Consumer Learning and Coping Behaviors in Transitory Situations


Donald Granbois (1994) ,"Consumer Learning and Coping Behaviors in Transitory Situations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 41-42.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 41-42


Donald Granbois, Indiana University

Consumer research usually concentrates on consumers in typical settings, perhaps reflecting the field's Marketing heritage, where standard segmentation concepts such as family life cycles or children's developmental stages dominate. Little is known of behaviors of people in transition between stages or of people living in nonstandard households. These situations require people to learn new roles in the face of uncertainty as to what is effective and appropriate behavior. The three studies of divorced consumers and young adults living away from home for the first time contribute insights into consumer spending and money management problems and practices during these transitory periods. What remains to be learned are the processes consumers use to develop needed new behaviors, and the determinants of the apparent variability of their success in these endeavors.


Each study reports preliminary results of on-going projects, and each, therefore, is an ideal candidate for conference presentation, where suggestions from audience members are available for the researchers to consider as their projects proceed. They are alike also in their use of a phenomenological approach.

To those trained in more conventional methods, hallmarks of this somewhat free-wheeling, seemingly unstructured approach are no familiar theoretical orientation, no hypotheses, no formal sampling methodology, no formal analytical or statistical scheme for dealing with data collected, and no discussion of findings in light of hypthesis-testing and correlation with earlier findings. Since these missing aspects often provide the major focus of a discussant's critique, a different strategy is obviously called for here. Comments will therefore be limited to interpreting the coping and learning behaviors reported and to offering some suggestions for framing future research questions.


Each study presents the results of intensive study of a very small number of subjects (four, fourteen and fifteen) whose verbatim responses provide first person descriptions of their uses of goods. Verbatim reporting and the researchers' finely detailed interpretations provide insights into how consumers expect products to serve specific social and individual needs. Goods and the acts involving them were found to have important symbolic meanings and social purposes, especially as other family members and significant others are involved. However, these meanings and purposes were obviously not always clearly understood. Subjects found themselves in stressful settings, where they either did not know appropriate consumer norms or perceived them to be in conflict, or where they saw their own behavior as norm-violating.

Some subjects appeared to use money and goods deliberately to deceive themselves as to the appropriateness and efficacy of their own behavior. Others used goods to enhance, correct, modify or sever relationships with others. Goods sometimes enhanced satisfaction for themselves or others and sometimes were used deliberately to deny satisfaction to others. Goods and money were sometimes used with good intentions, but in ways that observers might feel to be detrimental to smooth interpersonal relations or that may actually be damaging to the development of "good" practices by others (Jason's mother provides funds to him with this effect).


Subjects appeared to evaluate their own behaviors in terms of self-evalation of performance. Many incidents reported consideration of whether an act led to an increase in the subject's own satisfaction. What is not clear, and what constitutes an important research avenue suggested by many of the incidents reported here, is the factors that determine when normative behavior actually does lead to enhanced satisfaction.

Indeed, several incidents are shown where deviant behavior led to great satisfaction. For example, Susan judged her trip to Boston with her boyfriend to be highly satisfying, even though she believed this act deviated from her usual frugal, careful spending of money. How could this self-defined "irrational" behavior lead to such a high level of pleasure?


Authors of each of the studies identify behaviors, name them and suggest some of their functions for the subjects studied and for these subjects' relationships with others. Three themes for coping with divorce, a valenced classification of gift-giving behaviors, and a conceptual scheme for classifying student spending and saving behaviors are proposed and illustrated. We are not sure of the universality nor of the completeness of these constructs, nor are we given much insight into possible individual differences among divorced persons' behaviors, nor of sensitivities of these constructs to situational variables. Not all divorces are alike, surely, and many more college student situations exist beyond those studied here. Nonetheless, the concepts and classifications are provocative, offer insights into the stresses and uncertainties faced by the subjects studied, and provide incentive for developing further understanding of these really not-so-unusual situations.


