Values and Consumption Patterns: a Closed Loop

James M. Carman, University of California, Berkeley
ABSTRACT - The author had proposed a model of life style and consumer behavior that relies strongly on the concept and measurement of values as advanced by Milton Rokeach. Here the work is extended to make it a more comprehensive model of consumer decision making and to make explicit a set of feedback loops to values and life style. The model is explained and some examples of recently emerging life styles are developed.
[ to cite ]:
James M. Carman (1978) ,"Values and Consumption Patterns: a Closed Loop", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 403-407.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 403-407


James M. Carman, University of California, Berkeley


The author had proposed a model of life style and consumer behavior that relies strongly on the concept and measurement of values as advanced by Milton Rokeach. Here the work is extended to make it a more comprehensive model of consumer decision making and to make explicit a set of feedback loops to values and life style. The model is explained and some examples of recently emerging life styles are developed.


For over a decade, my work in the differentiation of life styles has had a stronger anthropological flavor to it than that of most other researchers in marketing. In the past two years, I have been attracted by the ability of Milton Rokeach, through his work in values, to provide a social psychological basis for my anthropological approach to this topic (Rokeach, 1973). In this paper I will attempt to extend this line of theoretical development by: (1) adding a bit more sociological insights to it and (2) showing how the link from values to subcultures to consumption patterns is actually a loop which feeds back to values, life styles, and subculture.

In this first section, my framework for integrating values, cultures, life styles, and consumption is summarized. In the second section, the model is extended. In the third section, examples of how subcultures emerge and then survive or decline and the importance of the feedback loop in this process will be explained. This section also suggests some public policy implications of this line of research.

My interest in this area stems from my early work in the investigation of social class as a basis for market segmentation. At that time I was critical of the sociological view of social class based largely on status groups or socioeconomic factors such as education. My position was that the groups of interest for the study of consumption patterns were really subcultures. The richness of this area for market segmentation lay in the area of identifying subcultures within the society that tend to be self-perpetuating and are homogeneous with regard to their values, beliefs, motivation, interests, activities, and thereby media exposure behavior. This early literature is summarized in Carman (1965) and Frank, Massy and Wind (1972).

Despite these findings, the social class reviews and research since 1968 largely ignore these conclusions. In some of this work, the construct is not defined; in others it is the idea of status class. It is little wonder that this work under the name of social class has not persisted.

Instead, work along these lines proceeded under such names as "activities, interests, and opinions," "life style," and even "psychographics." This literature has been summarized by Hustad and Pessemier (1974) and Wells (1975). Despite all this flurry of activity, there continues to be nagging questions as to whether there is any theoretical underpinnings to this life style research.

Thus, I was delighted when the work of Rokeach on values seemed to provide a social psychological basis for this area as I conceptualized it. The framework I developed, shown in Figure 1, is based on a cause and effect relationship between four sets of variables (Carman, 1976/77). Terminal values lead to holding certain instrumental values to be more important than others. These are the causes of interests and assumed roles that, in turn, are the cause of the activities in which one uses time. Each set of variables--terminal values, instrumental values, interests and roles, time use activities--influence consumption behavior both directly and through the other intervening variables. Consumption behavior is defined here to include purchase patterns, search behavior, and media exposure behavior.

More recently, I have added feedback links to indicate that some purchases, search, and media behaviors have an effect that feeds back to alter some values, roles, interests, and activities. It is this area that my thinking of a year ago now appears overly simplistic. The heart of this paper is a strengthening of how the sociological and anthropological inputs to the society also must be at work to determine just which configurations or constellations of values will exist in great enough numbers for a long enough period to be of interest to consumer behaviorists. But first, I believe it would be useful to review just a bit more the problems and experiences to date in measuring values with an emphasis on validity of the Rokeach instrument.

The Measurement of Values

I am struck with the frequency with which we hear and read statements to the effect that little systematic work has been done on the measurement of values. Anthropologists have clearly been interested in linking the study of cultures with the values held by the people of a culture, but anthropologists, working as they do primarily after the fact, are not likely to develop instruments that will satisfy other social scientists. In both sociology and social psychology, values have remained a rather isolated area of study. The reviews of work prior to Rokeach do not build confidence (Dukes, 1955; Robinson and Shaver, 1969). In other fields, the word values is used in unfortunate ways that could be the source of much confusion. In organizational behavior, for example, the word values is used to connote attributes of a job, e.g., interesting, relative wage, advancement opportunity (Pennings, 1970).

