A Behaviourist Perspective on Purchase and Consumption

ABSTRACT - The status and plausibility of an interpretive account of consumer behaviour derived from operant psychology (behaviour analysis) is critically examined. It is argued that a model of purchase and consumption cannot be founded on an unreconstructed operant behaviourism. However, if modifications are incorporated based on both a logical critique of radical behaviourism as a philosophy of psychology and the empirical investigation of human operant performance, a tenable behavioural perspective model can be built which elucidates the nature of the influence of the environment on consumer choice.


Gordon R. Foxall (1993) ,"A Behaviourist Perspective on Purchase and Consumption", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 501-506.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 501-506


Gordon R. Foxall, University of Birmingham, U.K.


The status and plausibility of an interpretive account of consumer behaviour derived from operant psychology (behaviour analysis) is critically examined. It is argued that a model of purchase and consumption cannot be founded on an unreconstructed operant behaviourism. However, if modifications are incorporated based on both a logical critique of radical behaviourism as a philosophy of psychology and the empirical investigation of human operant performance, a tenable behavioural perspective model can be built which elucidates the nature of the influence of the environment on consumer choice.


A striking feature of the information processing models of consumer choice is the apparent placelessness of the behaviour they describe and explain. The contexts in which purchase and consumption occur and their influence on the shaping of these responses is overlooked in a system which attributes causation almost exclusively to organocentric states and processes. Cognitive consumer research has often lost sight of behaviour itself, confining its analyses to the formulation and alleged effect of hypothetical prebehavioural events such as attitude dynamics and the emergence and functioning of intentions.

The preoccupation of cognitive consumer researchers with finessing the measurement of nonobservable entities within a framework of theoretical propositions of the utmost generality has led to a state of conceptual imprecision in which almost any aspect of human activity is considered consumer behaviour and is explained ultimately by a refined version of folk psychology. Attempts to infuse some awareness of the situational context in which consumer behaviour takes place have been similarly general, leading to little conceptual development and majoring in a debate over the nature of the subjective or 'psychological' situation rather than providing a n informed appreciation of the nature and effect of the environment on the topography and frequency of purchase and consumption.

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that a theoretically-and empirically-grounded framework for the analysis of the influence of situations on consumer behaviour can be derived from operant behaviourism, the philosophy of psychology which attributes t he rate of emission of behavioural responses to the environmental consequences that similar responses have previously produced (Skinner 1953, 1974). The behaviour analytic framework provides, albeit with conceptual and empirical modifications, a theoretical orientation by which consumer behaviour may be defined and classified by reference to the pattern of consequences it produces and in which the essence of both consumer and marketer behaviours may be reassessed. Behaviour is, on preliminary definition, any response involving the whole organism, the frequency of which can be systematically related to the consequences it has previously produced. There is no circularity of argument here: some of the consequences of behaviour, known as reinforcers, are followed by an increase in its recurrence; some, punishers, by a decease; and other, neutral, consequences, have no effect at all.

The purpose of the Behavioural Perspective Model of purchase and consumption (BPM) is to explore the possibility of a behaviour analytical approach to consumer behaviour and to ascertain the nature and status of the account it provides (Foxall 1990). In the course of the BPM research programme, the behaviour analytical approach has itself been subjected to a far-reaching critique and the independent variables of the model represent developments in behaviour analytic theory based on a logical criticism and empirical research. Earlier publications have been concerned with that critique (Foxall 1986a, 1986b 1987), the derivation and development of the model (Foxall 1990, 1992a, 1992b), its applicability to the understanding of marketing management and the correction of the environmentally-deleterious effects of consumer behaviour (Foxall 1991, 1992c). This paper essentially presents a progress report on the BPM research programme which consists of a summary of the model, an outline of its classification and treatment of consumer behaviour, and some preliminary evaluative consideration of the interpretative nature of its account.


