Group Decision-Making in the Buying Center: a Political-Coalitional Perspective

ABSTRACT - Joint decision-making in the buying center, while considered important, remains relatively unresearched. Organizational buying behavior can be studied from the viewpoint of many disciplines and analytical perspectives. Considering that political-coalitional models of organization occupy a predominant place in organizational theory, a coalitional perspective seems to be a particularly valuable approach to bring to the investigation of organizational buying decisions. This paper introduces the coalitional perspective and discusses in some detail, several major models developed in the areas of game theory, social psychology and political science. At the end, a few suggestions are offered regarding needed research.


Venkatapparao Mummalaneni (1984) ,"Group Decision-Making in the Buying Center: a Political-Coalitional Perspective", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 159-164.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 159-164


Venkatapparao Mummalaneni, The Pennsylvania State University


Joint decision-making in the buying center, while considered important, remains relatively unresearched. Organizational buying behavior can be studied from the viewpoint of many disciplines and analytical perspectives. Considering that political-coalitional models of organization occupy a predominant place in organizational theory, a coalitional perspective seems to be a particularly valuable approach to bring to the investigation of organizational buying decisions. This paper introduces the coalitional perspective and discusses in some detail, several major models developed in the areas of game theory, social psychology and political science. At the end, a few suggestions are offered regarding needed research.


Industrial buyer behavior has been distinguished in recent marketing literature, from consumer behavior and studied as a different phenomenon. Industrial purchase decision is a much more elaborate and complex decision-making process than the latter, and is characterized by the involvement of multiple persons. Webster and Wind (1972) observe that organizational buying usually involves many people in the decision process with complex interactions among people and among individual and organizational goals. Further, the organizational context within which the decisions are made as well as the environment in which the organization is operating, have important influences on the decision processes. This has led to the conceptualization of organizational buying as a form of problem-solving in the 'buying center' located within the organization. The buying center has been defined as "all those individuals and groups who participate in the purchasing decision-making process, who share some common goals and the risks arising from the decisions" (Webster and Wind 1972). Industrial or organizational buying is then, a process of joint-decision making that is subject to a variety of influences due to the interpersonal, organizational and environmental factors.

In order to understand the process of industrial buying, we need to study group decision-making. Studies of group decision making should help us gain further insights into the industrial purchase process and are hence warranted. While the relevance and importance of such studies for advancing our knowledge of industrial buying is beyond dispute, regrettably, this problem hasn't received much attention from marketing scholars.

It has been suggested (Moller 1981) that organizational buying behavior can be studied from the viewpoint of many disciplines and within each discipline, it is possible to approach it from a variety of analytical perspectives. This paper offers one such perspective - the coalitional viewpoint. In the sections that follow, first the issue of conflict in organizational decisions as well as the possible means of resolving it - including through the formation of coalitions are discussed briefly. The coalitional perspective is then presented, including a review of the major models of coalition behavior. Finally, these models are assessed and a few suggestions are offered on the possible use of these models in the investigation of buying decisions.


The complexity of the buying process arises primarily out of the non-correspondence of the goals being pursued by the different members of the buying center and the possibility of conflict. It has been speculated (Webster and Wind 1972) that the individual members could be using "potentially conflicting" decision criteria. Sheth (1973) extends this analysis further by identifying five salient processes which cause differential expectations among members regarding the suppliers and brands. The five processes are the background of the individuals, information sources, active search, perceptual distortion and satisfaction with past purchases. This essentially theory-based contention has received empirical support in recent years from the evidence adduced by Choffray and Lilien (1978). They conclude that meaningful differences exist both in the number and nature of the evaluation criteria used by various decision parties.