However, it appears to me that much of this confusion and criticism can not be applied to Rokeach. Robinson and Shaver state that their review of the literature shows that all values fall into five broad categories: (1) means vs. ends, (2) good vs. evil, (3) aesthetics, (4) intellectual, and (5) economic. Rokeach includes all of these categories in his instrument. Similarly, the Bales and Couch Value Profile (1969) that received some validity from the work of Withey (1965) includes dimensions that also are tapped by Rokeach. At these meetings last year, Vinson, Munson, and Nakanishi (1976) reported on a study that confirms the Rokeach instrument as tapping values that can differentiate among consumer groups. Also in marketing, Scott and Lamont (1973) have found the Rokeach framework useful.

Finally, later in this paper we will refer to a theory of Etzioni (1972) suggesting that when groups of persons find their values not in harmony with the balance of their culture, they are likely to respond with changes of instrumental values, interests, activities, consumption, and media habits that follow patterns of: (1) hedonism, (2) substitution of symbols for things as relevant objects of value, (3) empathy and community with those of similar value incoherence, and (4) collective activist behavior. While Etzioni did not do it, his theory is completely testable with the Rokeach instrument. Thus, it is not true that the Rokeach Value Survey is just another attempt to measure values that is on thin ice. It has had an incredible amount of testing in a wide variety of applications. One may want to modify the scales in particular applications, but we believe we can convince you that Rokeach provides a framework and a measure of values that are applicable in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and consumer research.


I said earlier that the addition of simple feedback loops to Figure 1 oversimplifies the link between values, life styles, and consumption. Certainly models of consumer segmentation like that of Wilkie and Cohen (1977) that link demographic variables, socioeconomic variables, and personality variables as causes of media exposure, life style, and AIO are oversimplified to the point that I believe they are not useful for theory development. To demonstrate this point, we will enrich our model by the inclusion of more sociological concepts.

First, it will be useful to be more specific about the definition of life style. The term is not used in Figure 1. Nor, for that matter, is "subculture." A subculture is a collective which shares values. It has considerable consensus with respect to values, meanings, and the role of social institutions. It is enduring and self-perpetuating. It may exist across a range of socioeconomic classes, but it is a self-conscious collective. Its members consciously identify with it. Southern white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are an example of a subculture.

Although the term is poorly defined in the contemporary literature, life style is probably best thought of in terms of activities, interests, and opinions that become reflected in terms of media and consumption patterns (Zablocki and Kanter, 1976, 270-71). Figure 1 suggests that these patterns come from shared values. In marketing, we are interested in identifying segments of people who share life styles. By this definition, a subculture consciously shares a small number of distinct life styles.

The difference between a subculture and a life style is its enduring capabilities. A life style segment does not necessarily build up an institutional structure for endurance and perpetuation. It is identified by AIO and consumption behavior. Marketers are interested in identifying life style segments and constellations of values held by these segments. They and all social scientists are interested in tracing the dynamic development of a life style to see if it shows signs of developing into a new subculture. The transition of a life style will give clues as to how it might evolve and whether or not it will develop into a new subculture.

An example would be the "whole earth" movement--the return of young, healthy adults to a rural society that places an emphasis on living harmoniously with nature and on self-sufficiency. This is a life style and it is a viable market segment for many sellers. If you doubt this, I suggest you count the percentage of advertising in the magazine, Whole Earth News. Will it endure? On the one hand, it appears to resist institutionalization. It is almost a life style of the hermit. On the other hand, there are signs of institutional development.

The point of this digression into life styles and subcultures is to point out that we must be careful we understand where values fit into a broader social structure if we are to find values useful in consumer research. Note that it is only a first step to show that there is a correlation between holding certain values and particular consumption patterns. Such a correlation may say something about the validity of the Rokeach Value Survey, but it does not take us very far toward a theory that relates values to consumption patterns. We need to do more work in three other areas to make headway in theory development. First, we need to build and test a theory that is richer in its specification of the linkage between values, other socioeconomic and demographic variables, cultural variables, life styles, and consumption. Second, we need to do more to identify general life style segments. Third, we need to have better explanations of the evolution of these life style segments. Figure 2 offers a small contribution toward these ends.

