Presidential Address, 1977: Anthropomorphism and Parsimony

Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles
[ to cite ]:
Harold H. Kassarjian (1978) ,"Presidential Address, 1977: Anthropomorphism and Parsimony", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: xiii-xiv.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages xiii-xiv


Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles

This is the eighth meeting of the Association for Consumer Research and the seventh time that members of the association have had to suffer through a farewell address by a president. On this particular occasion, I am particularly fortunate for in the audience sit previous presidents of this association and therefore at least they appreciate that if such addresses are insufferable to the listener, they are even more threatening to the speaker. I am here because Keith Hunt ordered me to give a presidential address at this place and at this time with the simple request that it be significant, visionary, important, memorable, and interesting: a milestone in the consumer research literature. What he meant was, "keep it mercifully short." Not too sure of what a visionary milestone was, I turned to previous addresses.

In 1970 our first leader, and father of this association, Jim Engle, stood here and spoke about the developing organization and its exciting future. Bob Perloff continued in the same vein. In 1973 Joel Cohen was optimistic and excited perhaps because the Journal of Consumer Research had been conceived during his administration and would soon be born. Cohen, however, did comment on his perceptions of the trivial nature of the problems we had been studying.

Bob Pratt again sat back and offered us his perspective of ACR, where it had been and the challenge ahead for the fledgling adolescent. That year will best be remembered for the wave after wave of laughter caused by a film he presented. By the time Jack Jacoby presented his sharp perspective and criticism we had matured, we had our own literature, we had our own research tradition, we had several media to disseminate our work.

And so, the tradition of a presidential address that was to be somewhat different from those of other associations began to emerge. As Gardner pointed out last year, rather than the presentation of a major research inquiry, rather than a significant contribution to the research literature that is common in our sister association; our presidential address was to be an overview, a perspective, a self criticism of our field and our association.

And now it is my turn. I would like to focus on two problems I see in the field of consumer behavior: that of anthropomorphism and our lack of concern about parsimony.


First let me turn to anthropomorphism. As you know, pet owners often see in their animals a thinking, reasoning, information processing creature--a cat that ambles with disdain, an arrogant dog, a wise goldfish. More than one psychologist experimenting in animal laboratories has wondered whether his highly trained rat is thinking out a response, pondering a decision or has become "lost in thought." And children often wonder about the emotional feelings of a flower or the memories of a rock that has seen so many centuries pass before his (or is it her?) senses. To project human activities, emotions, motivations, and adjectives onto animals or inanimate objects is an error we all make, even in our professional work.

I can't help but wonder, if much too often we do not project too much onto the consumer: because we care about brands, or packaging, or information processing, we assume that the average consumer also cares. As consumer researchers, this group happens to be highly educated, extremely intelligent, and as individuals we pride ourselves on being wise, rational consumers not burdensomely influenced by advertising campaigns, or skillfully deceptive labels. If anyone is a "thinking, reasoning, problem solving organism capable of transforming, storing, and evaluating sensory inputs", this audience must qualify as that type of person. For if humans can be classified into motivational or personality types, this audience must qualify as the cognitive man.

And from that, we have assumed, perhaps much too often, that other people, consumers in general, are also extremely wise, problem solving rational organisms every time the purchase decision is made for a pound of coffee, a tube of tooth paste, or a can of peas. We have often assumed that labels are read, products are compared, prices are utilized, and a rational decision is made, when we know it is not usually so.

Of course, there is no question that under some conditions for the purchase of some goods and services, the consumer is sometimes a thinking, information processing individual. Important or expensive high risk, high involvement, psychologically or socially or ego related products, may under certain conditions, lead to highly sophisticated actions and decisions. Thus our complex theories, and our model of the cognitive man occasionally seems to be rewarding.

But, of the dozens, if not hundreds, of mundane decisions made each day by the average consumer, I wonder just how many are important to him, just how many are significant or high involvement decisions. For example, the work by Tom Robertson, and Mike Ray, and of course, the classic studies by Krugman, and several papers at this conference clearly indicate that behavior toward the low involving product is quite different than behavior toward the high involvement, high risk, important product. And the world is mostly full of insignificant decisions and unimportant solutions.

Yet, because to us a brand of toilet paper may be important, we have projected that belief onto the consumer. A one percent share of market can mean thousands of dollars of net profit to a company. That one brand has greater shearing strength or is more quickly biodegradable, or has more sheets per roll may be quite important to the consumerist, to the environmentalist, or to the readers of Consumer Reports. That panel data on the purchase of toilet paper over a seventeen year period exists may be tittilatingly exciting to the academic researcher, but the average consumer who blithely purchases, consumes, and discards the product, most likely could care less. Unconcernedly he or she makes the purchase, switches brands, ignores commercials, and worries about the important decisions in his life and not the purchase of toilet paper.

For these countless thousands of insignificant decisions that are made by the consumer, to assume a thinking, reasoned, attitudinally influenced decision may well be a classic example of anthropomorphism.


In a similar vein, we have developed complex theories in the attempt to understand, explain, and predict the behavior of the consumer, as had psychology many years before. In psychology, the all encompassing extremely complex views of Sigmund Freud were called upon as well as those of Adler, Jung, Fenichel, and Horney; and, of course, Clark Hull and Tolman and Kurt Lewin.

