The Behavioural Phenotype and Consumers

ABSTRACT - This paper is about rekindling the essence of consumer research vis a vis the game of life. A century has passed since the emergence of the marketing discipline. This is an appropriate time for a review that synthesises and encompasses the new and old tools and theories that science has created. Such reviews are critical to progress as Kuhn and Dyson suggested. This paper will continue Bagozzi’s search for a central tenet in marketing but will add biological mechanisms to his recommended notion of sociological forces. In essence this is a search for phenotypical consumer behaviour or why people buy.



Citation:

Iain Waller and Anton Kriz (2001) ,"The Behavioural Phenotype and Consumers", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 338-342.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 338-342

THE BEHAVIOURAL PHENOTYPE AND CONSUMERS

Iain Waller, Central Queensland University, Australia

Anton Kriz, Central Queensland University, Australia

[The authors would like to thank Steve McKillup and Les Killion for reviewing drafts of this paper, and the three unknown reviewers for their comments and suggestions.]

"When you reach an equilibrium in biology you’re dead."

(Mandell: as quoted in Gleick’s Chaos p. 298)

ABSTRACT -

This paper is about rekindling the essence of consumer research vis a vis the game of life. A century has passed since the emergence of the marketing discipline. This is an appropriate time for a review that synthesises and encompasses the new and old tools and theories that science has created. Such reviews are critical to progress as Kuhn and Dyson suggested. This paper will continue Bagozzi’s search for a central tenet in marketing but will add biological mechanisms to his recommended notion of sociological forces. In essence this is a search for phenotypical consumer behaviour or why people buy.

INTRODUCTION

Marketing and consumer research have been criticised for not providing better answers for business, yet remain methodologically unbounded and epistemologically challenged (Portney & Watins 1993; Sarantakos 1998). While there has been a tendency to forget that marketing is founded on the behaviour of living organisms in business exchanges, discoveries in other disciplines are beginning to offer answers to marketing questions.

The theoretical mass of knowledge of a discipline must be accumulated around one or more central tenets (Hunt 1991). Propagating any other view only adds to accusations such as folk psychology (Wilson 1998), as derived by Einstein in reference to criticisms of relying on 'rules of thumb’ or heuristics. Or, as Stent suggested in the Coming of the Golden Age, as cited in Horgan (1998, p. 154), that the social sciences, 'may long remain the ambiguous, impressionistic disciplines that they are at present’. The question that exists in marketing is what is the central tenet around which a critical mass of knowledge is to be accumulated? This paper seeks to offer phenotype as such a core tenet. A phenotype is the expression of a genome responding to the environment in context with the lifespan of the organism (Boehm 1997).

A CURRENT VIEW OF MARKETING

The definitional boundaries for consumer research and marketing have yet to be properly established (Baker 1997; Hunt 1991; Sheth, Gardner & Garrett 1988). In his generic concept of marketing Kotler (1972 p.72) states that "marketing is specifically concerned with how transactions are created, stimulated, facilitated and valued". The essence of this concept is why people exchange rather than what they have exchanged. As such it delineates the discipline from economics, given that economics is focussed on the measurement of transactions and forecasting of such aggregated transactions rather than why consumers do what they do.

The economists can point to their myriad of equations for credibility, and as Galbraith (1954, p. 35) suggested, 'It is hard to think that economists ever came much closer to interpreting the world in which they lived than did Smith, Ricardo and Malthus’. Why were these pioneering economists so successful? Arguably because they attempted to understand human behaviour, and, because choice was limited and commerce simpler in the 1700s (Heilbroner 1986). Perhaps the closest analogy marketing could consider was in the production-orientated phase associated with the first formal teachings in marketing (Jones & Monieson 1990)

Marketers, however, should be cautious in attributing the same mechanisms to their own discipline. Hunt (1983 p.12) allowed such confusion to prevail when he suggested that 'Consistent with the perspective of most marketing theorists, this writer (Hunt) has proposed that the basic subject matter of marketing is the exchange relationship or transaction.’ Clearly, exchange is much more than the transfer of products for economic gain (Bagozzi 1975). Indeed, the transaction is the outcome of an exchange relationship but as marketers realise or should realise there is much more to why people buy.

