An Operational Construction of Life Style


Fred D. Reynolds and William R. Darden (1972) ,"An Operational Construction of Life Style", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 475-489.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 475-489


Fred D. Reynolds, University of Georgia

William R. Darden, University of Georgia

[Assistant Professor of Marketing and Associate Professor of Marketing, College of Business Administration, University of Georgia.]

That the concept of life style and its operational referent psychographics are fashionable there is little doubt. The evidence is profuse' Major sessions are devoted to the topics at national and regional conferences; the number of papers and articles on the subjects has grown rapidly; two books have addressed the area exclusively; and there are tons of computer printouts stacked in the files of various marketing and advertising organizations which bear the psychographic imprint.

At first glance, the current status of life style and psychographics seems somewhat paradoxical. For the concept of life style is certainly not new, and yet it has been accorded a widespread acceptance in studies of consumer behavior only within the last decade. How can we account for this apparent reinvention of a concept and its escalating popularity?

It appears that several factors evolved in the marketing environment of the 1950's and 1960's and accumulated in a pattern which set the stage for the growing acceptance and use of life style and psychographics. These factors can be summarized as the motivation research legacy, the concept of an active audience, increased computational modes, and an anticipatory notion of human behavior. [These comments are adapted from Reynolds (1972).]

William Wells and Douglas Tigert (1971) recently presented the case for the legacy of motivation research. They pointed out that for all of its unworkability and controversial findings, motivation research brought people to the marketing research wasteland of percentages. Instead of describing an audience as

32.4 years old,

12.62 years of schooling,

90 percent married

with 2.1 children,

it became possible to think of

mothers who worried about getting the kids to school on time old ladies whose feet hurt, . . .

and skinny kinds who secretly, but sincerely, believed that The Breakfast of Champions had something to do with their batting averages.

The need to describe people in believable terms remained after motivation research lost its cynosure position. Indeed, the need became intensified as companies began to pour more and more oil to the flames of advertising and as consumer analysts became increasingly aware of the notion of an active audience. [For a review of the notion of the active audience, see Cox (1967).] No longer could the consumer be construed as an inactive recipient in the communications process. No longer could we view the housewife as being pushed and pulled by the stimuli bombarding her from the mass media. Rather, the initiative of the audience had to be reckoned with, including the initiative of selectively attending to the increased promotional activity of consumer marketers. Moreover, as the notion of the active audience diffused, marketers became cognizant that people do not respond to the "real" situation but to the situation as they see it. Hence it became more important to "crawl into the skin of consumers" to see how they interpret and view situations and how their perceptions affect their behavior in the marketplace.

As the active audience capped the grave of motivation research, technological advances in computational modes were ushered into the research chapel via second and then third generation computers and more sophisticated software. With greater computational capabilities researchers became able to explore consumer behavior more fully using vast quantities of empirical data and multi-variate statistical techniques.

Then, there was the intuitively plausible notion going around that people didn't just buy products, but that they enter the market to replenish or to extend an assortment of goods "needed to support expected patterns of future behavior" (Alderson, 1965). Wroe Alderson, of course, was emphasizing the anticipatory nature of buying behavior and in so doing, he identified a key connection between purchase and the purpose of purchase. This connection was expressed by Alderson as:

Consuming habits are part of the pattern of living, but buying habits (purchasing habits and consumer habits) are only derived from this pattern. Buying habits . . . can be broken overnight with no real disruption in the pattern of living. Buying habits, in fact, can more safely be regarded as deliberately chosen routines designed to save time and energy for rational consideration of more important matters (Alderson, 1957:166) .

In retrospect, it is not too surprising that consumer analysts, armed with greater data handling ability and the need to believably describe an active audience, used such a connection as a basis for quantitatively and qualitatively exploring extended bases for consumer description. Clark Wilson, for example, did exactly that. He said:

(1) People . . . live according to established behavior and attitude patterns which can be identified and measured.

