Can Consumer Misbehavior Be Controlled? a Critical Analysis of Two Major Control Techniques

Ronald A. Fullerton, University of the South Pacific
Girish Punj, University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - Misbehavior by consumers has serious financial and social consequences; efforts to control it are an important issue for practitioners and consumers alike. Two major control techniques are deterrence and education; both are based upon considerable theory and empirical study. Given the complexity of reasons which drive consumers to misbehave, however, neither will be effective in all situations.
[ to cite ]:
Ronald A. Fullerton and Girish Punj (1997) ,"Can Consumer Misbehavior Be Controlled? a Critical Analysis of Two Major Control Techniques", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 340-344.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 340-344



Ronald A. Fullerton, University of the South Pacific

Girish Punj, University of Connecticut


Misbehavior by consumers has serious financial and social consequences; efforts to control it are an important issue for practitioners and consumers alike. Two major control techniques are deterrence and education; both are based upon considerable theory and empirical study. Given the complexity of reasons which drive consumers to misbehave, however, neither will be effective in all situations.

Consumer misbehavior is defined here as behavior in exchange settings which violates the generally accepted norms of conduct in such situations. Such behavior disrupts the exchange environment. Common forms of consumer misbehavior include vandalism, verbal and physical excuse, shoplifting, nd financial frauds involving insurance, credit cards, checks, etc.

Consumer research has traditionally slighted misbehavior by consumers. Recent work on compulsive consumption (Faber 1995; Hirschman 1992) explores deviance in which consumers wreck harm largely upon themselves. A few other works do acknowledge the wider dimensions and cost of misbehavior (e.g., Cox, Cox, and Moschis 1990; Fullerton and Punj 1993).

Control of consumer misbehavior is an important issue. Such misbehavior inflicts not only financial hardship on many consumers, it can also unsettle the consumption experience. A consumer victimized by credit card fraud lamented: "You feel like you’ve just walked into your house and there’s been an intruder in your home...It leaves you disturbed, frustrated, and anxious about the future" (quoted in Barry and Crombie 1989). Fear of shopping at night, dread of leaving children unattended in exchange settings, helpless rage at being hurt by other consumersCthese are common experiences (see Lichter 1994). Financial losses from misbehavior are routinely expressed in billions of U.S. dollarsCmost of which are recouped by raising prices for all consumers. Automobile insurance fraud in the U.S. is said to cost $10 billion annually (Kerr 1992). Creators of intellectual property have recently become increasingly concerned about theft via the Internet ("Intellectual Property" 1996). News reports of airline passengers going berserk in flight earlier this year, evoked fears that chaos was encroaching upon a once-tranquil consumer experience. The following headlines, most of them from the Wall Street Journal, further illustrate the disruptive potential of consumer behavior:

- "Crime Becomes Occupational Hazard of Deliverers" (7 March 1994)

- "Thefts Hurt Stores in Inner Cities, Suburbs" (28 February 1994)

- "Bad Check Toll Rises as it Becomes Easier to Pull Off Such Fraud" (2 December 1993)

- "Barney-Costumed Woman is Attacked at Store’s Opening" (11 April 1994)

- "Cable TV Pirates Become More Brazen, Forcing Industry to Seek New Remedies" (7 May 1992)

Retailing practitioners have long wrestled with the possibility of controllingCif not eradicatingCmisbehavior by customers (e.g., Abelson 1989; French, Crask, and Mader 1984; Johnson 1987). They and other marketing practitioners are currently fighting to contain consumer misbehavior with an extensive arsenal of techniques including high technology deterrent devices and bounties. Solutions proposed by academic and other writers have ranged from macro-prescriptions such as ensuring social justice and equality of incomes, to mid-level solutions involving cooperation among marketers of a city or region (Hiew 1981), to micro-level ones such as making the marketing institution less intimidating (Mills 1979), or taking a hard line towards prosecuting misbehavers.

