The Vices and Virtues of Consulting: Responding to a Fairy Tale

ABSTRACT - In this paper, the session Chair comments upon Holbrook's (1985a) anti-consulting arguments -- the only paper submitted for publication in the session entitled "Serving Two Masters: Perspectives on Consulting" -- and briefly presents some pro-consulting considerations.


Jacob Jacoby (1985) ,"The Vices and Virtues of Consulting: Responding to a Fairy Tale", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 157-163.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 157-163


Jacob Jacoby, New York University


In this paper, the session Chair comments upon Holbrook's (1985a) anti-consulting arguments -- the only paper submitted for publication in the session entitled "Serving Two Masters: Perspectives on Consulting" -- and briefly presents some pro-consulting considerations.

"'There's no use trying,' Alice says. 'One can't believe impossible things.' But the Queen replies, 'I daresay you haven't had much practice.... Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'." Lewis Carroll.

"All animals are created equal, but some animals are created more equal than others." George Orwell.


It had been my intent, as both the session chair and a participant, to speak last, to comment briefly on my colleagues' comments, present some of my own views on the vices and virtues of consulting, and then open the session up for discussion among the panelists and between them and the floor. It had definitely not been my intent to spend time preparing a paper. However, after reading and re-reading the original and highly inflammatory version of Morris' paper (Holbrook 1985a), it was clear to me that it warranted, indeed demanded, some formal response, lest some non-academicians, coming across the piece, assumed that it reflected the views of all academicians or all ACR members, or that some young scholar, seeing it unopposed, was let to believe that it represented the dominant or only legitimate view. In this author's opinion, the original versions of Holbrook 1985a and b were reprehensible.

Provoked in this manner, I replied in kind, anticipating that it would stimulate some kind of official reaction. The resultant pre-conference controversy -- which eventually involved a number of others, including a delegation of two past ACR Presidents charged by the ACR Executive Committee to approach both authors with a plea to modify their papers -- led to considerably revised versions of Holbrook (1985a and 1985b), especially in terms of tone. As a direct consequence, the present commentary was also considerably revised. (One of those who read an earlier version of this paper said it has been "eviscerated," since it is now less than half its original length and all the "juicier" remarks have been expunged.)

Having noted all this, let me now address the arguments Morris marshals against consulting. In doing so, it is important for the reader to note that, while I am an active consultant, I believe that I can lay claim to being just as much a basic researcher and contributor to the understanding of consumer behavior as can Morris. Accordingly my remarks should not be construed as being mate by someone from and representing the industry perspective;" rather, they should be taken as coming from a basic researcher whose views happen to differ from Morris'.


At the outset, let me note that it was often difficult to determine the group to whom Morris' remarks were directed. This was primarily due to two factors. First, by taking on applied research and business as a whole rather than confining his remarks to academicians who do/do not consult, Morris went considerably beyond the written guidelines which had been provided to all session participants. Second, in both Holbrook 1985a and 1985b, Morris fails to differentiate between researchers whose principal place of employment is industry and those whose principal place of employment is academia but who happen to also do research for industry. Further, absolutely no distinction is made among academic researchers who consider themselves to be applied researchers (and who publish in journals such as the Journal of Applied Psychology, the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology) -- some of whom do and some of whom do not consult -- and academicians who consider themselves basic researchers (and who publish in basic journals), but who also do either applied and/or basin research outside of academia. These distinctions are far from trivial. For example, are Morris' comments meant to apply equally and in all instances to the applied researcher in industry, to the applied researcher in academia who does no consulting, and to the basic researcher in academia who, while consulting, does basic research for industry which he may also publish?

Notwithstanding these problems, as best I can determine, Morris appears to levy at least eight arguments against consulting. (Note that some of these arguments were, in this writer's opinion, more clearly and forcefully articulated in the earlier versions of Holbrook, 1985a and 1985b. Having been given these revised papers less than 24 hours before the revised version of this paper had to be handed in, there was precious little time for this author to modify this section so that it reflected every subtle change in nuance in the papers to which it was addressed.) Let us examine Morris' arguments to see if they are warranted.

1. Scholars who do basic research should evince no concern with relevance. This point surfaces time and again throughout the manuscript but perhaps reaches its highest pitch in the following passage:

I believe ... that consumer research should be as useless to managers as possible .... We should not be fighting for the right to publish research that has practical value to competitors. Rather, we should be fighting for the freedom to conduct research that has no practical use to any manager (italics in original).

I find this reasoning flawed in several essential respects.

One reason for rejecting the argument against relevance stems from the generally held view that the most fundamental function of science is to assist us in achieving understanding of real world phenomena. Most authorities would hold that science cannot be applied to the examination of phenomena which have no real world correspondence. Other systems of thought (e.g., religion or philosophy) may be applied to address these other mysteries, but not science. Science has a decidedly real-world orientation and to arbitrarily try to divorce it from the real world is folly. Indeed, the principal criterion for evaluating theory is not elegance, nor parsimony, but utility, i.e., does it work and, if so, how widely? Utility and relevance are at the core of science.

