Value Structures and Consumer Behavior

Jonathan Gutman, University of Southern California
Donald E. Vinson, University of Southern California
ABSTRACT - This paper presents the results of an empirical investigation of the structure of human values. In addition to positing the relationship between values and behavior, the paper demonstrates a unique approach for exploring the tradeoffs consumers make in striving to achieve their values in a complex world.
[ to cite ]:
Jonathan Gutman and Donald E. Vinson (1979) ,"Value Structures and Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 335-339.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 335-339


Jonathan Gutman, University of Southern California

Donald E. Vinson, University of Southern California


This paper presents the results of an empirical investigation of the structure of human values. In addition to positing the relationship between values and behavior, the paper demonstrates a unique approach for exploring the tradeoffs consumers make in striving to achieve their values in a complex world.


It is difficult to imagine a single example of consumer behavior without reference to personal values. Even though the topic has been largely ignored by consumer researchers, the most cursory review of the social science literature demonstrates the important role of values in the study of both individual and collective behavior. In a recent interdisciplinary analysis of personal values, Clawson and Vinson (1977) suggested that:

The study of consumer values shows many signs of becoming a challenging area for research . . . values may prove to be one of the most powerful explanations of, and influences on, consumer behavior. They can perhaps equal or surpass the contributions of other major constructs including attitudes, product attributes, degree of deliberation, product classifications and life-styles.

While we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the subject that Toffler (1969) terms "so quick-silvery and complex," most serious students of human behavior appear to agree--values count!

Personal Values

In the area of marketing and consumer behavior, value research has been heavily influenced by the theoretical and operational contributions of Milton Rokeach. "To say that a person 'has a value' is to say that he has an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally and socially preferable to alternative modes of conduct or end-states of existence" (Rokeach, 1968). An individual's values represent a relatively small number of very centrally held evaluative beliefs. They are the ". . .cognitive representations and transformations of needs" and provide the criteria or standards by which judgments are made (Rokeach, 1973). Our values then, are responsible for the selection and maintenance of the ends or goals toward which we strive and, at the same time, regulate the manner in which this striving takes place.

Employing the Rokeach paradigm, consumer researchers have investigated differential product preferences (Vinson, Scott and Lamont, 1976), cross-cultured consumption patterns (Kanter, 1977; Munson, 1977), market segmentation potential (Vinson and Munson, 1975), consumer dissatisfaction (Scott and Lamont, 1973; Vinson, 1976), life style (Carman, 1977), and cognitive structure (Vinson and Nakanishi, 1977). In almost all of these cases, the data collection vehicle represented the Value Survey containing Rokeach's original 36 terminal and instrumental values.

Value System Structure

Rokeach, as well as a large number of other value analysts, contend that values exist in a hierarchical, interconnected structure. That is, while all values are important and linked together, some values are more important than others. This notion is intuitively appealing for the average 22-year-old college student (the value "An Exciting Life" is usually rated more important that the value "Salvation"). Vinson, Scott, and Lamont (]976) suggest that the value structure exists as a central-peripheral dimension ranging from the most centrally held to the least centrally held. However, when college students are asked to rank-order the Value Survey, many complain that certain values "clump together" and these value "clumps" take on differential importance. "It is the rare and limiting case," Williams suggests (1968), that ". . .a person's behavior is guided over a considerable period of time by one and only one value . . . more often particular acts or sequences of acts are steered by multiple and changing clusters of values."

Apparently then, the conception of values being held independently of other values, rank-ordered from most centrally held to least centrally held is an inadequate representation of the consumer's value system. A more adequate system would be one in which some values are consonant with one another to the effect that the same behaviors are instrumental to achieving them. Some values by the same virtue, are contrary to one another in that they are mutually exclusive. Striving for one value or set of values means moving away from other values or sets of values. And, some values are indeed independent.

A major objective of this paper is to explore this proposition.

Values and Behavior

In addition to not fully understanding the structure of the value system, consumer researchers have been rather obtuse in their explanation as to exactly how values are related to overt behavior. Not unlike other authors writing in the area of consumer behavior, Markin (1974) addresses this issue by stating, "A complete treatment, one that would trace the role of consumers' core values and their impact on such behavior as buying and consumption, is beyond the scope of our introductory treatment here." Little, if any, additional insight is provided by more recent researchers interested in the topic of personal values (Clawson and Vinson, 1977).

As end-states which give expression to human needs, we believe that values provide the goals toward which behavior is motivated. The immediate functions of values and value systems are to guide human action in daily situations. If we behave in all the ways prescribed by our values, we will he rewarded with all the end-states specified by these values (Rokeach, 1973, p. 14). In this sense, behavior is instrumental to the achievement of a particular value state. Behavior instrumentality implies that a specific behavior will either enhance or block the attainment of some value or constellation of values. Consumers are motivated to engage in behaviors which will enhance the achievement of certain values; similarly, they are motivated to avoid those behaviors which are perceived to block the attainment of certain value states.