The Behavioural Perspective Model of purchase and consumption (BPM) retains the fundamental assumptions of operant behaviourism (1) that the frequency with which behaviour is performed is a function of the consequences of such behaviour in the past and (2) that determinants of behaviour must, therefore, be sought in the environment rather than within the individual. Radical behaviourists maintain that all determinants of behaviour are environmental rather than intrapersonal but the critique on which the model rests concludes only that some important influences on behaviour are externally-based. Indeed, the model incorporates other significant theoretical deviations from the behaviour theory and analysis originated and developed by Skinner (1953, 1974). All are important to the resulting explanation of the model's dependent variable, rate of consumer response.

First, it is argued that the principles of behaviour analysis most effectively explain, control and predict behaviour in closed' settings, i.e. those in which few if any alternatives to operant performance are available (Schwartz and Lacey 1982). In relatively open behaviour settings, although the commonsense assumption that behaviour is inevitably affected by its consequences is not abandoned, it is less feasible to attribute behaviour uniquely and unambiguously to environmental factors and it is more difficult to specify the elements of the three-term contingency with the precision available to the laboratory scientist. The BPM proposes a continuum of closed-open behaviour settings along which behaviour can be ascribed with differential empirical certainty and objectivity to environmental control. This is the model's first independent variable (Figure 1.).

Second, the model assumes on the basis of recent experimental investigations of human operant behaviour, that reinforcement has an informational as well as an hedonic influence on rate of responding (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982, cf. Holbrook, O'Shaughnessy and Bell 1990). Information refers to data that refer to the individual's level of performance on a task or, more generally, in terms of social status (cf. Wearden 1988). The resulting bifurcation of reinforcement is incorporated in the BPM as a second independent variable.

Third, the BPM recognises the importance of rule-governed as well as contingency-based behaviour, i.e. that the rate at which behaviour is emitted is influenced by verbal descriptions of the contingencies in operation as well as by direct exposure to the contingencies themselves (Skinner 1969; cf. Foxall 1992d). It is understood, however, that the thinking out of rules may act as internal verbal discriminative stimuli that can be classed as proximal causes of behaviour [though distal causes, the contingencies themselves are ultimately effective, and the proximal verbal stimuli are considered to be under contingency control, rather than comprising some autonomous cognitive agency]. Whilst proximal (internal) verbal stimuli do not constitute an explicit independent variable in the model, they are central to the elucidation of some aspects of consumer behaviour.





This paper is concerned primarily with the first two of these elaborations of behaviour analysis; the question of consumers' verbal behaviour is considered elsewhere (Foxall 1992d). The BPM posits that rate of responding is explained by the discriminative stimuli inherent in (relatively closed/relatively open) behaviour settings, and (relatively high/relatively low) informational reinforcement plus (relatively high/relatively low) hedonic reinforcement.


The Consumer Situation

The operant behaviourist account of complex behaviours, such as the economic and social activities involved in human purchase and consumption, takes the form of an interpretation rather than an explanation. The BPM interpretation of consumer behaviour has two partsBa general account of the situated consumer', and a situational analysis of the contingency control of specific purchase and consumption events under the contingency control of relatively closed or open behaviour settings, and hedonic and informational reinforcement.

A consumer situation is defined by the relative openness of the setting in which it occurs, the pattern of hedonic and informational reinforcement signalled as a consequence of purchase and/or consumption, and the unique learning history of the consumer which determines the saliency of the discriminative stimuli that constitute the setting and the positive and/or aversive consequences of behaviour they imply (Figure 2 summarizes the model).

Any actual consumer situation can be described in terms of its relatively closed or relatively open behaviour setting, and the strengths of the hedonic and informational reinforcements indicated by the contingencies. Consumer situations can be defined in terms of one or other of the eight Contingency Categories arising from the possible combinations of setting type (relatively open vs. relatively closed)and reinforcer effect (high or low hedonic, high or low informational). As the following discussion indicates, each contingency category can be systematically linked to a pattern of consumer behaviour maintained on its unique schedule of reinforcement.