Generally marketing information is interesting in hindsight but not capable of insight and foresight. Marketing theory, to be valuable, needs to delineate itself accordingly because requires answers to why people do what they do (Australian Research Council 1997).

Kotler’s generic concept has not received the broad acceptance or even inquiry it deserves. The focus of how to create, stimulate, facilitate and value transactions seems to have been lost on many in marketing. The Sciences are addressing such issues with new tools in the neuro-sciences and other associated disciplines such as cognitive psychology. Linear models are failing to provide accurate answers particularly once more complexity is added (Omerod 1998; Waldrop 1998; Farrell 1998). Mathematics and econometrics are wonderful tools if the predominant variables can be found, and if the right sort of mathematics (non-linear) is applied (Gleick 1998).

The roblem appears to be that pure research has not been valued in the management disciplines, receiving little if any funding support from the traditional funding sources (Australian Research Council 1997). Most marketing research has resulted from applied research and seeks a quick fix solution to a commercial problem (Macdonald & Simpson 1996).

IS THERE A NEED TO ASCERTAIN A SCOPE OR DOMAIN?

Some academics in marketing, as Hunt (1991) suggested, prefer to view the discipline as a non-science in that they claim marketing is an applied discipline. Marketing does have its own problems and hence requires its own theory. Biology and evolution are fundamental to life and are the primary reason for the brains and bodies circuitry, and, for the way humans act and react behaviourally. Therefore, any general theory of marketing must take account of an inter-disciplinary sociobiological mode of inquiry. The key to this issue is a question posed by Hunt (1991) with respect to defining marketing: What kinds of phenomena are marketing phenomena?

WHAT KINDS OF PHENOMENA ARE MARKETING PHENOMENA?

To examine social exchange in a business context, it is first necessary to place it in perspective at its origins at the root of the evolution of life. Evolution should be understood as 'descent with modification’ (Ingold 1998; Wilson 1998) and is therefore not deterministic. Reviewing the path of evolution is a necessary task in understanding the development of human phenotypical behaviour vis a vis consumer behaviour.

Responding to the environment is fundamental to the development of the phenotype (Boehm 1997). The environment is inclusive of culture, political and economic constraints as well as physical and ecological attributes. This suggests that marketing phenomena can be defined as individual and/or group phenotypic behavioural responses. And as a consequence, can be understood.

It is important to note that an aggregated phenotype is the distribution of behavioural responses juxtaposed around the leader(s) behavioural reponses, or of the predominant socio/biological features of the group. Phenotypes cannot currently be measured as such. It is not possible to know the initial conditions of such a complex, open ended and chaotic system (Gleick 1998; Simms 1996).

THE EVOLUTION OF LIFE

Humans are the evolutionary result of adaptive responses to the environment (Rosenzweig, Leiman & Breedlove 1996). Yet as the complexity of life has increased, the fundamental shared origins ensure that some consistencies remain (Wilson 1998). Fossil evidence suggests that single-celled organisms known as prokaryotes emerged between 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago (Margulis 1992). Prokaryotes have evolved little if at all in comparison with prokaryotes found today (Wilson 1998). Prokaryotes are an excellent example that very few organisms are involved in pure competition.

Prokaryotes were followed by simple multi-cellular organisms known as eukaryotes evolved around 2.5 billion years ago when a prokaryote and a bacterium, enacted in a symbiotic manner (Margulis 1992). Over time this relationship became essential for the survival of both parties, as death occurred when the parties were separated. This is the endosymbiotic theory (Margulis 1992), and thus was born life’s capacity to compete and cooperate. By cooperate it is meant interacting in order to satisfy individual goals and not mutuality.

The simple eukaryotes were followed in time by more complex eukaryotes leading eventually to complex organisms (Rosenzweg, Leiman & Breedlove 1996). These complex organisms added deception of competitors (Surbey & McNally 1997) to the arsenal of survival strategies that already included compete and cooperate. As social organisms arose they evolved self-deception (Surbey & McNally 1997) strategies in order to compete better in the cooperative structure. Deception is only useful where the competitor is unaware of your intentions. Self-deception ensures that your intentions will remain hidden, even to yourself (Surbey & McNally 1997). These deception and self-deception strategies are a result of psychological modules evolving in order to cope with inherent and recurrent domain scenarios (Buss 1996) where competition is the original playing field, but cooperation is necessary.

