Presidential Address


Gerald Zaltman (1983) ,"Presidential Address", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-5.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 1-5


Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh, Albert Wesley Frey Professor or Marketing, and Director, Doctoral Program.

[I would like to express my gratitude to several persons who read this paper and provided great insight: Rohit Deshpande, Melanie Wallenforf, Elizabeth Hirschman, J. Paul Peter, Michael Ryan, Jerry Olson, Mark Alpert, Angelina Villarreal, C.W. Park, Seoil Chaiy, and Linda Price. Special thanks are also extended to the Ph.D. students in my doctoral seminar who also made valuable contributions to this paper.]

A few months ago I had occasion to wrestle with the issue of scientific discovery and scientific justification. The particular problem concerned just how separable the logic of discovering phenomena is from the logic of testing what we discover. I concluded that having separate logics is neither necessary nor desirable (Cook and Campbell, 1979; Webb, et al, 1981, especially Chapter 3; Brown, 1977; Reinharz, 1979). [There are, of course, multiple logics for discovery and for testing. The point is that whichever logic we use to test ideas need not preclude the discovery or ideas and vice versa.] I also concluded that the quaint but prevalent notion of separate logics is a major barrier to the development of consumer behavior theory.

Since these thoughts seemed to stimulate some healthy discomfort among a number of colleagues, I originally thought they might also serve as the basis for my Presidential Address. I put a lot of effort into this issue and I knew our luncheon menu today would provide m-e with a tine rival hypothesis should anyone attempt to attribute their gastric or other psychosomatic distress to my remarks. However, I was not to be let off so easily. Just recently I read a book by the British botanist Rupert Sheldrake which puts forth a remarkable theory of causation (Sheldrake, 1981). His book was so provocative that I began wondering about how he encountered his ideas. That led me to thinking about certain aspects of creative discovery in consumer behavior research. It is these thoughts which I would like to share with you in this Presidential Address.


An overview of the basic argument to be made in this address may be helpful. First, I make the assertion that the quality of our research primarily follows the quality of our ideas or concepts. This is an assertion that some of you may challenge. However, I trust no one would dispute the general importance of concept development. I then observe that while we have not done at all badly with our current ideas we Day soon be depleting most of what they have to offer. [The important issue as to why these ideas may soon be depleted is not addressed in this paper.] These ideas or concepts are basically disciplinary in origin. However, the behaviors we want to study do not conform very we H with customary disciplinary divisions. Accepting disciplinary concepts creates the polite fib that we are using appropriate frames of reference when studying consumers. Evidence exists that we are not. As a or this police fib we systematically overlook certain events. These overlooked or hidden events are a major source of new concepts. Most of my comments will focus on the nature of these hidden events since they are important for our growth as a field. I shall then comment on ways of encountering interesting hidden events. These comments will note the importance of common sense as a source of hidden events. The importance of serendipity in the discovery of these events will also be discussed. To put it all backwards: by programming serendipity and by exploring systems of common sense we are more likely to encounter events which are hidden by present disciplinary frames of reference. Hidden events. in turn, are the source of new concepts on which the continued growth of our field is so dependent.


The Nature of Ideas and Their Role in Science

It is the special nature of ideas that they generally grow more rapidly than does their supporting evidence. Although ideas do not emerge in the absence of empirical stimuli, they are often felt with an intensity and developed with a clarity that is not fully warranted by overt facts. Actually, it is generally only after these ideas emerge that we seek overt and proper evidence. And I feel this is as it should be. After all, "Science is primarily an activity of extending perception into new contexts and into new forms, and only secondarily a means of obtaining what may be called reliable knowledge" (Bohm, 1977). Therefore the intellectual growth of our field lies in the growth of new ideas among its researchers. It is very important that we understand some of the barriers to the encountering of new ideas and to the offering of new perceptions in our field. These barriers are insufficiently understood or, if understood, are insufficiently appreciated.

Before proceeding I would like to caution you not to conclude that I am being particularly critical of our field. That would be erroneous for two reasons. First, the issues to be addressed are as important and at least as ignored in other social science traditions as they are in our own. Second, by most standards, the advancement of knowledge in our field has been impressive. The overall quality of work is high. The variety of areas we cover is broad. The boldness of many of our researchers is-refreshing. Thus I feel we are justified in feeling some pride in the way the consumer behavior field has advanced. We are not yet guilty of misleading advertising or of excessive pufferism in titling our yearly proceedings Advances in Consumer Research.