A related consideration derives from Goedel's theorem which holds that no system of thought can verify itself; one must step outside that system for a point of reference and for validation. This may be likened to conceptual triangulation. One implication is that we must go beyond basic science in order to verify that the findings derived from basic science have broader validity. As we have noted elsewhere, social scientists operating exclusively in the confines of basic research laboratories have sometimes "discovered" and devoted considerable amounts of time to studying phenomena which later turn out to be nothing more than artifact (cf. discussion of the risky shift phenomenon in Jacoby, 1975).

To buttress his point, Morris later cites the following from Shils: "the primary task of the academic profession is the acquisition and transmission of knowledge, not its application" (1983, p. 9). While I am inclined to agree with this assessment, I would nonetheless argue that knowledge (qua understanding) is incomplete (or, at the very least, unverified) until there has been successful application. Science, as a system for achieving understanding, needs applied research if for no other reason than to confirm the validity and generalizability of its basic research. This is not to say that each and every Scientist needs to do applied as well as basic research, only chat, across the aggregate, there needs to be an acceptance of and appreciation for the integral role played by applied research in the overall scheme of things

Stated somewhat differently, if, as Holbrook (1984a) argues, "consumer research should involve ... the testing of theory ... to predict and explain consumer behavior," then where should this testing cake place? I submit that if our objective is to understand real-world consumer behavior, then a good portion of this testing needs to cake place in the context of the real world. Physical scientists are rarely fully satisfied by wind-tunnel tests. behavioral scientists, without the luxury of wind tunnels and the like, have even less reason to be smugly content with ivory tower tests.

Yet another counterargument to Holbrook's anti-relevance theme is based on an appeal for social responsibility over social irresponsibility. Morris writes as if the issue was one of usage vs. non-usage of basic research findings. This is naive. Be assured that if basic research has any conceivable utility, others will eventually learn of this and make an effort to apply what has been found. I he real question is thus not usage vs. non-usage, but whether you, as the originating scientist, will have any influence over said usage. Personally, i would rather seek to exert some influence. Indeed, I believe that that is the lesson to be learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, namely, if we create, we nave an obligation to be concerned with the manner in which our creations are employed.

Let me also point out that the argument against application is actually inconsistent with Morris' own call, made early in his paper, for consumer researchers to pay greater attention to the needs of consumers. Should we reject applied research, even when it has the potential to enhance he consumer's well-being, happiness, and quality of life?

Finally, let me point out that Morris doesn't have to fight for the freedom to conduct and publish research which has no practical value. All of us, including Morris, already have that freedom. Note, however, that if one chooses to do work that has no relevance, one cannot lacer complain coo loudly if one's work is not taken seriously -- even by other scholars.

2. All consulting has an anti-consumer (or at least a pro-business) orientation. This argument is tied up with the assumption that Morris often appears to make to the effect that managers (qua applied researchers) necessarily work against the best interests of consumers. This view is reflected at many points in his paper, particularly in the introductory passages. Consider the following: "Life consists largely of consumption experiences [which] ... determine people's happiness, their well-being, their quality of life. By comparison, the managerial perspective is parochial, self-interested and unimportant in the general realm of things." (N.B. Morris holds that this quotation is taken out of context and misrepresents his views) Especially when considered in the context of the comments made in his earlier paper, I disagree.)

I don't think it either fair or accurate to imply that managers and applied researchers are not at all concerned with developing products to enhance people's happiness, well-being and quality of life. (Indeed, satisfying people's needs for happiness, well-being, etc. is generally the quickest road to managerial success.) Perhaps some managers believe and act as Morris implies. But to make such a sweeping assertion regarding all managers completely disregards the fact that not only is it an integral part of their job (especially for chose who've heard of "The Marketing Concept ), but they, too, are people who are seeking and entitled to happiness, well-being, etc. -- and to the presumption of noble motives (including compassion, empathy, and a desire to assist their fellow human beings) until one can document the contrarY

In point of fact, much of the consulting done for business is actually conducted on behalf of the consumer's best interests rather than in opposition to those interests. The vast majority of my own consulting has been of this nature. [I trust that the reader will recognize that the heavy reliance on my own personal consulting experiences stems from the fact that much consulting is generally not openly discussed nor published; further, even in those instances where the contents are published, it is not always clear that consulting was involved. Hence, personal experience is often all one has to go on.] As a case in point, some of my work has involved assisting manufacturers in developing labeling and packaging that is more readily understood by consumers. In other instances I've participated in studies aimed at improving product safety. Does this sound like anti-consumer activities?