(2) These Living Patterns, in turn, are related to other behaviors of more direct economic importance, such as product purchase and media exposure so that knowledge of such Living Patterns over and above knowledge of demographic characteristics, can be of economic value in marketing management (Wilson, 1966:306).

All of this, of course, is history. Now, life style and psychographics has arrived; it's with it! But the story is not all rosey. For one thing, in the apparent haste to put a measure on the market, researchers have done little conceptualizing about life style and psychographics. As Simmons (1971) observed, "My first and foremost impression about psychographics is that there is no general agreement as to just exactly what it is." Simmons offered his observation over five years after the first empirical papers appeared in the literature. Furthermore, he is correct (see Figure 1). And, as several commentators have recently noted, major problems often arise when research is conducted without the guidance of a conceptual orientation-researchers frequently produce poorly designed instruments, fail-to-find meaningful relations, and make faulty implications.



Psychographics is a quantitative, multi-variate research procedure that gives numbers to common sense; like the fact that some people are more likely to be your customer than others; like the fact that some media are more likely to deliver the people you need than others. Psychographics could also be thought of as Measures of an Individual's Level of Expectation, a means for marketers to learn how to address the individual consumer as an individual through the medium of mass communications (Demby, 1971).

...a quantitative definition of the market based upon a systematically developed list of attitudes related to life-style and product benefits, constructed in such a way as to maximize product usage differential, against which advertising, marketing, and product decisions can be made (Heller as quoted in Hustad and Pessemier, 1971).

In its broadest sense, psychographics refers to any form of measurement or analysis of the consumer's mind which pinpoints how one thinks, feels, and reacts (Nelson, 1971).

...research that focuses on consumers' activities, interest, prejudices, and opinions. Variously called "psychographic" research, "life style" research and even (incorrectly) "attitude" research, it resembles motivation research in that a major aim is to draw recognizably human portraits of consumers. But it also resembles the tougher-minded more conventional research in that it is amenable to quantification and respectable samples (Wells and Tigert, 1971) .

...the systematic use of relevant activity and attitude variables to quantitatively explore and explain the purchase and consumption of specific products or brands in the marketplace (Hustad and Pessemier, 1971).

...the term psychographics is derived from demographics and refers to psychological or 'Life Style' consumer characteristics (Tigert, 1969).

There is, then, a conceptual-empirical imbalance in the treatment of life style and psychographics. In another paper we addressed this imbalance in a theoretical and highly abstract manner (Reynolds and Darden, 1973). In this paper we seek to extend the address by presenting a more concrete conceptualization of psychographics; one that provides a meaningful organization to the phenomena of life style and one that allows for the possibility of deriving from it a set of stimuli that are relevant to the respondent in the research situation.

The paper is organized around three sections. The first demonstrates the potential disutility of conducting research without the guidance of an explicit conceptual framework; the second section presents the crucial component elements of psychographics; and in the final section each of the component elements are explicated and clarified in terms of its relation to psychographic research.


During the summer of '71 the first author examined the available literature on consumer out-of-town shopping behavior with the idea of conducting research and constructing a psychographic profile of the heavy outshopper. Because of the usual budget limitations, the questionnaire had to be restricted in length and would include only 85 general psychographic items. It was deemed imperative, then, to use meaningful and well tested items and scales. One way to approach this, of course, is to use the results of previous studies as a guide to build upon. And, to the extent that prior research is valid, this approach is useful.

One consistent finding was noted in each of the studies reviewed--consumers go out-of-town to buy clothes, particularly dress clothes, more than any other product (Hermann and Beik, 1968; and Thompson, 1971). It was assumed, somewhat naturally, that these up-scale housewives are relatively more fashion conscious than their peers and that they attempt to achieve and maintain a fashionable distinctiveness by shopping in larger metropolitan areas.

At the time, the findings of previous studies appeared to be a blessing without disguise. For, because of the fairly extensive fashion research we had completed, a set of ready-made, thoroughly tested psychographic scales were on hand each of which had been found related to the behavior of the female (and the male) clothes horse. [See Reynolds and Darden (1971, 1972b) and Darden and Reynolds (1971 and 1972).] These items were quickly integrated into the instrument and they accounted for about 30 percent of the total number of items included in the first section of the questionnaire.