These differences in goals and criteria are the seeds of conflict which affect the process of joint decision-making. In what has come to be known as "Arrow's impossibility theorem," Arrow (1963) has proven that it is 'impossible to develop a social-welfare function which uniquely and exhaustively maps the set of individual preference-orderings (goals) into a joint preference-ordering and which also satisfies four other conditions of reasonableness.' These four conditions are nondictatorship, nonimposition, independence of irrelevant alternatives and a positive association of individual preferences with joint-preference-ordering. The only way a group decision can emerge then, is through a process of influence whereby some members are persuaded to modify/alter their goals and criteria in line with those of the other members or through a decision that satisfies only a "majority" of the members.

This, indeed has been well-recognized by the builders of comprehensive models of organizational buying process. Webster and Wind (1972) discuss the tactics or bargaining strategies employed by purchasing agents in order to extend their influence. Following the position of March (1962), Sheth (1973) argues that conflict becomes a common consequence of the joint decision-making process and proceeds to identify the different modes of conflict resolution among members of the buying center. Of the four modes identified, problem-solving and persuasion are characterized as "rational" methods and bargaining are politicking are termed as "non-rational methods. The evidence for the existence of these different modes of conflict resolution in the context of industrial buying comes from the study of influence techniques used by purchasing agents (Strauss 1962). He identified five categories of tactics, namely, rule-oriented, rule-evading, personal-political, educational and organizational-interactional, which are used by the purchasing agents at different times. Often, the agents were found to be using a mixture of tactics.

In order to understand the process of decision-making within the buying center and be able to predict the outcomes of such a process, we need to develop an appreciation of the differences among the several modes of conflict resolution, the conditions under which each mode is invoked and their consequences.


We have seen in the preceding section that often, the goals and criteria used by the various subunits differ from organizational goals and from one another, to a considerable degree. This inevitably gives rise to conflict which needs to be resolved. Marketing scholars (Webster and Wind 1972; Sheth 1973) have identified several means through which such conflict could conceivably be resolved. Sheth classifies them as "rational" and nonrational" means, the latter consisting of the two techniques, bargaining and politicking. According to him, these two methods are more likely to be used in the case of new product purchases. Bargaining involves the principle of distributive justice or 'quid pro quo' for the decision cannot satisfy all of the parties involved. Politicking is invoked and engaged in by the participants when the conflict involves not merely the goals but personalities and decision making styles as well. The decisions resulting from the use of these nonrational methods are inefficient from the point of view of the organization for its interests are being sacrificed in pursuit of the goals of some of the sub-units.

Thus, while the choice of a means for conflict resolution by the buying group may have grave implications for the organization as suggested by these motel-builders, the issue itself remains relatively unresearched. The issues of bargaining and politicking have not been studied in any depth in marketing literature. This, in spite of the realization that these issues have critical implications for marketing and the fact that a substantial body of literature exists in this area. In fact, research effort has gone into this area from fields as diverse as game theory, social psychology and political science. Each of these fields has a tradition of serious research into the issues of bargaining and coalition formation and a number of theories have been developed as a result.

Bargaining is a major feature of human exchange relationships and hence considered an important social phenomenon (Young 1975). Bargaining is a subset of those social relationships concerned with the resolution of conflict (Rubin and Brown 1975). Rubin and Brown define bargaining as "the process whereby two or more parties attempt to settle what each shall give and take, or perform and receive, in a transaction between them." The number of parties involved in the exchange is a major component of the social structure. The expansion of the number of parties increases the difficulty of coordination and results in a lengthening of the time required to reach an agreement. In such situations, bargaining is associated with the formation of specific coalitions (Young 1975). A coalition may be defined as "the unification of the power or resources (or both) of two or more parties so that they stand a better chance of obtaining the desired outcome or of controlling others not included in the coalition" (Rubin and Brown 1975).


Of the many approaches that can be brought to the study of organizational choices and decisions, one promising perspective is the coalitional view of organizations. This perspective has grown during the last two decades and occupies now a dominant place among models of organization (Pfeffer 1981). This perspective will be developed in detail in a later section; the attempt here, however, is limited to advancing reasons as to why this is a valued view of organizations to adopt.

