Teaching Consumer Behavior: an Overview

Robert Mittelstaedt, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
ABSTRACT - Purpose and organization of a workshop on teaching consumer behavior are described. Issues raised in the session are summarized.
[ to cite ]:
Robert Mittelstaedt (1977) ,"Teaching Consumer Behavior: an Overview", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 266-267.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 266-267


Robert Mittelstaedt, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Purpose and organization of a workshop on teaching consumer behavior are described. Issues raised in the session are summarized.


Although one of the major modes of dissemination of consumer behavior research is the classroom teaching of many ACR members, this year's workshop was a "first" for an annual conference. Reflecting a concern for the general direction of consumer research and its relationship to the various curricula in which many members teach, the Program Committee received several suggestions for a session on teaching, finally deciding on a workshop to focus on the question 'What should we be teaching in consumer behavior courses?" Of course, such a question cannot be separated from two other questions -- 'What is consumer behavior?" and "Who are our students?" A format was planned to open dialog on these questions by inviting (a) three members who teach undergraduate and three who teach graduate courses in consumer behavior to describe their courses, (b) reactions from discussants representing "industry" and "government" and (c) open discussion from what was hoped to be a relatively large number of attendees.

This "overview" paper is to briefly describe the implementation of the plan for the workshop and summarize the issues raised.


The June 1976 ACR Newsletter carried a call to anyone teaching a consumer behavior course to submit his/her syllabus to be considered for presentation. Fifteen responses described courses offered as part of a business curriculum (15/15) to undergraduates (13/15) with few, if any, specific prerequisites. Because the graduate-undergraduate distinction did not appear viable, six "first-level" courses were chosen which contained maximum differences in content (rather than teaching style or materials used.) While the six selected do not represent the totality of consumer behavior courses offered, there are substantial differences among them as the following papers indicate.

The final format of the workshop called for:

(1) presentations by Stephen Arnold, Queens University; Rebecca Holman, Pennsylvania State University; Patrick Murphy, Marquette University; Terrance O'Brien, Kansas State University; Thomas Stanley, Georgia State University; and Lawrence Wortzel, Boston University.

(2) A summary of the results of a survey designed to elicit perceptions of the "ideal" consumer behavior textbook By Malcolm White of California State University-Sacramento.

(3) reactions to the presentations By Sandra Willett (Associate Director for Consumer Education, Office of Consumer Affairs, Department of Health, Education and Welfare) and Lawrence Gibson (Director of Marketing Research, General Mills, Inc.)

(4) open discussion, some of which revolved around a questionnaire concerning the relative contributions to consumer behavior from the several behavioral sciences, the major goal and emphasized topics of the "ideal" consumer behavior course and the effects of several recent developments on course content and teaching styles.

Unfortunately, few chose to attend the workshop but the lack of numbers was overshadowed by the fact that all who could do so stayed to the end and joined in the often spirited discussion. Special thanks must be given to all presenters and discussants; everyone seemed to agree that it was a provocative and useful session. What follows is an attempt to summarize the issues raised. Three "premises" appear to have been widely shared among all participants and serve as a framework for the balance of this paper.


Premise: A course in consumer behavior should make an important contribution to the development of decision-making skills by business school students.

Comment: The almost universal acceptance of this premise at the workshop is not surprising; almost all the participants were marketing educators or practitioners. Only Sandra Willett offered a serious challenge, arguing for greater emphasis on topics and issues related to consumer education. Though her comments were "on target," the basic goal of "managerial relevance" appeared accepted by all. However, there were several conflicting views on how this goal is best achieved.

At least three approaches appeared to be supported. (1) An emphasis on the practice of decision-making skills through the study of behavioral "principles" and their application to illustrative exercises and simulations (i.e., cases.) (2) Attempts to guide each student toward the development of a "personal theory" of consumer behavior through "discovery learning" and some attention to formal theories as "organized alternatives." (3) Development of greater sophistication in the assessment, interpretation and application of research results through a review of the literature with attention to logical and methodological problems.

Two fundamental issues appear to underlie the preferences for each of these approaches. First, those who prefer approaches (2) and (3) believe that there are few, if any, "principles" and courses in consumer behavior must stress alternative approaches to studying and explaining the phenomena of consumer behavior. Those who prefer approach (1) remain concerned that too many "perspectives" leave students, at best, confused and frustrated and, at worst, in a Hamlet-like state, unable to act. Second, at a more practical level, only approach (2) appears to avoid the necessity (or. strong desirability) of students' prior exposure to course work in research methodology. The cases often used with approach (1) tend to be as "data-laden" as the research reports typically reviewed with approach (3). An instructor seems to be faced with the choice of teaching research methodology in a consumer behavior course (raising the problem of duplication) or sequencing the course after a methods course (putting consumer behavior rather late in a student's curriculum, reducing its role as a "foundation" for other courses.) At least one participant has considered the possibility of a team-taught consumer behavior/ marketing research "combination course."

Finally, it was generally agreed that, whatever one's approach, too many of the available "applications" of consumer behavior were linked to "promotion" and we all (including text writers) gave too little attention to the behavioral aspects of the other areas of the "marketing mix."

Premise: The conceptual base of consumer behavior is still rooted in the several behavioral sciences but the major research base increasingly comes from those identified with consumer behavior.

Comment: The general nature of the discussion and the questionnaire results supported the conclusion that social psychology has provided the greatest contributions to our understanding of consumer behavior. However, the impression that increasing attention will be paid to anthropology and economics seems wide-spread. One point of near unanimity was that now, and in the future, consumer behavior is "where the research action is." The broadening scope of the specific questions addressed by our research and our decreasing reliance on the methodologies of the parent disciplines suggest to many that we are reaching some sort of "independence',' which may or may not be "maturity." On the other hand, there seemed to be very little enthusiasm for the further development of "comprehensive models" for teaching and research purposes. It appears that the teaching of consumer behavior will remain theoretically eclectic and problem-oriented with a lack of consensus in answering the questions "Which theory(les)?" and "Which problems?"

Premise: Inspire of repeated calls to the contrary, the classroom teaching of consumer behavior is tending toward fractionalism rather than unity.

Comment: No doubt for some this is a gloomy conclusion and, it must be admitted, is my personal observation drawn from the discussion and not an "issue" which was explicitly raised and discussed. But, apparently, some see consumer behavior as a "social science" with greater ties to the behavioral disciplines and, possibly, with other applied areas such as "organizational behavior.'' Others see consumer behavior as a "component" of marketing or consumer education or, presumably, home economics. For years this basic diversity of orientation has pulled ACR and each of its members in opposite directions. Malcolm White's data on perceptions of the "ideal text book" and the general tone and content of the discussion suggest that the issue will not be solved in the classroom. Whether or not it should be resolved is a different issue but, for the foreseeable future, it appears that "many flowers will continue to bloom." The conclusion that we need continuing dialog on teaching consumer behavior seems inescapable.