Lifestyle and Psychographics: a Critical Review and Recommendation

ABSTRACT - While the term lifestyle has gained popular currency, it continues to defy definitional and operational consensus. The paper (1) documents the internal inconsistency of contemporary definitions and operationalizations of lifestyle, (2) suggests an alternative definition, (3) provides a logical distinction between lifestyle and cognitive style, and (4) stresses the logical distinction between lifestyle and psychographic research.


W. Thomas Anderson, Jr. and Linda L. Golden (1984) ,"Lifestyle and Psychographics: a Critical Review and Recommendation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 405-411.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 405-411


W. Thomas Anderson, Jr., University of Texas at Austin

Linda L. Golden, University of Texas at Austin

[W. Thomas Anderson, Jr. and Linda L. Golden are Associate Professors in the Department of Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin. Tx. 78712 (512) 471-1128.]


While the term lifestyle has gained popular currency, it continues to defy definitional and operational consensus. The paper (1) documents the internal inconsistency of contemporary definitions and operationalizations of lifestyle, (2) suggests an alternative definition, (3) provides a logical distinction between lifestyle and cognitive style, and (4) stresses the logical distinction between lifestyle and psychographic research.

Over the past half-century the intuitively appealing notion that individuals and groups exhibit idiosyncracies of "style" in living fueled intensifying interest in the lifestyle concept among social satirists and social scientists alike. Yet, while the term lifestyle gained popular currency, it continued to defy conceptual and operational consensus (Ferber and Lee 1974). At the same time the term lifestyle became part of our popular and professional idiom, its conceptual and operational imprecision was compounded by a semantic maze confusing lifestyle with psychographics, confounding and impeding lifestyle research, and compromising the usefulness of lifestyle as a segmentation variable. Although the patient is critical, its condition is not terminal.

The primary purpose of this paper is to revive and refine lifestyle as a theoretical and research tool and segmentation variable. It first documents the diversity and internal inconsistency of definitions and operationalizations of lifestyle in consumer behavior literature. The paper then contrasts lifestyle and cognitive style conceptually and operationally, underscoring their intuitive, if imperfect, symmetry. It details the logical symmetry and complimentarity between lifestyle and psychographic research, concluding that lifestyle and cognitive style can be usefully employed through sequential segmentation.


The origins of the lifestyle concept are obscure, but its roots are traceable to the works of poets, naturalists, and philosophers writing as early as the sixteenth century (Ansbacher 1976, p. 196). Use of the lifestyle concept as an analytical construct dates from Thorstein Veblen's turn-of-the-century classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and from Max Weber's landmark studies of status (1946, 1947).

In an unfashionable depiction of the ostentatious style of life (or "scheme of life," in Veblen's words) of the American noveau riche of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Veblen established a fashion of thinking about social, economic, and consumer behavior that has persisted (Mills 1953). Weber's focus, like Veblen's, was upon collective lifestyles originated and perpetuated by status groups (Weber 1946, p. 187, 191, 300; Weber 1947, p. 429); however, lifestyle played only a minor role in Weber's writings.

None played so major a role in developing the life style concept and integrating it into our idiom and thought as the psychologist Alfred Adler. Lifestyle formed the centerpiece of Adlerian psychology; indeed, Adler wrestled with the concept for forty years. Ultimately Adler came to see stole of life as:

the organismic ideas of the individual as an actor rather than a re-actor; ...the purposiveness, goal-directedness, unity, self-consistency and uniqueness of the individual; and...the ultimately subjective determination of his actions (Ansbacher 1976, p. 191).

While Adler stressed the uniqueness of each individual, he nonetheless recognized similarities among individuals and their lifestyles (Ansbacher 1976. p. 192), suggesting the existence of lifestyle typologies (Ansbacher 1967, p. 203).