Complex compete, cooperate and deception strategies are intertwined between individual, kin and group objectives. The recurrent patterns of social behaviour evident in these groupings are the foundations of what marketing refers to as social exchange relationships (Bagozzi 1975). These groupings and the requisite social behaviours are evident in many species, including humans (Surbey & McNally 1997; Watts & Strogatz 1998). The original biological imperative of competition suggests that the term social exchange be extended to sociobiological exchange (Wilson 1998).

Marketers often cite characteristics such as cooperation, conflict and reciprocity without fully appreciating or understanding the sociobiological basis of such inherent qualities as discussed above. This is particularly obvious in the context of the marketing discipline’s reliance on the premise of win/win solutions in support of the concept of mutuality, which seems contrary to the original marketing concept of Drucker (1954).

Natural selection rewards self-interest (Ridley 1996). However, humans live in a complex set of dynamic, fluctuating and open ended relationships with other humans (Watts & Strogatz 1998). The payoffs for cooperating are as a result of the division of labour. But if natural selection favours competition over cooperation, then how do we know we will not be betrayed when we exchange with others?

The easiest and most common way in nature is to ensure that exchanges are between kin (Ridley 1996). Humans predominantly favour immediate family and close relatives as opposed to distant relatives and strangers. Unless still residing in familial or particularistic societies (Weber 1951; Fukuyama 1995), humans are involved in exchanges far beyond the scope of kin relations.

Our human societies work because we exchange. To paraphrase Adam Smith, a butcher sells meat in order to make a living. Consumers purchase it to satisfy their selfish needs, not his. This is as a result of self-interest and not any mutualistic tendencies. Individual self-interest is the natural state of humanity, selfless interest is a contrived state.

The consistent genetic features of all populations are likely to provide a common theme for examining exchange relationships. Geneticists have identified a number of individual genes that can be associated with particular behavioural responses and expect to extrapolate many more (Kaku 1998). An example of this is the novelty-seeking gene discovered by Hamer (Hamer & Copeland 1998).

Much of the social behaviour of humans is a result of the interplay between environmental stimuli and the individual genotype (Ingold 1998). Evolutionary psychology suggests that this social interaction has produced phenotypical mechanisms (competition, cooperation, deception and self-deception) that are a result of evolutionary adaptation to inherent and recurrent problems in the social interaction of humans (Surbey & McNally 1997).

Due to the complexity in sociobiological exchange and the timespan in which humans emerged, these mechanisms is likely to be large in number, complex in nature and activated only when certain domain cues are perceived (Buss 1996).

The domain cues that precipitated the development of these specific mechanisms are resource orientated and can best be explained by the continuum etween agonic and hedonic (Chance 1980) group phenotypical behaviours.

Agonic groups are stable communities of dominant and submissive members whereas hedonic group members are much more variable and flexible in their behaviour (Chance 1980). Predictable patterns of social behaviour are evident within the resource context of the group under consideration. Competition within the groups for resources (food, water and mating opportunities) is not always equal and becomes contingent upon individual fitness (Surbey & McNally 1997). Resources can be scattered throughout a territory or exist in clumps. Group members cannot always assess in advance the availability and proximity of resources.

When resources are predictable and readily available hedonicc social behaviours are dominant. Unpredictability or shortages precipitate agonic social behaviour. These phenotypical group behaviours of agonic and hedonic groupings are particularly relevant to the interactions of all marketing actors in relationship and network contexts (Decker Pierce & White 1999).

THE SOCIOBIOLOGY OF CULTURE

Relationships and networks are complicated by the fact that individual self-interest is often at odds with the self-interests of others. Selfish utility leads naturally to competition. Cooperation usurps many of the external dangers faced by individuals. Deception allows selfish utility to remain predominant in a group setting and self-deception allows members to compromise in order to win in the long term. This nexus between society and behaviour was aptly described by Ridley (1996, p. 6) 'Society was not invented by reasoning men. It evolved as part of our nature.’.

