A Blueprint For Consumer Behavior Research on Personality

ABSTRACT - Controversy surrounds the concept of personality and its a plication to consumer behavior research. Our field needs better grasp of the barriers that exist to a fruitful theory of consumer-in-situation. Overcoming these barriers will require particular attention to the strategy or process of theory formulation. Both inductive and deductive approaches will be required. Guidance in terms of process rather than content is available from psychology.


Lawrence A. Crosby and Sanford L. Grossbart (1984) ,"A Blueprint For Consumer Behavior Research on Personality", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 447-452.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 447-452


Lawrence A. Crosby, Arizona State University

Sanford L. Grossbart, University of Nebraska


Controversy surrounds the concept of personality and its a plication to consumer behavior research. Our field needs better grasp of the barriers that exist to a fruitful theory of consumer-in-situation. Overcoming these barriers will require particular attention to the strategy or process of theory formulation. Both inductive and deductive approaches will be required. Guidance in terms of process rather than content is available from psychology.


The need for generative theory dealing with the impact of personality on consumer behavior is particularly apparent (Zaltman, Le Masters, and Heffring 1982, p. 5). Research based on past conceptualizations has generally found a low correlation between measures of personality traits and discrete instances of buyer behavior. This is partly explain, by problems that exist in applying personality theory and methods in the consumer context (Kassarjian 1971; Kassarjian and Sheffet 1981).

A key problem is many personality variables borrowed from psychology are based on a medical model. Thus, theory seldom provides a compelling reason for expecting a relationship with consumer behavior. It has been suggested that students of buyer behavior develop and validate personality variables that are relevant to the consumer model (Kassarjian and Sheffet, p. 169). This theme is echoed by Sheth (1982) who sees a need for more self-generated, as opposed to borrowed, constructs describing "consumption styles." However, the creative and scientific procedures which should be followed in attempting to achieve this result ar not clearly specified.

The aim of this paper is to plot a course for the development of a theory of personality that is distinctly consume oriented. It begins with the prospects and limitations of two proposed solutions to the situation controversy in consumer personality research. Next, a dual strategy is recommended for generating concepts, propositions, and theories about personality and consumer behavior. Finally, rudiments of a logical deductive approach for conceptualizing consumer personality and its development are presented.


The relationship (or lack of relationship) between personality constructs and behavior is as much a problem for the field of psychology as it is for consumer behavior. With the development of the person-situation controversy (Endler and Magnusson 1976; Magnusson and Endler 1977), a challenge was raised to many traditional and apparently inadequate notions of personality. The basic problem involves understanding the consistency of personality in the face of behavioral variability from situation to situation (Pervin 1982). The issue has particular importance to the study c consumer behavior which is known to be quite situation dependent (Belk 1975).

To account for situational influences on buyer behavior, Nakanishi (1972) would abandon the past conceptualizations that view personality as having direct effects on product and brand choice. One alternative would be to focus on intermediate processes and decisions that lead to final product/brand choice (e.g., need recognition, information search and processing, store choice, etc.). Nakanishi's preferences however, is for a dynamic concept of personality concerned with the manner in which the individual adjusts to change in the environment. A two-step methodology is recommended. A primary model of the relationship between situation moderator variables and behavior would be estimated for each individual, across situations. Then, a secondary model would link personality variable to the parameter estimates of the primary models, across individuals. Other analytical procedures have been described to account for the joint effects of person (e.g., personality) and situation factors on buyer behavior (Green and DeSarbo 1979).

The interactionist perspective provides an alternate approach which assumes the individual exerts some control over the environment by "shopping" for situations (Endler 1982). This replaces the notion that situations are always externally imposed on the individual and suggest personality tendencies are reflected in the choice of situations. For example, one theory of motivation posits that people engage in situations in terms of goals and behave in ways designed to achieve these goals (Pervin 1982). These goals are said to be the product of classical conditioning and vicarious learning. Pervin presents a model, not unlike the expectancy value model, to account for the individual's situational choices.

Employing this perspective, Dickson (1982) provides the example of a young swinger whose need for trendy clothes arises because he/she frequents trendy bars and social functions. Dickson would focus distribution and promotion by identifying people who frequently place themselves in a particular usage situation and then selecting channels and media that concentrate on those people.


We view these new ways of thinking about personality as attempts to overcome perceptual and intellectual barriers to the generation of more fruitful theory (Zaltman, Le Masters, and Heffring 1982). Perceptual blocks refer to "obstacles which prevent a problem solver from clearly perceiving either the problem itself or the information that is necessary to solve the problem" (Adams 1974, p. 13). These approaches, which attempt to account for both person and situation influences, are primarily concerned with perceptual blocks. For example, the view that personality has direct effects on product and brand choice reflects a tendency to limit the problem area too closely. This is potentially overcome by shifting the focus to intermediate consumer decisions and/or the choice of situational encounters. Viewing the individual as programmed to respond consistently in all situations reflects the unquestioned acceptance of a stereotype. It is potentially overcome by the adoption of a dynamic view of personality which characterizes individuals according to their response to environmental change.

