Failing to Try to Consume: a Reversal of the Usual Consumer Research Perspective

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York
Franklin S. Houston, Rutgers University-Camden
JoNel Mundt, University of the Pacific
ABSTRACT - Building on the context of trying to consume, this paper considers what happens when consumers fail to try to consume. Such failure may take two general forms: (1) just not trying (ignoring various consumption solutions) and (2) trying not to try (making an effort not to consume). For each general form there are various reasons or alternatives. Based on this conceptualization, implications are drawn that broaden our view of trying to consume and motivation and that aim at reversing and balancing our usual perspective on consumer research which is skewed toward consumption-seeking and away from failing to try to consume.
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Gould, Franklin S. Houston, and JoNel Mundt (1997) ,"Failing to Try to Consume: a Reversal of the Usual Consumer Research Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 211-216.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 211-216

FAILING TO TRY TO CONSUME: A REVERSAL OF THE USUAL CONSUMER RESEARCH PERSPECTIVE

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York

Franklin S. Houston, Rutgers University-Camden

JoNel Mundt, University of the Pacific

[Authors are listed alphabetically. All contributed equally to this paper.]

ABSTRACT -

Building on the context of trying to consume, this paper considers what happens when consumers fail to try to consume. Such failure may take two general forms: (1) just not trying (ignoring various consumption solutions) and (2) trying not to try (making an effort not to consume). For each general form there are various reasons or alternatives. Based on this conceptualization, implications are drawn that broaden our view of trying to consume and motivation and that aim at reversing and balancing our usual perspective on consumer research which is skewed toward consumption-seeking and away from failing to try to consume.

INTRODUCTION

Trying to consume which deals with the gap between consumers’ reach and their grasp (Bagozzi and Warshaw 1990) has emerged in consumer research as an important theoretical construct. In the main, trying to consume focuses on a goal which a consumer desires but may fail to pursue or achieve because of various expectations in terms of ability to achieve the goal. The Bagozzi and Warshaw model suggests that consumers may try to consume and succeed in achieving their goal, try to consume but fail to achieve their goal, or fail to try altogether. Such variation in possible behavior is consistent with basic psychology which suggests that people approach some things and avoid others (Weiner 1992). This paper focuses on failing to try altogether (avoidance) with the aim of establishing a typological perspective.

Considering the failure to try, we theorize that there are two major categories that emerge: (1) just not trying and (2) trying not to try. Just not trying involves consumers seeing other consumption possibilities but not following up on them. The second type, trying not to try, involves an effort and intention to reduce one’s consumption in one or many aspects. Table 1 illustrates the two types and the various reasons/alternatives which are related to them and which will be discussed below.

JUST NOT TRYING

In many consumption situations, consumers may fail to seek new market solutions to their problems or even any market solutions at all. Such behavior may be characterized as "just not trying" in that consumers make choices which either ignore or overrule other solutions, even where they may be better in some significant aspect. While just not trying may be a product of varying degrees of ignorance, it also may be also considered in terms of possible alternative behaviors: (1) remaining satisfied with current solutions, (2) engaging in habitual behavior, (3) engaging in inertia or procrastination, (4) allowing impediments to interfere, and (5) being self- reliant.

Remaining Satisfied with Current Solutions

New solutions to old problems are problems in themselves. Finding information regarding alternatives, and then locating the actual (i.e., physical) alternatives requires search effort, and hence search costs, all of which are impacted by a number of personal and situational variables (e.g., Beatty and Smith 1987). Further, adoption of any new solution generally involves transaction costs, start-up costs, and/or switching costs, and frequently superior new solutions are not worth the incremental cost involved in adopting them. Even if the new solution offers a flow of benefits that exceeds the costs involved, an individual must learn of the new solution and how to implement that solution. There is no certainty that this learning will take place.

Engaging in Habitual Behavior

Habits are imbedded attitudes and behaviors that preclude the rational deliberation of alternatives and undercut the prospects for change. Wood (1981) states:

. . .for the Gestalt psychologists our past experiences and the familiar habits and routines to which they gie rise are often a block to problem solving and creative thinking-one to be recognized and overcome. However, as Jensen (1960) has argued, there is often value and economy in such habitual routines. When we have available a method of handling a task or classifying objects, we are relatively free to attend elsewhere to the wider context of our activity (p. 534).

