The Consumer Situation As an Interpretive Device


Gordon Robert Foxall (1995) ,"The Consumer Situation As an Interpretive Device", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 104-108.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 104-108


Gordon Robert Foxall, University of Birmingham

Recent trends, ostensibly toward the development of a pluralistic consumer research discipline, have actually restricted the scope of methodological pluralism to post- positivistic approaches. It is argued that positivism has a vital role to play in pluralism. This is illustrated by reference to the radical behaviorist interpretation of purchase and consumption. The consequent Behavioral Perspective Model is applied briefly to the phenomenon of compulsive purchasing.


Where is consumer behavior? The very question is unusual because it is so infrequently asked. As consumer researchers, we have the occasional listing of the components of situations plus some abstracted empiricism which has classified actual situations of consumer behavior in terms of such lists. But, cognitive or hermeneutical, contemporary consumer research is concentrated almost exclusively upon the internal, intentional processes that influence consumer choice. As a result, it has only the sketchiest idea why consumer behavior is located where we find it. The clamor to explain and predict consumer behavior in terms of the attitudes that supposedly precede it, to describe choice by examining consumers' traits and dispositions, and to understand the meaning of what consumers do by uncovering and interpreting their underlying intentionality has become so loud that any attempts to relate consumer choice systematically to its context are easily drowned out. Consumer behavior remains largely placeless and decontextualised.

Consumer research lacks a framework of analysis which allows the situational influences on consumer choice to be identified and investigated in an organised way, or which promotes theoretical understanding of how the environment shapes consumer behavior over time. Advances in ecological psychology over the last quarter century have drawn attention to the ways in which behavior in specific settings retains a remarkable consistency irrespective of who is performing it, their attitudes, intentions, dispositional traits and motives. The implication is that these behavior settings deserve serious analysis based on the finding that the objective environment is responsible for the shape and content of our ultimate explanandum, behavior itself. But, apart from a few ad hoc studies of consumers' so-called subjective reactions to hypothetical situations described by researchers, there has been no such investigation of situational influences on consumer choice, no appreciation of how the meaning of consumer behavior is systematically related to the circumstances in which it takes place. We do not knowCthat is we can neither understand nor explainCwhere consumer behavior is: we are unable to trace its occurrence, form and persistence in familiar locations.


At the same time, weCthat is consumer researchersCare failing to come to terms with the most complete explanatory and interpretive framework in behavioral science, one which is thoroughly, indeed exclusively, concerned with the influence of context on behavior. There are numerous objections to that framework, radical behaviorism, and the research program from which this paper derives includes an extensive critique. The objection of interest here is the alleged scientism of radical behaviorism, its alleged positivistic approach to the prediction and control of behavior, its incapacity to consider the meaning for an individual of his or her conduct. It is this depiction of behaviorism as 'the psychology of the other one' that has attracted serious critical attention from philosophers of behavioral science (and not-so-serious: Johnson-Laird repeats the joke about the two behaviorists who made love. Afterwards, one said to the other, 'That was wonderful for you!! How was it for me?').

This objection to and consequent rejection of radical behaviorism arises from its avowed intention to provide a natural-scientific account of behavior based on a quest for 'order, for uniformities, for lawful relations among the events in nature' which 'begins by observing single episodes, but quickly passes on to the general rule, to scientific law' (Skinner 1953: 13). Insofar as it seeks to apply the methods of natural science to human behavior, behaviorism is said to adopt a positivistic approach, which is universalistically described by A.S. Lee (1991: 342) as based on 'inferential statistics, hypothesis testing, mathematical analysis, experimental and quasi-experimental design'. No matter that radical behaviorism is fiercely inductive in its methodology as well as its method, and eschews the statistics of intergroup difference: it certainly fits Lee's other criteria of positivism, tending toward an objective viewpoint, using nomothetic conceptualisation, and quantifying its data; it assumes its investigators to be outside its subject matter (though, in radical behaviorism they are controlled by it as they control it) and can thus be said to produce an etic account. Lee contrasts this with interpretivist approaches such as ethnography, hermeneutics, phenomenology and case study, which are subjective, idiographic, qualitative, insider-based and emnic.

