The Broadened Concept: Toward a Taxonomy of Consumption Situations


Brian Sternthal and Gerald Zaltman (1975) ,"The Broadened Concept: Toward a Taxonomy of Consumption Situations", in SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, eds. Gerald Zaltman and Brian Sternthal, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 141-150.

Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior, 1975      Pages 141-150


Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University

Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh

Broadening the concept of consumer behavior to include purchase and consumption activities performed in health, education, and welfare contexts is justifiable from practical, methodological, and theoretical perspectives. From a practical standpoint, broadening the concept of consumer behavior suggests that demand estimation and modification techniques may be applicable in contexts beyond the traditional marketing settings in which they were developed. Indeed, Shama (this volume) has demonstrated that once a common language has been established linking traditional marketing concepts and techniques to nontraditional areas of inquiry, their application in these new settings readily follows. In effect, by assuming a broadened concept of consumer behavior the arbitrary boundaries that distinguish health, education, and welfare issues from those dealing with traditional economic goods and services are eradicated, reducing the likelihood that strategies already proven to be effective in one context are rediscovered in another.

Broadening the concept of consumer behavior also enables methodological rigor that is often impractical in traditional marketing contexts. For example, while it is feasible to obtain measures of actual purchase in the prediction of behavior studies, the cost of such measures is high. Alternatively, a self-reported measure of behavior may be employed; however, this operationalization does not always accurately reflect individuals' actual behavior (Evans et al., 1970). In contrast, by using, say, a voting context, as Yalch has done (This-volume), it is possible to obtain an unobtrusive measure of behavior that is necessary for a rigorous test of alternative behavioral prediction models.

Finally, a broad concept of what constitutes purchase and consumption situations is useful in constructing consumer behavior theory. Although it has become widely recognized in the past few years that situational factors are important behavioral mediators (Belk, 1974; Mischel, 1968), there have been few attempts made to categorize situations in terms of their effect (Belk, 1974; Frederiksen, 1972). The broadened concept provides a wide spectrum of consumption contexts on which to develop such a taxonomy. Indeed, classifying situations in ter-ms of health, education, and welfare is arbitrary and based on physical similarities of the situations rather than reflecting communalities in situational effects on behavior.

The purpose of this paper is to outline an empirically grounded taxonomy of consumption situations. More specifically, the classification scheme is based on research conducted in "broadened" consumption contexts. Although the taxonomy of situations developed makes no pretense of being comprehensive, it does present a foundation on which refinements may subsequently follow. To achieve this purpose, the major approaches to examining situational effects are reviewed. on the basis of these data, a taxonomy is developed, and the value of this classification scheme for understanding consumer behavior in broadened as well as traditional contexts is discussed.


In one of the few attempts to assess the effects of situations on buyer behavior, Belk (1974) defined a situation as "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 systematic effect on current behavior"(P-157). This definition is useful because it describes situations in terms of their effects rather than stimulus properties, and it is situational effects which are of concern in developing modification strategies. Furthermore, the definition provides a convenient framework for discussing the literature pertaining to situationalism.

Correlational Approach to Situationalism

One approach to account for the effect of situational factors on behavior is correlational. This entails incorporating the individual's disposition toward the specific behavior in question into the prediction of behavior equation. Further, these investigations usually focus on broadened contexts. This strategy has been pursued by Ajzen and Fishbein (1969, 1970, 1972), who identified individual's attitude toward the act (Aact), personal normative beliefs (NBp) and social normative beliefs as important predictors of behavior. The meaning and efficacy of each of these person-by-situation predictors is briefly examined.

Fishbein (1967) has contended that one's attitude toward the performance of an act (Aact, e.g., purchasing a new car) yields better predictions of behavioral intentions and ultimate behavior than does the traditional attitude toward the object (Ao, e.g., new car) measure. Empirical tests of this conceptualization, however, have yielded less than univocal findings. Although Aact has been shown to contribute statistically significant amounts to the variance in behavioral intention (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1969, 1970, 1972; Breslin and Olmstead, 1973; Schwartz and Tessler, 1972), the amount of variance explained is often small. Further, in most studies which compared Aact and Ao measures, it has been observed that these alternatives had about the same predictive power; in fact, the correlations between Ao and Aact were usually significant and relatively high(e.g. Ajzen and Fishbein, 1969, r =.84; Breslin and Olmstead, 1973, Y=.83). Even when these measures were successfully distinguished, it was observed that Aact accounted for 3 per cent more of the variance in behavioral intention than did Ao (Schwartz and Tessler, 1972).

Thus while it seems logical to use a situation specific attitude measure (i.e., Aact ) to predict a specific behavioral intention or behavior, the empirical evidence indicates that there is little additional predictive power to be gained by incorporating situational factors into the attitude measure. Indeed, when behavior is the criterion, Ao and Aact have about the same predictive power.