Attempts to overcome these perceptual blocks hold considerable potential in terms of advancing our understanding of consumer personality. However, in our view such efforts may be misdirected if proper allowance is not also given to intellectual blocks which impede progress on this topic. Intellectual blocks "result in an inefficient choice of mental tactics. . . (or) inadequate or inflexible use of strategies" (Adams 1974, p. 63). Intellectual blocks must be overcome if the field of consumer behavior is to ever have its own personality constructs.

It might be argued that the person-in-situation perspectives are only reconceptualizations in a limited sense. In general, they assume the existence of a set of personality variables and seek to increase their explanatory and predictive power by reconceptualizing their influence. But what is the nature of these variables? Presumably, we are still dealing with traits and similar personality concepts borrowed from psychology whose relevance to consumer behavior has already been questioned. The newer perspectives make no requirement that such variables be "consumer oriented" nor provide a logical plan for identifying and defining such concepts.

Zaltman et al. interpret intellectual blocks as a failure to examine how we generate our views of phenomena which would include, of course, consumer personality. How to proceed is perhaps the paramount issue in attempting to develop tailor-made personality inventories for consumer studies. Different mental strategies will undoubtedly lead to the identification of different dimensions of consumer personality with varying degrees of generalizability. A simple and appealing strategy involves the adaption of general personality traits in the consumer context (e.g., "exhibition" becomes "conspicuous consumption"). The danger in pursuing this strategy is the language and terminology of general personality theory then become the frame of reference for describing, categorizing, and conceptualizing the enduring aspects of consumer behavior. This borrowing of content from psychology narrows the focus of interpretation and limits generation of alternate theories about consumer personality. What is needed is a consumer behavior rather than psychological frame of reference.


A dual strategy is needed to overcome the intellectual blocks which hinder the development of consumer personality theory. The suggested approach would again borrow from psychology but emphasize the process of personality theorizing rather than application of existing personality measures. This dual strategy employs both a phenomenological and a logical deductive approach to theory building.


This approach is more inductive than deductive. The content and boundaries of investigation are defined by what we observe or think we observe about consumer behavior. The approach is phenomenological in that it is oriented to the appearance of events in contrast with their ultimate reality. Initially, it would be necessary to identify labels which have been commonly used to describe individual differences in behavioral tendencies of consumers. These could be attributes of the consumer and/or attributes of the consumer in a situation. A partial list might include:

innovativeness                       opinion leadership

deal proneness                      status consciousness

societal consciousness           normative compliance

purchase impulsivity              shopping proneness

stimulus seeking                    search propensity

discontentedness                  persuasibility

Newer concepts that describe deep-seated individual difference of biogenetic (left-right brain dominance; Hansen 1981) or cultural origin (hedonistic responsiveness; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982) could be added.

The exact origin of many of these labels are unknown. Some arise from experience of marketers attempting to influence and predict consumer behavior (e.g., deal proneness). As representations of regularities which marketers think they observe in consumer purchasing patterns, they contain many of the characteristics of "theory in use" (Zaltman et al., pp. 114-39). Each label is a type of map or representation of reality that describes the linkage between two or more concepts. These maps take the form of A + B where A refers to a personal attribute of the consumer and B to his/her behavioral response in a marketing situation. Given that the field of experience of most practitioners is limited to the observation of recurring behaviors in one or a few situations, the use of trait-like labels reflects a substantial inference. Nevertheless, these labels exist because they provided utility (had pragmatic validity) for their users:

After obtaining a reasonably exhaustive list of attributes, the analyst's task would be to define each term. Similarities and differences in the usage of the terms would need to be compared. Consistent with the view that personality describes basic and enduring individual difference traits, there would be a preference for generalizable definitions. One indication of generalizability is the extent to which a trait would be relevant and could be observed in different product categories. This is not to say behavior would necessarily be consistent in all purchase situations, although consistency might be expected across similar situations. An example might be a characteristic strategy for responding to high perceived risk. According to Assael (1981), these strategies can be classified as either attempts to reduce consequences of failure (buy lower priced brand, buy smaller amounts, reduce expectations) or increase certainty of the purchase outcome (buy same brand, buy popular brand, seek information, deliberate). If a consumer is typically brand loyal in high risk situations ranging from buying a new car to selecting an expensive restaurant, this might be taken as part of his/her "consumer personality." In contrast, this same person might exhibit a variety of responses in low risk situations.

