A Normative Deficit Model of Consumer Behavior

Earl W. Morris, Iowa State University
Mary Winter, Iowa State University
Ivan F. Beutler, Iowa State University
ABSTRACT - A model is developed in which consumer behavior is seen as a response to changes in satisfaction as a result of normative deficits in the current level and quality of consumption. Normative deficits arise from the difference between consumption as prescribed by cultural and personal norms and achieved consumption.
[ to cite ]:
Earl W. Morris, Mary Winter, and Ivan F. Beutler (1976) ,"A Normative Deficit Model of Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 161-165.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 161-165


Earl W. Morris, Iowa State University

Mary Winter, Iowa State University

Ivan F. Beutler, Iowa State University


A model is developed in which consumer behavior is seen as a response to changes in satisfaction as a result of normative deficits in the current level and quality of consumption. Normative deficits arise from the difference between consumption as prescribed by cultural and personal norms and achieved consumption.


This paper outlines the development of a normative deficit model of consumer behavior. The model integrates both the social psychological and sociocultural approaches to the study of consumer behavior. The primary focus is on the cultural sources of the motivation to augment, improve, or otherwise alter the current supply of one or more of the attributes of various consumer goods. The present model elaborates upon two sets of concepts included in many of the other integrative models of consumer behavior: motives and their source in cultural norms.

This paper derives from a view of consumption as an adjustment mechanism to maintain a balance between needs, defined in terms of cultural norms (Tarde, 1903:44; Parsons and Shils, 1954:9-10), and achieved levels of consumption. The family's current level of consumption is evaluated by comparison with two sets of standards: (1) strictly cultural norms and (2) family level norms that more or less closely approximate the cultural norms. A normative deficit is based on the difference between the current supply (at the household level) of a good and the cultural standards and/or personal standards for that good.

Consumption, therefore, is viewed as an ongoing evaluation process conducted more or less continuously and more or less consciously by all families. The attention of this paper therefore is not focused upon consumption for subsistence. This approach seems sound since the model is limited to the United States (although it clearly could be adapted to other societies) and few Americans consume at or near the subsistence level.

The basic orientation of the paper arises not from consumer research in the marketing tradition, nor directly from traditional economic theory, although it is consistent with the latter. In fact, it can serve as an elaboration of the concept of nonsatiation and the process by which utility is maximized.

Rather, the roots of the model are found in the developmental approach to the study of the family (Hill and Hansen, 1960; Hill and Rodgers, 1964; Rodgers, 1962; Rodgers, 1964). In particular, the maintenance of a low total normative deficit can be seen as one of the dominant developmental tasks for the family. Further, changes in the family composition by age and sex over the history of the family by themselves bring about changes in the total deficit because the changes in the family can require that new standards be applied. Different standards would apply for a family with teenage children than a family with infants or no children.

Thus, a task for the family is to maintain the normative deficits at a Low level by adjusting to the progression of standards that apply over the life cycle.

The model is a generalization of an earlier work on housing choice and adjustment (Morris and Winter, 1975). Normative housing deficits were found to be related to residential satisfaction (Morris, Crull and Winter, 1975), residential mobility (Gladhart, 1973; Morris and Gladhart, 1975), the propensity to move (Morris, Crull and Winter, 1975), residential alteration and improvement (Bross, 1975) and indirectly to the use of contraception to avoid residential crowding (Bresler, 1975).


A number of integrative models of consumer behavior have appeared in the literature. One of the earliest of these was by Howard (1963), followed by Nicosia (1966). Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (1968) expanded greatly upon the earlier models and developed a detailed diagrammatic attitudinal model of the consumer decision process.

According to Kollat, Blackwell and Engel (1972), none of the previous integrative models had greatly influenced consumer research, including, apparently, Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (1968). One of the main reasons for the relative disuse of the integrative models has been the lack of clarity as to how most of the concepts in the models might be operationalized. In addition, it has not always been clear if a decision net/flow chart type of model was being presented, or whether a causal model was intended.

Another limitation of consumer attitude research has been its narrow social-psychological focus. Sociocultural factors, when included, were seldom elaborated (see, for example, Engel, Kollat and Blackwell, 1968). Rising interest in the role of social and cultural influences on consumer behavior are seen in Ward's (1974) review of research on consumer socialization and the frequent, albeit cursory, mention in numerous research reports of the influence of cultural norms (see, for example, Wilson, Mathews and Harvey, 1975).