But does any of this work? Most accounts show little if any decline in existing forms of consumer misbehaior and the continual emergence of new ones such as cellular phone fraud. Reports of retailers en masse adopting subliminal messages against shoplifting indicate a certain desperation (McLaughlin 1987). Is it realistic to hope to curtail misconduct? Or is the attitude of passive resignation reported among some retailers by French, Crask, and Mader (1984) the least costly and most realistic alternative?

The aim of this paper is to evaluate critically the methods of control which are most used todayCeducation and deterrenceCin light of what is now known about misbehavior by consumers. The effectiveness of these approaches will be assessed from both a general perspective and from one which differentiates consumer misbehavers by their motivations. Both approaches will be contrasted to the "do nothing" passive resignation approach.


Two major avenues to controlling consumer misbehavior have been proposed and are in wide use. One advocates education to change attitudes and (hopefully) behavior; the other emphasizes deterrent measures to make misbehavior difficult.

Education as a Control Technique

The educational approach uses promotional messages to persuade consumers to unlearn patterns of misconduct and to strengthen moral constraints which inhibit misbehavior. Examples include portraying consumer misbehavers as repulsive, sick people (Kallis and Vanier 1985), educating the public that consumer misbehavior is not victimless wrongdoing (Sheley and Bailey 1985), and rehabilitation programs for shoplifters. A rationale for moral education is that since few misbehaving consumers dispute the moral impropriety of consumer misbehavior in general (Hiew 1981; Kallis and Vanier 1985), public education may be able to reinforce consumers’ existing sense of moral propriety and thus strengthen moral constraints against misbehavior. Educational campaigns directed at mainstream consumers may be able to shake the indifference with which many of them regard consumer misbehavior; such campaigns should stress the total costs to consumers of misbehavior.

Educational approaches are grounded in Control TheoryCthe idea that bonding all groups to the values of larger society will reduce deviance. Shaping strongly negative atitudes towards misconduct among the majority of consumers would mean that they would exert more severe informal sanctions against misbehavior by other consumers, which in turn should inhibit misbehavior. One successful community-wide campaign has been reported (Hiew 1981).

Weaknesses of Education

One deficiency in educational appeals is that the messages may actually stimulate misbehavior (Bickman and Green 1977). A bigger hurdle is the well-known difficulty of persuading people to alter their attitudes on highly involving matters. From all reports, misbehaving consumers are highly involved in their actions, as for example this university student interviewed by Katz (1988, p. 71): "The [shoplifting] experience was almost orgasmic for me. There was a build-up of tension as I contemplated the danger of a forbidden act, then a rush of excitement at the moment of committing the crime, and finally a delicious sense of release." Education or not it would be hard to abstain from such a thrill. Strong peer influences (e.g. differential association) among groups of teenage consumers stimulate misconduct: "My best friend and I couldn’t walk into a store without getting that familiar grin on our faces," one misbehaver reminisced about high school days (Katz 1988, p. 59). Education would have to counter deeply-held group values. Television ads, radio ads, or posters depicting teenage consumer misbehavers as loathsome losers, as suggested by Kallis and Vanier (1985), will not likely succeed in countering collective values among the targeted groups of teenagers. The same would likely be true of fear appeals.

Deterrence as a Control Technique

Deterrence is the most widely used control strategy today. It emphasizes the use of formal and informal sanctions (Kraut 1976; Mills 1979, pp. 63ff). Deterrence theory (e.g., Tittle 1980) argues that systematic, consistent deterrence policies can effectively block opportunities to misbehave by making the perceived risks too great. The perceived severity of punishment is less important than its perceived certainty and consistence. Typical measures include: human surveillance and electronic security in stores, financial system designs intended to thwart and detect fraud, and vigorous legal prosecution of offenders. The goal is to create formal and informal sanctions which increase the perceived probability that misbehavior by consumers will be both detected and punished. Deterrence meshes well with the influential idea that misconduct is often the outcome of rationally calculated opportunism (Becker 1968): if opportunities are reduced, fewer decisions to misbehave will be made.