In his historical review of the lifestyle concept in the social science literature Ansbacher (1967) noted that the lifestyle concept has been applied in three different uses at three levels of aggregation. Lifestyle has been used in reference to:

"an individual," "a group, where the members bear a psychological relationship to each other, and which has stability over time," and "a [generic] class or category, where the members have only the property in common on the basis of which they are classified" (Ansbacher 1976, p. 200).

Thus, the lifestyle concept has varied widely in content and in range in the social sciences, according to the unit of analysis or the analyst (Ansbacher 1976, p. 203). Of particular relevance to the present analysis is Ansbacher's observation that:

The concept of style may vary in range from a relatively limited segment to the totality of behavior when it becomes lifestyle. In the restricted range, in respect to individuals, characteristic perceptual styles, also known as cognitive styles, and response styles, as well as complex response styles have been discerned (Emphasis added, 1967, p. 203).

While (perhaps inadvertently restricting the term lifestyle to "the totality of behavior," Ansbacher concludes that "the broad range of life style includes cognitive style and response style" (Emphasis added, 1967, p. 203). Thus, in defining lifestyle, Ansbacher draws no distinction between cognitive processes--thinking, feeling, perceiving -Cand overt behavior.

Amid the diverse interpretations and applications of the term, Ansbacher (1967, pp. 204-206) discerns three "important common properties" of lifestyle:

Unifying aspect: Lifestyle connotes internal consistency and unity, irrespective of specific percepts or responses (1967, p. 204). The emphasis Ansbacher ascribes to the unifying property mirrors his conviction that lifestyle bridges cognitive style and response style.

Unique and creative aspects: Lifestyle implies anoriginal and idiographic property (1967, p. 205).

Operational, functional and constancy aspects: Lifestyle connotes consistent operations and actions or behavior over time (1967, pp. 205-206).


Bell (1958), Rainwater, Coleman and Handel (1959), and Havinhurst and Feigenbaum (1959) inaugurated the lifestyle concept in the consumer behavior literature at the close of the 1950s, pointing to its potential significance in understanding, explaining and predicting consumer behavior and, hence, its importance as a focus for marketing strategy. Bell (1958) stressed the symbolic contextual significance of consumption. Rainwater, Coleman and Handel (1959) underscored the importance of interpreting shopping and consumption behavior in their broader lifestyle context. Conspicuous by omission in each instance, however, was a definition of lifestyle.

Lazer in 1963 echoed earlier convictions concerning the potential richness and synergistic value of the lifestyle concept for consumer analysis and coined the initial explicit definition of lifestyle appearing in the marketing literature. Although quickly adopted as the most widely cited interpretation of the lifestyle concept in. consumer analysis, Lazer's definition is tautological!

Life-style is a systems concept. It refers to a distinctive or characteristic mode of living, in its aggregate and broadest sense, of a whole society or segment thereof... The aggregate of consumer purchases, and the manner in which they are consumed, reflect a society's [or consumer's lifestyle (1963. P. 130).

Writing at the same time, Levy (1963) proposed a contrasting concept of lifestyle, one reminiscent of Adler's conviction that a fictionalized goal or theme pervades one's life providing structure to both self-concept and behavior.

An individual's life-style is a large complex symbol in motion. It is composed of sub-symbols; it utilizes a characteristic pattern of life space [or the proximity of perceived constraints in the surrounding environment]; and it acts systematically to process objects and events [including products, services, and consumption itself] in accordance with these values (p. 141)

Levy's definition prompted Kelley (1963) to postulate an important marketing implication of the lifestyle concept.

...Marketers are not selling isolated products which can be viewed as symbols; they are selling, or consumers are buying, a style of life or pieces of a larger symbol (p. 168).

Moore (1963) suggested still another definition of lifestyle to bridge conceptual and operational interpretations of the term closely approximating those which have come into contemporary use.

The term "life style"...suggests a patterned way of life into which [people] fit various products, events or resources. It suggests that consumer purchasing is an interrelated, patterned phenomenon...products are bought as part of a "life style package" (p. 153).

