Personality: the Longest Fad

Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles
[ to cite ]:
Harold H. Kassarjian (1979) ,"Personality: the Longest Fad", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 122-124.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 122-124


Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles


Having been brought forth by Motivation Research and nurtured by psychological theory, the field of consumer research seems destined to be saddled by personality. Somehow if psychosis and the selection of a spouse, suicide and child rearing can be accounted for by personality variables - so, too, it must be that the selection Sunkist oranges over Florida oranges, preference for brands of canned peas, and exposure to the National Enquirer or Laverne and Shirley must be accounted for by personality.

We now have some 300 papers and a dozen review articles and bibliographies in the field ranging from the mediocre and out-of-date to the creative and ingenious. And yet the results have remained remarkably stable over the past two decades - five to 15% percent of the variance of the behavior of the consumer can be a-counted for by personality.

As one examines the development and emergence of these studies and these researchers, again a remarkable stability becomes obvious. Personality research is similar to research in most other sub-fields of consumer behavior. Let me try to type cast or stereotype researchers in consumer behavior. In doing so, not only do I plagiarize the diffusion research people, but also myself in a paper written at another time for another purpose (Kassarjian, In Press).


The first of these stereotypes is the true scholar. Highly educated, widely read, a leading expert in his or her own field, by no means is he narrow in scope of interest or in breadth of knowledge. The scholar is trained and influenced more by the European tradition of broad scholarship and adheres much less to the technological tradition in the United States. When necessary and appropriate; philosophy, science, the arts, humanities and mathematics could be brought into his writing or into her thinking. This type of man is able to see the interrelationships between several fields and can link them together. People like Katona, Lazarsfeld, Bauer and Howard qualify as scholars.

The Innovator

A second type of researcher is the innovator. Bright, sharp, well read in various disciplines, he may be exceptionally creative or he may be a creative borrower, but would be the first to do a study. The quality of the study itself, may not be the most sophisticated possible but it is innovative. Postman and Bruner's early work on selective perception in psychology, or Janis and Feshbech's original study on use of fear appeals in persuasive communications would be examples. Evan's work on Fords and Chevrolets, some of the very early work in cognitive dissonance, Levy's work on social class, Kuehn's work on orange juice, and early contributions in distraction, attribution theory, and modeling all belong here, Better quality research, advanced technology, sophisticated statistics, and complex experimental designs are left to others. But without him, there is no place for methodologists, the sophisticated statisticians, and the experimental design specialists to ply their trade.

The Middle Majority

Using the terminology of the diffusion people, the third stereotype of researcher I would like to call the middle majority. The middle majority, in fact consists of two simultaneously co-existing breeds of researchers. The first of these is the simple follower. He is not too well trained. But he is alert to the literature and knows what is new and publishable in the field. Once a topic has become a fad, his time has come. There is nothing very innovative in his or her thinking, nothing particularly brilliant in his design, or his analysis. He is simply a follower. More likely he aims at the second tier and third tier journals and is thrilled to have his empirical research published any place and at any time. He contributes little of major consequence, his work is seldom referenced, and the overall contribution he makes is not the architectural design of the edifice of knowledge but he rather furnishes the little building blocks on the facade. The work is important for the advancement of science, but not as highly rewarded as that of either the innovator or the methodologist.

Co-existing with the simple follower is the methodologist or technocrat. Highly trained, mathematically and statistically sophisticated, this person is the technical expert, the experimental design specialist, the consultant to peers and colleagues on methodology. He is capable of advancing the field rapidly as he brings in new variables, more attributes, interrelationships, and the ability to process the masses of data his computers can handle. Sometimes, but not always, he is the pedantic data cruncher with emphasis on the minutiae and the presentation of a very narrow band of knowledge. To others, this work often tends to appear dull and does not excite more than a few peers. Nevertheless the work is of very high quality and will be published until the very end in the highest quality journals in our field. His major contribution, perhaps, is not the advance of science - although he makes advances, no doubt about it - nor is it necessarily in the development of new sophisticated methodologies - although he may make some - but rather in the development of a concept and in hastening its burial.

Once the multi-variables are intercorrelated and controlled, interest in the topic drops; the simple followers have followed the innovators to a new topic and the pedantic data crunchers for the most part will do likewise.

The Laggard

Finally, the fourth category of researcher is made up of the laggard and the translator. The translator has managed to find public policy or management implications and has written the Harvard Business Review articles and the chapters in textbooks. He is most important, for without him neither the layman in consumer behavior nor the student would ever understand what is new and at the forefront in research. The laggard is the saddest of all. Long after the innovator has come and gone, after the technician has crunched the interest out of a topic, the laggard appears with a lightweight study, several generations of ideas behind the forefront. His statistics and his methodology is often even less sophisticated than that of the innovator, and every thought he has, has been thought before. His work is rejected by second and third tier journals and he is and remains frustrated, convinced that journal editors and reviewers are biased against "lesser known academics from lesser known schools." If only articles would be reviewed anonymously and only editors were not prejudiced against his or her school, he too would have a chance. He feels very deeply that not being in the inner clique, his work is not appreciated or noticed, and eventually concludes that he no longer wishes to contribute to the "clutter" in the literature.

With that preamble we can turn to the present set of papers.


The first is Fornell and Westbrook - an exploratory study on assertiveness, aggressiveness, and consumer complaining behavior. The paper includes a very nice concise review of complaint behavior - a topic accumulating more and more interest in recent years.