Where do these approaches fit into contemporary consumer research? I would argue that each of these research ideologies has a required role in the pluralistic consumer research that has been advocated since the early 1980s. Pluralism by definition must avoid ideological limitations and, insofar as the growth of knowledge requires the critical interaction of opposing viewpoints and comparative evaluation of theories, nothing must be excluded on any grounds. However, the thrust of philosophical writing in consumer research over the last decade has tended toward the abandonment of natural science traditions: it has been not just pro-hermeneutical but post-positivistic; following Geertz's (1973) so-called 'semiotic conception', it has reflected the view that social inquiry is 'not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning'. The intellectual tendency of recent consumer research philosophy has not, therefore, been toward greater tolerance leading to genuine methodological pluralism but toward a new retrenchment. The cause of pluralism has actually been weakened by authors who speak of postmodernism (which above all needs a modernist anchor-point) but have practiced post-positivism.

Post-positivism can be justified of course if one accepts that human behavior differs so fundamentally in its nature from the traditional subject matters of natural science. The self-consciousness of human beings requires a reflexive science, an interpretive stance. Hermeneuticists have made a good pointCthough surely not one of which we, the children of Freud and Jung, were unawareCin pointing to the multiplicitous and symbolic significance of much, if not all, that we do. Pluralists ought to embrace their advocacy of interpretation. But one would expect genuine believers in methodological pluralism to be both aware and wary of any movement that invites the exclusion from consideration of any viewpoint on whatever grounds. For the adoption of a viewpoint necessarily restricts the questions one asks; every way of seeing is a deliberately accepted way of not seeing; and pluralism demands that we ask all questions, including 'How would a positivistic science treat this?' If we do not ask that question, we will not ask others, such as 'Where is consumer behavior?' for if we ask the latter, we must look, initially at least, at the paradigms that have directly sought its answer.

Hermeneutics, in any case, is incapable of providing the approachingly-complete account that pluralism requires: far from having disposed of the need for natural science inquiry, hermeneutics leaves much for a traditional scientific approach to accomplish, for social science has tasks other than interpretation (Phillips 1992). Hermeneutics, in any case, whilst it makes an inescapable contribution to social inquiry, has frequently used as its technique the central component of natural science, hypothetico-deductive method (F°llesdal 1979). Where it does not do so explicitly, as in much psychoanalytic interpretation, it is actually in the business of generating testable hypotheses (Kline 1990).

If the aim of a pluralistic consumer research is to encourage as comprehensive a critical interplay of alternative sources of understanding as possible, it is counter-productive to omit any viable explanatory system. Contrary to the view that behaviorism has been superseded by cognitive science or hermeneutics, it remains an active intellectual inquiry notably with respect to so-called mental or subjective phenomena such as thinking, reasoning and rule-following. Moreover, dripping with irony, radical behaviorism is the basis of an interpretive system, one which can imbue consumer behavior with a source of meaning not supplied by any other analytical system, and which consequently has far more in common with current pro-interpretive trends in consumer research than has been imagined.


Operant psychology is the study of behavior that operates upon the environment to produce consequences. Traditionally it has had three components: operant conditioning in which the rate at which a response occurs is related to the consequences it has produced; a single subject research strategy based as I have said on inductive logic; and a philosophy of science, radical behaviorism which explains behavior including thought and other 'cognitive' phenomena by reference to environmental influences rather than mental activity. Ontologically, radical behaviorism takes observed behavior as its subject matter, seeks the locus of behavioral control in the environment, is materialist, biological, and potentially capable of accounting for all human behavior; methodologically, it seeks to predict and control behavior, to explain behavior functionally (i.e., relating independent variables that lie in the environment to the rate of behavioral responding which is its dependent variable, its basic datum); it is deterministic, seeking the causes of behavior in its consequences, and ultimately reducible to physiological explanations (Delprato and Midgley 1992).

It could be argued that such an ontology and methodology are untenable even in a laboratory science of animal behavior. No matter: it is radical behaviorism applied to the complexities of human behavior outside the laboratory that interests us here. And in this context the argument certainly carries the day. Moreover, it is in precisely this sphere that radical behaviorists have long recognised that their account of complexity amounts to an interpretation, albeit based upon principles gained in simpler, more amenable contexts (Skinner 1969: 100). Radical behaviorist interpretation proceeds as 'an orderly arrangement of well-known facts, in accordance with a formulation of behavior derived from an experimental analysis of a more rigorous sort' (Skinner 1957: 11). That formulation provides the 'warrant of assertibility' (Dewey 1966) of radical behaviorist interpretation and, as the accumulated evidence for operant conditioning in animals and humans in laboratories and field settings attests, it is a persuasive warrant (Guerin 1994). But it necessarily differs from the more rigorous accounts of simpler operant behavior: it cannot be complete, for instance, insofar as it alludes to contingencies that can often be inferred rather than observed and measured: 'merely useful', its truth or falsity cannot be ascertained with the certainty available to the experimentalist (Skinner 1988: 364). It is doubtful, however, whether radical behaviorism differs in this respect from any other scienceCno critic of behaviorism is suggesting the overthrow of evolutionary biology or astrophysics because they interpret where they cannot control. And radical behaviorists claim their interpretations superior to those which have no experimental warrant at all, or those based on the explanatory fictions of centralist theories.

