Researching the Broadened Concept of Consumer Behavior


Carol A. Scott (1975) ,"Researching the Broadened Concept of Consumer Behavior", in SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, eds. Gerald Zaltman and Brian Sternthal, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 25-34.

Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, 1975      Pages 25-34


Carol A. Scott, Assistant Professor of Marketing, The Ohio State University

The introduction of the broadened concept of marketing (Kotler and Levy, 1969a) and social marketing (Kotler and Zaltman, 1971) touched off perhaps the most heated debates among marketers in recent times (see Bartels, 1974; Kotler and Levy, 1969b; Luck, 1969; Luck, 1974). Although one author suggests that this has resulted in no less than an "identify crisis" in marketing (Bartels, 1974), a majority of marketing academicians agree that the discipline should not be restricted to commercial business marketing of economic goods and services (Nickels, 1974). The broadening of marketing, however, necessarily implies a broadening of consumer behavior, and it is here that the controversy has continued. While there is some agreement that marketing management techniques can be used to analyze a variety of situations, the concern about whether consumer behavior is the same or different across commercial and social situations still persists.

The controversy over the transferability of consumer behavior concepts and theories is ironic, considering the years of debate over the borrowing of concepts and theories from the social sciences (see Robertson and Ward, 1974) by consumer researchers. Now, the reverse problem of whether consumer behavior research can be transferred to social settings and problems is being considered. As Nakanishi, Cooper, and Kassarjian (1974) observe:

. . . after several decades of borrowing theories, models, and concepts from the social sciences to apply to consumer behavior issues, we may well have reached the point where our models have become sophisticated enough that they can be applied to problems other than to the selection of canned peas (p. 42).

It would seem that the findings consumer behavior research predicated upon theories derived and tested in non-commercial settings, there should be no question about the generality of these findings.

The "borrowing!' and the "transferability" debates can be viewed as merely two sides of a continuing question. Namely, to what extent do situational factors influence behavior, and therefore, to what extent should situational factors be considered when building models and theories of behavior? In the area of consumer behavior, these unresolved question arise at least in part from a lack of evidence for the generality of consumer behavior theories, and from a lack of attention to the explanatory processes or mechanisms underlying behavior relative to the description of that behavior. These deficiencies are evident when one considers only traditional, commercial product settings, much less when "social" marketing contexts are included. Only recently have marketers begun to examine explicitly the effects of situational variables on consumer behavior (Belk, 1974). To date, this research remains at a descriptive level, asking merely whether choice varies according to purchase or consumption settings. The remaining question, however, is: What are the processes underlying behavioral outcomes, and how do contextual factors mediate these processes?

The purpose of this paper is two-fold. First, criteria for research examining the questions raised by a broadened concept of consumer behavior are suggested. Second, an account of an attempt to implement these criteria in an empirical investigation is presented in order to highlight both the advantages of the approach and the problems that may be encountered.


The broadened concept of consumer behavior raises the issue of whether the process of choice and consumption behavior and, more importantly, the behavioral response to marketing variables differ between commercial and social settings. Research, therefore, is required which is cross-situational, fLeld experimental, and explanatory. The rationale for these three criteria and some requirements which are implicit in them will be discussed briefly in this section.

Cross-situational Designs

The first criterion for research seeking to investigate the specificity or generility of behavioral phenomena or behavioral theories is that research designs be cross-situational. only when the same experimental procedure is replicated across settings which vary along some specified dimension can definite statements be made regarding the effects of the situational factors. Although this criterion may be obvious to most researchers, few seem to employ it when research is conducted. Research in the social marketing area, for example, has too frequently assumed that a particular relationship or theory has been proved to be valid in a commericial context, and then proceeded to apply the relationship or theory to social problems. Often, however, our understanding of the commercial context itself is inadequate. Incentive and discount strategies, commonly used by marketers to encourage trial and hopefully repeat purchases, for instance, are now being employed in areas such as family planning in an attempt to change long-term behavioral patterns (see Rogers, 1973a, 1973b). However, little published evidence exists in the marketing literature on the long-term effectiveness of such strategies. While many researchers are concerned about whether concepts and theories are valid when transferred to social areas, not enough researchers combine this concern with an empirical check of their validity in the traditional marketing areas. Both situations require testing.