Habits can impede new transactions or can preclude the formation of exchange relationships (Bagozzi and Warshaw 1990). Habits vary in strength. In the extreme, the term "habit" has been equated with addiction (Gutherie’s usage as described by Sahakian 1976, p. 45). At this level, the behavior will persist even though significant impediments bar the behavior; an example is the smoker who will endure great hardships for a cigarette.

At the other extreme we have learned responses that serve us as decision rules. Included among these are learning that is closely tied to other strongly held values, learning that originates with significant others such as a parent, and learning that is related to important problems in one’s life. Examples (respectively) of these can be a person’s unwillingness to eat pork, hygiene practices children learn from their parents, and the decisions by persons who experience allergic reactions to avoid sulfites commonly found in wines or at salad bars. Such a conscious decision rule is not to be confused with habitual behavior.

What distinguishes the habit from a simple decision rule is that a habit is "a tendency to respond in a particular way to a wide variety of circumstances" (Gutherie, 1938, p. 65, quoted in Sahakian, 1976, p. 45). In the smoking example, the behavior will occur under the most extreme of circumstances. The salad bar example illustrates a behavior that looks habitual but is simply repeat purchase behavior; however, with time the salad bar decision rule could be so ingrained that new information that potentially might influence the behavior is never perceived.

As individuals mature, certain habits are displaced by others. ". . .there are numerous forms of behavior that are considered right and proper during one stage of the life cycle but wrong during another stage" (Whiting and Mowrer, 1943, p. 129). Should the currently proper behavior be impeded, the earlier behavior can surface. The introduction of a disrupter or impediment to the current behavior then can help elicit earlier responses. Alternatively, the sequence of events or sensations that were associated with the earlier habit might be introduced. Examples of either case can be drawn from individuals who have given up smoking or alcohol.

TABLE 1

ASPECTS OF THE FAILING TO TRY

Inertia or Procrastination

Inertia or procrastination can result from indolence, laziness, or depression, or can function as a coping mechanism in stressful situations. Such maladies may affect potential buyers and/or sellers. For instance, salesforce personnel may be hesitant to cold-call, due to a lack of motivation or due to fear. One can stave off the potential stress through inaction (Lazarus 1993):

One of the psychological mechanisms for controlling emotions is detachment or distancing, and a number of philosophiesCincluding those of the Greek Stoics and the BuddhistsCcenter on renunciation of the standard human goals, which make people vulnerable to emotional distress (p. 28).

Actual stress can be dealt with through cognitive avoidance coping and behavioral avoidance coping. Cognitive avoidance is denial of the problem; behavioral avoidance coping consists of inactivity on the present problem by turning one’s attention to other interests or activities (Moos and Schaefer 1993, p. 243).

Low-involvement decisions can also take on the appearance of inertia (for example, see Assael 1992, p. 101). hus, we can distinguish between highly involving inertia that exists because of great pressures (e.g., stress) and less involving inertia due to absence of force. For example, the salesperson who cannot make the sales call for fear of rejection is qualitatively different in his highly involving type of inertia than is the peanut butter buyer who is faced with a wide and confusing array of brands at the grocery store.

Allowing Impediments to Interfere

The theories of reasoned behaviors (e.g., Fishbein and Ajzen 1975) rely on two key assumptions: (a) that (buying) action is preceded by deliberate processes culminating in conscious decisions to act, and (b) that, if the individual tries to act, no impediments stand in the way (Bagozzi and Warshaw 1990). Reasoned behaviors, therefore, are conditioned on deliberation and an absence of impediments.

Impediments can exist both to deliberation and to action. Further, an impediment can be a barrier (i.e., something that stops behavior or deliberation) or it can simply be a hurdle (i.e., something that affects the probability of an action or deliberation taking place). Habitual behavior and the use of some decision rules are examples of impediments to deliberation. Stressful decisions can lead to premature closure, "terminating the decisional dilemma without generating all the alternatives and without seeking or appraising the available information about the outcomes to be expected for the limited set of alternatives under consideration" (Janis 1993, p. 57).