The results? In an item by item contingency analysis, not one of the fashion related items significantly differentiated between frequent and infrequent outshoppers' Furthermore, in a three-way discriminant analysis using 28 summated scales as independent variables, the first fashion scale to appear in the rank ordering of the correlations between the discriminant function and the original variable was at position 17; needless to say, the scale was not significant in a one-way analysis of variance.

The reason?

The problem was not that of inaccurate scales. The usual factor analysis-subsample factor analysis was performed; the scales were structurally stable and highly consistent with structures uncovered in previous fashion research. Split-halves reliability coefficients were also congruent to previous studies. No, the scales were not too inaccurate; they were simply irrelevant to the phenomenon examined.

Part of the reasons for their irrelevancy is that the outshopper is not just a clothes horse. Rather, she tends to outshop for many types of shopping goods. She tends to be an active, cosmopolitan oriented person who enjoys shopping and is not time-conscious. Furthermore, she has a consistently poor image of her hometown shopping facilities.

Fortunately, the entire study was not lost; but that is another story. [Reynolds and Darden (1972a).] Nevertheless, the first section of the research instrument was, in part, wasteful and ineffective. Hopefully, the use of a viable conceptual framework for guidance would have precluded the use of irrelevant measures.


This section presents a conceptual framework for life style and psychographics. The orientation is developed by first construing life style using George Kelly's theory of personal constructs as the theoretical base. [Kelly's theory is concerned with the way persons conceptually organize and structure their environments and the processes by which they change their conceptual structures. The theory is formally stated as a Fundamental Postulate and eleven Elaborative Corollaries. This paper discusses only certain corollaries; for full discussions, see Kelly (1955), Bannister (1962), and Bannister and Mair (1968).]

Life Style

What is life style? To get more precisely to the answer, consider the words separately. First, each person has a life and this makes sense only when viewed on a continuum of time; i.e., change. Persons are conceived, born, grow, mature, and decline over time, and we often refer to various aspects of this process in describing a person. But life is more than just change. If it were not so, there would be little, if any, difference between other parts of the universe and that part we call a person. As Kelly expressed it, life "involves an interesting relationship between parts of our universe wherein one part, the living creature, is able to bring himself around to represent another part, his environment." Life, then, has two aspects. It is measured on a time dimension and it has the capacity to retain its own identity while it represents other forms of reality. This interpretation of the word, life, comes from the philosophy of constructive alternativism, which is the point of departure for Kelly's theory. We can turn to the organization corollary of personal construct theory to give meaning to a person's style of life.

"Each person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs." Our emphasis here is on characteristically evolves a construction system. "Characteristically" notes the personalistic nature of the theory: "Not only are the constructs personal, but the hierarchical system into which they are arranged is personal too." Not only is the construction system personal, but it is also continually changing; it evolves. The system is viewed as relatively more stable than the individual constructs of which it is composed, but it nevertheless continues to take new forms. To realize that a person characteristically evolves a construction system is to recognize that he has a recognizable personality; one that, while relatively stable, is continually taking new shape.

By "construction system," Kelly noted that a system implies the grouping of elements in which incompatibilities and inconsistencies have been minimized. The elements are the personal constructs, the "transparent patterns" a person creates and lays over the events of his environment. They enable a person to chart a course of behavior; to live a "style" of life.

In essence, then, we view a person's life style to be the construction system that he characteristically evolves for himself. Since life style is considered to be the construction system, it is composed of construction subsystems each of which are made up entirely of personal constructs. From the dichotomy corollary of Kelly's theory we note that the construction system and hence its subsystems is "based upon constructs of constructs, concretistically pyramided or abstractly cross-referenced in a system of ordinal relationships." Yet, from the fragmentation corollary, we note that a person can employ his construction subsystems differentially and in an inferentially incompatible manner.