Moreover, not all consulting is tone for business. .As a number of ACR members have demonstrated, one can also consult for government agencies, generally for the benefit of consumers. In my own case, this has included doing applied research for the Federal Trade Commission on how best to communicate life insurance cost disclosure information to consumers so that they can make better purchase decisions. It has also included working for the Foot and Drug Administration (see below), the U.S. Senate, and the Department of Justice.

For those instances when 'managers' and 'public policy makers" to behave as nefariously as Morris suggests, note that ample opportunities exist to work against business and/or against the government but on behalf of the consumer. As examples, I was involved as a consultant on behalf of the class action suit brought against General Motors Corporation for placing Chevrolet engines in Oldsmobiles. And in a paper published in an earlier ACR Proceedings (Jacoby 1981), I detailed how I served as a consultant working against the U.S. Department of Agriculture when, either in complete ignorance of or disregard for consumer research on what consumers attend to and comprehend from package labels, they were about to implement labeling regulations for unprocessed meats that could have easily led to botulism poisoning and death for countless numbers of consumers. Finally and as is discussed below, there are also numerous opportunities to consult for non-profit organizations.

The important point to note here is that the contention or implication that all consulting is done for business, like the assertion that all consulting is anti-consumer, is completely untenable. There are numerous opportunities to consult, a great number of which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed as being anti-consumer.

3. Basic researchers a mistaken to believe that consulting activities will pay off _ research opportunities. Morris considers this a "managerial shibboleth" but I believe that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to refute Morris' assertion. My own consulting experiences have, in one way or another, extended both my thinking and research--including that which I would label basic research. This happens in a number of ways.

First, at some point in time after the project has been completed and provided to the client, it is quite common for consultants to be able to publish research of basic scholarly merit. As but one example, the monograph by Jacoby & Chestnut (1978) was initially prepared as a proprietary report for the Procter & Gamble Co., which subsequently gave its permission for it to be released. As another example, consider the approach to defining and measuring misleading advertising which this author developed while working as a consultant for the Food and Drug Administration (cf. Jacoby & Small, 1975). This latter example is interesting in that it illustrates there may sometimes be spillover benefits, inasmuch as this work then exerted impact on the thinking and research of other scholars.

Second, there are occasions when one might obtain a consulting contract with the explicit a priori understanding that one will be permitted to publish the findings regardless of how they turn out. A case in point is the work on the miscomprehension of televised communications which was sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (Jacoby & Hoyer 1982). This work has also let to additional scholarly research. including Schmittlein & Morrison (1983).

Third, although the work one does as a consultant may not be publishable in scholarly journals, the insights derived from this work may stimulate scholarly research once one is back in academia. As one example, the Jacoby, Nelson & Hoyer- (1982) piece on corrective advertising (and the follow-up piece by Jacoby, Nelson, Hoyer & Gueutal 1983) -- which demonstrated that scholarly thinking and research on the subject of corrective advertising needed to go beyond considering the impact of such communications on attitudes and beliefs to exploring whether they were even being correctly comprehended in the first place -- all came out of this author's experiences as an expert witness in the Federal Trade Commission's hearings on Bristol-Myers' advertising.

A fourth way in which consulting can be used is by piggybacking a basic research study onto an applied project. Such is what occurred with the first information overload study reported in the consumer literature (cf. Jacoby, Speller & Kohn 1974) -- where the overload research was conducted using subjects who had just participated in a large scale applied investigation that had been conducted, under a consulting contract, for a major manufacturer.

I, and I am certain many others as well, could go on at length to document the point that consulting irrefutably can and often does assist scholars in expanding their intellectual horizons and conducting research of publishable and scholarly merit.

It only remains to be mentioned that teaching benefits also can accrue to consulting. At the Ph.D. level there is a direct benefit since, as noted in Jacoby (1974), I often invite graduate students to participate (as paid junior colleagues) on consulting projects. I think that all these students, including those who continue to contribute to the "basic" literature (e.g., Jerry Olson, George Szybillo, Bob Chestnut, Wayne Hoyer, etc.) will provide ample testimony as to the benefit of such training. Further, those classroom sessions in which I am able to introduce material from my actual consulting experiences often turn out to be the ones which are the most interesting and educationally worthwhile for the students, both graduate and undergraduate alike. Providing such concrete examples often enables students to more fully understand or appreciate the conceptual point being mate.

After mentioning this last point to J. Paul Peter, a valued colleague, he opined that one could probably be just as effective if one read the descriptions appearing in the popular press (e.g., the Wall Street Journal; Fortune; etc.) and related these to the class. Not so. So many things, from subtle nuances LO major happenings, are either never reported in the press (e.g., the rationale for wording a particular questionnaire item one way rather than another -- or even the item itself) or are reported in a manner that doesn't quite capture what you, as someone who was there and actually experienced the events as they happened, can relate.