Figure 2 is an expansion of Figure 1, but it also contains some changes. These will be described first. The concept of life style now appears explicitly and is defined as roles, interests, time use activities, consumption, shopping, and media patterns. The life style construct is then treated as a single construct. Values continue to be principal inputs to life style. Three new factors have been added on the left side of the figure: subcultures, social institutions, and exogenous forces.

Subculture is shown as it was defined above, i.e., an enduring collective identified by its life styles and by a coherent value system perpetuated through an institutional framework. The Southern WASP is an example of a persistent subculture that has a unique constellation of values including conservatism, tradition loving, family loyalty, and religion (Reed, 1972). Reed hypothesizes that the institutions and individual values required to sustain this value constellation continue because southerners see themselves as a suppressed minority who need to maintain defense mechanisms against continued external pressures. Suppression as a factor encouraging endurance is not represented in Figure 2.

In contrast, social institutions appear to be of sufficient importance in the formation and perpetuation of value constellations that this factor has been added to the diagram. The representation is designed to show the importance of institutions as necessary reinforcers of specific values or constellations of values. Institutions form around or accept a particular value structure. They help the subculture they serve to maintain a consensus of coherent values. They act as orderly change agents to adjust value constellations through time. It should be emphasized that these institutions function well in accomplishing slow, orderly change. They are not change agents and respond badly to sudden changes thrust upon them. Established churches are the prime example of such institutions.

In order to simplify the feedback links in the diagram, the feedback to values is shown only to terminal values. Likewise, the feedback loop from consumption and media patterns is shown only to instrumental values. One should not reject the hypothesis that both feedbacks go to both kinds of values. Similarly, the feedbacks from purchases to values and life styles are not explicitly hypothesized.





The exogenous forces box has been added to indicate that often life styles can emerge from factors outside personal factors such as values, personality, life cycle, and socioeconomic factors. It is in this area that the anthropologist and sociologist have the most to contribute to the processes under study. Many anthropologists believe that new life styles proliferate during periods of societal breakdown (Kroeber, 1957). Thus, some hypothesize that the war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s was a major contributor to the emergence of unusual life styles.

Other exogenous factors that might be influencing life style development today are evident but not as often discussed. Increases in real income and the substitution of capital for labor is an interesting current example. A reasonable hypothesis for the emergence of a number of life styles that are more self-oriented and leisure oriented is that increased real income and leisure time have permitted life styles that previously were not possible (Gartner and Riessman, 1974; Nicosia, 1974). If this were true, then one would expect to observe an increase in work-oriented values and life styles during recession and an increase in play-oriented life styles during prosperity. While not formally tested to my knowledge, this is a plausible testable hypothesis useful to consumer research and greatly aided by the measurement of values.

For example, consider social programs designed to urge people to consume energy and, in the West, water. Is there value congruence between the program and existing or emerging values and life styles? In California it appears that water conservation is more successful than gasoline conservation. People with different value constellations may have different responses to conservation efforts between the two commodities. Were this to be true, then the appeals used to achieve conservation should be different and should be based on an analysis of differences in values.

Returning to the description of Figure 2, look next at the three factors on the right below "exogenous factors.'' These three, demographic factors, socioeconomic factors, and personality, are the conventional determinants of purchase behavior one finds in the literature. They are added here for two reasons. First, for comprehensiveness. For a complete understanding of the influence of values and life style on consumption, it is necessary to integrate these concepts into a comprehensive model. Second, it is important to see that it is suggested that these three conventional determinants influence consumer behavior in two ways. One is the conventional direct links to brand perceptions and to desired benefits and attributes. I call this conventional for it appears this way in the popular comprehensive models.

The second way is through life style. Some life styles we observe are highly dependent on life cycle. For example, there are life styles that attract only the young and others that appeal to only the retired. There are other life styles that are dominated by economic considerations. For example, there is increasing concern in this country for the "underclass," that tenacious subculture on long-term welfare who seem to be drifting farther and farther from the mainstream of American life. Finally, there is a long tradition in sociology of research in occupational impact on life style (Kanter, 1976b).