The research reported in this paper demonstrates the instrumentality of a variety of different behavior for a given set of personal values.

Measuring Values

As originally developed by Rokeach, the Value Survey requires subjects to rank-order the 36 terminal and instrumental values printed on gummed labels. For the purposes of consumer research, there are a number of problems associated with this technique. First, the ranking procedure forces the respondent to indicate differences where none may actually exist; equally attractive values are forced into separate rankings. In addition, wide gaps in preference are treated as no different from very small gaps. Second, many subjects verbalize Miller's admonition (1956) that most people cannot adequately evaluate more than a few items (7 plus or minus 2) at a time. And finally, the ranking instructions bias the rankings in favor of deprived values and against satiated values. "For instance, the lowest income respondents rate 'A Comfortable Life' and 'Clean' relatively high, while wealthy respondents rate them quite low" (Clawson and Vinson, 1977).

To avoid these problems, the vast majority of the empirical research previously cited employed the direct rating of each value. While this offers a number of methodological advantages, it doesn't directly address the issue of clusters of values that are consonant with one another or those which are mutually exclusive.

An important contribution of this paper is to introduce a new technique for exploring the relationships among human values. The results of this approach would enable researchers to explore the tradeoffs consumers must make in striving to achieve their values in a complex world. Specifically, the purpose of this research is to demonstrate these three types of relations (consonant, contrary, and independent) among values and to use these relationships to generate a values map in which the instrumentality of various behavior can be explored.


To satisfy the objective of exploring the structure of personal values, data were collected by a unique form of paired-comparisons to generate a perceptual map. The stimuli to be mapped were values selected from Rokeach's terminal values (see Table 1). Because of the large number of items to be evaluated, a subset of 14 of the 18 terminal values was selected to reduce respondent fatigue. As can be seen from inspection of the values in Table 1, many of them are rather abstract with respect to their reference to end-states of existence. Also, these values can be satisfied in different ways by different people. At this stage of the research on values, it was decided to use the values as they were rather than to try to make them more specific. Any attempt at concretizing values would mainly serve to increase the idiosyncratic nature of the responses.

The scale used to elicit distances between the values was as follows:

Both value states can be achieved through the same behavior 1  2   3  4  5  6  7  The two value states are opposites--striving for onemeans moving away from the other

The context of the scale is behavioral--in any situation your behavior is leading you somewhere. Can you approach any two of these value states simultaneously or are they in opposition to one another?

One property of this scale is different than the often used "similar-different" scales. If two stimuli are unrelated or not comparable, the similar-different scale results in a "different" judgment. If two values are unrelated and striving for one is unrelated to the other, the respondent is most likely to mark the midpoint of the "can achieve both--they are opposite" scale.



Property Vectors

As an aid to understanding the resulting space, ten behaviors were rated for their instrumentality in achieving the value states (see Table 4). Each of the behaviors was rated on a seven point scale as to whether it would "totally block the attainment" to "totally enhance the attainment" of each of the values. The behaviors chosen by the experimenters were thought to be relevant to the life style of the respondents, and related to the set of values selected.

Type of Analysis

The direct dissimilarity measures obtained from the subjects were analyzed according to the INDSCAL model (Carroll and Chang, 1970) and solutions were computed in three, two and one dimension. The INDSCAL model was used to retain some of the individual differences, hopefully adding to the depth of the solution.


Subjects were students at the University of Southern California School of Business. Twenty-nine undergraduate students each rated the 91 value state pairs (14 X 13/2) and rated the instrumentality of the ten behaviors for each of the values.


A minimum of three dimensions was required to describe the obtained space. The percentage of variance accounted for by the INDSCAL model was 36 percent. The average correlation coefficient across subjects was .59. While this figure is not as high as desired, it was felt that the interpretability of the obtained space provided a number of interesting insights and may provide assistance to others investigating the relationship between personal values and behavior.

Value State Map

The coordinates for the 14 value states in three dimensions are shown in Table 2. These 14 value states are mapped in Figure 1.





Interpretation of Dimensions

Certain features of the value state map are obvious at first glance. Beauty, Peace, and Equality are far removed from any of the other value states. Social Recognition bounds the space opposite these three values. Wisdom is not particularly near any of the other values. From a clustering perspective, it is unlikely that these values would be capable of achievement at the same time other values are being achieved.

Other value states are tightly clustered. True Friendship and Mature Love are close to one another and both are close to Happiness. Pleasure and A Comfortable Life are located near one another. Of particular interest is the fact that Happiness is located nearest to the centroid of the space. From a personal perspective, this may be the most generalizable of the values. ("Whatever makes you happy...")