4. Only basic research is capable of evoking the experience of joy, creativity, inspiration, passionate devotion, etc. in the researcher. Nonsense! While some might disagree, I consider myself to be principally a basic researcher who, on occasion, will do applied research and also consult. Doing both kinds of research gives me a basis for saying that I derive just as much joy, experience just as much creativity, am often equally inspired, etc. doing applied research as when I do basic research. (Perhaps it's a matter of mind set. If you embark on something with the attitude that i: cannot be joyous, exciting, creative, etc., then you are destined to experience a self-fulfilling prophecy.) On the other hand, I to know many basic researchers who admit to finding little or no joy in their work. Perhaps that is what prompts some researchers to move into administrative positions.

5. Basic research is always intrinsically motivated while applied research is entirely extrinsically motivated. What poppycock! A great number of academicians conduct and publish basic research primarily because it will lead to tenure, promotion, and/or better raises and not because they are intrinsically motivated in what they are doing. By the same token, can one honestly believe that someone like Shockley, working at Bell Labs to develop the transistor, does research without any degree of intrinsic motivation (or without experiencing any creative challenges or joy along the way)? The fact is that applied research is not as devoid of intrinsic motivation, joy, etc. as Morris would have us believe. Indeed, I suspect that the proportion of joyous creatives to "drones" is virtually the same in both the basic and applied camps.

6 The pressures and incentives of applied research are such that consultants a often prompted to act with a_ _ _ lack of intellectual integrity. In a passage no longer present in Holbrook (1985b), Morris went so far as to contend that to consult meant to act without intellectual integrity. While he may no longer say or believe this, it is clear that there are ACR members who apparently to subscribe to this proposition. Accordingly, it warrants comment.

The argument that consultants act with less intellectual integrity is patently absurd. At least three points should be mate in reply.

First, those who consult always have the option of turning town any given project. That's one of the freedoms that comes from being an academician and represents one safeguard. When deciding whether to take on a project, I generally ass myself three questions. The very first is: Is the task consonant with my own personal beliefs? (If the answer is "yes," my second and third questions are: Can I make a genuine contribution? Do I have the time?) A "no" response to any one of these questions means that the opportunity will be rejected. To place some numbers on this, I generally turn down approximately four out of every five consulting opportunities that come my way. And when I do consult, I maintain the same standards of intellectual integrity that I employ in my scholarly research and feel that I (and every other consultant who behaves as I do) would be unjustly and falsely accused by anyone who said otherwise. Indeed, in an invited paper (still available) on the Roles, Values and Training of a consultant which I presented at the American Psychological Association's 1974 convention, one of the very first guidelines which I articulated was for the consultant "To act with integrity in all instances."

Second, it is ostrich like not to recognize that academicians, even some of those with the grandest of reputations as basic scholars, can and do sometimes act without integrity, both intellectual and otherwise. Documentable instances exist where ACR members held in the highest of esteem have misrepresented and even plagiarized the work of others. So much for the purported higher level of intellectual integrity displayed by academicians. Again, in my opinion, integrity (in regard to research and other matters) is probably no better nor worse in the applied camp than in the basic camp. Those who claim otherwise would do well to first examine their own behavior.

Third, consider the larger question: How is it that Morris can purport to eschew consulting, yet at the same time contend that he has intimate knowledge of what it is that consultants do? at least with respect to integrity, I can think of two possible explanations. Either (1) Morris is simply parroting back the stereotypical party line, having done no consulting himself, or (2) he has done some consulting and has personally experienced attempts to modify his intellectual integrity. in the event of the latter, either (2a) he succumbed -- in which case he was weak and now regrets his behavior -- or (2b) he didn't succumb -- in which case he was strong and can feel good about himself. Regardless, in either case 2a or 2b, he has to know that it is the individual consultant who has the choice. To then suggest that we cannot and will not resist these pressures implies a low opinion of us all.

7. Applied researchers, being governed by "parochial self-interest," are "narrow-minded and anti- intellectual. Throughout his paper, Morris does his best to paint a picture of businessmen and, by direct implication, the applied researcher and the consultant, as being governed by narrow-minded, parochial, anti-intellectual self-interest. Even if this is accurate as a description of some businessmen some of the time, logically, this doesn't make it true of the scholar-consultants who work with businessmen.