Classes of Consumer Behaviour

Full descriptions of the contingency-defined classes of consumer behaviour identified by the model are provided elsewhere (Foxall 19 90, 1992a). The following account summarizes the four classes of behaviour which are shown in terms of their defining characteristics in Figure 3. Figure 4 indicates that the consumer behaviour classes may differ not only according to the pattern of hedonic and in formational reinforcement that maintains them but also in the extent to which the settings in which they occur are relatively open.

Accomplishment. A typical behaviour pattern found in relatively open setting associated with both high hedonic and high informational reinforcement (i.e. consumer situations that occur within Contingency Category 1) is the extended search and evaluation that is a prelude to purchasing a discontinuous innovation or luxury. Both the pleasures gained from purchasing and using such items (hedonic reinforcement) and the status gained from this ownership and conspicuous consumption (informational reinforcement) increase the probability of approach, though the costs of purchase act to prolong the prepurchase sequence.





In relatively closed settings, these contingencies (consumer situations that occur within Contingency Category 2) are associated with behaviours such as casino gambling, and attending personal development programs such as est and Insight, in which hedonic reinforcement derives from playing and both hedonic and informational from winning. Escape behaviour is discouraged by social rules and the physical layout of the casino. The behaviours belonging to both of these contingency categories are apparently maintained on variable ratio schedules of reinforcement.

Pleasure. Rather different consumer behaviours are characteristic of situations in which hedonic reinforcement is to the fore. In o pen settings (Contingency Category 3), a typical behaviour is the consumption of entertainment such as fast-paced TV shows (Tunstall and Walker 1981). In relatively closed settings (Contingency Category 4), this pattern of reinforcement is associated with primary escape behaviours such as the consumption of aspirin to remove a headache. The reinforcement schedule apparently relevant to those contingency categories is variable interval.

Accumulation. The behaviour patterns typical of Contingency Category 5, in which low hedonic and low informational reinforcements ar e associated with relatively open settings, concern collectingBpostage stamps, trading stamps, coupons, etc.Band saving up to purchase a specific product. In the closed setting of Contingency Category 6, typical behaviours include the mandatory consumption of products or services on which powerful reinforcers are contingent, e.g. a series of injections required before going abroad. The sequential acquisition of reinforcers such as 'air miles', the accumulation of which is ultimately reinforced by a substantial reinforcer (Chesanow 1985; cf. Battalio, Kagel, Winkler, Fisher, Basman and Krasner 1974) is also relevant. All of these behaviours are seemingly maintained on fixed ration schedules.



Maintenance. Routine weekly supermarket shopping (Ehrenberg 1972), saving for the twice-yearly interest, or investing regularly for the annual dividend are characteristic behaviours of the sixth set of contingencies: a relatively open setting and low levels of bot h hedonic and informational reinforcement, the corresponding behaviour found in relatively closed settings include more examples of mandatory consumption; of the public goods for which income tax is paid, of annual TV licenses, regular driving license renewals, an d of compulsory motor insurance. All of these activities are apparently maintained on fixed interval schedules


The Integrative Potential of the BPM

The BPM has emerged as an integrative device which is capable of explaining disparate forms of consumer behaviour in consistent termsBthe environmental contingencies that maintain these differing behaviour patternsBwhich provides a situational perspective on purchases and consumption. This approach to understanding the situated consumer is theoretically grounded in a critique of behaviour analysis that has led to a modified operant behavioural understanding of consumer choice. The integrative power of the model is illustrated in Figure 5 which indicates that the whole range of consumer behaviour from extended problem solving to routine response can be explicated by a parsimonious set of variables relating to the consumer behaviour setting and the nature of the reinforcements they prefigure.