Weaknesses of Deterrence

But not all calculations are similar; a major hurdle which deterrence must vault is the differing consumer perceptions ofCand reactions to the risks of deterrent sanctions. There is evidence that the misbehavior-prone perceptually downgrade the risk posed by deterrents (Kraut 1976; Piliavin, Thornton, Gartner, and Matsueda 1986). Shoplifters reportedly find laughable such common deterrence techniques as mirrors and electronic article surveillance (EAS) (Kallis and Vanier 1985).

Effective deterrent measures may also have a counterproductive, boomerang effect upon well-behaved consumers if they feel harassed. Retailers have long worried that strong deterrence could alienate honest consumers (Abelson 1989). The sole empirical test (Guffy, Harris, and Laumer 1979) found that 28.9% of sampled consumers were offended by store security, especially surveillance by humans (uniformed guards, floor walkers, dressing room checkers). For over half of the offended, store choice was affected. The finding is telling because human surveillance is considered to be the single most effective deterrent to consumer misbehavior (Kallis and Vanier 1985).


Beyond the general strengths and weaknesses just elucidated, a more penetrating analysis of control strategies becomes possible if we realize that the effectiveness of specific control strategies varies with different consumers. Following Moore’s (1984) logic, we can differentiate consumer misbehavers based on the dominant reason for their misconduct. This will in turn determine the likelihood that those in each group will be constrained from consumer misbehavior. The reasons for misbehavior used here are based on those advanced in Fullerton and Punj (1993). These reasons need not be mutually exclusive, but one is assumed to predominate in each case of consumer misbehavior. The reasons:

1. Calculating opportunismCMisbehavior as the outcome of a decision-making process based upon conscious and rational calculation of expected benefits and costs as opposed to risks (Becker 1968). Differs from typical consumer decision making only in the absence of ethical constraints. Probably the single most important reason for consumer misbehavior (Moore 1984).

2. The absence of moral constraintsCthose powerful internal checks against conduct perceived to be wrong; i.e., immoral. A major difference between normal and misbehaving consumers. Absent moral constraints, acts of consumer misbehavior may not be perceived as immoral (Hiew 1981); or acts which are believed immoral in general are not in one’s own case (Moore 1984; Kallis & Vanier 1985). A few psychologically troubled consumer misbehavers may lack any sense of moral responsibility (See DSM-III-R 1987, pp. 342-344).

3. The search for thrillsCa basic motivation for misconduct (Katz 1988). Misbehavior permits thrilling defiance of legal and moral strictures and of imposing institutions; the risk of being caught only heightens the exquisite tension.

4. The frustration(s) of unfulfilled aspirations as consumers’ desires have become overstimulated to the point where few can legitimately afford to realize all of them (Merton 1968). Widely-cited as a major reason for shoplifting (e.g., Cameron 1964).

5. Differential associationCdeviant behavior learned in intimate groups, especially those made up of teenagers and adult repeat offenders (Sutherland 1934). Misbehavior promotes gang identity and may serve as an initiation ritual; group interaction inculcates the techniques of misbehavior and teaches members how to neutralize attacks on the morality of their conduct.

6. Psychological problems and abnormalitiesCdeeply disturbed, abnormal, psyches may erupt in exhibitionism, brutal treatment of other consumers and marketing employees. Vandalism and shoplifting can be symptoms of psychiatric disorders (DSM-III-R 1987). Unresolved sibling rivalry, sexual frustration and guilt, various compulsions, and the need to be punished can be proximate causes of misbehavior (Kallis and Vanier 1986).

7. Provocative situational factorsCcrowding, unsettling amounts of heat and noise, enticing displays, seeming absence of deterrence may trigger aggressiveness towards other consumers and towards marketers; displays of merchandise may arouse overwhelming urges to shoplift (Moore 1984).

8. Negative attitudes towards exchange institutionsCevoked by ownership, physical size, and projected image; perceived impersonality increases the probability of misbehavior by consumers, as does the size of institutions (Kraut 1976; Moore 1984).



The Exhibit shows the likely probability of success of both educationCand deterrenceCbased strategies for the eight different groups.