A persistent thread through the marketing literature is the notion that lifestyle involves characteristic patterns of behavior (Andreasen 1967; Bernay 1971; Lazer 1963; Moore 1963; Myers and Gutman 1974). Berkman and Gilson's (1978) definition is only one of several contemporary interpretations of lifestyle but is representative.

Lifestyle may be defined as unified patterns of behavior that both determine and are determined by consumption. The term "unified patterns of behavior" refers to behavior in its broadest sense. Attitude formation and other types of subjective activity are not readily observable, but are behaviors nonetheless. Lifestyle is an integrated system of attitudes, values, opinions and interests as well as overt behavior (p 497).

Exhibit 1 provides a comprehensive review of definitions, operationalizations, and theoretical anchorages of lifestyle appearing in the marketing literature, along with the major proponents of each. Perhaps the most noteworthy observation is the preponderance of references purporting to be lifestyle research which provide no explicit definition of lifestyle at all. What few definitions are provided, range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the tautological (Lazer 1963) to the logically inconsistent (Berkman and Gilson 1978), from the simple (Hawkins, Coney, and rest 1980) to the complex (Levy 1963).

Thus, conceptually lifestyle is today generally defined to encompass both characteristic patterns of overt behavior and cognitive processes and properties, including such dimensions of personality as values, attitudes, opinions, and interests. There is a serious internal inconsistency in this definition, and others like it, which in turn implies major operational inconsistencies.


The diversity of attempts to operationalize lifestyle mirrors the conceptual confusion confounding and impeding lifestyle research (see Exhibit 1). Far and away the most popular of operationalizations of lifestyle is the activities, interests and opinions (AIO) method pioneered by Wilson (1966), Pessemier and Tigert (1966), and Wells (1968). Yet, as Wells (1975c) concedes:

The activity, interest and opinion research, and the term "life style", developed separately. They came together because "life style" seemed to be such an appropriate shorthand expression for what the activity, interest and opinion research was attempting to portray. Thus almost accidentally, the lifestyle concept has become operationalized among a certain group of researchers as activity, interest and opinion research conducted for a rather limited set of purposes and employing a rather limited set of techniques (p. 498).

Hence, today, although ill-defined in the minds of most market analysts, lifestyle has come to be operationalized almost exclusively in terms of AIO by default.

The almost total absence of any theoretical anchorage for lifestyle research is evidence in Exhibit 1 and also in the superficial and flimsy development of theoretical linkages to lifestyle where a theoretical frame of reference is invoked. This has proven both a convenience and a "Catch-29" for market analysts. Because lifestyle continues to defy definitional consensus, it can be conveniently customized to any analyst's purpose. Lifestyle is all things to all people, but this very fact that has made the concept appealing also impedes the development of further precision.

The lifestyle concept, partly because of its intuitively appealing and rather obvious relationship to consumer behavior, has received a considerable amount of attention in the marketing literature. The most telling observation from Exhibit 1, however, is the paucity of published lifestyle literature addressing the three criteria qualifying the usefulness of any social science construct: (1) definitional consensus, (2) operational clarity, and (3) theoretical context. Instead, to paraphrase from Talarzyk (1972, p. 465), "If you laid all of the people doing [lifestyle] research end-to-end, they would: (a) never reach a conclusion and (b) all point different directions."



Compounding the conceptual confusion confounding lifestyle research is a semantic maze eclipsing the terms lifestyle and psychographics that remains unraveled. Wells provides this historical perspective in his exhaustive "Psychographics: A Critical Review" (1975b):

Starting with the classic study of Koponen (1960), investigators have repeatedly tried to correlate consumer behavior with scores obtained from standardized personality inventories. And, starting with Dichter's innovative studies of consumers' motivations (1963), students of the consumer's mind have tried to apply the concepts and methods of clinical psychology to virtually every aspect of marketing.