Impediments to action can take on many forms. A child may be stopped from seeing a movie because he or she is too young; an adult may be stopped from buying a product because there is a waiting period (e.g., guns) or because its sale is illegal (e.g., illicit drugs) or restricted (e.g., prescription drugs). One important impediment is ignorance or lack of knowledge. One may not know of a problem, be unaware of how to acquire information on potential solutions, or may lack knowledge on how to access the marketplace to acquire the solution itself. Problem solving usually begins with problem recognition. The sick relative who believes he or she doesn’t require a physician’s services will not seek them out; the salesperson may quit trying if it appears he or she has sufficient sales to make the quota.

Information distortions and other forms of learning deficiencies can lead to misjudgments in the marketplace. Perceptions that a product is limited in its supply can have a promotional effect in some markets with some customer groups. We see this in collectibles markets; examples of such collectibles include coins, stamps, baseball cards and comic books. Similarly, this sometimes bogus theme of limited availability is promoted for musical concerts and popular plays. Yet while this is intended to promote interest in the product offering, it can discourage some potential consumers from attending an event or from seeking a product.

Earlier experience may give invalid expectations regarding the time, effort, or money needed to fulfill a particular need. Some customers frustrated with early models of new products such as PCs and VCRs have been reluctant to tackle new, easier-to-use versions of those products. Further, situations may create misperceptions. For example, a general economic malaise may discourage a company from hiring new workers even though the company continues to be successful.

Personal belief systems and coping mechanisms will bear on perceptions. Individuals seeking dating partners (cf. Hirschman 1987) may have a resource matching strategy (e.g., "I like to dance/he likes to dance," or "I am wealthy/he is wealthy"), and at the same time attempt to minimize rejection (e.g., if the reader is overweight, he or she may respond only to ads placed by other overweight persons; if the reader feels under-educated, he or she may not respond to ads placed by highly educated individuals). Other related behaviors or reluctance to behave can come from a perceived lack of status.

Being Self-Reliant

When faced with a need, we often first try to internally satisfy that need without entering the marketplace. Such activities, which we call self-reliance, include intra-consumer behaviors such as self-production or "make," or the reorganization of one’s resources. Self-production requires a specific set of capital, both human capital and other, and other potency in the form of materials and time. Lusch, Brown, and Brunswick (1992) propose that decisions of internal (i.e., intra-consumer) versus external exchange are a function of capacity (i.e., expertise, resources, and time), rewards and costs (both economic and psychic), and sentiments (e.g., trust and perceived control). However, there is also a continuum of configurations between total self-production and, on the other extreme, total external exchange.

Nonetheless, any of the activities normally identified as self-production still require the consumer to enter the marketplace for supplies or services. The do-it-yourself industry, for example, depends on supplying individuals with materials for self-production. Even the act of baking a pie (whether from scratch or not) in one’s own kitchen draws on the marketplace for the ingredients and uses the local utility company for the energy for cooking. Resources can acquire greater value by rethinking their use, and unrealized potency can be extracted through heightened efficiency (Dorfman and Steiner 1954). Attention to reallocation is an important theme today across many industries, and characterizes the Japanese economy in today’s economic stagnation. Rather than lay off workers, Japanese managers struggle to rethink how best to use their human and nonhuman capital. Similarly, one focus of Gary Becker’s work with the family (1981, 1993) has been on the implications of resource reallocation among family members. In this work, each member is assumed to have his or her own utility function, and Becker models the interrelationships among family members through each’s utility function. The Rotten Kid Theorem assumes an altruistic household member who is rewarded through gains in the utility of another family member. Rotten Kids, then, are ". . .induced to act as though they are altruistic toward their benefactors because that raises their own selfish welfare. They act this way because otherwise gifts from their benefactors would be reduced enough to make them worse off" (Becker 1993, p. 398). In the context of the organization (e.g., in the Japanese example), the apparently altruistic member would be the owner and/or banker.