Cross -situational research carries the implicit requirement that situations be classified along some dimension. Which variables should be used to distinguish one context from another? Belk (1974) defines situational factors as "all those factors particular to a time and place of observation which do not follow from a knowledge of personal (intra-individual) and stimulus (choice alternative) attributes, and which have a demonstrable and systemic effect on current behavior" (p. 157). While this narrows the field somewhat, this definition still leaves the question of specific situational factors open.

The need for some typology or at least defining of situational factors is evident if one considers the range of topics which have been included under the term "social marketing." originally applied to social ideas (Kotler and Zaltman, 1971), the concept of social marketing was controversial because the terms of exchange were non-monetary (time, effort, etc.), the motivation for acceptance was generally societal rather than personal welfare, and the goal of the marketing effort might be something other than an overt act (acceptance of an idea, for example, rather than sales). In its present use, however, the term has been used to cover such diverse topics as nutritional food marketing, ecologically-sound detergent marketing, public policy issues, religious programs, museum and charity fund raising drives, and the like (for a sample of such issues see Sheth and Wright, 1974). Many of these areas do involve monetary transactions, the sale of a physical product, and personal welfare. on what dimension should a situation be measured to determine whether it is commercial or social? Within each classification of commercial versus social settings there may be so many differences as to make this dichotomy useless. If cross-situational research is to be meaningful, the researcher must specify explicitly on which dimension the situations differ.

Explanatory Variables

The second criterion for researching the broadened concept of consumer behavior is that research designs must focus more explicitly on explaining behavior and include techniques for measuring the process or mechanism underlying behavior. That is, research must be concerned with explanation as well as prediction and control. Past studies have demonstrated that consumer behavior research techniques (segmentation analysis, demographic and/or personality profiles, etc.) are useful in analyzing non-commercial marketing problems (see El-Ansary and Kramer, 1973; Mindak and Bybee, 1971; and Nakanishi, Cooper, and Kassarjian, 1974). With few exceptions however, extant research has not provided evidence as to the generality of the process of behavior across contexts. For example, social psychological research has shown that subvocal counterargumentation is one mechanism by which persuasion is inhibited (Greenwald, 1968). Wright (1973) replicated these findings using commercial advertisements. Although both studies cited are laboratory designs, they suggest a generality of process or mechanism across persuasive contexts. Without an attempt to investigate the explanatory principle (i.e., subvocal counterarguuentation), one would be left at the point of analyzing and comparing predictive results with no basis for understanding why they are different or similar.

Attempts to measure explanatory variables are of practical as well as of theoretical importance. An understanding of why a particular relationship holds, provides insight into generating strategies to influence behavior. Brand loyalty research, for example, has focused on predicting (probabilistically) future behavior from the patter of past actions (Bass, 1974; Draper & Nolin, 1964, Kuehn, 1962, for examples). This research, however, does not specify the variables which could be manipulated in order to influence repeat purchase probabilities. Refocusing on explanation of behavior (why past behavior does or does not determine future behavior) allows for demand modification as well as demand estimation.

Field Experimentation

Research pertaining to the broadened concept of consumer behavior should be field experimental in design. Most of the borrowing that consumer behavior researchers have done has been from laboratory studies conducted by investigators in other disciplines. The expertise of consumer behavior researchers has been in applying these findings in naturalistic settings, and it is in the area of application that contributions would be most meaningful, Field experiments provide the badly needed external validation of concepts and theories, and, of-course, are the most useful in terms of generating strategies to solve social problems. This is not to say that laboratory research should ceasel rather the value of laboratory experiments must be placed in the proper perspective. Variables, measures, and theories can be initially tested and refined in laboratory settings and thus provide a stronger base from which to conduct the more expensive field test. However, just as the marketing manager is usually not content to observe "sales" in a laboratory, neither will executives of other organizations be satisfied to see a problem solved under artificial conditions.

These three criteria are all related to one another, and their simultaneous implementation will produce a synergy that will great strengthen the confidence in research results. Cross-situational studies allow for the investigation of specific situational factors and for a test of the generality of the theoretical base if explanatory variables are included. Field experimentation provides the external validity, but at the same time allows for a predictive test of the causal variables and relationships postulated by the theory. Taken together, these three criteria maximize the probability of being able to explain, predict, and control behavior.