Thus, when persons allow us to notice their life styles, we never fully comprehend them. Rather, since a person's thinking is channelized and hence limited to a finite number of constructions at a time, we are usually allowed to glimpse, at best, only a few aspects of his life style. Noticing these repeatedly we tend to type him with some construct such as domineering or submissive, hard worker or lazy. Often, moreover, we notice inconsistent aspects of a person's style of life or a lack of pervasiveness in his personality, at least those aspects we have encountered. These points are important from the standpoint of the operational analysis of life style and we will return to them in the next section. First, however, we need to complete our construction of life style by exploring, again constitutively, its expansion into a social aggregate situation.

For this purpose, we turn to the commonality corollary which states that to the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his processes are psychologically similar to those of the other person.

This corollary provides the basis of construing life style in a cultural sense, but from the point of view of the individual person. In essence, we can develop a social aggregate whether it be dyad, triad, small group, or whatever by placing persons in the aggregate on the basis of the degree to which they construe their experience in the same way. This is to be sure often found when persons are grouped according to similarities in their upbringing and their environment. But the commonality of background does not guarantee that people will see things alike nor behave alike. Hence, in our construction of life styles we lay emphasis on the development of subcultures in terms of the members' similarities of construction systems.


Earlier we noted the definitional confusion of the word psychographics (see Figure 1). There is, however, a recurrent theme in the discussions of the term and that is the aim of understanding consumers, of drawing human portraits of them. This theme, in the language of the sociality corollary of personal construct theory reflects the desire on the part of researchers to "play a role" with consumers; i.e., being able to subsume the constructs of consumers with those we have created specifically for that purpose. In this light, we can view psychographics as the systematic operationalization of life style; i.e., constructs of persons' life styles. Thus, we seek to understand man as a person, as a process, and in order to do so, we attempt to subsume his construction system with our own. In attempting to analyze life style, however, we are not interested in subsuming it completely--even if that were feasible. Rather, we are interested in tapping the construction system for those constructs and subsystems relevant to consumer behavior, the product-related communicating, purchasing and consuming behaviors of persons. Figure 2 is a diagrammatic representation of this notion. The chain of nodes and links in the figure represent the construction system, albeit highly simplified, of a person. The broad line illustrates the subsystems within the total system that are relevant to this person's consumer behavior. The other aspects of the person's life style are irrelevant for our purposes. Indeed, any attempt to examine them in relation to the consumer relevant aspects of the system would tend to produce inferentially incompatible results. It is only when we view consumer, non-consumer subsystems in light of the superordinate systems within which they operate that they cease to become incompatible. This, we believe, to be one of the main problems with the use of standardized clinical measures in many previous attempts to predict consumer behavior. It is not that the measures are inaccurate per se; it is simply that such measures are subsuming irrelevant aspects of the construction system and hence are incompatible with consumer behavior.

Thus far, we have implied that psychographics is the systematic operationalization of life style. And we have posited our focus of convenience as the consumer realms of behavior. In other words, we do not narrowly construe psychographics as we do not narrowly construe life style. But, we must be careful to delineate the limited ranges of convenience of our systems in order to (hopefully) lessen the possibility of obtaining incompatible results. This end, of course, is ideal and perhaps not concretely attainable.



Nevertheless, the continual striving towards the goal is necessary for the viability of a research tradition. This raises the question of what types of constructs should we consider regnant for the operation of life style within the focus of convenience we have posited. The major types are posited in the following definition which is an elaboration of the one by Hustad and Pessemier (see Figure 1):

Psychographics is the systematic use of relevant activity, interest, and opinion constructs to quantitatively explore and explain the communicating, purchasing, and consuming behaviors of persons for brands, products and clusters of products.

Diagrammatically, the component elements of the definition are shown in Figure 3. It should be noted that the dependent variables are also a part of persons' life styles. Each, then, might for some purposes be used as independent variables. In the main, however, these are viewed as instrumental behaviors engaged in to fulfill other aspects of persons' life styles. Moreover, they represent behaviors which, when conducted in certain ways bet not others, are determinant to the success of a firm's market offering. [For a more complete discussion of the dependent variables used in the analysis of consumer behavior, see Reynolds (1972).]