However, all is not peaches and cream. There are crab apples in the dessert. And their taste is bitter-sweet: although the issues of concept development are difficult and maybe unresolvable, the very act of responding to the challenge they pose should further enhance the quality of consumer behavior research. Indeed, only by paying special attention to issues of concept development can we avoid the encumbrances of nearsightedness that seem to accompany maturation in other fields. The concepts which may represent the next generation of important ideas for our field fall within the rubric of "hidden events" (Westrum, 1982). I would like now to turn to this issue.



An event is the social phenomenon out of which we structure or create concepts. For example, the consistent preference of some consumers for the same brand even when various types of purchase costs increase is the phenomenon or event out of which we create the concept of brand loyalty. Hidden events are those phenomena whose existence we either (1) doubt or deny, or (9) do not know about at all. We avoid hidden events for many reasons. One reason is simple arrogance: "If the event existed I'd know it." A fine example concerns the notion of fallen meteors. A president of the prestigious British Royal Society once wrote:

And here I venture to affirm, that, after perusing all the accounts I could find of these phenomena, I have met with no well-vouched instance of such an event; nor is it to be imagined,but that, if these meteors had really fallen, there must have been long ago so strong evidence of the fact, as to leave no room to doubt of it at present.

James Pringle, 1759, quoted in Ron Westrum, "Social Intelligence About Hidden Events," Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization, Vol. 3, No. 3, March 1982, P. 381.

There are two related thoughts in this quote. One is that there really can't be fallen meteors since no firm evidence exists. The second thought is that if the phenomenon existed people would know about it. Some 44 years after the quote above was uttered, the existence of fallen meteors became an accepted scientific fact. A so-called ' hidden event" became a visible event.

Another reason is ridicule. An event is believed to be so implausible that the persons reporting such events run a very substantial risk of ridicule (Westrum, op cit). Psychologists interested in parapsychology encountered considerable ridicule by other psychologists. Occasional demands could even be heard for their ouster from the American Psychological Association. This undoubtedly led to underreporting of parapsychological events. Some skepticism continues but at a substantially reduced level as a result of their use of more accepted methodologies. The phenomenon of "ball lightning" in physics is an example of an event which only recently emerged from its hidden status (Charman, 1979). Like parapsychology, the problems of systematic scientific measurement of naturally occurring ball lightning and the difficulty of simulating it in the laboratory provide a basis for continued denial among some scientists.

Misclassification is another reason events remain hidden. Misclassification may arise from the belief that an event is so rare that a particular experience couldn't possibly involve that event. "It couldn't be and so it isn't." During the period 1901 to 1969 only 41 published reports car. be found concerning multiple personality disorders (Greaves, 1980). This was consistent with the prevailing belief that it was a very rare disorder. During the 1970's reports on at least 50 cases were made. This rash of reports is attributed to improved diagnostic techniques and improved clinical awareness (Ibid, p. 578). Greaves concludes that misdiagnosis helped keep the event hidden. That is, thinking it to be a rare event lessened the likelihood of a personality disorder being correctly classified as a multiple personality problem. Today there are serious doubts that multiple personality disorders are rare events.

Mistaken assumptions may keep events hidden as well. Only relatively recently have pediatricians dropped the assumption that nonpsychotic parents could not physically abuse their children. What for decades involved a small number of reported cases annually has mushroomed into over half a million yearly reports. A once hidden event became recognized as a major social problem once an incorrect assumption was changed.

A hidden event may also be a phenomenon, for example, a set of research findings, which is not within a scientist's problem of definition and hence is ignored. They may also be events which, if noticed, do not get communicated to those scientists whose problem definitions would find the results important. A hidden event is not the same thing as a neglected topic which is ignored because it is considered unimportant, not in fashion, or is difficult to study. The sociology of consumption is an example of a neglected topic. Another example would be the conduct of longitudinal studies of the buying process in organizations (Miller and Friesen, 1982). However, the neglect of these topics may result in the avoidance of important events we do not know exist. In fact, hidden events may actually connect what previously appeared g be isolated events which get neglected because they do not appear central to the field. I shall return shortly to the reason for hidden events in consumer behavior.

The Polite Fib

In order to understand hidden events .t is necessary to introduce what I shall call "the polite fib." It is itself a hidden event as well as a factor which contributes to keeping other events hidden. A short discourse on one manifestation of the polite fib may help clarify why we may be so comfortable when there are so many important hidden events lurking around us.