"Make" may be an attractive alternative solution to going to the marketplace; one only has to look at the organizational theory literature for extensive discussion of why organizations might elect to rely on "hierarchy" rather than "market" (Williamson 1975). The decision to depend on one’s self will depend on a number of factors. Included among these will be the value of a self-made solution relative to a market-supplied solution (Lusch et al. 1992). In addition, the worth of one’s resources when put to other uses (i.e., opportunity costs) must be considered. This latter point is discussed by Becker (1981) in his examination of the household’s decision to allocate the time resources of individual family members to internal production versus external production.

TRYING NOT TO TRY

We have described a number of reasons why a consumer may fail to draw on the marketplace as a solution to problem solving. A second class of behaviors can be summarized as the decision by the consumer to try not to try or to engage in self-denial. Trying not to try, or reducing inner wants and needs by using values to override inner desires, is an alternative to satisfying needs through exchange. Benett (1913) cites exaples such as repression, self-denial, sublimation, abstention, asceticism, austerity programs, celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the "whole train of monkish virtues." Here, we focus on various forms of self-denial, including: (1) asceticism and self-sacrifice, (2) deferred gratification, (3) self-expression, and (4) altruism. Our interest is in consumer-dominated behaviors, although one cannot deny their interdependence to external motivators, such as "demarketing" (Kotler and Levy 1971) or "anti-consuming" (Perloff and Belch 1974) campaigns.

Background: Denial Style and Denial Management

Before continuing with reasons for trying not to try or self-denial, we need to provide a background for how denial style may develop and the role of denial management. A consumer’s daily activities can be broken into two broad classes (Reich and Zautra 1983): (a) doing what is necessary to maintain existence, and (b) doing what is really desired. Therefore, denial in this context takes two forms: (a) denial of what is required to maintain an existence, and (b) denial of pleasure.

To the degree that products to be foregone are seen as a part of the extended self (Belk 1988), they must be denied, even as related parts of the identity are denied. For example, in the transition period that the child is separated from its mother, the child may use a transitional object to represent her in her absence (Gulerce 1991). When she returns, the child may be expected to drop the object and therefore engage in the process of its denial. Similarly, in any transition or rite of passage of life, the consumer may be required to forgo or deny aspects of his or her identity, as well as familiar things associated with that identity. The consumer may even deny parts of his or her identity to form new aspects of identity which may be marked by consumer goods. For example, if the consumer feels he or she must look the part of a wealthy individual, he or she may dress the part symbolically to demonstrate and complete this role, while denying other parts of his or her identity.

One can learn denial management techniques (Mazur 1986). Whereas one person might attempt to rely on willpower in avoiding a desired object, another might draw upon desire-reducing strategies. For example, substitution of a replacement goal can distract the individual from his or her needs (Hoch and Loewenstein 1991). Denial management techniques can be used to achieve an optimal level of stimulation (Raju 1980). As might be expected, differences in tolerance exist across individuals and across different behaviors for the same individuals (Ashmore 1990; Nataraajan and Goff 1991). Some research has linked these differences to demographic characteristics (cf. Moos and Schaefer 1993).

Asceticism and Self-Sacrifice

For some, a portion of self-denial is centered in morality in which the part of the self related to baser needs is to be sacrificed (White and MacBeath 1923). One extreme form of such self-denial is asceticism. Asceticism originally referred to any regular practice directed towards attainment of a special end, and it contained two distinguishable elements: (a) the actual practice of the act in which excellence is desired (e.g., the practice of a music piece); and (b) the observance of rules of living which, by imparting bodily strength and vigor, contribute indirectly to the same result (Benett 1913). Renunciation of ordinary satisfactions is demanded to achieve this highest form of excellence.