The near-universality of coalition behavior among human groups makes this a particularly valuable approach to bring to the study of organizational decisions. Emerson (1962) suggests that coalitional process is basically involved in all organized group behavior and it has been noted that the 'interdependence' (of individuals as well as departments) characteristic of any organization creates the potential for formation of coalitions (Pfeffer 1981). As an interesting aside, it might be mentioned that coalition behavior is not exclusive to humans; it's something we share with certain species of animals. Male Savannah baboons are known to form coalitions of two or three adults to control the females and deny access of other males to the latter (Van den Berghe 1978).

Further, a suggestion has been made (Bacharach and Lawler 1980) to the effect that an understanding of organizational politics is possible only through an analysis of power relations or in other words, through the adoption of a coalitional perspective.

A major issue that deserves the immediate attention of organizational buying behavior researchers is whether buying decisions are preceded by the process of politicking and arrived at through the formation of coalitions among the members of the buying center. If so, it needs to be investigated as to what proportion of the organizational buying decisions involve the formation of coalitions and more importantly, what are the conditions that are likely to promote the formation of coalitions and the conditions that are likely to inhibit their formation.

The Conditions that Promote the Formation of Coalitions

Rubin and Brown (1975) view "tendencies toward the formation of coalitions as a primary characteristic of multiparty bargaining." They also suggest that in competitive, multiparty bargaining situations, self-perceptions of weakness or insufficiency of resources needed to obtain a favorable outcome frequently generate in individual members, the urge toward strengthening of their positions through the formation of a coalition. In other words, "coalitions are especially likely to form in competitive, multiparty bargaining relationships when power (or other resources necessary for obtaining an outcome) is distributed, or perceived to be distributed, in such a way that one or more of the parties views himself as disadvantaged with respect to obtaining some outcome and does not consider it fruitless to join forces with another in pursuit of the outcome he seeks" (Rubin and Brown 1975).

Evidence of coalition formation comes from studies in several disciplines. Rubin and Brown (1975) review these studies and cite their findings as supportive of their own argument presented in the preceding paragraph. Much of this evidence comes from experimental investigations involving multiperson games. For instance, the Vinack and Ackoff study as well as its several replications strongly supported the incidence of coalition behavior (Rubin and Brown 1975). Similar support also comes from investigations involving multiperson bargaining exchanges, especially, the studies of Lieberman, Shears as well as Gamson (Robin and Brown 1975, p. 68). While relatively fewer studies have undertaken the investigation of coalition behavior in organizational contexts, there certainly is some support for the incidence of coalitions. Chacko's investigation of a manufacturing company's negotiations with two of its distributors provides such evidence (Rubin and Brown 1975, p. 71).

Conditions Unlikely to Lead to Coalition Formation

Based upon their review of research looking into the conditions that are likely to inhibit the formation of coalitions, Rubin and Brown (1975, p. 71) identify three such conditions:

1. Perceived futility or a situation where the weaker parties do not see their combined power as sufficiently great to offset the power of the stronger party.

2. A more powerful party effectively blocks the formation of coalitions among weaker members.

3. The weaker parties are so conflict-ridden as to avoid the formation of alliances among themselves.


Before reviewing the theories of coalition formation, a summary of the rationale developed for investigating the organizational buying decisions through the coalitional perspective is in order. Heretofore, it has been argued that:

1. Organizational buying is a complex process involving Joint decision making among the members of the buying center.

2. The diversity of the goals pursued as well as the decision criteria employed by the participants inevitably leads to conflict which needs to be resolved in order to arrive at a decision.

3. Conflict resolution occurs through rational and/or nonrational means. The latter includes the methods of politicking and bargaining.

4. Coalitions commonly form in competitive, multiperson bargaining situations (such as those involving the buying center members).

5. Hence the coalitional perspective and the study of coalition behavior among the members of the buying center is a viable and a valuable approach to the study of organizational buying decisions.