However, this said, radical behaviorists have hardly considered the nature and form of their interpretive stance, how it could be evaluated, and its implications for their goals of prediction and control. Two clearcut exceptions are found: (a) generally in the work of V.L. Lee (1988), and (b) in the consumer psychology context, in the concept of the consumer situation (Foxall 1992). Before examining these, it is necessary to understand the radical behaviorist approach to meaning.

Operant accounts of contingency-shaped behavior are often criticized for omitting the actor's 'subjective' experience of situations. In fact, behaviorists have tackled this question of individual reaction by accounting for a person's behavior within the situation; the account includes consideration of the individual's verbal behavior, the rule-governance of his or her earlier activities, and the continuity of behavior over time. This is achieved by reference to the individual's environmental history (Skinner 1974: 77), for the meaning of an operant response is to be found in what has preceded it. According to SkinnerCnote that the concept I wish to elucidate later differs from hisCthe meaning of an act is not found in the current setting: neither in the discriminative stimuli that compose the setting, nor in the responses that take place there, nor in their outcomes. Rather, it is located solely in the history of exposure to similar contingencies which have brought behavior under the control of the current situation (p. 91).

Meaning is thus defined in terms of the function of a response, notCas the structuralists would have itCin its topography (form). And function is determined by the individual's learning history. The meaning of a response is found in the past contingencies that control the topography of current behavior and empower current discriminative stimuli (Skinner 1974: 91). Thus topographies of behavior may resemble one another closely but the meanings of the behaviors may differ markedly. Two customers may buy ties from the same assistant, one right after the other, but the meaning of doing so can be quite different if the first tie is bought as a present (and therefore controlled by a history of gift giving) while the second is bought for personal use (and controlled by a history of wearing "ordinary" ties to the office). The meanings do not depend on the reinforcer (the type of tie) but on these histories of buying, giving, wearing, and their outcomes.

V.L. Lee (1988: 135-7) proposes as the first question of operant interpretation, 'What is this person doing?'. This is an inquiry into the consequences being produced. Equivalent forms of this question are: 'What is this act?' and 'What is the meaning of this act?'. The traditional answer, as we have seen, would be coached in terms of the individual's learning history. Unfortunately, unlike the learning history of the rat whose entire lifetime has been given over to advancing the experimental analysis of behavior, that of the middle- aged consumer in Harrod's is not empirically available. We might be able to surmise a certain amount, and the consumer might be able to tell us an uncertain amount, but we shall be left wondering whether we have elucidated the current act in terms of a reconstructed environmental history with any validity. And yet we cannot simply look at the current behavior in order to divine its meaning. The problem is that of equifinality. We have already seen that topographically similar responses may produce disparate consequences; so may topographically dissimilar responses belong to the same equifinality class. Ordering a book by mail has a form that is entirely distinct from asking for the same item in a bookstore, but both are functionally equivalent if they have the same outcome. Operant interpretation requires that, in addition to whatever evidence is obtainable for reconstructing the individual's learning history, elements of the current behavior setting and the kinds of reinforcement or punishment they prefigure as consequent upon specific responses also be taken into consideration.



The Behavioral Perspective Model of consumer choice (Figure 1) suggests the form which an answer to Lee's question might take in the context of consumer behavior. The consumer behavior settingCa store, a library, an opera house or whateverCconsists of four kinds of such elements or discriminative stimuli: physical, social, temporal and regulatory. They signal the possibility of three kinds of consequence: hedonic reinforcement (which consists in the utilitarian properties of the reinforcer and the pleasure or satisfaction which consuming them brings), informational reinforcement (which comprises feedback on the consumer's performance, how well he or she is doing as a consumer and in life), and aversive consequences (which, if suffered, reduce the chance of this behavior being repeated). The consumer behavior itself can be classified in four ways according to the relative levels of the hedonic and informational reinforcement that have maintained that behavior in the history of the consumer. We can infer this from our interpretation of the likely consequences of behaving similarly now. Hence where high levels of both hedonic and informational reinforcement are likely we speak the behavior as accomplishment; where hedonic reinforcement predominates, of pleasure; where informational reinforcement predominates, of accumulation; and where both have a relatively low level of effect, of maintenance. (These classes of consumer behavior have been elaborated elsewhere, along with the derivation of the model and its concept: see Foxall 1990, 1994, 1995.)