Where the ultimate end is excellence of any kind, one’s utility function reflects the level of achievement and the process of achievement; this is in addition to what can be done with the output of the production function. Here, we might say that the means justify the ends (see the discussion of product-related goal constraints in Houston 1986). Although one may initially deny himself or heself, with time, the self-imposed habits of restraint are no longer necessary; the behavior to be restrained is abandoned. One example is celibacy among priests, where a person "has been mobilized into a moral base of preexisting moral bases" (Vera 1982, p. 31). This phenomena was described by Vera as "allocation of energy" toward commitment.

Asceticism is more commonly associated with higher pursuits, such as religion and the arts. The focus on a "worldly asceticism" came to Western society with Calvinism beginning in the latter part of the 1500s. This doctrine allowed the practitioner some hope of salvation through diligence and frugality in the conduct of daily living and commerce. This stands in sharp contrast to early church teachings which eschewed interest in commerce (Heilbroner 1972). This doctrine of diligence and frugality was pervasive throughout much of Europe through the eighteenth centuries. Luxury was pilloried everywhere when it manifested itself outside the court and higher nobility, or when not of direct importance to export trade. The objection to self-love was made through scripture as well as through practicality: egocentricity and arrogance are the antithesis of Christian love (Harkness 1957). Further, the basic note in the Christian understanding of material possessions became stewardship, which does not support disparities of wealth and poverty, wasted natural resources, and goods solely for selfish ends (Harkness 1957). Wants are those things which are necessary for the well-being of the body and the mind: "these and nothing beyond" was the dictum (Hopkins 1885). The Christian ideal is often self-realization through self-sacrifice (Harkness 1957).

Deferred Gratification

What is called deferred or delayed gratification is an opposite of asceticism. While the concept implies deferral of need satisfaction, it is commonly used to describe a very pragmatic denial of one’s needs in the short term to satisfy needs at a later time. Examples of this include individuals and families who deny themselves basics while starting a new business, saving for the down payment on a house, or attending graduate school (Samuelsson 1961). The resulting investment is a function of saving, whether at the micro level or at the macro or societal level.

Self-Expression

Self-denial may be used also as a means of self-expression which can include: (1) expression of personal characteristics (e.g., frugality, restraint, financial prowess), (2) expressions of dissatisfaction with society (e.g., defiance and nontraditionalism), and (3) boycotting of a company and its products as an expression of dissatisfaction with its business practices.

Of the first type, we cite Samuelsson (1981, p. 84), who observed that "many great capitalists have taken pleasure or snobbish pride in a certain personal simplicity, in economy over trivialities." An example of the second type may be the "ascetic" new class (Bourdieu 1984). This consumption pattern may have some basis in morality, as discussed earlier, yet some consumers may also be making statements of anti-materialism or non-materialism (see Elgin 1981; Holt 1995). Such self-expression may be a combination of expressing both personal characteristics and a dissatisfaction with the present world condition, or it might simply be defiance for its own sake.

Boycotting, on the other hand, is "the refusal to conduct marketing transactions with a target" (Garrett 1987) due to dissatisfaction with business practices, often in an attempt to coerce change, such as is noted by the Reverend Donald E. Wildmon (Winbush and Wildmon 1989):

Now Pepsi is saying to all the young people of the new generation, 'Here is the person we want you to emulate and imitate.’ They can do that. They’ve got every right to give Madonna $10 million, put it on television ever night if they want to. All I’m saying is 'Don’t ask me to buy Pepsi if you do it. You’ve got the right to spend your money where you want to; I’ve got the right to spend my money where I want to. . .’ and obviously, evidently, I was somewhat right in that because Pepsi agreed. They canceled their commercial and their world tour.

Altruism

Adam Smith wrote that it was self-interest, not benevolence, that caused the butcher, baker, and brewer to supply our dinner; nonetheless we regularly observe examples of altruistic behavior within the marketing system (Carman 1992, p. 5). Altruism is explained as the individual being willing to sacrifice his or her well-being for the enhancement of another consumer or for the group (see Carman 1992). At the extreme, altruism is defined as "any behavior which promotes the reproductive success of the recipient at a cost to the reproductive success of the altruist" (cf. Badcock 1991, p. 25). Becker, in his Treatise on the Family, defines altruism as individual i’s utility function being partially a function of j’s utility (1981, p. 173). As a result, anticipating altruistic behavior requires knowledge of individual i’s utility function and i’s perception of j’s utility function. It is not enough to know the two functions, nor can one assume the existence of altruistic behavior since, as noted earlier, the Rotten Kid can give the appearance of altruistic behavior without actually being altruistic. However, what is important is that altruism involves a form of self-denial and trying not to try to consume on the part of one person in favor of another.