The study of coalition behavior is particularly appropriate in investigating the use of non-rational modes of conflict resolution. However, if we include in our consideration, the "grand coalition" (which includes all the members of the group), we have the possibility of examining the rational means of conflict resolution as well.

The multi-disciplinary interest in coalition behavior has led to the development of several classes of theories/models. Several major models in each of the three classes are presented in the following section.


The study of coalition behavior has a long history and rich tradition. Formal theory concerning coalition behavior has been studied by game theorists since 1964 (Von Neumann & Morgenstern) by social psychologists since 1956 (Caplow), and by political scientists since 1962 (Riker). These three areas have adopted different philosophical approaches and have made limited progress in their relatively independent pursuit of knowledge (Murnighan 1978). Murnighan observes that game theorists have developed elegant mathematical models but at the cost of ecological validity. Social psychological models, on the other hand, are descriptive of human behavior but most of them consider only the three-person groups, making generalization to larger groups a trifle too hard. Political scientists base their models on the formation of coalition governments but these models are used for purposes of "postdiction" rather than "prediction." Several authors see the need to combine these various approaches when studying group decision-making, for each of them captures but a part of the organizational reality.

Whichever tradition they might be drawn from, the various coalitional models seek to predict either one or both of the following things: given a certain distribution of power (or other resources) among the members of a group, (1) which members are likely to form a 'winning' coalition, and (b) how are the payoffs (associated with winning) divided among the members of the coalition. Occasionally, a model might look at the stability of a coalition over time.

Extensive reviews of the existing literature have been done in each of the three areas, especially during the last decade or so. Also available are excellent reviews which discuss and seek to unify these separate streams of research. This rather recent tradition is exemplified in Murnighan (1978) and Bacharach and Lawler (1980). The brief introductions that follow are basically drawn from these two excellent reviews.

Game Theoretic Models

The class of games we are interested in are of the "cooperative" type which are distinguished from the "noncooperative" games on the basis that they allow communication within the group as well as the formation of binding agreements. We shall restrict our consideration to these models for they seem to come closest to organizational reality. One assumption they make, however, is that the individuals are "rational" i.e. they seek to maximize their utility. An important concept introduced in the analysis is the "characteristic function." The characteristic function of an" - person game is a payoff vector specifying payoffs of all possible coalitions including one-person coalitions (Young 1975). Coalitions are differentiated on the basis of the payoffs they can obtain (Murningham 1978). Three important models of this type are discussed below:

Solutions and Subsolutions. Combining the assumption of individual rationality with Pareto optimality, this model predicts that any solution set (i.e. likely outcomes) should contain imputations (payoffs to individuals) that (a) do not dominate each other and (b) dominate any imputation outside the set. However, for most" - person games, there are a large number of solution sets and the model does not predict which coalition is most likely to form. The concept of subsolutions relaxes the condition that states that any imputation outside the solution set is dominated by a member in the set, to state that any imputation outside the subsolution set that dominates a member of the set is in turn dominated by another member of the set. This relaxation ensures the existence of a solution set which might not be the case under the original set of assumptions. A solution is always a sub-solution while the reverse is not necessarily true. Another concept, namely the "core" contains solutions that are not dominated by any outside it.

Bargaining Set Models. The bargaining set differs from the previous model in that it assumes individual rationality but not Pareto optimality. In this model, one member of a potential coalition may attempt to increase his or her payoff by using alternative coalitions as a threat. "Objections and counter-objections for each possible coalition are raised until a fragile state of stability is reached" (Murnighan 1978). Several variations of this basic model (competitive bargaining set, for instance) exist.

The Shaply Value. The Shaply Value is a measure of a player's pivotal power or the marginal payoff resulting form the inclusion of the person in a coalition. This model approaches the problem by making an a priori evaluation of the game from the perspective of each of the players. The Shaply Value for player i, equals J Pjxij where Pj refers to the probability of one order of formation and Xij refers to the marginal payoff assigned to player i, in that order. The Shaply Value has also been used as the basis for the minimum power theory (of Gamson) which, we shall examine under the social psychological model set.