True, there are many applied researchers who do not recognize the value of -- indeed, the necessity of theory and who treat anything smacking of theory as being trivial and irrelevant. But does this justify an equally closed-minded approach on the part of the basic researcher? Can one who professes to be an open-minded scientist truly believe that there is only one "proper role for consumer research? As Hoffer (1951) pointed out, intolerance may thrive on both sides of an issue and it is just as revolting on the left as on the right. The attitude that there is only one true way, that some other perspective is completely evil and something against which we must mount a holy crusade, is anathema to the scientific spirit. Both science and religion are essentially and necessarily predicated on beliefs and assumptions. However, unlike religion, in science the truth of one's beliefs is only tentative, subject to disconfirmation as we acquire new knowledge or as factors change. Science is therefore open-minded to its core. To argue that there is only one proper role for consumer researchers, only one immutable truth, strikes at the very foundation of science itself. This argument also suggests that to rely so heavily on c he writings of a distant era (Veblen 1918) without recognizing and accommodating for the fundamental changes that have taken place since then, is to be anti-scientific. Perhaps the experience of Hiroshima and Siagasaki would have encouraged Veblen to change his views regarding the wisdom of having scientists become socially involved. More significant shifts in perspective have been known to happen to equally illustrious others.

As to self-interest, it seems to me that the basic researcher (especially as Morris makes the case) is the one who most accurately deserves to be charged with operating in a self-interested manner. 'While the businessman must be concerned with relevance, his boss, stockholders, government, etc., it is the basic researcher who is free to study only that which interests him, when it interests him, how it interests him, etc. .ind while that is as it should be, it seems rather silly when a basic researcher claims that others work for their own self-interest while he does not.

8. Consulting is nothing more than "money grubbing" and a sell out to external interests. .Morris apparently subscribes to the views of those whom he chooses to cite when he says 'consulting betrays the spirit of consumer research by converting a potentially scientific gift into a marketable commodity.' These views reflect ignorance of the fact that a fair amount of consulting is done gratis, either for the sheer joy or challenge involved, or to learn from the experience, or because, perhaps due to a sense of social responsibility, one wishes to provide a gift. In my own case, this has taken the form of serving as a consultant -- on a no fee-- basis -- for the State of Indiana Arts Commission and the Lafayette (Indiana) Symphony Orchestra. In the former instance, the project consisted of devoting four months to devising a questionnaire that was then sent out to the thousands of qualifying organizations in the State. The responses to this instrument were then used in determining the annual allocations of State and National Endowment for the Arts funds to these organizations. (N. B. This form then became the model after which the forms used by several other states were patterned.) In the second instance, the research designed and supervised by this author led directly to a threefold increase in both donations to the symphony Orchestra and attendance at its programs. It is clearly erroneous to assume that all consulting is necessarily done for pecuniary, money grubbing" purposes. It can indeed be a gift. Which leads to a question. Given his interest in culture and the arts, would Morris decline opportunities to consult for the 'lee, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, etc.?

I suppose that there are other vices associated with consulting that are described in Morris' paper. But, either because the sheer volume of quotations and other verbiage makes it difficult to see them clearly, or because .Morris generally fails to differentiate between consulting and applied research, or because reading Morris' paper evokes in me a strong emotional reaction, they remain undetected. Perhaps Morris did note that time and one's energies are finite so that, by expending these resources on consulting, one has less of them to devote to basic research. If .Morris did say this then I must confess to agreeing with his these are tradeoffs, some of which are of considerable consequence. Indeed, I can give ample personal testimony to how, because of time pressures and other commitments, some of what I consider to be my most meaningful basic contributions have yet to be placed into final form and submitted for publication. As but one example, two of the last four ACR "best paper" awards were given for research projects which essentially (and unknowingly) duplicated research I had done at least five years earlier - but for which I never seemed to have enough time to prepare for publication. and though I view this as a substantial "cost," consulting is not without compensating "benefits." Let me now briefly discuss these as I see them.


Actually, there are neither vices nor virtues attached to consulting -- at least not in any value-laden or moralistic sense. There are only advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits. What are some of the benefits that I see? Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these are mirror-images of the vices that Morris identifies. Without elaboration, I see the benefits accruing to consulting as including:

1. An opportunity to be exposed to different ideas and approaches which frequently serve as a basis for me to expand my own intellectual horizons;

2. An opportunity to assess whether my abstract basic thinking holds in the broader context of the real world (a point of view argued at greater length in Jacoby 1975, see p. 981);

3. An enhanced opportunity to do research -- either on that project or as a result of it -- which will contribute to our understanding of consumer behavior;

4. An opportunity to enhance my ability to disseminate knowledge when i;) the classroom (by being better able to attract and retain student attention and by facilitating comprehension by virtue of having an "alive" concrete example);

5. An opportunity to confront challenge and exercise creativity in the application and development of research concepts and skills;

6. An opportunity to exercise social responsibility. As pointed out elsewhere (Jacoby 1975, p. 984), if the more competent people in the field do not become involved in applying their concepts and methods, they can be assured that others (some of whom may be less talented) will. This could mean that decisions, particularly those made by government and industry, that affect us all will be predicated on the basis of less competent research and data because these were all that were available. By not entering the arena at least some of the time, basic researchers abdicate an important responsibility and leave a void for others to apply (or misapply) basic concepts and procedures. This should not be interpreted as arguing for each and every basic researcher to become involved in consulting! Rather, it is simply to say that at least some of our more qualified basic researchers need to become involved, at least some of the time, and those others who are not so inclined need to recognize the function that they serve;

7. An opportunity to experience genuine joy and excitement:

8. An opportunity to supplement my salary. Perhaps poverty is a prerequisite for good art; but nowhere is it established that it is a prerequisite for good science.