A polite fib is a falsehood uttered to avoid embarrassing someone or to prevent them from having to do something they wouldn't care to do. It is a fiction maintained for a convenience which does no apparent harm and may even appear to do some good. The distinction mentioned earlier between the logic of discovery and the logic of verification is a polite fib. It appears to be useful. For example, it helps us to avoid admitting that our ideas may have changed significantly while pretesting instruments or debriefing subjects.

Rather than say there are big fibs and small fibs let me just say there are some which are much more polite than others. One awfully polite fib is the fiction that the world divides itself up in ways which closely correspond to the social organization of our universities. [The social organization of universities and its impact on our construction of reality is an interesting topic in itself (cf. Holzner and Marx, 1979).] To be sure, there are substantial instructional and administrative benefits arising by having separate departments of sociology, history, psychology, economics and so forth. Efforts to organize interdisciplinary units have often created embarrassment and have established that it is something most scholars don't care to do. [Some of the few exceptions to this statement exist within our own field.] For better or worse, consumers are not well informed about this. Consequently they continue to behave in interdisciplinary ways rather than in more polite disciplinary fashions. Thus the polite fib that disciplinary orientations may additively provide an accurate picture of behavior causes many important consumer behavior phenomena to be hidden from us.

Various theories and models of consumer behavior (which are rich in heuristic power) convey the notion that there is a kind of orderliness to consumer thought and behavior which can be readily captured using distinctly disciplinary concepts.(We do not, of course, always mean to convey this impression.) Thus, we offer up a conceptual rendition of behavior which falls far short of the aesthetically messy way consumers really do behave in their natural habitat. At best, concepts artificially separated endlessly co-mingle (Zaltman and Wallendorf, 1983). We should be pursuing concepts or ideas that are reflected by what we label interaction effects. Instead, we pursue concepts that are represented by the curious term "main effects." For example, we often hold constant certain variables to assess the impact of price change when in fact those variables never behave as a constant particularly when a price change occurs. We ignore the more relevant interaction effects and misconstrue the meaning of main effects in order to conform to disciplinary assumptions.

The basic point I want to make here is that we shape the world to fit our intellectual comfort zones, i.e., to fit our preferred assumptions and expectations. Like the polite fib, we do so more or less knowingly but with understandable and sometimes even laudable motivations. It does facilitate the process of inquiry (the quality of results are another matter!). It does facilitate communication. It does correspond to the social organization of most academic knowledge production agencies. The diffiCulty is that it also inhibits the growth of ideas. It keeps certain idea-laden events hidden.

Hidden Events and Study of Consumer Behavior

The Law of the Lens. As mentioned earlier, when hidden events are encountered they tend to be either misclassified or to go unreported. Winston Churchill once noted that "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry on as if nothing happened. " Hidden events are not important in the study of consumer behavior if we are in fact aware of most major social and psychological processes underlying consumer-behavior. [If consumer behavior is considered a closed system hidden events would be relatively unimportant.] Of course we can claim such full awareneSs only if we assume that consumer events are none other than chose events we elicit when observing consumers through the researcher-controlled viewing lens or an experimental manipulation, survey instrument, or unobtrusive measure. These viewing lenses are generally created on the basis of existing knowledge and assumptions which are largely based upon visible events. Our perceptual filters more or less guarantee that we find what we are looking for. This is the "Law of the Lens." We start seeing everything in terms of familiar concepts. This law does not break down very often.

It is unlikely that anyone here would claim the kind of broad awareness mentioned a moment ago. It would mean that we know all of the things that ought to be studied and that we know most of what there is to know about c.lese things. Yet, curiously, while no one would make this claim we act as if it were so. Nearly all published work in the field addresses obvious events. We use readily available concepts to explain obvious phenomena. Many of these obvious events are important and not yet well understood. They indeed merit attention. My concern is the paucity or examples of hidden events surfacing in the field. How many important consumer research topics can you think of that at one time had the same status as fallen meteors, ball lightning, the battered child syndrome, and multiple personality disorders?

Controversy. Events may remain hidden or revert to a hidden status for good reason--they do occur only rarely. Whether hidden event status is merited or not an awful lot of fun is lost by the corresponding absence of controversy which occurs when a hidden event is trying to leave its closet and when efforts are made to suppress it. Given the complex, open systems nature or behavior and the altering impact of our efforts to observe it, perhaps the most we can hope for out of a line of inquiry is fun and fun is fueled in part by controversy. I don't really think the consumer behavior field has had a controversy in the past decade and a half of the magnitude of the one that focused on motivation research. The presence of controversy may even be the mark of an advanced field. I'd hate to think we've retreated.