From a dimensional perspective, each of the three dimensions seem to be capable of an interpretation that increases our understanding of how people structure their values.

Dimension 1

The two poles of dimension 1 represent Personal Achievement versus Social Harmony (see Table 3). What seems to be reflected here is the fact that Social Recognition, Self-Respect, Accomplishment, and Wisdom are somewhat antithetical to Peace, Equality and a World of Beauty. This may be another way of saying that the pursuit of personal goals is contradictory with society's broader concerns. This may reflect the parochial, short time horizon of college students. It is also consistent with Rokeach's contention that terminal values are personal and social; that is, these values tend to be self-centered or society-centered, intrapersonal or interpersonal in focus (Rokeach, 1973, p. 8).

Dimension 2

Dimension 2 can be interpreted in terms of "Desires" versus "Oughts." In this context, Pleasure, Mature Love, Comfortable Life, and Security are opposed to Equality, Peace, and Wisdom. High ratings on the scale, which served as a basis for the distance measures input to the scaling algorithm, means these two sets of values cannot be achieved via the same behaviors.

Dimension 3

Dimension 3 represents one of the major aspects of college life (and to some respect, life in general)--social rewards and what it takes to get them as opposed to striving for some form of personal balance. Thus, we have Social Recognition opposed to Self-Respect, Inner Harmony, Mature Love, True Friendship, and Equality.



Behavior Vectors as an Aid to Interpretation

"The behaviors have been placed along the perimeter of the dimension 1-2 plane in Figure 1 such that a line between the point and the origin of the 3-space would define the plane. Table 4 shows the direction cosines for the behaviors which define their angular location in the space (Green and Rao, 1972, pp. 66-69). The calculations of the behaviors with the value states as mapped in the 3-space are very strong. With the exception of "reading a good book" (r = .507) and "going to Europe" (r = .671) all the correlations are greater than .76. Because rendering these angles and stimuli locations in three dimensions is somewhat precarious, Table 5 has been provided in which the instrumentality ratings for each behavior across the 14 values (along with the rank orders) are shown. Detailed inspection of Table 5 indicates, for example, that getting good grades and having a summer job are both instrumental in achieving Self-Respect and A Sense of Accomplishment. Neither has much to do with A World of Peace or Equality. The point must be made that there is no prima facie reason why this should be so. Plenty of students can find a summer job helping underprivileged children or other activities that would help in achieving both of these sets of values. Our group of students is rather homogeneous (as will be discussed in connection with individual respondent saliences).





Further inspection shows the efficacy of joining a fraternity or sorority. This activity aids in achieving Social Recognition, Pleasure, True Friendship and Happiness. The interested reader can pursue any of the other behaviors to see what value states they aid. It is interesting, though to note that both voting and getting high are instrumental in achieving Equality.

Analysis of Individual Differences

Table 6 shows the individual saliences for the three dimensions. Although there are a few individuals who use one dimension much more than the other two dimensions, most subjects use three dimensions rather than one or two. There does not appear to be much of a basis for segmenting the group into subgroups with different value structures. This is partly a function of subject selection. Business students are not noted for being a highly differentiated group.




This research has demonstrated Rokeach's terminal values are not all independent of one another. Some values are consonant and can be achieved via the same behaviors. Others are contrary to one another in that moving toward one means moving away from the other. There are several implications of this finding.

First, it suggests that a simple ranking of values for importance cannot do justice to their interconnected nature. At the very least, one would have to permit ties in the ordering. Rating the values for importance seems to be only a partial solution. While the rating procedure allows for equal importance rating, it does not force the respondent to deal with the reality that he or she cannot achieve all things--some value states can only be acquired at the expense of others.

Secondly, the results force us to think in terms of tradeoffs which have to be made in striving for valued states. If all values cannot be achieved simultaneously, values research has to address the same issues which confront attitude research. Indeed, we may have come full-circle to Rosenberg's (1956) instrumentality--value analysis. Some values or clusters of values are blocked or attained by some products or behaviors.

Finally, the values-mapping procedure has provided a good model for understanding the alternatives facing our respondents: Personal Achievement vs. Social Harmony; Desires vs. Oughts; and Social Recognition vs. some form of balance in one's personal life. It seems likely that these dimensions are not independent of one another either. Further research will explore this issue by collecting "value-state as a source of satisfaction'' data. We may then be able to develop a basis for segmentation by finding groups of consumers who are striving for the same value-locations in such dimensional space. Further research will also use products as property vectors in such spaces.

While the results of this paper are clearly exploratory in nature, we hope that they will contribute toward bringing value research more into the mainstream of consumer behavior research.


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