This double effect of the conventional determinants of consumer behavior--directly and through life style--is not original with this model. It has been suggested by others. Plummer (1977), for example, has suggested a similar idea based on a theory of George Kelly (1955) that people make decisions using two construct systems: "superordinate constructs" are those stable constructs that flow from life style and subculture and "subordinate constructs" that are short-term, problem-solving constructs.

Before closing this description of Figure 2, it may be useful to make one comment about the lower boxes on brand perceptions, brand attributes, attitudes, intentions, and purchase. It was not our desire here to be innovative or controversial. It did, however, seem desirable to tie our value and life style discussion into conventional models of individual choice decisions.


In this last section, the model will be exercised a bit by application of Etzioni's (1972) four life style responses to value incongruence. Earlier in this paper these responses were introduced in terms of values. The four responses are renamed using Rokeach terms rather than Etzioni terms. They are an increase in the importance of the values: (1) hedonism--a pleasurable, enjoyable life, happiness and contentment; (2) etherealization--inner harmony, a world of beauty, culture and art; (3) community--true friendship, equality among men; (4) activism--a lasting contribution, social consciousness. (Some of these terms are those of Zablocki and Kanter, 1976.) In each case, it is possible to trace a change in value constellation to a new life style to a consumption pattern and potentially a feedback to new values. In addition, each raises some interesting public policy questions that would yield to research on particular areas of values and life styles. This exercise may provide the reader with a bit more understanding of how the model operates and some of the research topics that flow from the model.


Etzioni (1972, 8) states that hedonism develops when the normative values of a society lose meaning and disintegrate without being replaced by new norms. What life styles and consumption patterns are associated with an increase in popularity of this value constellation? Sexual freedom as an ideological position, the drug culture, self-fulfillment, encounter groups, EST, human potential movements, and a personal shrink are all consumption efforts aimed at replacing societal norms with an assurance of being right with one's self. A better understanding of these trends in life styles could lead to a better understanding of rational public policy toward community mental health and drug abuse programs.


Etherealization is the substitution of symbols for things as objects of value. This shift follows disenchantment with the value of capital accumulation and with an unwillingness or inability to work hard enough to acquire "things." Symbols are relatively costless and in infinite supply. The practice has often been observed among the very poor, for example, in Latin America. The life style and consumption patterns that emerge from this new value constellation are an increase in the popularity of fundamentalist religions, mystical Eastern religions, religions based on poverty, natural foods, ecology and natural beauty. Note that the increase in aesthetic values has led to considerable pressures on government for greater support of open spaces, endangered animals, arts, and continuing education. Understanding the nature of these changes in values should lead to a more rational method for prioritizing government programs in these areas. Note that these new religions appeal to the former constellation (via the inner harmony route) and to the next constellation (via the monastic route).


People may seek to replace old value norms with new ones by clustering with other persons perceived to share similar value constellations. These might be existing communities, i.e., one might return to a known institution or community when the outside world looks frightening or one might seek to find a new utopian community. This decade has provided us with many examples of both kinds, but certainly closed communal enclaves with some ethnic and religious homogeneity have experienced periods of popularity at many times in the history of the western world. Clearly, communal living results in drastic life style change. Community need not always take the form of a commune or be in a rural setting. Gangs of youths in low-income inner-city areas also fall into this category. They too are not unique to the sixties and seventies, and also result from value incongruence. Note that forming physical community is a technique for institutionalization that could lead to a subculture with a normative set of values and an institutional structure for reinforcing these values. A better understanding of urban community life styles could lead to an improved public policy toward a whole host of poverty problems including frustration, personal bankruptcies, crime, and the disenfranchised consumer.


When the formation of a physical community is not possible, one alternative is a community organized for political activism. Thus, again, these four responses are not mutually exclusive. Many communities are politically active and many activists work through communities. A political or social movement is not a life style, "but because a social movement involves an ideology that orients its followers toward a coherent set of values, the context of the social movement generally provides an opportunity for a life-style to develop around it" (Zablocki and Kanter, 1976, 292). Again, the movement might become institutionalized to the point that it is value reinforcing.


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