But, in time, psychology turned from the complex theories to the much simpler middle range theories that Merton had been calling for. Lately, in psychology, an even simpler theory has been quite dominating. From clinical psychology to counseling, from social psychology to learning, we see more and more the impact of behaviorism and the work of Skinner, stressing not the mystical beliefs of the ancient Greeks or of the turn of the 20th century Germans, but rather the simple concepts of repetition, reward, reinforcement, and shaping behavior.

To this point, the work in consumer behavior has not followed that pattern, from the all encompassing view to the middle range theory to the simpler theory --but rather has been quite the opposite in its short history. For example, the original work by Howard in his marketing management textbook started with a very uncomplicated view of consumer behavior theory. Behavior could simply be explained by drive, response, cue, and reinforcement. In less than a decade, this simple parsimonious view has been expanded, developed, flow-charted, sophisticated, and complicated. Meanwhile, in marketing and advertising, from the simple behavioristic views that sales or advertising effects were related to repetition and reinforcement, we found researchers turning to middle range theories such as cognitive dissonance, and personality, perceived risk, multi-attribute attitude models, and attribution theory. By stringing several of these middle range theories together, the flow-chart models were to emerge.

And in our journey from the simple to the more and more complex, we lost our basic theoretical need for parsimony. Three years ago, Frank Bass, frustrated that the complex theories we created could not predict much of behavior, proclaimed in a Journal of Marketing Research article that, "it will never be possible to provide good predictions of individual choice behavior for separate occasions," and that man is substantially stochastic. Bass assumed that there is a homunculus in the brain that throws dice, and that behavior is dependent upon that stochastic turn of events. Perhaps Bass's view is too simplistic, and certainly it is not new, for it has been around since the early days of the mathematical learning theorists three decades ago. Nevertheless, the view deserves more of a hearing than it received in consumer behavior this time around. But apparently it was just too simple for us. Our cherished middle range theories, our complex deterministic views of reality were not prepared to accept a simple approach. It may be true that stochastic approaches have not predicted the behavior of the consumer in the marketplace very well, but they have had no less success than the unparsimonious approach of the grand theories of behavior. Having been personally schooled in psychoanalytic theory, having been weaned on Gestalt and Lewinian Field theory, and never much having liked the views of Bush and Estes, of Mosteller and Burke, I find it quite difficult to defend stochastic thinking and to condemn a deterministic view of reality. Certainly I do not believe that a Bass or Skinner can explain the selection of a spouse, the purchase of a home, the ownership of a new car or the decision to commit suicide; but it is possible that with the unimportant, uninvolved, insignificant, minor decisions that are made in the marketplace everyday, we do not need a grand theory of behavior. In unimportant, uninvolving, unemotional, non-cognitive, low commitment instances, unparsimonious complex explanations are often just not necessary. Although it is quite hard to accept the extremely simplistic views of the mathematical theorists and stochastic models, perhaps we also do not need the complication of intervening variables and hypothetical constructs for explanatory power when studying low commitment purchases. Skinner's shaping behavior is perhaps more than enough in the low commitment marketplace; reinforcement and repetition may well be sufficient.

As Markin and Nayarana pointed out in a 1975 ACR paper, "the fact that so much consumer behavior is shaped in an operant fashion perhaps even refutes the notion of the cognitive consumer. Such a traditional concept may well reflect a tragic misunderstanding of our notions regarding consumer's intelligence, rationality, and intellectual autonomy."

Although the Markin position is quite extreme, if we divide the world into important, high involvement, high commitment decisions and into insignificant trivial decisions, it may well be that the theories to explain these two kinds of behavior are quite different. Whereas complex deterministic theories involving series of intervening constructs are necessary for the high involvement case; for the insignificant ones, those with relatively low risk, simple Skinnerian behaviorism, operant conditioning, or maybe even stochastic thinking may be more than sufficient.

It is too bad that so few of us have chosen to study learning theory in consumer behavior in recent years, and so few of us have turned to the study of low involvement behavior. Whether we like it or not, low involvement, low risk, the unimportant, is what much of consumer behavior is all about. Whether or not we anthropomorphize our own values onto the consumer, and whether or not we chose to be unparsimonious in our thinking, the facts do not change that under most conditions, for most types of goods and decisions, the behavior of the consumer is just not important from his point of view.

There is a subset of us that is, in fact, not really interested in consumer behavior, per se; but rather is interested in human behavior; and happened to choose human behavior in the marketplace as their specialty. It is here that the grand theories of consumer behavior properly reside. And, these people are making some important contributions to the world of science and knowledge.

But, for the rest of us, our strength and our contributions may be even greater. We, not pure economists, or pure psychologists, are the experts on the thousands of insignificant and trivial decisions in this world. It is here that we have made our greatest contributions to date and here lies our greatest potential for future contributions.

There is a lot more in the world that is low risk and low involvement than there is major and important. But these are decisions nonetheless. It is we that know more than any other sub-set in the scientific community on this topic. Perhaps if we have it, we should flaunt it.