Hidden events may not have surfaced in the consumer behavior field for at least four sets of reasons. Some of these have been mentioned earlier. One is that the fear of ridicule keeps us from making certain concepts and observations known. Hence, the experiences of a problem by multiple observers go uncorrelated and remain hidden. A second reason is the tendency not to investigate something that isn't clearly established as an appropriate or legitimate topic or isn't readily studied by traditional science. A third reason is that we rely upon the basic social science disciplines to surface hidden events which we then borrow after they become bonafide topics. A fourth reason relates to the phenomenon of knowledge disavowal (cf. Zaltman, 1982).

Hidden Events and the Importance of Concept Development

Hidden events are of no more nor less importance than is the development of concepts in our field. As suggested earlier it is my judgement that our field has advanced as rapidly as it has not because of unique empirical research findings, nor because of the development of general or specific theories of buyer behavior nor even because of the increased technological sophistication of our research methods. Rather, we have progressed as rapidly as we have because we have been energetic and creative in borrowing and to some extent developing new concepts which appear fruitful and have readily (sometimes far too readily!) abandoned those which no longer appear promising. The areas of our field which tend to lag also tend to be those where concept development and borrowing is lethargic.

Now, some of you may be chinking that the development of new concepts is highly dependent upon the conduct of empirical research which can clarify or even yield new ideas, or highly dependent upon new theories to frame the concepts and provide added meaning or dependent upon new research techniques to validate, explore or even uncover new concepts. And you are correct. As suggested by Kaplan (1964) in reference to the paradox of conceptualization and by Peter (1981) with reference to the paradox of measurement, there is a kind of Catch-22 involving these elements. Advances in one of either concepts, theory, method or empirical research are dependent upon advancement in each of the other three. For example, new concepts are necessary to guide new research and new research is necessary for encountering, developing and testing new concepts. However, I feel overall advancement in knowledge is disproportionately more dependent on concept development. This is particularly true when we are unconstrained by the polite fib of disciplinary boundaries.

It is relatively easy to say that currently hidden events will be the source of excitement and advancement in our field. It is also easy to say that the process of perceiving hidden events is the primary goal of science. One need not read a great deal in the history and philosophy of science before finding support for these two statements. Yet it is quite another matter to deliberately encounter hidden events. I would like to address this task next.


There are no special formulas I know of for locating hidden events or for distinguishing between those which are indeed rare and those which are simply underreported. Yet some interesting suggestions exist which are helpful. These suggestions also seem to go against prevailing norms. I shall focus on just two here. Other suggestions can be found which involve playing the role of a first-time visitor to earth (Zaltman and Wallendorf, 1983), changing one assumption in a -theory, and the use of dialectic techniques in developing so-called "interesting" ideas (Zaltman, LeMasters & Heffring, 1989).

Common Sense. The first suggestion involves the idea that common sense be used as a source of creative insight; Clifford Geertz (1975), the eminent anthropologist, has presented a powerful argument that common sense is not only our most dominant body of knowledge for understanding and responding to both complex and simple issues but it is itself often a highly complex system of thought (Geertz, 1975). He notes, however, that it is in the nature of common sense for us to dismiss it as merely surface debris upon the plain of wisdom. The reasons for dismissal won't be elaborated upon here except to note that to treat common sense seriously is to run the very serious risk of learning that an underlying thought structure--or theory, if you will--is faulty. Such a discovery may be so disquieting or disruptive that we avoid the kind of examination that could produce such bad news. [This is similar to the notion of half-knowledge (Lazarsfeld, 1967). This refers to a state when we know enough to realize that if we knew more we might be forced to make a difficult moral or intellectual decision or change.] And we can do this readily so long as we studiously treat common sense lightly. By failing to treat common sense seriously we are able to avoid being surprised by hidden events.

It is my strong suggestion that researchers in our field pay far greater attention to so-called common sense systems among consumers (including themselves) as a rich source of hidden events (Wagner and Vallacher, 1977). Many of you have an interest in the use of influence strategies and will be familiar with Robert Cialdini's work. You will find very interesting reading a recent chapter of his in which he documents the important role of common sense wisdom and his own participation in common sense thought systems in developing many of the central concepts in his field (Cialdini, 1980). He describes a number of hidden events which became more evident by taking seriously the everyday experiential world of common sense.

Serendipity. Another way in which scientists encounter hidden events is through serendipity. Scientific serendipity refers to an encounter with an unexpected situation. This situation often includes encounters with hidden events. The serendipitous situation may relate directly to a problem the scientist is investigating or may relate to a problem of no particular concern to the scientist but of concern to other scientists. It is a situation which the specific research enquiry did not anticipate.

