Providing Reinforcers For Environmentally Unconcerned Consumers

ABSTRACT - The marketing concept and behavioral learning theories both emphasize the need for positive reinforcement of behavior if repeat behavior is desired. In nonbusiness situations there is often a situation where there is individual cost and societal benefit but no individual benefit. The papers in this session show examples of this type of case in the area of ecological/environmental marketing and also suggest methods for dealing with this issue.


Michael L. Rothschild (1981) ,"Providing Reinforcers For Environmentally Unconcerned Consumers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 642-643.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 642-643


Michael L. Rothschild, University of Wisconsin


The marketing concept and behavioral learning theories both emphasize the need for positive reinforcement of behavior if repeat behavior is desired. In nonbusiness situations there is often a situation where there is individual cost and societal benefit but no individual benefit. The papers in this session show examples of this type of case in the area of ecological/environmental marketing and also suggest methods for dealing with this issue.


Important new areas have been entered into by marketers and consumer behavior researchers in the past few years. These include public sector, nonprofit and public policy arenas.

In the public and nonprofit areas one deals with a complex set of issues including intangible products and prices, which translate to difficult to perceive benefits and costs. In public policy issues one tries to aid policymakers who may need to have an impact upon the knowledge and/or behavior of the general public. The area of environmental and/or ecological concern touches on both of these thrusts (i.e. public/nonprofit and policy) as can clearly be seen in the three papers presented in this session.

Two other recent papers consider issues parallel to those of environmental concern from a consumer behavior perspective. These papers deal with marketing communications in nonbusiness situations (Rothschild 1979) and a behavioral learning theory perspective of marketing (Rothschild and Gaidis 1980). Both relate to the three papers of this session; the three environmental papers serve as examples of the points made in the two theoretical papers.

As the tools of marketing develop uses in these areas of societal thrust, one can see a weakening of the marketing concept. The marketing concept offers the philosophy that success is achieved through meeting the needs of consumers. A parallel model is offered by behavioral learning theory and states that the probability of any future behavior is increased when that behavior has been positively reinforced in the past. These two models are essentially identical.

As marketers attempt to meet societal needs, though, they may lose sight of the exhortation to meet individual needs as well. Individual behavior which is not reinforced will not be maintained in the long run. Examples of this paradox abound in nonbusiness cases; the three papers presented here provide just such cases. It is clear that there are societal benefits to be derived from appropriate individual behavior; it is far less clear that the costs associated with the individual behavior will be offset by individual benefits. These cases are, then, removed from the quid quo pro type of exchange which typifies private sector marketing. The three papers provide insights into dealing with these unbalanced types of exchanges,

One can also consider the policy implications of unbalanced exchange situations. If there is a societal benefit and a societal need then perhaps policymakers should be called upon to provide sufficient incentives for behavior so that the individual cost benefit relationship is perceived favorably. From this perspective policymakers as well as marketers are concerned with environmental issues.

Parenthetically, in the Henion, Gregory and Clee paper, reference is made to an earlier Henion paper (1978). In this paper Henion suggests that private enterprise is a viable alternative to governmental regulation in the area of environmental issues. That would seem to be a difficult assignment for a firm operating for profit. Perhaps sufficient individual reinforcers are only available through government subsidy; perhaps no individual firm or person has sufficient incentive to provide these reinforcers. An alternative to positive reinforcement which is available to government is brute force of law. Legislation may, by itself, provide adequate incentive for behavior. Again, the papers speak to this issue as well.

Figure 1 shows a model which combines education with positive reinforcement. Verbal learning theories can contribute to the top set of relationships; behavioral learning theories are necessary to the lower set of relationships. The three papers provide insight into application of this behavioral model.

Henion, Gregory and Clee discuss trade off analysis with respect to nonphosphate detergents and present a nicely done piece of research. An analysis of tradeoffs implies a search for reinforcers. One can see from their data that there are some individuals who will accept non-phosphates with their accompanying higher prices and lower cleaning power.



Given real world market shares it is clear, though, that most consumers do not see sufficient individual reinforcement in this product. Low phosphate detergents clearly provide a societal benefit but not an individual one. Low price and clean clothes help individuals; most individuals opt for these personal reinforcers.

The Henion, Gregory and Clee paper presents a useful method to show how consumers value the possible tradeoffs across attributes. Such a method would be useful in testing specific reinforcers and may also show that industry is unable to provide the necessary reinforcers. In this case the issue would become a policy one if society had a sufficient need for low phosphate detergents.

Crosby and Gill use path analysis to examine voting behavior with respect to a returnable bottle referendum in Michigan. Again a useful method is used well in providing insights as to motivations and reinforcers.

In this case the events were more policy related since voting on the proposed policy was about to occur. The main issue of the paper, though, concerns which reinforcers to use to motivate the voter. In this paper, as in the previous one, one sees that the group of environmentally concerned citizens is quite small in the absence of reinforcers and that the private sector was unable to provide sufficient individual benefit to gain appropriate behavior. The referendum was a test of societal needs. Passage of the referendum was a mandate to policymakers to provide sufficient incentives and/or legal sanctions.

The data show that perception of cost is the main driving variable of vote; this is consistent with behavioral learning theory. Where there is less concern with cost, more votes result; where the perception of cost is low, more votes result. Secondarily, behavioral variables are more important than attitudinal or SES variables. Again, individuals behave based on cost benefit relationships and reinforcers.

Later in their paper, Crosby and Gill state that the marketers of the bill marketed the benefits of reduced litter and minimized the perceived cost. Here a societal benefit (reduced litter) was transformed to an individual benefit and the individual benefit was minimized.

The third paper, by Blakely and Smith discusses the distribution of solar related products. Once again there is a case of insufficient reinforcement for consumers; demand for solar products is still quite low.

Blakely and Smith feel that a change in distribution systems (from a consumer directed to a builder/contractor directed system) would help to stimulate demand. Unfortunately the authors have no compelling argument as to why builders or contractors would be more reinforced than were consumers. These authors do, though, suggest a system of reinforcers. They point out the current lack of reinforcers and recommend a system of incentives and legislation. By doing so, they again bring a product class into the realm of public policy.

The three papers show commonality when considered within the framework of using reinforcers for nontraditional products. All too often private sector marketing tools are blindly applied to new situations. The profession is slowly learning that some nonbusiness problems are quite difficult and require new or modified marketing paradigms. The methods of path analysis and trade off analysis provide useful insights for dealing with these problems.

Researchers and practitioners in nonbusiness situations are urged to consider behavioral learning theory and the notion of reinforcement in dealing with these situations. Without reinforcers there will not be long-run behavior. The three papers in this session-provide applications of this model.


Henion, K. E. (1978), "Ecological Marketing: From Normative to Descriptive Model?" in Future Directions in Marketing, J. Arndt, G. Fisk and K. Gr°nhaug, Eds., Boston: Marketing Science Institute, 301-311.

Rothschild, M. L. (1979), "Marketing Communications in Nonbusiness Situations or Why Its So Hard to Sell Brotherhood Like Soap," Journal of Marketing, 43, 2, 11-20.

Rothschild, M. L. and Gaidis, W. C. (1980), "Behavioral Learning Theory: Its Relevance to Marketing and Promotions" University of Wisconsin Working Paper Series.



Michael L. Rothschild, University of Wisconsin


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

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