After obtaining precise definitions of attributes, psychometric procedures would be followed (see e.g., Nunnally 1978; Churchill 1979) to create reliable and valid multi-item measures for each construct. Constructs that could not be properly operationalized might be presumed not to exist. The analyst might then employ a grouping procedure such as cluster or Q-type factor analysis to identify consumer "styles" or "types."

To date, there have been few attempts to develop consumer related personality measures. Scales that do exist are either so general they are not "consumer-oriented" or tend to be product-specific and, therefore, not generalizable (Young 1972). A similar criticism can be registered with respect to psychographic research (Plummer 1974; Wells 1975). On occasion, these studies have uncovered dimensions that at least give the appearance of being general consumer personality traits (Wells and Tigert 1971). More often, however, the A.I.O. battery is either so general that the dimensions reflect overall patterns of living or so specific that they do not generalize across product categories. Moreover, a lack of a priori theory pertaining to the nature of constructs and construct-indicator linkages, virtually precludes findings that are reproducible across studies.

Logical Deductive

Many personality concepts used by psychologists today were derived from a process not unlike that described in the previous section. Behavioral phenomena were identified by clinicians working with patients who were, for the most part, maladjusted (hence, the medical model). In fact, Freudian theory can be seen as largely inductive in origin. From such work came a set of premises about the nature of personality. Important among these was the idea that early childhood experiences have a profound effect on formation of adult personality. Since parents are typically a key factor in the early experiences, the pattern of relationship between parent and child was suggested as perhaps the most important influence on personality formation. These premises spawned a subfield of development psychology, primarily concerned with dynamics of family relations and their impact on personality adjustment of the child/adolescent/adult.

Extension of theory and research into developmental antecedents of personality created an entirely new set of opportunities for scientific verification using more logical deductive methods. Logical deduction is the approach of traditional science. It begins with theory, deduces hypotheses, and tests these hypotheses against empirical results. The seed for such theory can be earlier theory, observation, or abstract premises (such as those above). Recognizing the developmental aspects of personality, it became possible to generate propositions and theories relating family dynamics to personality trait formation, derive specific hypotheses concerning those relationships, and test them against empirical data. Support for the hypotheses not only bolstered the theory but a so helped to establish validity for the concepts being measured (e. a ., personality traits).

Our assessment is that to generate a theory of consumer personality it will be necessary to follow a similar course. Theory ultimately rests on the twin processes of description and explanation. The phenomenological approach offers an opportunity for description but the logical deductive approach is needed for explanation. To understand consumer personality we must know not only what it is but why it exists. This second requirement suggests the usefulness of a developmental perspective on the formation of consumer personality.

What follows is a brief description of psychological research on parent-child relationships as it applies to personality development and consideration of how these ideas may be relevant to the study of consumer personality.


Identifying Parental Styles

For over seventy years child development psychologists have attempted to systematically analyze the nature of parent-child interactions. Their preoccupation has been with the consequences of these interactions on personality development of children. Early studies which focused on disciplinary techniques have given way to examination of a broader range of child rearing practices (see Davis 1979; Baumrind 1980). In 1959, Schaefer noted the development of two contrasting approaches to the study of parental behavior. One approach, typified by the research of Sears, Macoby, and Levin (1957) analyzed molecular variables relating to socialization of specific systems of behavior (e.g., oral, anal, sexual, etc.). A second approach treated parental behavior in terms of molar social and emotional interactions (e.g., Baldwin, Kalhorn, and Breese 1945; Schaefer 1965). This second approach, with its reliance on standardized measurement instruments, large samples and multi-variate statistical procedures, has dominated the field since 1959 (Straus and Brown 19785.

Over the last two decades, researchers have made an effort to develop a parsimonious model of parent-child relations. The method most commonly used involves factor analysis of one of the parent-child relations instruments. Across studies, two orthogonal dimensions have consistently emerged. These have been labeled the interpersonal support/love axis and the authority/power axis (Straus and Brown 1978).

Schaefer (1959; 1965) argues for a three, rather than two, dimensional representation of parent-child relations, with the authority/power axis differentiated into psychological autonomy versus psychological control and firm control versus lax control dimensions. Recent empirical evidence supports a three dimensional configuration (Burger and Armentrout 1971; Hower and Edwards 1978). Becker's (1964) conceptualization is similar to Schaefer's and also employs three dimensions: one pertaining to love/nurturance and two to power/control. Becker, however, subdivides control into restrictiveness versus permissiveness and anxious-emotional involvement versus calm detachment. The extent to which Becker's and Schaefer's models describe the same conceptual space has never been determined. The fact that these models employ different dimensions may simply reflect "...differences in the labeling of identical factors or may indicate that neighboring and overlapping sectors of the conceptual space emerged as factors because of different samples of parent behavior" (Schaefer 1965, p. 556).