Recently, the author attempted to implement the research criteria discussed above in a study of the long-term behavioral effects of trial and incentive offers (Scott, 1975). Cents-off coupons, introductory offers, limited-time trial offers and graduated selling techniques are, of course, frequently used by marketers to encourage initial purchase of a brand in the hope that repeat purchase behavior will be obtained. Use of incentive strategies has spread to many areas of social change (see Rogers, 1973a, 1973b; Stein and Miller, 1973). Somewhat surprisingly, it is in the social science literature that one finds any clues as to the long-run efficacy of such strategies. This evidence, although primarily anecdotal, suggests that despite the positive short-term effects of incentives on behavior (i.e., initial purchases or trials are greatly increased), the long term effects are less positive and may in fact be negative.

Developments in behavior theory, most notable in self-attribution theory, provide a framework for analyzing the behavior effects of trial and incentive strategies, and the mechanism by which past behavior influences future actions. Self-attribution theory (Bem, 1965, 1972) postulates that individuals infer their own attitudes, motivations, emotions, and other internal states partly by observing their own past behavior and/or the circumstances surrounding that behavior. According to the discounting principle of attribution theory (Kelley, 1971), behavior is attributed to the individual's own characteristics when it is a credible indicator of his internal state, i.e., when no other external plausible causes are present. Thus, a small behavior taken in the direction of an object under conditions of no incentive should be attributed to the individual's own internal motivations while the same behavior enacted under incentive conditions should be attributed to the reward or incentive to be gained. The former is likely to be interpreted by an individual as evidence for a positive attitude toward - the object or action, and thus lead to future behavior in the positive direction. The latter, on the other hand, should indicate no positive affect toward the object or action, and therefore should have no effect on future behavior. In fact, some evidence from laboratory studies suggests that the presence of incentives may result in negative feelings, reduced tendency to approach the object or action, and a decrease in intrinsic motivation or interest (Deci, 1971; Kruglanski, Freedman and Zeevi, 1971; Lepper, 1973; Lepper, Nisbett and Greene, 1973). Thus incentive and trial strategies may be analyzed as to their effects on an individual's attribution of action, or the phenomenological meaning of action.

Defining the Situation

Incentive and trial strategies are widely used in both marketing and social change programs. Although these strategies are generally assumed to be successful in traditional marketing contexts, there is little understanding of the process or mechanism by which they work or of whether the contradictory findings from social change programs indicates a genuine difference between contexts or merely a failure to adequately test strategy effects. Therefore, a study was designed to investigate the long run effects of incentive and trial strategies in both a traditional marketing context and a less traditional, social context.

The first task in designing a cross -situational research paradigm is to select a dimension along which two situations differ. As a first approximation, situations were selected which differed in terms of exchange. In traditional marketing settings, monetary payment is required of the consumer to consumate the exchange. Although some "social marketing" contexts contain this same requirement (health services usage, charity contributions, etc.), others require only an exchange of time and effort. A "social" context for this study was selected from this second group.

A criterion for both the commercial and social settings was introduced to increase the relevance of the study and strengthen the test of the theoretical base. In both contexts, attitudes toward the product or issue had to be either generally favorable or at least neutral. The extant attitude literature indicates that in many instances positive attitudes or preferences do not necessarily predict behavior (see Yalch, 1974 for a review). one often finds strong attitudinal agreement with issues such as recycling, pollution control, population planning, nutritional diets, and the like, but little behavioral enactment of these attitudes. The interest in this experiment centered on the ability of a behavioral influence strategy to energize or mobilize attitudes into action. Further, a situation of over-justification (see Lepper, Green, and Nisbett, 1973; Lepper, 1973) in which behavior could be justified on the basis of payment and attitude would provide the strongest test of attribution theory. [The strongest rival theory is cognitive dissonance. However, the dissonance theory does not speak to situations of over-justification.]

Thus, two situations were selected. A local community newspaper which had recently been placed on the market was used for the commercial marketing setting. A social context consistent with the two criteria specified, recycling was selected. For both of these situations, attitudes were either positive or neutral and behavioral expression of these attitudes was low. [Neutrality of attitudes toward the newspaper was expected because no promotional efforts had been undertaken. This was confirmed by the general unfamiliarity with the product demonstrated by respondents. An attitude survey conducted on a control group of residents in the sampling community indicated positive attitudes toward recycling.] Both were amenable to a trial or incentive behavior strategy. Further, the commercial setting would require an exchange of money while the social context would require only an exchange of time or effort on the patt of the consumer.