Calculating opportunists and the impulse-driven should be the easiest to deflect from misconduct, and those driven by psychological problems the hardest. Consumers for whom thrill-seeking and differential association are dominant will be near impervious to education, and fairly difficult to thwart by deterrence. Of the two general avenues to controlling consumer misbehavior, deterrence appears to offer the most promise, particularly in moderating misconduct by calculating opportunistsCwho are generally believed to constitute the largest pool of potential misbehavers. Strong deterrence lessens opportunities by making the risksCthe "costs"Cof misbehavior higher than the benefits. It provides ad hoc behavioral impediment among the opportunistic; it supplies restraint where moral constraint may be minimal. Deterrence meshes well with current criminological thought and with the predispositions of many marketing practitioners to take a proactive stance towards consumer misbehavior. However, deterrence will not be effective against consumer misconduct rootedin thrill-seeking or negative attitudes towards an exchange institution; it may not deter misconduct by groups in which these are present. The perception of higher risks may actually spur some misbehavior; thrill-seeking consumers want to be caught and punished (Rouke 1957). Technologically based deterrent apparatus such as exploding ink devices on new clothing, are likely to be counterproductive.

Education could prove superior to deterrence in thwarting consumer misbehavior based on negative attitudes towards some exchange institutions. It will be of little effectiveness, however, in precluding misconduct rooted in unfulfilled aspirations, differential association, psychological problems, and provocative situational factors.


The following four areas merit additional research.

1. Further research on the "deterrence boomerang" is urgently needed. At the micro level, the costs of the tradeoffs between controlling consumer misbehavior and offending legitimate consumers should be carefully explored in a variety of exchange settings. At the macro level, the tension between maximizing consumer freedom and control of misbehavior, should be critically analyzed from major social and philosophical perspectives, e.g., the Frankfurt School. Is misbehavior, for example, the result of consumer resistance to an oppressive marketer-dominated culture? Or is it the price of consumer freedom?

2. Efforts to control consumer misbehavior invariably have ethical dimensions. These should be explored. Formally barring the psychologically disturbed from exchange settings, for example, will preclude their misbehaving, but also represents a powerful restraint to their freedom. Some researchers might argue that educational efforts are inherently unprincipled efforts to manipulate consumers.

3. More research is needed to determine how consumers, especially those with a high potential for consumer misbehavior, calculate and relate to risks. Recent research on fear appeals (e.g., Keller and Block 1996) may provide the foundation upon which more effective educational appeals could be designed.

4. A rich agenda exploring the complexities of consumer misbehavior and its control could emerge from the Exhibit, which is based upon conceptual and earlier empirical work.


Future research needs to begin with the acceptance that consumer misbehavior is a widespread and potentially ominous phenomenon which can cast a pall over consumer experience. It does need to be controlled, although researchers may disagree among themselves how much control there should be. Passive resignation to it would be a poor strategy, for that would in effect invite the misbehavior-prone to come in and rampage, creating a sense of loss of control which can be unsettling to employees and consumers. Also, it would result in maximum financial lossesCwhich would have to be made up by other consumers.

It should be clear that the control methods analyzed here will not eliminate misbehavior from consumer experience; nothing will do that. Whatever the method and its context, there will be some consumers whose dominant motivations make them impervious to it, or whom it actually stimulates to misbehave. On the other hand, it is also clear that these two widely-used control techniques can help curb misbehavior Deterrence may be particularly effectual.


Abelson, Elaine (1989), When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barry, Dan, and Dave Crombie (1989), "A Slick Credit Card Scheme," Providence Sunday Journal, September 17.

Becker, Gary S. (1968), "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," The Journal of Political Economy, 76(2), 169-217.

Cameron, Mary O. (1964), The Booster and the Snitch, New York: Free Press.

Cox, Dena, Anthony D. Cox, and George P. Moschis (1990), "When Consumer Behavior Goes Bad: An Investigation of Adolescent Shoplifting," Journal of Consumer Research, 17(2) (September), 149-159.