While it may seem a bit odd that I see value in many of the same things Morris considers to be vices, it shouldn't be. It's all relative and a matter of how one is inclined to view and interpret the world. What is applied and what is basic research is, at least to some extent, in the eye of the beholder so that what is one person's basic research may just be another's applied research. In a most revealing passage (contained in an early version of the paper that Morris sent to me but which has been omitted from the final version) Morris writes:

I shall never forget the hurt I felt when my own dissertation (which I regarded as ... pure research) was summarily dismissed by a psychologist on my committee as of no interest to him because it was only an applied study.

I have chosen to cite this sentence here because it illustrates perhaps the most fundamental point of all. Just because this misguided psychologist labeled Morris' research as being applied didn't necessarily make it such. Who was this psychologist anyway to imply that Morris' work was trivial and irrelevant? Wasn't he simply being "parochial" and operating according to a "narrow-minded" perspective? By logical extension, if Morris believes that that committee member was wrong, isn't it possible that Morris is himself also wrong in his assessment of the research being done by others? [Actually, I empathize with Morris; psychologists can be mean-spirited critters. I know; not only is my birthright from that tribe, but I spent thirteen years of my academic life in a Department of Psychology. Imagine the position in the pecking order accorded to consumer psychologists. To simplify considerably, consumer psychologists are, by definition (but don't ask whose, because no one can tell you) "applied" researchers. Somewhat more pure and "basic" are social psychologists, who are in turn viewed as being "nearly applied" by most other psychologists - and so it goes right on down the line. Imagine, also, what many of them thought of consulting (beyond being a bit jealous). It was amoral, clearly some variant of the world's oldest profession -- sort of like the "lady from Kent" limerick which Morris cites. More than that, it was downright evil and only engaged in by people who were somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. Yet these sentiments are mild in comparison to several of the passages that appeared in Morris' original paper.]


Near the outset, Morris writes: "Some ACR members ... may resist the conclusion that business is bad for consumer research. But if they reject my view, I fear it will be because I have not adequately conveyed the logic on which it rests." This writer believes that many will reject Morris' position because it is the logic that is flawed, not its conveyance. Let us consider a few elements of this logic. [This section is considerably abbreviated; at most, 20% remains of what appeared in the original. While this author still subscribes strongly to what he wrote there, in light of the many changes in words and tone accomplished in the Holbrook pieces, he has no other choice. To say these things now would leave him appearing quite foolish, railing, as it were, against apparently non-existent positions. Indeed, his hurried assessment is that very few of the major points he made earlier still remain. Perhaps more could have been salvaged. However, given that he had less than 24 hours to accomplish his revision, what remains will necessarily have to suffice.]

He continues: "This logic involves a particular conception of the proper focus for consumer research" (italics added). In a later section which describes "the proper place of consulting in the life of an academic," apparently not recognizing the inconsistency, Morris writes: "No one should presume to prescribe a set of values for another." The argument for a "proper focus" of consumer research is also logically inconsistent when, further on in his paper, Morris cites the American Association of University Professors' call for "complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results. Such freedom is the breath in the nostrils of all scientific inquiry." Who, then, is Morris to arbitrarily propose what is "proper" focus and subject matter for study?

Anyway, just what is it that is presumed to be "proper?" According to Morris, consumer research should focus on consumer behavior which 'consists largely of consuming activities.... Consumption experience should therefore comprise the primary subject matter addressed by consumer researchers." True, in the broadest sense, we are consuming something (even if only time and space) every instant of our waking and sleeping lives. But, often, what we to before or after we consume something either takes much more time or would seem to be more important than the actual consumption experience itself.

As but one trite example, consider the person on a diet who agonizes a full hour over whether to eat a candy bar, yet spends only two minutes on this consumption activity once succumbing to these urges. More to the point, and recognizing that the term "important" is essentially a value-laden term, regardless of how much time is actually spent consuming a health and safety related activity, it could be argued that the amount of time that goes into deciding whether to even engage in this activity, or in deciding on just which of several options (e.g., brands) one should purchase, or in reading and comprehending the health and safety usage instructions prior to purchase, are all more important (in terms of consuming wisely) than is the actual consumption itself. Indeed, as has been pointed out elsewhere (Jacoby, Berning & Dietvorst 1977), there are even instances where decisions on whether, how, where, etc. to dispose of something after i: has been consumed either take much more time or are more important than the actual consumption itself (e.g., consider disposing of an aerosol container by placing it into a fire).