Fishbein (1967) has also suggested two additional factors which attempt to incorporate situationalism into the prediction of behavior equation. one of these factors, social normative beliefs (NBs), refers to an individual's perception of the behavior expected by a specific social agent or "significant other." The other factor, personal normative beliefs (NBp) measures an individual's perception of the behavior he (she) personally feels he (she) ought to perform in a specific situation. Both these normative belief measures have been shown to make substantial contributions to the prediction of behavioral intention (see Ajzen, Fishbein, 1969, 1970; Schwartz and Tessler, 1972).

Situational contingencies have also been used to determine an individual's motivation to engage in a particular behavior. Wicker (1971) employed a judged influence of extraneous events measure (EE) for this purpose. Subjects were presented a scenario in which an unforeseen event occurred and were asked to assess the extent to which this factor would affect the performance of a behavior. For example, one question asked subjects to evaluate what effect having weekend guests who did not attend church regularly would have on their church attendance behavior; In the two studies that have measured the EE factor, it accounted for about 20 per cent of the variance in actual behavior (Breslin and Olmstead, 1973; Wicker, 1971).

The judged influence of extraneous events appears to be an important predictor of behavior. The fact that it accounts for a substantial portion of the variation in behavior indicates the important influence situational factors exert on behavior. However, the extraneous events variable does not suggest the specific situational cues that influence behavior, as do NBp and NBs. Rather, it merely indicates the importance of the situation as a behavioral determinant. This same observation can be made regarding several other approaches employed to increase the variance in behavior accounted for by predictor variables. For example, repeated observation of the behavioral criterion (e.g., of the last ten detergent purchases six were Tide purchases) has been shown to enhance the predictive power of dispositional variables relative to a dichotomous criterion (e.g., bought Tide, didn't buy Tide; Tittle and Hill, 1967). The superiority of a scaled behavioral criterion illustrates the importance of situational cues on behaviors and indicates how the effects of non-recurring situational effects may be attenuated. It does not, however, identify the situational factors that affect behavior. Similarly, the observation that standardized beta coefficients in a regression equation predicting behavior change in response to situational changes indicates the importance of situational effects without identifying what those situational factors are (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1969, 1970, 1972).

Experimental Approaches to Situationalism

Information Integration. Experimental investigations pertaining to situationalism provide a more adequate paradigm for identifying the effects of situational variables on consumer behavior than do correlational studies. Using an experimental approach, the effect of situational cues on the way decision makers integrate information has been examined. Wright (1975) reported that individuals forced to make evaluations under considerable time pressure stressed negative data than did decision makers subjected to less pressure. Webster (1964) found a similar focus on negative data among interviewers given the task of selecting among applicants for a job. Apparently, the risk of a Type II error was perceived to be greater than that (i.e., choosing someone who should not be selected) associated with a Type I error (i.e., excluding someone who should be selected). Further, Jacoby, Speller, and Berning (1974) observed that the decision time increased as choice alternatives were increased from 4 to 16, suggesting that the information integration task was made more complicated by having more options to evaluate.

While experimental work pertaining to integration indicates that factors such as time pressure, risk, and the number choice alternatives affect the way information is integrated, sufficient data are not yet available to base a taxonomy on these results. Indeed, experimental data marshaled to test self-perception theory (Bem, 1972) provides a more viable basis on which to proceed in developing a classification of situations.

Self-Perception Theory

According to self-perception theory, individuals' consumption activities are causally related to their-prior behavior. In making causal inferences about their behavior, people examine their prior behavior and the circumstances in which that behavior occurred (Bem, 1972). More specifically, behavior is likely to cause a belief about the social object (I used a particular educational technique because of its value as a pedagogical device), if it is perceived to have been elicited by the individual's reactions to that object. On the other hand, if behavior is perceived to have been elicited by external causal factors (I used the educational technique because of administrative pressure), the individual is likely to discount internal motivations as the cause of his/her behavior.

One hypothesis suggested by self-perception theory is that when a person's behavior is attributed to the inherent attributes of the object, his attitude towards that object becomes more positive and increases the likelihood of subsequent behaviors of the same genre. Support for this hypothesis is given by studies done under the rubric of the foot-in-the-door technique. This paradigm entails asking individuals to comply with a small behavioral request in the hope that compliance with the request will increase the likelihood of compliance with subsequent larger solicitations.