Let me share with you an important conclusion emerging from some work in this area. The conclusion is that many scientists--and especially the more eminent scientists-are intellectually accident prone. It appears that many of the more important discoveries in the physical, natural and social sciences were in fact the result of serendipity. The "two-step flow of communication" concept is probably the best known example in communications research. This hidden event was a serendipitous finding. Several other examples are available about the role of serendipity in problem formulation, research design, research implementation and data analysis (Kulka, 1981). These examples involve some of the most well known of today's active social scientists. Again, it appears that more prominent scientists experience serendipity more often than their less prominent colleagues. It also appears that more prominent scientists do more with the opportunities. More importantly, like those who are prone to physical accidents, there is indeed system and pattern to serendipitous encounters. (This has potentially important implications for research training, for the design and management of R&D labs and specific research projects and for research funding policy.)

Various intellectual biographies and autobiographies make it clear that serendipity played an important role in the intellectual scient of the major social whose work we draw upon. Our ACR program this year would look quite different if the serendipitous encounters of these scientists (and ourselves) did not occur. My hunch is that if we knew more about how other central yet taken-for-granted concepts in our field originally developed we would find a remarkable number developed as a result of one or another type of serendipitous occurrence.

Scouting and Trapping

One way in which serendipitous encounters of the interesting kind (i.e., hidden events) can be facilitated is if we develop skills in scouting (Zaltman, 1978; see also Cialdini, 1980). These skills are substantially weaker than our trapping skills. We need to be far more attentive to naturally occurring everyday behaviors as sources of ideas about what we should attempt to understand. This includes paying attention to the experiential aspects of consumption as some have recently argued (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982) and to the possible implicit psychology of consumer events which puzzle us as casual observers. Since these are the behaviors we wish to explain, their occurrence in natural settings is a more proper setting for finding new concepts than are our laboratories. (I am using the term laboratory very broadly.) This places a greater burden on intelligent researcher judgement. It means testing for substantive significance rather than coasting along on the assumptions of statistical significance. We must make the judgement that something is worth pursuing according to some criterion and run the risk that we won't find it in our laboratory trap. [Indeed the absence of an effect in laboratory experimentation may be a signal that a hidden event is operating (Cook and Campbell, 1979; Chen and Rossi, 1980). Rather than being a cause for discouragement it might serve as a stimulus for building a more creative trap to ensnare the hidden event.] Unfortunately, much of our research appears to have its origins in what researchers observe in their own or other's traps. That is a much less intellectually and hence less socially risky approach. We are reasonably guaranteed to note an effect with a reasonable degree of precision. The greater risk is whether the effect is important with respect to some important aspects of the everyday world of consumer behavior. The serendipity associated with major advances in the social sciences occurred most often while the pioneers in the social sciences were scouting, not trapping. Our field could also uncover important hidden events through more vigorous scouting. [This may also require modification in professional reward structures.] The resulting concept development activity would add considerable impetus and excitement to our empirical research and the development of theory and methodology.

Some of you may be inwardly protesting, "But I already do scout out commonsense systems! I do capitalize upon serendipitous encounters!" I know some of you do. But if this is in fact a widespread practice then we have another example of an awfully polite fib; because we most certainly hide this fact when presenting our research. We take great care in showing that the intellectual origins of our work lie in other people's traps. Additionally, if we were doing these things as well as I know our capabilities permit we would be having more controversy about fundamental issues.


Although there are considerable signs of intellectual vigor in the consumer behavior field there is ample room for more creative concept development. In fact, the need for more venturesome ideas may be the greatest intellectual need in the field. This paper has identified certain reasons why we are not developing concepts which other fields of study would find worth adopting. However, there are no good reasons why consumer behavior scholars should not be doing this. Do we dare to be different in our thinking? Being daring is the major challenge each of us faces when undertaking major research. We should not keep ourselves hidden from such challenges.


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Wegner, D., and R. Vallacher, Implicit Psychology: An Introduction to Social Cognition, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.

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Zaltman, G., "Knowledge Disavowal," in R. Kilmann, K. Thomas, D. Slevin, R. Nath, and S.L. Jerrell (eds.), Producing Useful Knowledge for Organizations, NY: Praeger, 1983.

Zaltman, G., K. LeMasters, and M. Heffring, Theory Construction in Marketing, NY : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1982

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Gerald Zaltman, University of Pittsburgh, Albert Wesley Frey Professor or Marketing, and Director, Doctoral Program.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10 | 1983

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