An advantage of Becker's model is all eight sectors of the conceptual space are uniquely identified as parent styles which can easily be related to other research. Becker's three dimensional model is reproduced in Figure 1. Parent styles associated with the warm end of the warmth-hostility dimension tend to be more accepting, understanding, and child-centered and make more frequent use of explanations and reasons in discipline. Styles at the restrictive end of the restrictive-permissive dimension place more restrictions on the child's behavior and tend to be firm in enforcement of rules. Parent styles associated with the anxious end of the anxious-emotional involvement-calm detachment dimension evidence high emotionality in child relations and may baby and overprotect the child.



One important limitation of past factor analytic research is that it has failed to reveal the incidence of the various parental styles. Factor analysis has permitted explanations of the covariance among parent-child relation scales in terms of an underlying dimensional structure.

Other methods must be employed to determine how individuals are distributed in that dimensional-space.

To address this problem, Baumrind undertook a series of studies to (a) identify parenting practices that clustered together into more general patterns of parent-child interactions, and (b) relate these patterns to children's personality differences. Earlier contributions of Schaefer and Becker were explicitly recognized in Baumrind's work. The first of her studies (Baumrind 1967), centered on children who were grouped according to personality characteristics and found that different child personality types were associated with different parental styles. In a second study (Baumrind 1971), pattern membership for parents was determined directly from measures of parent behavior and attitudes. The results confirmed the existence of three dominant patterns of parent-child interactions: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Authoritative parents were said to be controlling (i.e., restrictive) and concerned (i.e., warm) and appear similar to Becker's organized-effective parent shown in Figure 1. Authoritarian parents were also controlling but in 2 much more hostile and unconcerned manner which seems to describe Becker's rigid-controlling and authoritarian styles. Finally, permissive parents were characterized mainly as uncontrolling and slightly above average in concern. Comparable styles in Becker's typology are democratic and indulgent parents. In the end, Baumrind was able to classify 57 percent of her sample of 134 families into one of the three major patterns.

Linkage to Personality

It appears that certain psychotic disorders are associated with the same psychotic disorder in the parent. It is also known that authoritarian parents tend to have authoritarian offspring (Adorno et al. 1950). There is only limited, recent research of a longitudinal nature linking specific parental styles to development of personality traits in the "normal" adult (Chaffee et al. 1971). There is ample evidence, however, which links patterns of family relations to the personality development of children and teenagers. Accepting the premise that personality is basic, enduring, and formed relatively early in life, these effects might be expected to carry over into adulthood. Examples of the relationship between child rearing style and children's personality can be found in the work of Baumrind (1967), as summarized in Table 1. Similar results are found in other studies.


More important than the specific conclusions of this research on parent-child relations and personality, is the manner in which it has contributed to the development of personality theory. This approach could be easily adapted in the consumer behavior field, given the interest that already exists regarding children's socialization as consumers (Ward 1974; Ward, Wackman, and Wartella 1977; Churchill and Moschis 1979; Moore and Moschis 1981). Unfortunately, the literature on this subject is quite fragmented and needs a unifying framework.

In terms of future research, initial efforts might be aimed at clarifying the structure of parent-child interactions on consumption matters. Efforts to date have concentrated more on the content than the structure of these interactions, although the latter may be more important to personality development (Churchill and Moschis 1979). There is 2 need to catalog and classify the multitude of ways that parents and children interact over consumption. Families then need to be observed in situ, taking a representative sampling of their behaviors, with measurements obtained on a wide variety of interaction variables. This would be followed by attempts at data reduction. As Myers notes (1974), "theory development in the behavioral sciences often begins with an attempt to locate fundamental axes or dimensions as the basis for a framework for the representation of the behavioral unit." The behavioral unit in this case is either the family or parent-child dyad.

This procedure may not yield a two or three dimensional configuration with axes similar to that found in Figure 1. However, when the relevant space is found, it would be appropriate to examine the distribution of families in that space with the goal of identifying clusters of parenting styles or family environments (vis-a-vis consumption).

The final step would involve the administration of a consumer personality instrument probably to children, teenagers, and young adults who are products of known family environments pre-classified according to style. At that point hypotheses could be tested concerning the relationship of family consumption characteristics and the development of consumer personality traits. Hypotheses might be similar in form to those in Table 2.




Pursuit of this dual strategy will overcome perceptual and intellectual barriers and lead to the development of new theory on consumer personality. Convergence of the two approaches will also serve to establish the validity of the concepts, measures, and structural relationships and answer nagging questions about the regularity of consumer behavior.




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Lawrence A. Crosby, Arizona State University
Sanford L. Grossbart, University of Nebraska


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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