Social Psychological Motels

While the game theoretic models have focused on the different payoffs that coalitions can obtain, the social psychological models have focused on the differing amounts of resources that players can bring to coalitions. This allows these models to predict in most cases, not only how the payoffs are divided among the members but also which coalition will form (Murnighan 1978). The basic orientation of these models is descriptive as opposed to the normative nature of the game theoretic models.

Caplow's Model. This was the first social psychological model. The underlying assumption is that the parties will try to form coalitions that maximize the number of others they have control over. Specifically, actors will consider their power within a prospective coalition as well as the power the coalition provides them over others outside the coalition (Bacharach E Lawler 1980). Within the coalition itself, the degree of difference in power (resources) determines who controls whom. Caplow considered six different resource distributions that could conceivably arise in a triad and made predictions regarding each. Caplow made a distinction between continuous coalition situations and episodic coalition situations, his predictions being relevant to the former alone. In episodic situations maximization of payoff, rather than gaining control is the objective of the players. This model is limited in scope by the fact that it is restricted to triads and does not make predictions regarding what the payoff distribution will be. Predictions of the model are improved by the assumption of reciprocated choice made by Chertkoff.

Minimum Resource Theory. Gamson proposed his minimum resource theory to predict not only which coalition forms but also what the division of payoffs will be in the coalition. Gamson treats the distribution of resources not as an indicator of power, or the number of others over whom a party can gain control, but as a determinant of the payoff distribution within a coalition (Bacharach and Lawler 1980). Payoffs are distributed, according to this model, in proportion to the resources brought in by each member of the coalition (equity principle). It is also predicted that the coalition with the least amount of resources necessary to form a majority (>50%) is the one that forms. This theory applies to any" - person situation and predicts the division of payoffs, both the features giving it an edge over CaPlow's model.

Bargaining Theory. This theory is an explicit extension of the minimum resource theory. It differs from Gamson's theory in that the bargaining theory (a) posits that payoff expectations are based on the midpoint between equality (i.e. the payoff is divided equally) and equity, and (b) distinguished coalition formation at the beginning or early stages of conflict from that at later stages (Komorita and Chertkoff 1973). The bargaining theory posits that threats of alternate coalitions are used during bargaining, thus leading to the prediction that payoffs will change over time. The model predicts that as trials progress, the players will form coalitions that minimize their temptation to defect.

The Weighted Probability Model. This model proposed by Komorita considers explicitly, the size of the coalition and assumes that the probability of a coalition forming is an inverse function of its size. That is, it's not the "least amount of resources" consideration that leads to the formation of a coalition, but a consideration of the minimum size of the coalition. In other words, the minimum winning coalition with the fewest number of players should form. Division of payoffs is based on the equity principle, like in the first two models.

Political Models

The political models differ from the social psychological models in that they bring in an additional consideration, namely, the expectation of policies the coalition is likely to implement. These models are rich in descriptive detail and are concerned with long-run considerations.

Riker's Size Principle. Riker's was the first formal model of coalition behavior in political science. The model makes several assumptions and predicts that minimum winning coalitions will form. In political coalitions, where each vote is equal, this result is identical to the prediction of Gamson's minimum resource theory (Murnighan 1978). Among the several variants proposed, Dodd's theory focused on parties rather than individuals as coalition members and predicts that the minimum winning coalition will form, where the number of parties, rather than the number of individuals, is the critical element in the formation of a coalition.

The Minimum Range-Conflict of Interest Model. This model posits that in a situation where parties range along an ideological scale, the parties with similar ideologies are the most likely coalition partners. The predictions made by this model are markedly different from those made by the size principle or the bargaining theory model.

The Policy Distance Minimization Model. This model is based on a highly restrictive set of assumptions and argues that participation in a policy formulation (government) is the primary objective and not the maximization of rewards obtained from a coalition. Accordingly, coalitions larger than the minimum winning ones form and the policy of coalition is predicted to be the policy of the median individual within the coalition.