A great deal of recent research has been focused on the testing of brand choice attitudes and behavior, based on models developed by Rosenberg (1956) and Fishbein (1963). Nakanishi and Bettman (1974), Olshavsky and Summers (1974), Bettman, Capon and Lutz (1975) and Wilson, Mathews and Harvey (1975) all begin with a presentation of the Fishbein model (adapted to brand choice) and then proceed to test some portion of it or attempt to improve its applicability by introducing additional factors.

The models, as tested, have typically taken the form:

"j = wi  si   (1)


"j is the overall rating of brand j

wi is the belief that brand j possesses attribute i

si is the attitude toward attribute i of brand j

In some cases wi is defined as the importance of attribute i. Typically, the importance weights are estimated by regression coefficients but some studies test the model using belief or importance ratings pro- vided by the respondent. Both the regression form and the subjective weighting form of the model suffer from extreme oversimplicity. It is doubtful that even an act as simple as choosing a brand of toothpaste can be satisfactorily explained or predicted by the use of attitudes and beliefs alone.

Even less appropriate is the use of simple attitude- belief models for the explanation of more global consumer decisions such as whether to purchase a given good at all, as opposed to choosing a specific brand of that good. Moreover, the emphasis on the attitudes toward the attributes of specific brands is misplaced since the attention of the consumer is first focused on the adequacy of the current supply of the product.


The basic concept included in our model that appears to be absent from previous consumer research and integrative models of consumer behavior is the notion of normative deficits. With reference to housing, for example, the number of bedrooms needed depends upon cultural standards for bedroom sharing. Subtracting the number of bedrooms needed from the number in the current residence gives a variable that may range from negative numbers indicating a deficit to positive numbers indicating a surplus of bedrooms. A summation of a series of normative deficits is seen as an intervening variable that explains the relationship between a number of exogenous variables and general satisfaction (see Figure 1).

The motivation for consumption behavior arises from a dropping of the overall deficit level below tolerable limits. The consumer is motivated to make a new purchase when the current supply is deficient in quantity or quality as judged by the consumer and/or the society. This point is stressed in order to avoid the psychologism of assuming that purchases result solely from the attitudes of the individual.

Examples of normative deficits can be drawn from consumer behavior in regard to housing. Suppose cultural standards require three bedrooms in a dwelling for a family with husband and wife and two teenaged children, one a boy and one a girl. If such a family lives in a dwelling with only two bedrooms, that family would experience a cultural normative deficit for the number of bedrooms. Two families of equal composition may experience the same cultural norms and corresponding normative deficits, but have different personal normative deficits. One family might experience a personal deficit if their residence did not provide a garden space. There are, of course, many additional deficits that could appear, depending upon the attributes of their current dwelling.

The deficit type of variable would be unnecessary if all individuals applied a common standard to their situation. If that were the case, a description of, as examples, the number of rooms in their dwelling, the number of floors, the amount of yard space, etc., would be sufficient. Such is not the case, since many individuals apply unique standards to themselves. Further, common standards may apply to some situations and not to others. An example is the standard for the number of rooms prescribed for a dwelling which is contingent upon household size and composition.



The deficits are important as they are seen as producing motivations to "do something" about, for example, housing, such as move to a different dwelling. Normative deficits arise from the attributes of the existing dwelling, or current life conditions, and not from the potential attributes of the new dwelling. Thus, a key difference between the present model and most previous models is the focus on present conditions (the stock and its attributes) prior to consideration of additional potential flows from new goods and services (purchase and brand choices).

The exogenous variables include the three sets of "inputs" in the Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (1968) model. All personality variables, such as the need for achievement (Gardner, 1972), are included as predispositions. Socioeconomic and demographic variables are included as constraints, while aggregate supply and demand and prices are included as market factors.

The rationale for using such a global concept as general satisfaction includes the assumption that any purchasing behavior would arise from actual or threatened loss of life satisfaction. An important question for the individual is which deficit is most important and most in need of reduction, taking into account the socioeconomic and other constraints. The particular goods (including brand choice) to be purchased would depend upon the answer to a Two part question: (1) what is the greatest deficit and (2) which goods and/or services have the characteristics which will best reduce the deficit (Lancaster, 1971; Maynes, 1973).

The model is extended to the prediction of behavior that might be consequent upon a rise in the total deficits and a reduction in life satisfaction. Being in the higher or lower range of total normative deficits would have implications not only for satisfaction but should produce higher or lower levels of motivation to reduce the normative deficits. Presumably, if satisfaction is reduced sufficiently and motivation to react is high enough, behavior to reduce deficits should appear. That behavior, of course, may be more or less successful in reducing the total normative deficit.