In a seminal study of the foot-in-the-door technique, Freedman and Fraser (1966) found that individuals who agreed to comply with a small request exhibited a greater willingness to comply with a large behavioral request than did people who were asked to comply only with the large request (i.e. cold called). [All subjects complied with the small request thus avoiding the problem of self-selection.] Subsequent investigations, performed in a variety of consumption contexts, have generally replicated the foot-in-the-door finding, and have served to specify the conditions under which it is likely to be observed. Pliner, Hart, Kohl, and Saabi (1974) reported that compliance with a large request, donating money to charity, was greater when preceded by a small or moderate request than by no request. However, the average dollar amount donated by those who contributed did not vary according to whether or not participants had previously been asked to comply with a small request. Baron (1973) replicated the foot-in-the-door finding but only when the initial request was very small. Conversely, Cialdini (in review), failed to replicate the foot-in-the-door finding, probably because the small and large requests were made in close temporal proximity.

In sum, the foot-in-the-door studies indicate that in some contexts, situational cues do not mediate behavior. As is predicted by self-perception theory, in such cases where performance of a behavior is readily attributable to internal causes, the likelihood of complying with subsequent larger requests is enhanced.

Also in accord with self-perception theory are studies which manipulate circumstantial or situational factors in which behavior occurs and find that these discounting cues undermine the persistence of behavior. Doob and his coworkers (1969) introduced new brands of frequently-purchased consumer products in some stores at-discounted prices and in other stores at competitive price levels. As one might expect, the demand for the brands was substantially higher in stores where there was a discount than in ones where it sold at the regular price. However, when the discount was eliminated after nine days, stores initially selling the products at competitive prices outsold those stores initially selling the product at a discount during the remaining weeks of the study.

In self-perception terms, the low initial price served as a discounting cue that undermined the attribution of purchase to attributes of the brand. Rather, it is likely that purchase was attributed to the discount. When the discount was removed so was the motivation for purchase. In contrast, for those who purchased the new brand at a competitive price, the behavior was likely to be attributed to characteristics of the brands, thus resulting in repurchase.

Evidence for the self-perception hypothesis that situational cues which are contiguous with behavior affects the likelihood of subsequent behavior also obtains from studies employing an over-justification paradigm (Calder and Staw, 1975; Kruglanski, Riter, Amitai, Shabtai, and Zaksh, 1975; Lepper and Greene, 1975). Over-justification entails providing an extrinsic reward for performing behaviors that are intrinsically attractive and observing the effect on related subsequent behaviors. The findings of these studies has consistently been that the provision of an extrinsic reward for performing already attractive behaviors results in a decrease in subsequently engaging in that behavior relative to one that had not initially been over-incentivized.

The Doob et al. study (1969) and those employing an over-justification paradigm support the self-perception theory prediction that certain situational cues such as incentives may cause people to discount internal dispositions as the motivation for their behavior and thus undermine the persistence of these behaviors. On the other hand, some situational cues may enhance behavioral persistence. For example, if a consumer tries a brand despite the fact that it is higher priced than competitive brands or despite the fact that it was suggested by an untrustworthy source, these situational cues are likely to augment the likelihood of repeat purchase. In self-perception terms, the performance of a behavior despite the presence of inhibitory cues strengthens an individual's belief that behavior is caused by internal factors and thus increases the likelihood of behavioral persistence.


Based on the correlational and experimental literature reviewed, we may proceed to develop a taxonomy of consumption situations. Correlational research pertaining to the prediction of behavior suggests that situational cues constitute important factors for consumer decision making. Behavioral predictors that incorporate situational influences in the measures of individuals' dispositions account for a greater portion of the variance in behavior than do dispositional factors per se. Further, it has been demonstrated that a scaled measure of the behavioral criterion reduces the impact of nonrecurring situations and thus increases the predictive power of dispositional factors relative to a dichotomous criterion.

These correlational data provide evidence for the importance of situational cues as determinants of consumer behavior. They do not, however, allow specification of the situational cues that influence consumption. This information is provided by experimental investigations, particularly those examining the causal antecedents of self-perception. It is on this evidence that a taxonomy of situations is based.

The self-perception studies reviewed earlier suggest that there are essentially two types of situational cues: ones that facilitate behavior and ones that inhibit it. Further, these investigations indicate that both the immediate and long-term impact of situational cues on consumer behavior should be examined in developing a classification scheme. Situational cues that are contiguous with the performance of a behavior and increase the likelihood of a behavioral response are classified as facilitators of immediate response. However, since these facilitators may cause behavior to be attributed to the situation rather than internal dispositions, they undermine repeat behavior if absent. Thus, they are also appropriately classified as inhibitors of behavioral persistence. Incentives, high credibility communicators, and time pressure are examples of situational cues that are correctly classified under the label of contiguous behavior facilitators and persistence inhibitors. Using the same line of reasoning behaviors performed in situations where costs were high, a communicator's credibility was low and the like would be classified as inhibitors of contiguous behavior and facilitators of behavioral persistence.