Sometime during the 1960's a blend of these two traditions began to take shape. Variously called "lifestyle", "psychographic", or "activity and attitude" research, this blend combines the objectivity of the personality inventory with the rich, consumer-oriented, descriptive detail of the qualitative motivation research investigation (p. 196).

It is noteworthy that nowhere in Wells' article did he define or attempt to distinguish "lifestyle" from "psychographic" from "activity and attitude" research.

Elsewhere, Wells (1974, pp. 317-363) attempted to delimit and distinguish the domains of lifestyle from psychographic research.

...The term "psychographics" [refers to] studies that place comparatively heavy emphasis on generalized personality traits. Analysts who have preferred the term "lifestyle", on the other hand, have tended to focus either on broad cultural trends or on needs and values thought to be closely associated with consumer behavior (p. 319).

The distinction has apparently been lost on most consumer analysts, as the terms continue to be used interchangeably, indeed by Wells himself (Wells, 1975b).

As lifestyle analysis entered its adolescent phase of development in the marketing literature at the dawn of the 1970s, Dorny (1971) sought to distinguish psychographics from lifestyle research by:

...reserving the term "psychographics" for measures that are truly "mental" -- attitudes, beliefs, opinions, personality traits, etc. The analysis and classification of activity or behavioral reports from the consumer which are frequently classified as "psychographics", should be given their own distinct term, such as "lifestyle" (pp. 200-201).

While Dorny's conceptual distinction, too, has apparently fallen on deaf ears, it at least recognizes a potential, if imperfect, symmetry between what he refers to as "mental" processes or properties (the province of psychographic research) and overt activities or behavior (the domain of lifestyle research). Still, the terms psychographics and lifestyle remain largely undefined and indistinguishable in the marketing literature.


Little has changed in the ebb tide of interest in lifestyle research over the last five years. The conceptual and operational confusion continues. Analysts continue to conjugate the term lifestyle to fit their own research purposes. Felson (1975) perhaps best captured the critical, if not terminal, conceptual and operational condition of lifestyle.

Lifestyle cannot help one to understand consumer behavior if lifestyle variables are a disorderly, nongeneral, nonhierarchical, or atheoretical set of vaguely related traits whose casual relationships to each other and to anything else are unspecified. Much lifestyle research could better be termed "idiosyncracy research", since it uses the computer to group people with similar idiosyncracies (p. 37).

In short, the lifestyle concept has become the Rorschach of the social sciences, most particularly of consumer analysis. Lifestyle research is reminiscent of the parable of the elephant and the blind men of Hindustan.


The persistent conceptual and operational imprecision of the lifestyle construct has not only handicapped lifestyle research, but has undermined its usefulness as a segmentation variable. The confusion of the terms lifestyle with psychographics has further compounded these problems. Clarification and differentiation of conceptual and operational definitions is appropriate to revive lifestyle and refine its usefulness as a segmentation tool.

Contemporary interpretations in the marketing literature generally define lifestyle to encompass both characteristic patterns of overt behavior and cognitive processes and properties (cognitive style), including such dimensions of personality as values, attitudes, opinions. beliefs and interests. Implicit in such definitions is the assumption of a systematic symmetry between internallY held attitudes, beliefs, opinions, or interests and overt behavior (Engel, Warshaw and Kinnear 1979, p. 129). However, such an assumption flies in the face of the growing body of research examining their interaction.