An understanding of the probable consequences of current consumer behavior, which have through prior generation presumably brought the consumer to the current behavior setting, is intended as a response to the problem of equifinality. Each of these classes is an operant equifinality class: placing the behavior in question in one or other of these is the first stage in locating that behavior. Only by isolating these consequences, an act which partly supplements and partly acts as a surrogate for a full reconstruction of the consumer's learning history, can we propose an answer to Lee's second question of operant interpretation, 'What has been done?'. In other words, 'What ends have been achieved?' and 'How is the action effective?'.

The second stage in locating consumer behavior is to summarise the probable effect of behavior setting stimuli on the probability of an approach or avoidance response currently taking place. Behavior setting scope is the extent to which the current consumer behavior setting compels a particular pattern of behavior (as a grand opera house induces people to wear evening dress, remain seated and silent during arias, and applaud wildly at the end; compare a rock concert where one is free to walk about, shout, sing, smoke, eat and drink and do many other things during the performance). The scope of the former is said to be (relatively) closed; that of the latter, (relatively) open. The BPM proposes eight general contingency categories defined by the operant class to which the situated behavior in question belongs and the scope of the behavior setting in which it occurs (Figure 2). Allocating consumer behavior to one or other of these on a functional basis (i.e., in terms of the consequences produced and the stimuli that signal them) take place then at a second level of analysis.

The third and final level is that of the consumer situation. Consumer behavior is located at the meeting place of the consumer's learning history and the current consumer behavior setting. This intersection is the consumer situation. Both of its components are necessary to the operant reconstruction of the meaning of a particular response or behavior pattern to the consumer. The consumer's learning history determines what can act as a discriminative stimulus of current behavior; that learning history thereby also determines what is a potential reinforcer or punisher. But that learning history, which shapes the individuality of the consumer, his or her unique response potential, is activated by the consumer behavior setting. It has no meaning in itself and can confer no significance on the current behavior of the consumer unless an opportunity to act presents itself: that opportunity is afforded by the current setting which primes the learning history's capacity to shape current consumer choice. When this has occurred, whatever consumer behavior takes place is a function of the interaction of historical and current environments: it can be located in time and space. In practice, this third and most detailed level of analysis relates particular consumer responsesCbrowsing, evaluating, buying, usingCto the elements of the consumer situation in which they arise. In accounting for the approach, avoidance and escape responses of consumers, this micro-level interpretation involves identifying the discriminative stimuli that compose the setting, the consequences to which they point, and, as far as is feasible, the learning history of the individual. Ultimately, the purpose is to understand the meaning of the observed pattern of behavior for the individual consumer. Since direct empirical access to the consumer's learning history is denied the observer, an operant interpretation often necessarily concentrates on those environmental factors that can be observed or inferred, notably elements of the behavior setting. The assumption isCand all interpretive systems rest upon an act of faithCthat the reinforcing consequences these setting elements prefigure are broadly those which have shaped and maintained similar behavior in the past; such (setting) elements and (behavioral) consequences can thus be used as a guide to the predisposing/inhibiting nature of the consumer's learning history. But there is no reason why the resulting account cannot be checked, corroborated, and amended by the individual's own recollection of that history; no reason why the consumer's verbal account cannot provide the interpretation; no reasonCpace Geertz (1973)Cwhy the operant interpretation cannot be 'thick' rather than 'thin'. The sole criterion is our resulting understanding of 'how the action of interest makes a difference to the person's life. That is, what does the action produce or present that would not be produced or presented otherwise?' (V.L.Lee 1988: 137). The framework could easily accommodate a fourth interpretive level to embrace the detailed, self-described and analysed experience of an individual consumer related to the organising environment.