DSM-III-R (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders) (1987), 3rd ed. rev. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Faber, Ronald J., Gary A. Christenson, Martina de Zwaan, and James Mitchell (1995), "Two Forms of Compulsive Consumption: Comorbidity of Compulsive Buying and Binge Eating" Journal of Consumer Research, 22(3), 296-304.

French, Warren A., Melvin R. Crask, and Fred H. Mader (1984), "Retailer’s Assessment of the Shoplifting Problem," Journal of Retailing, 60 (Winter), 108-15.

Fullerton, Ronald A., and Girish Punj (1993), "Choosing to Misbehave: A Structural Model of Aberrant Consumer Behavior," Leigh McAlister & Michael L. Rothschild, eds., Advances in Consumer Research, 20, 570-574.

Guffey, H.J., J.R. Harris, and J.F. Laumer (1979), "Shopper Attitudes Toward Shoplifting and Shoplifting Preventative Devices," Journal of Retailing, 55(3), 75-89.

Hiew, Chok C. (1981), "Prevention of Shoplifting: A Community Action Approach," Canadian Journal of Criminology, 23(1), 57-68.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1992), "The Consciousness of Addiction: Toward a General Theory of Compulsive Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 19(3), 155-179.

"Intellectual Property" (1996), The Economist, 340 No. 7976 (27 Juy), pp. 61-63.

Johnson, Elmer H. (1987), "Prevention in Business and Industry," in Elmer H. Johnson (ed.), Handbook on Crime and Delinquency Prevention, Westport, CT: Greenwood, 279-301.

Kallis, M.J. and D.J. Vanier (1985), "Consumer Shoplifting: Orientations and Deterrents," Journal of Criminal Justice, 13(5), 459-73.

Katz, Jack (1988), Seductions of Crime, New York: Basic Books.

Keller, John J. (1992), "Call-Sell Rings Steal Cellular Service," Wall Street Journal (March 13).

Keller, Punam Anand, and Lauren Goldberg Block (1996), "Increasing the Effectiveness of Fear Appeals" Journal of Consumer Research, 22(1), 448-460.

Kerr, Peter (1992), "A Heavy Toll is Being Paid for Auto Fraud," Providence Journal Bulletin (February 13).

Kraut, Robert E. (1976), "Deterrent and Definitional Influences on Shoplifting," Social Problems, 23, 358-368.

Lichter, Linda (1994), "Criminal Theft of Time," Wall Street Journal (January 1).

McLaughlin, Mark (1987), "Subliminal Tapes Urge Shoppers to Heed the Warning Sounds of Silence: Don’t Steal," New England Business, 9 (February 2), 36-37.

Merton, Robert K. (1968), Social Theory and Social Structure, New York: Free Press.

Mills, Michael K. (1979), "A Power-Contextual Analysis of Deviant Consumer Behavior in Retail Stores," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

Moore, Richard H. (1984), "Shoplifting in Middle America: Patterns and Motivational Correlates," International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 28, 53-64.

Neustatter, W. Lindesay (1954), "The Psychology of Shoplifting," Medico-Legal Journal, 22, 118-130.

Piliavin, Irving, Craig Thornton, Rosemary Gartner, and Ross L. Matsueda (1986), "Crime, Deterrence, and Rational Choice," American Sociological Review, 51, (February) 101 -119.

Rouke, Fabian L. (1957), "Shoplifting: Its Symbolic Motivation," NPPA Journal, 3, 5458.

Sheley, Joseph F. and Kenneth D. Bailey (1985), "New Directions for Anti-Theft Policy: Reductions in Stolen Goods Buyers," Journal of Criminal Justice, 13 No.5, 399-415.

Sutherland, Edwin H. (1934), Principles of Criminology, Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Tittle, Charles R. (1980), Sanctions and Social Deviance, New York: Praeger.

Thurber, Steven and Mark Snow (1980), "Signs May Prompt Antisocial Behavior," Journal of Social Psychology, 112(2), 309-10.