Therefore, sociobiological exchange and the modern notion of a society appear to be a balancing act between biological selfish interest and the attainment of necessary resources through the division of labour. Underlying all decisions is some sociobiological desire for utility. Pleasure and satisfaction can be derived from things other than profit. Utility pre-supposes a benefit that is fit for the purpose. Utility or as Mill described it, Greatest Happiness Principle is the attainment of self-satisfaction or pleasure as opposed to pain. Maslow called it the attainment of self esteem and self actualisation, Herzberg called it motivation and McLelland referred to it as need for power (Bartol, Martin, Tein & Matthews 1995). Dawkins (1996) called it the selfish gene.

Therefore, utility is a holistic function of the phenotype, be that of an individual, group, firm or population. Understanding the phenotype therefore would provide a very effective mechanism for establishing a consumer’s wants, needs and desires and then satisfying them by manipulating the stimuli that precipitate purchasing behaviour.

THE PHENOTYPE

Culture should therefore be seen as a derivative of the phenotype as applied to the stages in the human lifespan. This is environmentally driven and is relative in context to people. place and time. Culture is therefore complex and chaotic and, as previously discussed, not linearly measurable.

Phenotypical behavior can be expressed as:

=EGT Experience |Environment

Which is the cumulative effect of experience, as a function of environment, impacting upon the genotype (G) over the lifespan of an organism (T). This can be likened to the operation of a computer system (Wilson 1998). The hardware representing the genotype. The brain has interdependent roles that include managing the hardware and processing information. The brain also provides algorithmic qualities that enable development and the capacity to learn; ie the creation of learning software (currently the missing link in artificial intelligence). The sensory systems created as a result of environmental impacts on the genotype produces the physiological components of the body. The combined sensory systems of the body act as the software. The data that feeds the processor are the stimuli received from the environment (Wilson 1998; Rosenzweig, Leiman & Breedlove 1996).

The equation representing phenotypical behavior has universal applications. Western, Asian, collective and Islamic cultures have numerous differences and similarities. These differences can be grouped according to respective homogenous commonalities. Unfortunately, in grouping or seeking commonalities, much of the richness or 'thick description’ of the data may be lost (Triandis 1994). By identifying key components of an individual, group and or population phenotype it may be possible to keep Triandis’ richness.

Cross cultural studies have inherent problems with etic comparisons realising some mis-attribution of terms (Smith & Bond 1994). Theorists such as Geertz (1973) believed that 'thick description’ in an emic sense is the only useful method for investigating individual cultures. Ethnocentricity or seeing things based on one’s own culture is a common flaw of cross cultural studies (Fang 1998).

As Fang (1998) suggested many of these socially derived terms are misrepresentative, and have been given dichotomous positions that belie the contextual nature of sociobiological exchange. What stands out about culture can perhaps be best understood by looking at Wittgenstein’s picture theory of the mind (Hunt 1991). Individuals create their own reality or in this case behavioral phenotype based on their perspective of a society’s accepted norms and values. The inclusion of biological equivalence rather than social equality may alleviate some of these problems as it can account for the similarities and allude to phenotypical differences within one methodology. These pictures are not easily described in words, especially across cultures (Redding 1990).

Consumer research is all about exchange relationships that develop between the organisation, vis-a-vis the individuals that make up that organisation; its supplier organisations, vis-a-vis the individuals that make up those organisations; and, the customers, vis-a-vis the individual or individuals that are interested in an exchange (Sheth, Mittal & Newman 1999).

Conceptualising and considering predictive outcomes in terms of discrete categories of people has allowed marketing the convenience of deriving abstract conceptions of populations and/or segments (Kotler, Armstrong, Brown, Adam & Chandler 1998), regardless of the obvious methodological flaws. Ethnographic evidence clearly demonstrates that the membership of these groups is far too fluid to be considered as definitive market segments (Vayda 1995).

This scenario, although problematic, is a fundamental part of the evolutionary processes that shaped humanity. Homo sapiens achieve satisfaction via exchanges with other Homo sapiens. This is universal across Western, Asian, Islamic and collective population groups (Bagozzi 1975) and is achievedvia complex compete and cooperate strategies (Ingold 1998). These strategies are the response of the phenotype to the stimuli received from the environment (Wilson 1998), and using evolved sensory organs (Rosenzweig, Leiman & Breedlove) and evolved psychological mechanisms (Surbey & McNally 1997; Buss 1990) in order to achieve the resources (food, water and mating opportunities), necessary for survival (Boehm 1997).