In a recent monograph (Foxall 1995), I have presented detailed operant interpretations of four well-documented consumer situations: (i) large group awareness training such as The Forum or Insight, in which seminars are expertly managed on principles that can be traced to behavior analysis: that is an example of accomplishment; (ii) the experience of entertainment- based dining in a relatively fastfood restaurant that controls consumer behavior by means of physical and social constraints and hedonic reinforcement: an example of pleasure; (iii) the achievement of free travel and other hedonic benefits through participation in a highly regulated frequent-flyer program: accumulation; and (iv) the design of airport waiting in which consumers who wish to catch a plane are managed through airport architecture for two or more hours at a time: maintenance. The words 'managed' and 'controlled' are reasonably justified in those instances, all of which belong to relatively closed consumer behavior settings. Hence it may be instructive to consider here a rather different form of consumer behavior, compulsive purchasing, which occurs as a result of a rather different consumer situation. An operant interpretation is only one among several available but it provides insights not otherwise available.

Compulsive purchasers usually realise their problem for themselves or have it pointed out by a significant other. A reinforcement history is likely to be available through the verbal reports of these parties, though its accuracy is indefinite; some objective evidence of frequency of purchase, antecedent events, and consequences of consumption may nevertheless be available in the form of sales receipts, credit transactions, and corroborated personal histories. But learning history must provide a strong clue to the meaning of such behavior if only because a small proportion of the population seems affected, possibly as small as 3% (just as a small proportion at the other end of the distribution hoards, living a miserly life in apparent poverty while sitting, perhaps literally, on millions.) The objective evidence referred to may also give an idea of the reinforcement schedule at work, presumably in general a stretched variable ratio, though possibly differing from one compulsive purchaser to another. This would have important implications for any remedial program in that the spacing of alternative sources of reward would have to be carefully considered in any scheme of behavior change.

Further understanding of the compulsive purchaser's learning history is available from knowing the operant equifinality class to which his/her behavior belongs. It is not enough in a remedial program to try simply to offer alternative reinforcements: the substituted rewards must be of a similar kind and level to those (hopefully) foregone. It is unlikely that compulsive purchasing can be classed as maintenance but it may readily belong to any of the remaining operant classes: where collecting is predominant, to accumulation; where hedonic and utilitarian benefits predominate, pleasure; where both instrumental and expressive outcomes have predominated so that both cumulation of economic goods and social or self- esteem are the reinforcers, accomplishment. Each of these has its own reinforcement pattern (in terms of relative level of hedonic and informational reward), and possibly reinforcement schedule (variable ratio in accomplishment, variable inferred in pleasure, fixed ratio in accumulation?).

The manipulation of reinforcers is unlikely to be sufficient to transform such behavior. Just as others who consume to excess may reduce the scope of the setting (as when overeaters have their mouths wired or stomachs stapled) or be constrained by others who effect such closure (e.g., shoplifters) so compulsive consumers may change only if their physical, social and regulatory circumstances are radically adjusted. Compulsive consumption takes place in an open setting: the buyer has vast discretion over use of time, ubiquitous opportunities to shop, and the ready availability of funds or credit. One cannot help but imagine that compulsive purchasing is an inevitable consequence of consumer- oriented marketing. Closure of the consumer behavior setting may be effected, for instance, by the withdrawal, restriction and/or close monitoring of credit facilities. But while this may be effective in reducing the pattern of excessive spending, without the provision of appropriately-reinforced alternative behaviors, the result may simply be a transfer to different forms of overconsumption.

The behavior modifier must, therefore, concentrate on the consumer situation, altering the components of the setting to induce more appropriate behavior patterns and ensuring that these are reinforced with the requisite levels of hedonic versus informational reinforcement. If successful, the result would be a new reinforcement history, one which makes continued prosocial behavior more probable. As experience with token economies suggests, however, this persistence of a new behavior pattern is likely to depend on sustained strategies of setting scope management and the maintenance of reinforcer effectiveness. Since the objective here has been to interpret rather than to propose a unique solution, I look forward to the further evaluation of consumer behavior modification programs in these terms!


Operant interpretation of consumer behavior clearly entails the entire apparatus of thought, observation and translation found in any other interpretive system. It presents us with all the problems of establishing the relevance and validity of our interpretations established within any other system of hermeneutics. It does not leave operant psychology where it found it: only the most dyed-in-the-wool behaviorist would imagine that interpretation of this kind belongs to the same deterministic system of explanation with which he or she identifies operant experimentation. Whatever the experimental analysis of animal operant behavior may be, this is not positivistic science. But it is an integral part of pluralistic consumer research, with a warrant of assertibility that is incontrovertible.


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Gordon Robert Foxall, University of Birmingham


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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