Field Experimental Design and Procedure

Following the research criteria set forth requires field experimental designs with identical or closely parallel procedures implemented across situations. In this research, two field experiments were created to resemble as nearly as possible naturalistic or real-world conditions. The newspaper experiment was conducted under the guise of a promotional campaign for the product and was almost identical to campaigns that had been used for other products previously. The recycling experiment utilized student experimenters to solicit support for a campus organization. Since the community contains a major university, residents were expected to have few suspicions and not view the solicitation as unusual. Further, this type of solicitation effort is commonly used by community organizations.

In each experiment, a randomly selected subject population was contacted and asked to comply with a small initial request under conditions of either no incentive, a small incentive, or a larger incentive. [Three levels of incentive were included in the newspaper study, while only two were included in the recycling experiment.] In the newspaper study, respondents were asked to accept a two-week trial subscription at either the regular price (no incentive), a 50 percent discount, 100 percent discount (free), or 100 percent discount plus a small coupon redeemable at a local restaurant. The recycling respondents were asked to place a small sign promoting recycling in their window for a week and were paid nothing (no incentive), $1, or $3 to comply. Two weeks later, participants were contacted and asked to comply with a larger behavior. Newspaper subjects were asked to subscribe to the newspaper, and recycling subjects were asked to participate in a recycling program. A control group of subjects in each experiment were contacted only for the second request, i.e., subscription to newspaper or participation in recycling program.

Explanatory Measures

Several additional measures were introduced to complete the requirements of explanation. Half of the respondents in the recycling experiment were asked a series of questions immediately following the initial contact to ascertain the attribution of their actions. This measure was an attempt to directly assess the attribution mechanism. Further, recycling participants were interviewed after all experimental contacts had been completed and asked to respond to questions regarding attitudes toward recycling and personal activism (are you someone who takes action on his beliefs). Finally, the level of difficulty of second request was allowed to vary in the newspaper study (respondents select subscriptions for 6 months 1 year, 2 years) and was directly manipulated in the recycling study (participants were asked to do one of three tasks varying in difficulty). This allowed assessment of the strength of the strategy both on a voluntary and direct solicitation basis.


Although the magnitude of the incentives producing a particular effect varied, the patterns of data obtained from both experiments were remarkably similar. In both contexts, a trial or behavioral influence strategy was more effective in producing maintained behavior change than the cold solicitation approach (control groups). This difference was significant, however, only when no (both experiments) or very small (newspaper study only) incentives were offered. Contrary to what may be expected, increasing the amount of incentive did not significantly increase the percentage of persons either participating in the recycling project or subscribing to the newspaper.

The only difference between the data in the two contexts was that a relatively larger incentive was required in the newspaper study to produce the downward trend in behavior. Apparently, incentives for commercial products are so common that a very small amount does not register as a plausible external causal factor and, therefore, does not negate the attributional effects. Thus, the process seems to be stable across situations while magnitude of incentive necessary to produce comparable results varies.

The measures included to tap the attribution process directly produced equivocal results, but provide some evidence which suggests that attribution of the initial behavior to oneself rather than to an external incentive may contribute to the observed behavioral affect. More interestingly, there is some indication that a small behavior taken in the direction of an issue or object results in enhanced perceptions of general activism rather than more positive attitudes. The small amount of attitude change, however, could be due to a ceiling effect from the highly positive original attitudes.

Taken together, these results indicate that behavioral influence strategies are effective in producing maintained behavior change to the extent that the initial behavior is perceived to be a result of the individual's own motivations and beliefs. Further, they suggest that at least one past-behavior consequence is an increased perception of oneself as someone who takes action on his beliefs. Finally, the similar patterns of behavioral effects across contexts indicates a generality of the process underlying behavior and provides support for self-attribution theory.


Situationalism has become a fabhionable term in consumer behavior research,, and its implications are no more evident than in the application of consumer behavior research to social issues and problems. The present task is to conduct rigorous experimentation to discover both generality and specificity of behavioral processes in different contexts. Crosssituational field experiments focusing on explanatory concepts and mechanisms are required for this task. Implementation of these criteria, while difficult in many cases, provides an understanding of the processes underlying and the mediating effects of specific contexts.


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Carol A. Scott, Assistant Professor of Marketing, The Ohio State University


SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior | 1975

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