A PHENOTYPE INSPIRED DEFINITION

Marketing is not the simplistic quid pro quo notion characterised and championed by econometrists. Marketing is complex and is fundamentally about utility gains. Marketing is not about transactions per se. Marketing is about people. To consider this any other way assumes that marketing is not interested in why people buy and sell. It’s a matter of cause and effect. If marketing theory is about insight and foresight rather than hindsight then the focus on the phenotype will eventually be vindicated.

The cause of human behaviour and its complexity is what makes this discipline unique and interesting. Consumers, or buyers, payers and users (Sheth, Mittal & Newman 1999) all aim to maximise their individual utility as pre-disposed by their individual, group, firm or population phenotype. Therefore, the domain of consumer marketing research should be why do people buy, sell and consume as a function of phenotype(s)?

If this statement is corroborated by future research then marketing practice can be considered as the business activity of differentiating phenotypic (sociobiological) utility offerings in order to exploit perceived opportunities for profit.

Marketing research should aim pro-actively (foresight) to provide theoretical contributions to practitioners that will impact positively and profitably in the provision of phenotypic utility offerings. Therefore, marketing research should be the determination of segmentable business exchange utility goals through the analysis of individual, group, firm and population phenotypical behaviours.

The central tenet, therefore, is the phenotype of sociobiological exchange actorsBbuyers, sellers, users, payers, suppliers etc. Such a domain would receive wide consilient support beyond marketing, as it builds on the fundamental 'truths’ of most disciplines. It entrenches marketing, and consumer research, as a discipline focussed on understanding human exchange behaviour scientifically, rather than limiting it to the social sciences. It accommodates new tools and discoveries. It makes testing difficult without substantial evidence of the variables being sought. However, it would appear that many of these tools and discoveries will be forthcoming in other disciplines (Kaku 1998; Horgan 1998; Wilson 1998).

With the phenotype, the central tenet for the development and assimilation of the domain of marketing seems transparent. This paper has provided a clear extrapolation of sociobiological exchange. Sociobiological exchange has its origins as simple competition in a prokaryotic world but evolved to become complex with the emergence of cooperation strategies and later deception and self-deception. As such, if humans have to cooperate and share utility gains, then sharing them with particular individuals over others will have future repercussions. Choosing strategies that share the utility with like-minded individuals from the network of inherited and developed relationships maximises the propensity for at least some of the genes of that individual to be transmitted to the next generation. This necessitates that there must be winners and losers. The losers are of little consequence as they are not generally in the higher reaches of the network of relationships, and as such, out of sight means out of mind.

Therefore, marketing is a zero sum (Budescu, Erev & Zwick 1999). Once games become more complex, simple soltions become paralysed. Complex negotiations are a function of give and take but the ultimate aim is utility gain. A comprehensive notion of phenotype is a more useful tool in plotting the next move.

CONCLUSION

In an address at the 1996 ACR Conference, Wallendorf (1997) called upon consumer researchers to avail themselves of the knowledge in other disciplines as a means to rejuvenate the perceived stagnation of consumer and marketing research.

It would appear that some of these other disciplines may be in a better position to address marketing questions than marketing. Marketers must accept that their discipline is only young. However, this is not an excuse that will hold indefinitely. The debate needs to be more focussed and not circular. Whether science is composed of a single scientific method that includes discovery and justification or some other methodology is not a question that should engulf marketing theory. The problem at this stage is more a question of both justification and discovery. The marketing discipline and consumer research needs a central tenet that is intersubjectively certifiable but is unique to marketing. Simple solutions will not suffice. The time is right to map the phenotype. This paper has focussed on introducing the phenotype to consumer behaviour. The next step in delivering foresight to practitioners is in the provision of a comprehensive notion of the behavioural phenotype as it applies to business. The quest to understand the phenotype has already begun in other disciplines. Fortunately, marketing has time to catch up.

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Authors

Iain Waller, Central Queensland University, Australia
Anton Kriz, Central Queensland University, Australia



Volume

AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001



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