To therefore argue that the consumption experience should represent the principal focus of consumer research is, in my opinion, untenable. Not only is it constrictive, implying that all of us should focus on studying the same thing, but it rejects the generally accepted notion that one of the strengths of the scientific approach resides in the diversity of inquiry.

Morris next goes on to tell us what he thinks is "wrong with consumer research." Perhaps unknowingly, he employs a tactic which is displayed at many points throughout the paper, namely, making erroneous assumptions and assertions about what others believe and say. He writes: "... even while recognizing the conceptual primacy of the former [i.e., consuming], consumer researchers ... preoccupy themselves with the latter [i.e. buying]." For the record, as a consumer researcher, I recognize no such primacy nor, I believe, do mans others.

I find a need to say "for the record," because Morris then uses quotations from Sheth (1982) and Jacoby (1978) in a manner which suggests that we concur with his appraisal. Neither Sheth's observations nor mine (to the effect that "Most definitions of consumer behavior shackle us.... Consumption must be given greater salience...") would support the assertion, or even the implication, that we believe consumption is necessarily m_ important than acquisition/buying. Yet, by virtue of the context in which they appear and the manner in which they are used, this is precisely the implication that Morris seems to be fostering when writing.

I concur wholeheartedly with Jacoby's and Sheth's conclusions about what is wrong with consumer research. However, these critics ... fail to answer ... what causes these problems.... Why do consumer researchers persist in misdirecting their attention? ... Why do we energetically pursue what is less important while stubbornly ignoring what is more important?

Parenthetically, it needs to be noted that what is important to one person (at one point in time and from one particular perspective) is not necessarily important for another person (at another point in time or from another perspective). Accordingly, it is possibLe to interpret the above passage as presuming "to prescribe a set of values for another" -- an approach which, as already noted, Morris ostensibly rejects.

The next section, entitled "A Fundamental Misconception of the Nature of Business," evidences some fundamental misconceptions of its own. Consider: "I would guess that at least 90 percent of those academics considering themselves consumer researchers come from business schools." Poor guess. Where does this leave the home economist, the psychologist, the nutritionist, the many biomedical researchers, etc., etc.? It may be that 90 percent of ACR members come from business schools, but it would be unwise to assume that ACR faithfully represented all types of consumer researchers. Thus, telling an audience consisting primarily of marketing professors that they are wrong to study consumer behavior from a marketing perspective does not seem to make much sense. Rather, arguing that ACR ought to work hard at enticing researchers from other disciplines into our fold -- especially people whose orientation is on the consumption experience -- does seem to make sense (and is something ACR has been trying to do ever since its inception).

In the next sentence, Morris refers to "the tendency of people in business schools to subscribe to a fundamental misconception [namely, they] ... think of the word 'business' as synonymous with 'management'." Again, asserting that something is so doesn't make it so- I don't believe that I confuse the two terms, nor do I know many colleagues who do. Does the reader? (N.5. While business schools sometimes use the word "management' instead of "business" in their title, note the following. First, this does not mean that the people who work at these institutions necessarily confuse the meanings of these words. Second, in some instances, the purpose is simply to avoid administrative and funding problems. As one example, the State of Indiana has a policy of avoiding duplication in the programs offered by its publicly Funded Institutions of higher learning. That is why one major institution, Indiana University, has a School of Business, while the other publicly funded major institution, Purdue University. has a School of Management.)

Morris contends "that anyone seeking to understand business had better study the behavior of both managers and customers .... in roughly equal measure." Would this mean that Morris should spend an equal amount of his time studying the behavior of managers? Even if one buys the proposition that no other parties warrant being included in this equation (e.g., government), why need this be 'in equal measure?" After all, aren't there more consumers than managers? Or perhaps it's the other way around, since each manager can affect more individual consumers than can these individual consumers affect managers? Or perhaps it's just plain a ridiculous assertion, since we should Lee each of us study what it is that we want to study -- w position Morris himself staunchly advocates, at least when applied to his own interests.

At one point, Morris states that "those adhering to the managerial viewpoint may react with hostility to someone making the ... claim that consumption phenomena deserve study in their own right." I think Morris is wrong on this point; I believe a large number of managers and applied researchers would recognize the value of such research and would welcome it. I have no hard evidence -- but, then, neither does Morris.

Morris' football analogy proves illuminating, if only because we can infer from it that, even if he were a football fan, he wouldn't root for the (Chicago) Bears.

"I claim that we shall never understand consumer behavior until we abandon the managerial perspective.'This presumes that we all adhere to the managerial perspective; I don't believe that we all do. I know I don't and I chafe when anyone, without any real knowledge as to what it is I do do and don't do, places me into this pigeon-hole simply because it suits their preconceived notions. Anyway, why do we have to abandon the managerial perspective? Why not simply supplement it with what Morris believes is necessary? Science thrives on and advances from having a diversity of perspectives, not from being dogmatic and monolithic in approach.