The authors have rather creatively taken the frustration-aggression hypothesis of Dollard from Learning Theory and assertiveness training from Clinical Psychology and tied it into complaining behavior. A battery of paper and pencil tests, administered to a group of students, was factor analyzed such that the critical scales of aggressiveness and assertiveness (or better titled "non-assertiveness") each consisted of three items. Outside of a bit of face validity in naming the scales, the key problems of validity and reliability are not addressed in sufficient depth. For example, the authors might have given the same instrument to the same subjects 30 days later to get a measure of reliability. Further, additional measures of construct validity other than those used should not have been that much more difficult.

With regard to my overall theme in this discussion, note that the scales of "aggressiveness" and "assertiveness" correlated with complaining behavior with R2's such that from 8 to 16% of the variance is accounted for. Nevertheless the paper does make an important contribution to the literature on consumer dissatisfaction if not to the personality literature. The discussion of assertiveness, aggression, dissatisfaction and frustration are far more important than the data manipulations. In assigning this work to my earlier categories, it would likely be classed as reflecting the creative borrower, the simple follower or the sophisticated technician (or technocrat).


The Hirschman-Wallendorf paper relies not on psychological theory or personality but turns to sociology as social-connectedness, exposure to the mass media, and cosmopolitanism are interrelated. The inter-correlations range from .08 to .47, the levels of significance from .03 to .001, while the percent of variance accounted for by personality (cosmopolitanism) ranges between 2% and 20%.

Once again, in the tradition of the literature on consumer behavior, the validity and reliability data are not emphasized in the paper (although multi-method multi-trait methodology in the mold of Campbell and Fiske are employed in the design). The authors have had to use some operational (and therefore arbitrary) definitions of role accumulation, of media exposure and of cosmopolitanism. Further, in the tradition of the technocrat, we see factor analyses with factor loadings carried out to five digits beyond the decimal. Theory of significant digits - where are you when we need you?

The major contribution of this paper is not in the data analysis or predictive ability of still another personality measure but rather in the ingenious introduction of sociological concepts into consumer behavior. As to the classification of the researchers, I suggest the audience consider innovator, creative borrower or sophisticated technician as possibilities.


The greatest contribution of the Coney and Harmon paper is that it is a replication and extension of the dogmation and innovation literature. They seem to be following Nakanishi's brilliant recommendations (1972) on personality research.

Nakanishi, in a most insightful paper presented at the 1972 meetings of the Association for Consumer Research, has suggested that the low explanatory power of personality characteristics may have stemmed, in part, from naive conceptualizations of the relationship between personality and consumer behavior often held by researchers in the field. Nakanishi suggests that personality is better conceived as a dynamic concept, not a consistency over a variety of situations but rather consistency in the manner the individual adjusts to change over time and over situations. He writes it is perhaps, "more correct to conceive of personality as a moderator variable whose function is to moderate the effects of environmental change in the individual's behavior. This dynamic concept of personality has not been taken seriously in personality research."

Hence, the relevant variables involve in the least, personality traits, response and behavior patterns, moderator variables, situations and individuals. Furthermore, for some of these variables it is essential that measurements be taken over time. That is, as we sample individuals, traits and responses, we should also take samplings of situations over time. Coney and Harmon find the significant interaction between situations and personality predicted by Nakanishi.

Although the Rokeach dogmatism scale is more or less validated the innovation scale used by the authors is not. The data analysis is by no means such that the authors qualify as technocrats, and in fact the analysis of variance used does not even quite feel right in this design. Nevertheless sophisticated data analysis and computer output will not alter the obviously significant interaction effect or the basic contribution of this paper as a replication and extension. In summary this paper neither qualifies as the work of the innovator nor really that of the laggard. I suggest it is middle majority or maybe late majority.


In summary, we see once again that personality, by itself, does not predict behavior all that well and even when treated as a "moderator variable" the results are not all that powerful. The conclusion remains that about ten percent of the variance can be accounted for by personality variables. I do not mean to suggest or imply that predictability is an important, necessary, or sufficient condition in personality research; but rather that we probably need no more personality studies of the naive variety. We have milked and massaged this topic for all it is worth. The next step must not be another test instrument correlated with purchase or another product or related to another moderator variable, but some major studies along the combined cross sectional and time series lines suggested by Nakanishi and suggested by the three papers in this session.

It is here that the technical specialists that abound in our field can make contributions. With sophisticated computer hardware, complex software, and multi-dimensional statistical models, the fine variations and details can be argued, presented and rejoined. As for myself, I am tired of the topic. I am fully prepared to accept that 10% of the variance in the behavior of the consumer can be accounted for by personality. I leave it to others to examine the 10% and demonstrate that more properly it should be 5% or 15%. But, I, for one, hope to turn to the remaining 85 or 95 percent of the variance that personality will never be able to explain.


Harold H. Kassarjian, "Marketing, Consumer Behavior and Raymond A. Bauer," in Proceedings of The Tenth Paul D. Converse Marketing Symposium, Alan Andreasen, ed., (Chicago: American Marketing Association), In Press.

Masao Nakanishi, "Personality and Consumer Behavior: Extensions," in Proceedings of the 1972 Meetings of the Association for Consumer Research, M. Venkatesan, ed., 1972, 61-65.