In addition, the model has the capacity to produce a synthesis of knowledge in consumer research by relating the analysis of the consumer situation to other relevant disciplines. Figure 6 exemplifies these relationships. First and foremost, the provenance of the model links it to behaviour analysis itself. This school of psychology provides a reminder of the biological as well as social determinants of consumer choice and links our discipline with the approaches of ethology and sociobiology. Economic psychology and behavioural economics have already made extensive use of behaviour analysis in their treatment of consumer behaviour (e.g. Alhadeff 1982, Allison 1983). Links with marketing have been explored in a novel interpretation of the nature of managerial interventions in consumer behaviour (Foxall 1992c) and the analysis of consumers' verbal behaviour is currently serving to expand the critical relevance of the model (Foxall 1992d). Finally, the model suggests direct relationships with environmental psychology, especially that which has made extensive study of the nature of behaviour settings (e.g. Barker 1 968).

Empirical Status of the Model

Care must always be taken in proposing novel interpretations of so complex a field of human endeavour as consumer behaviour to ensure that the resulting account is empirically based. On a continuum of interpretations ranging from those most fully supported by empirical data (e.g. explanations of animal behaviour in the operant chamber) to those which extrapolate to non-experimental realms, the BPM stands among those which rest upon well established, empirical data with respect to human economic behaviour. Applied behaviour analysis, notably experiential investigation of the effectiveness of prompts (which correspond to antecedent verbal stimuli), feedback (informational reinforcement) and incentives (hedonic reinforcement) on the social demarketing of domestic energy consumption, water usage, private transportation, littering, and resource wastage (Cone and Hayes 1980; Geller, et al. 1982, elucidates the explicative nature of the BPM and its underlying empirical relevance.



The evidence gained from such applied behaviour analysis for the behaviour modifying capacity of antecedent discriminative stimuli, hedonic reinforcement, and informational reinforcement (reviewed more fully by Foxall 1990, 1992a):

i. supports the underlying behavioural model to the effect that rate of responding is shown by rigorous field experimentation of consumers' economic behaviours, relying on stringent ABA designs, to be environmentally determined;

ii. supports the bifurcation of reinforcement into its hedonic and informational components, and attests to the necessity of invoking both in a comprehensive explanation;

iii. indicates a hierarchy of influence in which hedonic reinforcement alone is more instrumental in changing behaviour than informational reinforcement, and informational reinforcement alone is more effective than discriminative stimuli consisting in prebehavioural prompting, but underpins the combinatorial efficacy if all three elements of the model are employed in contingent relationship; and

iv. indicates the feasibility of describing the relationship between human behaviour and its environmental determinants by reference to schedules of reinforcement; the empirical evidence is that schedules of reinforcement and punishment not only apply to human economic behaviour but regulate it differentially. The model serves, therefore, not only to identify the variables that control consumer behaviour but is capable of specifying the relationships among them and the dependent variables, purchase and consumption.


The BPM remains an interpretive account, albeit one which is strongly supported by relevant empirical evidence (to a greater extent than some of the older behaviourist interpretations e.g. of human verbal behaviour or cultural design). It is not intended to replace other interpretations of consumer behaviour such as the prevailing cognitivist analog based on the computer information processing metaphor. What then is its place in consumer psychology?

The relativistic framework within which the BPM has been developed emphasizes the inevitability of a plurality of explanatory systems, an active interplay of competing theories', to scientific progress (Feyerabend 1975). Though only one metatheory is capable of providing the context for normal science, others are necessary as critical standpoints for the topical examination of assumption and axioms, the comparative evaluation of alternative explanations of a common data set, and the creation of the syntheses which give rise to new, more comprehensive paradigms. Psychology contains a spectrum of theoretical positions ranging from environmental determinism to cognitive automaticity; since psychology is unlikely even to become a paradigmatic science in Kuhn's sense, each of these standpoints is vital to comprehensive consumer research. Radical behaviourism, albeit modified according to logical and empirical critiques, ought to be accepted as one stance among the many which make up the theoretical wealth of consumer psychology.


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Gordon R. Foxall, University of Birmingham, U.K.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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