Over time, the degree of success of the consequent behavior should have feedback effects on the other variables in the system. More correctly, successful behavior at t1 should raise the predisposition to engage in behavior to reduce deficits and improve satisfaction at t2. Thus, the effect is not strictly feedback, but a chaining forward in time of the five levels of variables. The behavior might alter the values of the original exogenous variables. A move to a different residence might reduce normative deficits by improving job opportunities and thereby raise the family's income. Higher income would serve to reduce the budget constraint and thereby permit a reduction in one or more other deficits.

A series of successful actions should produce a rise in the individual's (family's) standards by raising their expectations for success in the future (Tallman, 1971). A series of failures might lead to feelings of powerlessness and apathy, and a lowering of personal standards.


Five sets of variables are included in the proposed model: the normative deficits, general satisfaction, the exogenous variables, the propensity to act, and consequent behavior.

The Normative Deficits

The quality of life may be conceived as a low level of deficits in all consumption areas. That is, a summation of departures of achieved or actual states from (1) personally desired states and (2) culturally or externally prescribed states. Typically both a personal norm and a cultural norm would exist for each attribute of a given consumer good. There may be attributes for which some individuals or even all individuals have no standards. Likewise, there may be areas for which no cultural norm exists. One of the expected products of research to test the model, therefore, would be a set of useful external standards, departures from which would relate to satisfaction, motivation and behavior. Such standards would be useful in developing social policy.

The measurement of specific personal deficits requires attention to both the breadth of the deficit and the base point (or actual state), since given deficits at various levels may have different implications for satisfaction and consequent behavior. For example, a deficit of three bedrooms in a family's housing when the current house has six bedrooms is necessarily different from a three bedroom deficit when the current house has only two bedrooms.

The measurement model for total normative deficits based on personal standards (TNDp) is:

TNDp = Dpi . wpi | basepi + Dpi + 1 . wpi + 1 | basepi + 1 ...    (2)


Dpi = the difference between a personal norm and the actual state for the ith attribute of some consumer good

basepi = the actual state for the ith attribute

wpi = the weight given the ith attribute by the individual

A basepoint is not needed for measurement of some deficits as culturally prescribed when a common standard is applied to all families. Exceptions would be (1) deficits that have interfamilial contingencies for calculations, as the bedroom deficit variable, which depends upon family size and composition; (2) time series analysis in which the cultural standards may be changing over time; and (3) cross-cultural research in which the standards differ between cultures.

The measurement model for the cultural total normative deficits (TNDc) is:

TNDc = Dci . wci | baseci + Dci + 1 . wci + 1 | baseci + 1 ...   (3)


Dci = the difference between a cultural norm and actual state for the ith attribute of some consumer good

Wci = the weight given the ith attribute by the culture

note: not all cultural deficits include a basepoint

General Satisfaction

General life satisfaction can be viewed as a function of the summed personal deficits, the summed cultural deficits and the exogenous variables:

S = f(TNDp, TNDc, X1, X2, X3)   (4)

It is anticipated that considerable care will be necessary in measuring the concept of satisfaction when the model is tested in light of two factors: (1) the tendency on the part of respondents to prefer to respond in the positive range (satisfied) to any question on satisfaction, and (2) the relatively weak relationships found in many studies between consequent behavior and satisfaction.

Exogenous Variables

The exogenous variables are grouped into three classes. The first class may best be termed socioeconomic constraints. Included are such variables as race which, because of discrimination, may increase the probability that members of particular racial and ethnic groups would have high normative deficits. Income, in the form of a budget constraint, may raise the total deficit a family may experience.

The second class of variables includes market factors: supply, demand, and their effect on price and the availability of goods and services. The third class of exogenous variables includes value orientations, world views, and predispositions of various kinds, such as apathy, alienation, the need for achievement, etc. When the model is taken dynamically, the exogenous variables may be influenced by feedback from changes in the level of deficits, satisfaction and behavior.

The Propensity to React and Consequent Behavior

The concept, propensity to react, is included to provide a measure of the desires and intentions to engage in behavior that might reduce deficits. Other variables controlled, dissatisfaction should have a predictable relationship with desires and intentions to act to reduce the dissatisfaction, the source of which is a high level of normative deficits. Thus, an expectation or a desire to move to a new neighborhood should result from dissatisfaction with deficits arising from the character of the current neighborhood.

