one’s individual outcomes rather than ensuring that the other has a matching outcome (Fiske 1992). Customers want a "deal" and don’t have to be concerned about whether the seller loses out on that deal. Those norms are illustrated in a recent Consumer Newsletter. The Newsletter had an article indignantly describing a company that took advantage of a consumer’s error. Another article in the same Newsletter gleefully pointed out an airline’s advertising error that allowed consumers to take advantage of a great ticket price.

The psychology literature conceives of exchange relationships more broadly than as just buyer-seller relationshipsBfor example, they include emploer-employee relationships (Clark and Taraban 1991; Fiske 1992). However, some researchers in our field have focused on the kinds of social knowledge that guide consumer expectations about the seller’s behaviors. Peter Wright (1986) has pointed out that people behave differently when they believe they are in a situation where "somebody’s trying to sell somebody something." In such a situation, they use their intuitive theories about the seller’s influence tactics or "schemer-schemas" to guide their behavior (see also Friestad and Wright 1995). Hence, if people think of themselves as customers, they might be prone to see the marketer as a schemer. For example, when students perceive themselves as customers, professors might be seen as "hawking" their courses as opposed to sharing their knowledge.

Companies seem to have an intuitive understanding that there is a distinct customer role. Whereas many nonbusiness organizations are encouraged to embrace the marketing concept, it is interesting that some companies try to convey to their customers that they don’t view them as such. They use terminology that implies the consumer is not in an exchange relationship but instead in a communal relationship. The company does not think of the individual as a customer but as something else entirely. Disney calls theme park customers "guests" (employees are "cast members"). Many companies call the customer the "client" or members of their "club." Presumably, such a change influences how consumers relate to the seller, so that members of grocery store clubs are just dropping in on the clubhouse when they shop.

Other marketing techniques seem to have the objective of preventing people from thinking of themselves as customers when they see the product. As examples think of product placements in films. There are many PR media vehicles, such as "Entertainment Tonight" that pretend that nothing is being sold. Such techniques have become so common that the Society for Consumer Psychology is holding a conference in May that focuses on such marketing tactics at the heart of which seems to be an attempt to reduce the salience to the consumer of being in an exchange relationship.

The differences between buyers and sellers in exchange relationships may help explain some omissions in the consumer behavior literature. Take the study of emotion as an example. Consumer researchers typically study emotions of consumers rather than effects of the seller’s emotions on consumers. Many studies examine consumer emotions (e.g., complaining about products, effects of mood on product choice). In contrast, consumer researchers seem to take for granted that emotional displays from sellers are inappropriate (c.f., Clark and Taraban 1991) or at least gratuitous (e.g., the "greeters" in Japanese department stores). In short, consumer behavior is a distinct discipline not only for what it does examine but for the topics that are ignored or are at least of diminished importance compared to other domains.

Exchange relationships describe a relationship between two entitiesBbuyer and seller in the consumption domainB not between buyer and buyer. Yet, being a customer also influences our relationships with fellow "customers." People are, of course, social animals. However, the role of customer seems to decrease social ties. A buyer’s acquisition goal may aggravate an egotistical orientation. When people are focused on acquiring goods, they may be more self-absorbed than in many other contexts. Work on materialism suggests that attaching meaning to acquiring and possessing things may lead people to be more self-centered and less concerned with relationships with others (Belk 1983; Richins and Dawson 1992). Extreme examples of that orientation are incidents in which people have been trampled by shoppers stampeding for bargain-priced goods in Walmarts.

An emphasis on the unique aspects of being a customer may require a slightly different research strategy. The appropriate comparison group is a nonconsumption situation. In contrast, research in our field almost always compares behavior within the consumpton domain. This is not to say that all consumers behave alike or that we should not examine individual differences among consumers or how task characteristics influence consumer behavior differently. But our field should value research that compares consumption with non-consumption, and in doing so addresses directly how our field is unique. For example, one could compare the environment in which choices are made for the consumption domain with that of the education domain or the political domain. In doing so, consumer researchers may be forced to conceptualize our field more narrowly than we have. Perhaps we are partly in this fix of seeming to lack a unique identity for our field because consumer researchers have readily conceptualized students, voters, patients and others as consumers.

It is also possible that conceptualizing consumer behavior at this level has been atypical because consumer behavior is highly contextualized. For example, the fact that ownership is not sufficient in itself as a basis for organizing material in long-term memory but is tied to a specific time and place suggests situation specificity in consumer knowledge structures (Radvansky et al. 1997). The commonalities among consumer behaviors that do not extend to other domains may be so few and so superficial that they do not generate interest among researchers. However, if we do conduct more research comparing across domains, it is likely that those in other domains will better appreciate what consumer researchers have to offer. After all, how can behavioral science models of human behavior that ignore the unique aspects of the consumption context be considered complete?

Consider as an example research on impulsive behavior in clinical psychology and educational psychology. That research has emphasized the maladaptive aspects of impulsiveness, linking it to criminality and classroom disruption. Those disciplines might have a broader perspective of impulsive behavior if they examined the consumer research on impulse buying, such as that by Dennis Rook (1987), which reveals a more common and more socially sanctioned behavior.

In short, I have tried to sketch out some reasons why it may seem that our field has not identified how it is unique, some reasons why our field is unique and some research strategies for identifying differences. Because research in our field generally does not explicitly aim to identify differences as an important contribution to the consumer behavior literature, it is not surprising that it seems not to have done so. In fact, some of the authors of the research described here may even disagree that their work supports my perspective.

Consumer research that examines general principles of human behaviorBprinciples that are not limited to just our domainBmakes valuable contributions. However, consumer research that points out that seemingly general principles of human behavior do not apply to the consumer domain also makes a valuable contribution. By identifying what is unique about being a customer compared to other, non-customer behaviors, researchers in our field may help those in other fields better understand the range and limitations of human behavior.


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