Substantial evidence points to a consistent positive relationship between cognitive processes and properties (cognitive style) and overt behavior (Lair 1965; Fencrich 1967; Udel 1965; Katona 1960, part II; Axelrod 1968). Yet there is mounting evidence to the contrary; indeed, evidence that changes in behavior may trigger changes in cognitive processes and properties, rather than the reverse (Zimbardo and Effesen 1970, Ch. 5, pp. 63-94). LaPiere's (1934) classic study of racial prejudice in 1934 inaugurated a series of investigations and reviews reporting negative relationships between attitudes and behavior (Festinger 1966). Deutscher (1966, p. 135) succinctly summarized the implication: "Disparities between thought and action are the central methodological problem of the social sciences." Consequently, in interpreting lifestyle to include both characteristic patterns of overt behavior and cognitive processes and properties, contemporary definitions of lifestyle frequently lead to operationalizations that are internally inconsistent. More serious, however, is the fact that contemporary definitions of lifestyle may lead to mistaken market segmentation and, hence, mistargeting of marketing strategy.

For example, according to contemporary definitions, two consumers would be classed as exhibiting a similar lifestyle if, and only if, they are characterized by both parallel patterns of overt behavior and congruent cognitive styles. Conversely, another consumer who behaves in the same fashion, yet holds quite different values, attitudes, beliefs, opinions of interests, would be designated as characterized by a contrasting lifestyle. Three consumers, two lifestyle segments: Are these three consumers meaningfully different from a marketing or consumer behavior point of view? Yes and no.

Market segments are definable in terms of individuals whose expected reactions are similar to similar marketing strategy (Kotler 1980, pp. 194-196). The emphasis in market segmentation is on consistencies in overt behavior, irrespective of contrasts in cognitive style, because the marketing practitioner is primarily interested in parallel patterns of search, shopping or consumption behavior. Consumer analysts and market practitioners are interested in values, attitudes, beliefs, opinions and interests to the extent that they augment predictions of overt behavior, particularly search, shopping and consumption behavior, or permit pin-point targeting of marketing strategy. Indeed, the search for such systematic links has been much of the motivation behind the intensifying interest in lifestyle and psychographic research in the past two decades. While knowledge of cognitive processes and properties may improve, understanding and predictions of overt behavior, and facilitate formulation of marketing strategy, the relationship is equivocal and imperfect, as recent research has demonstrated.

Defining and operationalizing lifestyle to encompass both overt behavior and cognitive style needlessly confounds the task of lifestyle segmentation. Two problems emerge: On one hand, the conventional interpretation of lifestyle leads to an unnecessarily narrow definition of market segment boundaries and, hence, to underestimates of market potential. In the above case, although exhibiting parallel search, shopping, or consumption behavior, one consumer would be excluded from the lifestyle characterizing the other two on the basis of contrasting cognitive style. Yet from the firm's perspective, one important denominator of patronage potential is congruence in overt behavior, irrespective of contrasts in cognitive style. Hence, the lifestyle segment should be expanded to include all three consumers on the basis of behavioral parallelism.

On the other hand, were all three consumer prospects included in the same lifestyle segment, targeting of marketing strategy would prove problematical because of contrast in cognitive style. The practical problem of pitching patronage appeals to consumers varying in attitudes and opinions, albeit behaviorally congruent, poses a needless obstacle.

The resolution and reconciliation of these two problems built into conventional definitions and operationalization of lifestyle lies in sequential segmentation: Segmenting first on the basis of consistencies in overt behavior, the on the basis of congruence in cognitive style. Effective use of sequential segmentation requires clarification and differentiation of terms, consistent with contemporary consumer research findings on the relationship between cognitive processes and properties and overt behavior.


Cognitive style is customarily defined as "one's characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling and perceiving" (Markin 1974, pp. 125-337. 345-355). While cognitive style may be reflected in overt behavior, the connection is imperfect and often asymmetrical because of the intervening of moderating influence of situational environmental variables or enabling conditions.

Restricting the definition of lifestyle to characteristic patterns of overt behavior underscores the intuitive, if imperfect, symmetrical reciprocity between cognitive style and lifestyle. By defining lifestyle as overt behavior, lifestyle emerges as the characteristic behavioral consequence of the ongoing reconciliation of individual motivations and cognitive style with environmental constraints and opportunities, within the limits of enabling condition operating over time. Lifestyle may or may not mirror cognitive style, contingent upon the effect of situational environmental influences operating.