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

This paper has suggested a typology of behavioral alternatives which may cause consumers to fail rather than try to consume and extends the approach of Bagozzi and Warshaw (1990) in which the focus was on trying to consume in terms of expectations of success or failure to achieve a consumption goal. The alternatives fall into two categories: (1) just not trying and (2) trying not to try to consume. Overall, the approach suggested here shifts or broadens the perspective by integrating in the theory of trying reasons and behaviors that are not adequately considered by it. The implications for consumer research are wide-ranging and numerous.

Implications for the Theory of Trying

Researchers might broaden their consideration of trying so that more dimensions of trying are included beyond success and failure. For example, trying might be framed in terms of preconditions of alternatives to trying. Does the consumer even care to try? At a minimum, the perspective considered here suggests that the theory of trying needs to be elaborated or reformulated to include alternatives to trying. For instance, there also may be precursor stages to the trial process not considered in the theory of trying model in which consumers move from habitual behavior or inertia to the state of considering trial (cf. Prochaska and DiClemente 1983).

Broader Implications

Every dimension we have considered in this paper is worthy of further investigation in its own right. Some have already been explored, especially in terms of research on materialism, but not in the present context in which a number of alternative behaviors are considered. Researchers might model the dynamics of such behaviors both in terms of possible interrelationships among them and also in terms of various relevant motivational processes, such as mastery, hedonism, avoidance, and homeostasis (see Weiner 1992 for a review). How do consumers shift from one behavior to another? How does a consumer decide not to try in particular conditions? For example, might time pressure cause one to just not try to consume? Are there individual and/or cultural differences among consumers that should be considered? For instance, more versus less materialistic consumers might be studied in this regard. Finally, are some product types more easily foregone than others?

Another possible dimension for considering both trying and the failure to try involves processes and stages of change such that people may try or not try at various times in relation to a given consumption activity. Various researchers have investigated such processes in terms of change behavior (Prochaska and DiClemente 1983), experimental (trial) product use (Gould 1991), life cycle and age developmental changes (Moschis 1987), and life status changes in terms of facilitating or not engaging in consumption or other behaviors (Andreasen 1984), among others. All these approaches and others might be related to both trying and failing to try.

Research should also be conducted on how consumers integrate and balance all possible ways of trying and not trying to consume. Analogous and perhaps in relation to the optimal level of stimulation (Raju 1980), consumers are likely to seek a balance among all the consumption (as well as other) behaviors they seek, attempt, and engage in (Gould 1991). For instance, they attempt to balance the things which are demanded of them and those which they really desire (Reich and Zautra 1983). All this indicates that consumer researchers need to consider the broad dimensions of consumer behavior across products and services, situations, life-experiences, and individual differences to model the dynamics of what causes consumers to engage or disengage in consumption trying and/or to choose to pursue alternatives that move away from or toward marketplace solutions. Two driving forces in this regard to be investigated are perceived control in one’s life, especially as one advances through the life-span (e.g., Heckhausen and Schulz 1995), and values regarding materialism, consumerism and religion.

CONCLUSION

This paper has explored the issue of failing to consume and framed it largely in relation to the concept of trying to consume. The results of our analysis suggest that we need to consider the motivation underlying consumption in broader terms than we have before and to change our usual consumer research perspective so that it reflects both of the two poles of the continuum of possible trying activity, i.e., trying to consume and failing to try to consume, as well as the related constructs of just not trying and trying not to try to consume. Viewing consumer behavior in this way may remove potential biases resulting from favoring the consuming, approach pole and open up consumer research to various avoidance perspectives that may help to account for consumption with greater ecological validity, as well as with deeper experiential insight.

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