A final assessment of the impact of exogenous variables, normative deficits and satisfaction on family behavior would be the consequent behavior itself.


The set of equations to be estimated are as follow

CB = a + bPB + bCON1 + bMAR1   (5)

PB = a + bSAT + bCON0 + bMAR0 + bPRED0    (6)

SAT = a + bTNDp + bTNDc + bCON0 + bMAR0 + bPRED0    (7)

TNDc = a +  bCON0 + bMAR0    (8)

TNDp = a + bCON0 + bMAR0 + PRED0     (9)


CB = predicted consequent behavior

PB = predicted propensity to behave

SAT = predicted satisfaction

TNDc = predicted total cultural deficit

TNDp = predicted total personal deficit

CON1 = socioeconomic constraints at t1

MAR1 = market factors at t1

SAT = general satisfaction

CON0 = socioeconomic constraints at t0

MAR0 = market factors at t0

PRED0 = psychological predispositions at t0

The a's and b's are constants derived from regression. The beta coefficients for the above system of equations may need to be estimated by a two-stage least squares procedure in order to overcome identification problems.

The relationships shown in the figure are lettered from a to q. Following each letter in parentheses is the hypothesized direction of the relationship.

Equation (5) with the consequent behavior as the dependent variable consists of three direct relationships shown in figure 1 (a,b,c). The key relationship in equation (5) is from the propensity variable which consists of desires and expectations with respect to some behavior that would reduce one or more deficits. The translation of a behavioral propensity into actual behavior is modified by the restraining effects of the concurrent (t1) market and socioeconomic constraints. All remaining variables in the model are hypothesized to relate to behavior indirectly through their influence on the propensity variable.

Equation (6) predicting the propensity to act consists of four direct relationships (d,e,f,g). The primary one is general satisfaction. Satisfaction would have a negative relationship to the propensity to behave. Propensity would be negatively affected by previous experience with the market and socioeconomic constraints (to). In addition, various personality factors would affect the propensity to behave either positively or negatively. A high need for achievement, for example, might produce a greater propensity to behave than a low achievement need with identical levels of satisfaction.

Equation (7) predicting satisfaction includes five relationships (h,i,j,k,1). H and i are of key interest in that general satisfaction is seen to be due primarily to the personal and cultural deficits. There is the possibility that perceived constraints and market factors could attenuate the decline in satisfaction as deficits become higher. Different psychological predispositions may affect satisfaction in both directions. Apathy for example, might reduce the tendency to become dissatisfied.

Equation (8) is a prediction of the total cultural deficit from two of the sets of exogenous variables. The constraints and market factors (t0) operate to determine the level of actual or achieved consumption for comparison with cultural norms. The cultural norms are given and for present purposes are assumed not to change. Equation (9) is more complex that (8) because the psychological predispositions are seen to be responsible for the personal standards to the extent that they differ from the cultural norms.


A model such as is presented here could emphasize several levels of behavior and attitude formation. Brand choice, choices among competing classes of goods and attitudes, intentions and expectations, etc. with respect to those behaviors could be studied. Further, there are important decisions having to do with choices of types of behavior that might serve as alternatives to purchasing behavior. Clothing Can be home sewn, stolen, or obtained free from charitable organizations.

The model as developed to this stage stops at the point where the family decides whether to engage in consumption behavior in response to their deficit-produced dissatisfaction. Still to be dealt with are such questions as (1) what is needed, food, clothing, housing etc. (obviously, this decision would be based on the deficits that produced the largest amount of dissatisfaction within the constraints of the market and socioeconomic factors), (2) whether to buy pants or dresses and (3) whether to buy them at Sears or Wards. It would appear that the more general decisions would be most influenced by stable cultural norms while brand choice and store choice would depend upon family norms and less stable cultural norms such as fads and fashions.

It is obvious that the development of models that adequately explain consumer behavior requires an approach that is complex in two senses. First, the attributes of the consumption goods that are sought by even very low income families are numerous. It is necessary not only to consider these attributes but also to consider affective, cognitive and other aspects of the attitudes held toward those attributes. Second, the factors that need to be considered in addition to the attributes and attitudes toward them are numerous. A statistical analysis that can be trusted to sort all of that out and produce results that can be managed has not been invented as yet. Nevertheless, partial approaches that represent attempts to comprehend some of the complexity and richness of the social-psychological and cultural determinants of consumer behavior must be made.


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