Morris writes: "I find it difficult to imagine that executive teaching ever serves as a basis for the development of important concepts' (italics added). The all-inclusive closed-mindedness of this statement reflects an attitude basically incompatible with the creative scientist's philosophical openness to all potential channels of information. And even if Morris refuses to accept such input himself, it is and that he cannot accept this possibility for others. This closed mindedness is then couplet with a description of businessmen which I find patently indefensible. Just where is the evidence to support claims such as: "In [the businessman's] cost/benefit analysis of mental exertion, intellectual curiosity loses every time."? I thought we were long past the point where outmoded and unverified stereotypes would be passed off as dogmatic truths.

Morris makes a point of arguing that, for business executives, "conceptual is a pejorative term, theory virtually a dirty word." Even if one accepted this as true (and I don't), does this then entitle academicians to consider "applied research" and "consulting" as pejorative terms and dirty words? I suspect not

In another sweeping generalization, Morris writes:

Like everyone else, executives are consumers. When they come to executive training programs .... They seek a good time. They crave entertainment. They want enjoyment and pleasure. They therefore adopt an anti-intellectual mood and insist that the atmosphere of a circus prevail. (Italics added.)

Note that this statement (even in its cleaned-up version) not only presents a derisive view of managers, but indicates an extremely low regard for consumers as well. Moreover, beyond his own impressions and anecdotal accounts, just where are the data upon which one can predicate such a sweeping and far-reaching assertion? Again, saying something is so doesn't make it so. Because my experiences have been of the opposite kind -- the managers to whom I've lectured generally seemed to be more attentive and ask more penetrating questions than did many of the undergraduate and graduate students whom I've taught -- would this justify my making a sweeping all-inclusive generalization in the opposite direction? Clearly, it would not.

Since the lion's share of points made in the earlier version of this paper have either been deleted or eviscerated, let me conclude as follows. Morris' original papers gave me great cause for alarm and concern. It scares me when I hear intelligent people claim that there is only one "proper" way to achieve anything, especially understanding. History has taught us that it is but a short step from embracing "the" proper way to advocating the subjugation of all other ways.

It scares me when I hear intelligent people issue blanket condemnations of entire categories of people. It is not that no kernel of truth may be found in what Morris has written. Yes, some businessmen, applied researchers and consultants are likely all Morris claims them to be, namely, narrow-minted, anti-intellectual individuals acting without integrity or concern for their fellow man, etc. However, a sense of fair play would compel Morris to note that not all businessmen, applied researchers and consultants are of this ilk. Moreover a sense of honesty should compel Morris to admit that it would not be difficult to find instances where basic research scholars evidence precisely the same characteristics which he attributes to applied researchers and consultants. Absent any such admissions, Morris' arguments may be termed (in the language of the FTC) "deceptive via omission" and (in the language of the FDA) "false, lacking in fair balance, and misleading." To issue wholesale indictments of all businessmen, applied researchers and consultants for the actions of some of them is inequitable, morally indefensible and reprehensible and my conscience tells me I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge it as such.

Morris lauds "complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results." Yet, while he believes in this freedom for himself and his perspectives, his papers made it clear that he didn't believe this freedom extended to other perspectives. According to Morris, there is only one proper role for consumer research - and that is as Morris defines it.

Morris writes of trouble with a capital T and he writes as if he has found truth with a capital T. He apparently fails to recognize what is perhaps the only fundamental truth in all of science, namely, that there is no absolute and immutable truth. Truth is tentative and depends upon one's perspective. The very same phenomenon may admit to multiple truths. A single blade of grass may be both b zn and living. Is either truth necessarily any better than the other? Doesn't it all depend upon how the truth is to be used? At least from a philosophy of science perspective, there is no truth until one is arbitrarily defined. And if it can be arbitrarily defined in one way by one person or group of individuals, then it can be defined in another by other groups or individuals. And who is to say which is right? Of necessity, the issue reduces to one of identifying, and generating acceptance of, a criterion - out of the mans that can usually be applied.

In my opinion, Morris' paper violates the fundamental spirit and precepts upon which the Association for Consumer Research was founded. As a founding member, I can tell you that it was our intent to build a home where people from different disciplines, from academe and industry, and from both the basic and applied sectors could come, talk and reason together. It was to be a forum evidencing receptivity to all forms of consumer research. It was not meant to be the exclusive province of any one discipline nor of any one research orientation - and this writer, for one, hopes it never becomes such. [The author would also like to thank those who commented on the earlier version of this paper, namely, Punam Anand, Henry Assael, David Brinberg, Beth Hirschman, Morris Holbrook and Michael Solomon.]


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Jacob Jacoby, New York University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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