To illustrate the taxonomy, consider the investigation reported by Scott (this volume). A situation where people were asked to accept a trial offer of a newspaper at half price would be classified in the same category as a situation where people were asked to recycle newspapers with no incentive. In both cases the situational cues are such that they are likely to facilitate behavioral persistence since behavior is most readily attributed to internal causes. Similarly, situations where people were asked to comply with a free newspaper trial offer would be placed in the same category as situations where people were asked to recycle newspapers in return for a $3 payment. Here, situational cues are likely to facilitate compliance but undermine behavioral persistence.

The classification of situational cues as facilitator-inhibitor or inhibitor-facilitator has several noteworthy attributes. First, it is based on the effects of situational cues on consumer response rather than on the physical attributes of the situation. Effect-based taxonomies are preferred to ones based on the physical attributes of situations since they are less likely Lo develop different categories for situational cues that have essentially the same type of impact of consumer behavior. While this superiority has been recognized by others, specific rules for effects-based categorizations have not previously been developed.

Second, the classification scheme incorporates the effect of situational cues on both contiguous behavior and behavioral persistence. This property distinguishes the view of situationalism from that presented by Belk (1974) which focuses on the immediate effects of situational cues. The temporal dimension is particularly important to marketers who depend on repeat purchase to build brand share. As the Doob et al. study (1969) illustrates, in these instances, situational strategies that build short-term demand may undermine long range demand. By focusing on both immediate and long term effects of situational cues, the present taxonomic scheme should reduce the likelihood of such myopic strategies.

Finally, the scheme for classifying situational cues suggested provides the common language necessary to investigate traditional and broadened contexts of consumer behavior within the same theoretical framework. The validity of this assertion is demonstrated in several of the manuscripts included in this monograph. For example, Florio observes that administrative, parental, and peer pressure is often employed to facilitate the implementation of educational innovations by teachers. These facilitators are similar to incentives, high credibility sources and other cues discussed earlier that facilitate contiguous behavior but undermine its persistence. Indeed, like other facilitators of contiguous behavior, the application of pressure to insure teacher implementation of educational innovations has resulted in the lack of their continued use over time (Chow et al., this volume; Florio, this volume).

The classification scheme can also be used to order observations made regarding consumers' health and welfare consumption practices. Wood's observation that there is a substantial attrition in the use of psychiatric services by patients shortly after beginning therapy may be attributed to the external pressure that initially caused patients to seek these services. Similarly, providing conditions that facilitate voting in an election may cause an individual to attribute voting to the ease of performing this task, thus undermining the likelihood of subsequent voting unless the facilitating conditions are present.

In sum, the classification of situational cues developed is based on the effects of situational cues on consumer behavior. Further, it accounts for the effects of situational cues on both contiguous behavior and behavioral persistence. Finally, it can be used to order the effects of situational cues that are present in health, education, and welfare contexts as well as more traditional economic goods and services consumption settings.


The basis for classification of situational cues described in this paper emerges essentially from self-perception theory. In turn, self-perception theory has been developed and tested using the so-called broadened contexts. For example, studies of the foot-in-the-door reviewed earlier have involved issues such as supporting ecology (Freedman & Fraser, 1966), donating money to charitable organizations (Pliner et al., 1974), and the like. Similarly, over-justification studies have been conducted primarily in educational contexts. Thus it might be argued that the efficacy of this theory beyond the social contexts in which it has been investigated is tenuous. However, this criticism is not valid in the present instance. Indeed, Scott (this volume) has demonstrated that self-perception theory orders the effects of situational cues present in traditional as well as a broadened context will equal efficiency. The findings reported by Doob et al. (1969) provide further support for the appropriateness of a self-perception based classification in traditional consumption settings.

Despite the value claimed for the taxonomy outlined, it is clearly only an initial step. Future research is needed to refine the basis on which situational cues are classified. of particular interest is the investigation of situational cues that inhibit immediate behavior but have no effect on behavioral persistence. Indeed, low credibility sources have been hypothesized to have this sleeper effect, though it has not been experimentally demonstrated (Capon and Hulbert).


The correlational and experimental data reviewed in this paper indicate the importance of situational cues on consumer behavior. Yet despite their apparent importance, little has been done to develop a taxonomy of situations.

On the basis of self-perception theory, a taxonomy of situations is suggested. Essentially, this entails classifying situational cues on the basis of their effect on contiguous as well as subsequent behavior rather than on the basis of their stimulus properties.

This classification scheme provides a foundation for investigating situational effects, and refinements will be needed to cover the variety of situational cues that may be present in broadened as well as traditional consumption contexts.


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Brian Sternthal, Northwestern University
Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh


SV - Broadening the Concept of Consumer Behavior | 1975

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