The independent variables are, of course, the psychographic constructs. The question, to which we now turn, is what set of AIO constructs is most likely to guide research toward fruitful ends?




Figure 4 depicts the major psychographic categories along with two other dimensions of consideration in the generation of a research instrument.




In the figure, only the major categories of AIO constructs are depicted. Each of these, however, can be specified further in an expanding tree diagram when necessary. For guidance purposes, one can use the major categories and then elaborate on them in terms of the problem at hand.

An activity is a manifest action and as such is usually observable (Hustad and Pessemier, 1971). Moreover, it can be viewed as an episode; i.e., as having a beginning and an end. The activities of people, then, are a series of episodes, connected end-to-end during a time period (Foote, 1966). The major categories of activities are leisure, work and reverie. Although each of these may be important for predicting certain types of behaviors, it appears that most psychographic research has focused upon leisure time and housework (Wind, 1971, and Wells, 1971).

An interest in some object, event, or topic is the degree of excitement that accompanies both special and continuing attention to it (Reynolds and Darden, 1972-73). Interests can be viewed in terms of two major categories, instrumental and terminal. An instrumental interest is one in which the topic of interest is viewed as a means to an end whereas a terminal interest is viewed as an end rather than a means. Much of the published works on interests have been of the instrumental kind, particularly vocational interests. More recent psychographic studies have explored, however, what a priori appear to be terminal interests such a fashion, child care, and homemaking. There is a continuing need, however, for research to determine the natural classifications of interests. Community mindedness, for example, might be a terminal interest construct for some Persons and an instrumental one for others.

An opinion is a verbal or written 'answer' that a person gives in response to stimulus situations in which some 'question' is raised. It is used to describe interpretations, expectations, and evaluations--such as beliefs about the intentions of other people, anticipations concerning future events, and appraisals of the rewarding or punishing consequences of alternative courses of action (Hovland, et al., 1953).

In one sense, most psychographic research can be typed as opinion research because of the nature of data collection--self report rather than direct observation. In a more appropriate sense, and one that is also congruent with the above definition, an opinion can be viewed as the expression of a belief, attitude, or value (Rokeach, 1968 ). Beliefs, attitudes and values are of course, hypothetical constructs and hence unobservable. They must be inferred from stated opinions or other behaviors. Nevertheless, the belief and value systems surrounding objects and situations are important aspects of psychographic research. Furthermore, there is an extensive body of theoretical and empirical literature in this area; particularly noteworthy is the work of Rokeach and his colleagues (1968a, 1968b, 1968-69) which appears to be highly consistent to the theory of Personal constructs.

Persons' Views

In the discussion of life style it was noted that people have the capacity to retain their own identities while representing other forms of reality. This suggests that researchers consider persons' views toward themselves, toward other persons, and toward aspects of situations (the physical world). Much of the AIO work published, however, emphasizes views toward self (Wind, 1971). There is, then, the need to continue exploring other aspects of persons' views.

Construct Relevancy

"Relevance" implies a traceable connection and a significant one in the sense that it contributes to the understanding of the matter at hand. Thus, in commenting on the relevancy of psychographic constructs, we are interested in the degree to which such constructs contribute to our understanding and prediction of consumer behavior. In examining their relevancy we are not addressing reliability, validity, etc. in a measurement sense; rather the the central issue deals with the generalized--specificity continuum that has been noted by Ziff (1971) and Hustad and Pessemier (1971).

Basically, the general-specific continuum refers to the degree to which the operations employed in a psychographic study approach product or brand specific attributes. Table 1 illustrates the nature of measures approaching each end of the continuum as well as an intermediary position. The nature of these measures is clear. The first opinion leadership scale makes no mention of products or product classes, and is, therefore, general. The second scale moves to a more specific nature in that it is composed of statements related to the topic area of clothing fashions. The third scale illustrates further movement toward specificity in that consumer communicating activities are assessed toward a specific product, the midi.