Defining Lifestyle in terms of characteristic patterns of overt behavior also suggests an intuitive symmetry between the domains of lifestyle and of psychographic research paralleling Dorny's dichotomy (Dorny 1971, pp. 900-901). The term psychographic (psycho = mental; graphic = profile) connotes the profiling of psychological processes or properties. A logical and consistent implication of the above definition of lifestyle is that the domain of psychographic research by delimited in terms of cognitive style (cognitive processes or properties, including values, attitudes, beliefs, opinions, interests), that may be systematically linked to characteristic patterns of overt behavior. Conversely, the logical focus of lifestyle research may be described as the identification of characteristic patterns of overt behavior that may or may not be systematically linked to cognitive style. Accordingly either psychographic or lifestyle research may focus upon individuals, groups, or society as the unit of analysis depending upon the researcher's purposes. Implicit in the foregoing definitional distinctions is the realization that while cognitive style and lifestyle perhaps operate in imperfect symmetry, the domains of psychographic and lifestyle research are logically symmetrical and complementary (Dorny 1971; Loudon and Della Bitta 1979, p. 98).

The suggested relationships are depicted in Figure l. Lifestyle is positioned as behavioral, and cognitive style is positioned as psychological and a subset of psychographic research. Intervening situational variables may cause lifestyle and cognitive style to be symmetrically or asymmetrically related. Both cognitive style and lifestyle are influenced by enabling conditions, which lie in the context of environmental constraints and opportunities.


Clearly, this is but another perspective on the potential definition and operationalization of the lifestyle concept. This is admittedly narrow as defining lifestyle as overt behavior does not allow for the broad, psychological Adlerian perspective of lifestyle. Rather, Adler's interpretation is relegated to the realm of psychographics or cognitive style. No approach is sacrosanct, yet some distinction in terms would allow for more productive advancement in lifestyle research and, equally importantly, in lifestyle segmentation.

By narrowing the definition of lifestyle to consistencies in overt behavior, marketing management will avoid the trap of too narrowly defining market segments and underestimating market potentials implicit in the conventional definition of lifestyle. Segmenting first on the basis of parallel patterns of search, shopping and consumption behavior would result in lifestyle segments encompassing all potential prospects for the firm's products. Sequential segmentation on the basis of consistencies in cognitive style will permit the precise targeting of marketing strategy. Hence, any given lifestyle segment would likely consist of subsegments consisting of consumers with common cognitive processes and properties or cognitive style (see Figure 2). The result of sequential segmentation should be more accurate assessment of market potential and more efficient targeting of marketing strategy. Equally importantly, the proposed distinctions should lead to greater definitional consensus, operational clarity, and more defensible linkages to existing research and theory in the social sciences.



It is rare in the social sciences to cop a plea for simplicity. Quite the contrary, behavioral and marketing analysis seem characterized by ever-increasing conceptual, operational, and methodological complexity, much of which seems needless. Yet, it would appear to be symptomatic of scientific pubescence, if not maturity, that the social sciences, and marketing in particular, periodically seek not only synthesis of findings, but also simplicity for the sake of conceptual and operational claritY.

One final note: It would be erroneous to construe a plea for simplicity in the interpretation of lifestyle as an indictment of the legitimacy of psychographic research. On the contrary, while simplicity may facilitate clarity and possibly lead to greater consensus concerning the proper domain of lifestyle research, psychographic research remains a viable focus for market analysis insofar as examinations of cognitive processes or dimensions of personality further the cause of understanding, explaining, and predicting overt behavior, and refining market segmentation and marketing strategy formulation. Psychographic and lifestyle research should proceed hand-in-glove, but progress in both will be facilitated by conceptual and operational precision and distinction.


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W. Thomas Anderson, Jr., University of Texas at Austin
Linda L. Golden, University of Texas at Austin


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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