The models discussed above offer a variety of approach as well as markedly different predictions regarding the formation of coalitions. We have argued in a previous section, that the industrial organization, and consequently, the buying center, is a coalition of political interests. The goals of individuals (who represent different departments) vary, much like the ideologies of political parties. The political models, especially the minimum range-conflict of interest model, seems appropriate in an investigation of coalition formation. Further, the various models which predict the formation of specific coalitions and the manner in which payoffs are likely to be divided, offer contrasting predictions which can be pitted against one another, in a research setting. The need to integrate these different approaches has been stressed by Murnighan (1978) who felt that enormous benefits would flow out of such an attempt. He observes that the three areas have hitherto mate relatively independent sets of investigations on coalitions and coalition behavior, with game theory stressing payoffs, social psychology emphasizing a player's resources, and political scientists focusing on ideological similarity. Collaboration among the areas. according to Murnighan, appears not only possible, but appropriate for further advances in the study of coalition behavior. The most fruitful form of collaboration, suggests Murnighan, would be the design of a series of studies that manipulated or measured payoff differences, resource distributions and ideological similarity in a variety of situations.


As mentioned earlier, hardly any effort has gone into researching the process of joint decision-making within the buying center. The focus has predominantly been on the individual decision maker incorporating the role of other members of the buying center as interpersonal influences impinging upon the focal person. This method, however, does not provide insights into the "true" processes of joint decision making. Nor does it provide an accurate prediction of the final outcome. In order to understand the organizational choice, it is necessary that we know how individual preferences are combined into a group choice (Pfeffer 1981). The individual choices uncovered by the researcher need to be combined into a group choice through some model acceptable to him/her. Choffray and Lilien (1980), for instance, present four such models of group choice developed by social psychologists.

The issue of which model to employ, in order to aggregate the preference function, however, can only be resolved through insights into the process of group decision-making within the buying center. The political-coalitional perspective presented here has the potential to offer valuable insights into the group processes involved and to discover the appropriate model(s) of aggregation.

The traditional view of organizations as rational entities pursuing a clearly-defined set of goals and trying to maximize expected utility (profit) has been attacked by a number of organizational researchers (March 1962). The political model proposed by March and others has come to occupy a dominant position in organizational theory. According to Pfeffer (1981), political models view organizations as "pluralistic and divided into various interests, subunits and subcultures." The coalitional perspective becomes a particularly valuable approach to study organizational decision-making in the context of these organizational theories.

While the coalitional perspective has the potential to explain group processes in buying decisions as well as predict the outcomes of such processes, research must go into this area before v lid conclusions can be drawn. For one thing, there is a plethora of coalitional models and it needs to be determined which among them are appropriate and under what conditions. Second, as Pfeffer (1981) so rightly observes, these models have been developed and tested mostly in political contexts be it in the field or in the laboratory. In contrast to these contexts where conflict was the characteristic relationship among the group members, organizational decision-making is characterized by both conflict and cooperation among members. Thus, transferability of these models to the organizational context Meets to be established before they can be put to use. Experimental as well as observational studies in the organizational context are called for in order to assess the utility of these models to the understanding of joint decision-making in the buying center.


This paper attempted to introduce a particular approach to the study of joint decision making within the buying center. It was argued here that this major phenomenon has been relatively neglected in the past research. The neglect was probably due to the lack of an appropriate approach. The political-coalitional perspective has been presented as a viable approach to the investigation of collective decisions characteristic of the buying center.

The coalitional perspective is characterized by a variety of viewpoints, chief among them, the game theoretic, social psychological and the political viewpoints. A number of major models under each of these classes have been described and assessed here.

While the need for a model which aggregates individual preference orderings into a group preference function is indisputable in the context of the buying center, the choice of particular model(s) must be deferred until after a thorough research effort has explored the issue of coalition behavior in an organizational context.


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Venkatapparao Mummalaneni, The Pennsylvania State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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