Some important consequences follow the option taken as to the nature of the measures employed. Primary among these are the costs and flexibility of a given psychographic instrument. In general, the greater the generality of the measures the less costly and more flexible the instrument. Generalized measures are relatively less costly in the sense that they can be used as a standardized battery of measures repeatedly across a variety of contexts without redevelopment. Greater flexibility is achieved with general measures since a single psychographic instrument can be used to explore AIO relationships for a vast number of products and brands. Moving towards the specific end of the continuum, however, increases the developmental costs and reduces the flexibility of the instrument. As Ziff (1971) expressed it: "using product-oriented or benefit variables infers the necessity of tailoring the psychographic instrument to an individual product, or at least to a class of products similar in nature."

From the standpoint of costs and flexibility it would appear that generalized interest and activity measures hold an inherent advantage over more specific measures. Yet, our criterion of relevancy is not necessarily equated with the costs and flexibility of an instrument. Rather it is the degree to which our understanding and prediction of consumer behavior is enhanced.

Two studies have sought to examine the relevancy question empirically. In the first, Ziff (1971) concluded that the more product specific measures yielded relatively more insight than did general measures: ". . . the individual product segmentations, by virtue of their concentration on attitudes relevant to a particular class of products, provided a much deeper understanding of the values and needs in a product class than did the overall segmentation." Yet, given the greater insight obtained from specific measures, ziff also found that the more general measures yielded identifiable and understandable psychographic segments of the drug market.

In the second study, Reynolds and Darden (1972a) found that specific measures were better predictors, statistically, than general measures. Nevertheless, they found that general measures yielded insight into the nature of the behavior not found in the specific measures. They concluded that general measures should continue to be combined with specific measures in psychographic research. This approach allows researchers to maintain sufficient flexibility and prediction while lessening costs of instrument development.

In addition to the empirical quest for the answer to the relevancy question, the theory of personal constructs offers some useful guidelines.

The range corollary states that a personal construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only. This implies that consumers have few, if any, constructs which are universally relevant for all types of products or other events. This corollary, of course, emphasizes the need for specific measures which, as noted, is also supported by existing research. Persons may construe products, however, in a sense not determined by traditional product classifications. We might find, for example, more similar constructions for clothing items and electrical appliances of high social visibility. Thus, while persons use certain constructs for a finite range of products, these constructs often cover a range, and this range is not necessarily (although in some instances it may be) synonymous with traditional product classifications such as electrical appliances, furniture, cosmetics, drugs, etc. The import seems clear: use product specific or benefit type measures for products construed by consumers only in terms of benefits and use more general measures that allow us to subsume construct systems within whose ranges clusters of products fall.



In addition, there is the managerial situation involving the introduction of new products and/or suggesting new constructs to consumers with which to differentiate existing products. In these situations the modulation corollary of personal construct theory sheds insight since, in the assumptive structure of the theory, it establishes the conditions which governs the change within a person's construction system. In essence, the modulation corollary tells us that if we wish to change some aspect of a person's life style we must operate within his permeable superordinate constructions or the broader aspects of his life style. And, although it has not been demonstrated, we suspect that the more general psychographic measures come closer to subsuming consumers' superordinate subsystems than specific measures. Rokeach's (1968b) discussion of value systems implies this also. If this is so, the use of a relatively large number of general measures may prove more helpful in situations where we desire to change some aspect of consumer behavior. This needs exploration, however, in terms of the superordinate-subordinate relationships of psychographic measures and their epistemology with consumer construction systems.


This paper represents an attempt to develop an operational construction of life style, one that provides a meaningful organization to the phenomena and one that allows the possibility of deriving from the framework a set of stimuli that are relevant to respondents in research situations.

Since the framework specifies only the crucial component elements of life style analysis, there is much work yet to be done. Hopefully, this paper will stimulate additional formulations and research addressed to the questions raised in the paper.


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Fred D. Reynolds, University of Georgia
William R. Darden, University of Georgia


SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1972

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