Identifying members of broken families as survivors highlights the belief that, though exceedingly common (the majority of marriages now end in divorce, we are told), divorce is viewed as a crisis requiring heroic actions. Subjects in two of the studies felt the need for extraordinary behaviors, many involving products, to adapt to new family structures and relationships. Many such behaviors were exploratory and, apparently, were sometimes considered incorrect by those affected by the breakup of the marriage.

Bates and Gentry provide a less traumatic picture of divorce than that hinted at in the Otnes, Zolner and Lowrey study. Bates and Gentry show mothers to be quite resourceful and inventive in discovering ways to structure life with their children and members of their extended families so as to preserve traditional behaviors developed by the intact family. Their findings provide a good start toward defining the central concept, the "feeling of family," that divorced mothers try to preserve or construct.

Relatives, including in-laws, apparently also feel the need to respond as if to a crisis situation with a repertoire of behaviors that help the mother maintain a family-like setting for children. Kinship networks appeared to be strengthened by divorce, if anything, and the strong matriarchical flavor of these extended networks brings to mind the sort of structure often associated with African-American families. Children were encouraged (or even forced) to mature more quickly and to learn adult consumer roles while still under their mother's care. One can speculate that this anticipatory learning of adult consumer roles may help better prepare children for real consumer roles later. Furthermore, closer relationships between the custodial parent and children seemed to result.

Strangely, all of these adapting behaviors and resulting strengthening of relationships cast an almost positive light on the consequences of divorce. Surely that is not the intention of Bates and Gentry's interpretation. One consequence of their finding that divorced parents enhance the sense of family by preserving past behavior suggests divorce may encourage the preservation of customs and rituals, including ethnic and other specialized behavior.

Otnes, Zolner and Lowrey, on the other hand, show one of the consequences of divorce to be a confusion over proper behavior with respect to gift-giving. Goods were apparently often used in ways intended to manipulate and modify relationships and to communicate shifts in sentiment that were not easily verbalized. As in the Bates and Gentry study, the researchers provide a strong feeling that conventional family structure and life are still normative, as in the comment,

Some gift exchange is clearly used as an attempt to signal to children that relationships between parents in general, and the holidays, in particular, are as normal as possible, given the circumstances of divorce and/or remarriage.

However, whereas Bates and Gentry's subjects interpreted sustained marriage as the norm and divorce as a crisis outcome and therefore used goods effectively to restore as much "normalcy" as possible, subjects here attempted to use gifts to adapt to new relationships forced by divorce, but some of these efforts were not very successful.


Walsh and Spiggle adapt the admirable strategy of selecting consumer subjects at an important turning point, namely college students living on campus and learning new roles as independent consumers, while still closely associated with and in varying degrees still dependent upon their parents. During such turning points, where students are learning new social roles and experimenting with new consumer behaviors, the learning process is nearer the surface and perhaps more easily discussed by subjects, since it has not become habitual and taken for granted. The subjects displayed quite different patterns of adaptation to their separation from parents. While many of these behaviors reflect realistic adaptation to their new freedom and new responsibilities for managing their own affairs, it is distressing to find some confusion and downright conflicting behaviors as David's, who said he used credit cards both to limit spending and to facilitate impulsive and even foolish spending. David's behavior could develop into careful money management, but (more likely) it could lead to ultimate financial disaster.

Melissa characterized some of her own behavior as somewhat irrational, yet found these "foolish" purchases led to high satisfaction levels. Jason's mother engaged in enabling behavior that fostered his belief that money comes from banks, in much the same way big city children are said to think milk comes from supermarkets. Jason rationalized foolish purchases as necessities, and seems headed toward troubles in marriage, since marriage often founders when one or both partners handle economic matters poorly. Thus, the study indirectly ties into the two investigations of economic and consumption aspects of divorce by suggesting dysfunctional behaviors young persons may bring into marriage.

Like the adults adapting to divorce, who tried to use goods in mostly positive ways to increase satisfaction (to maintain or restore "normalcy" or to help establish a new set of workable relationships) some of the students' behaviors clearly represent successful budgeting strategies. However, all four students also learned that immediate gratification sometimes can come from irrational, nonprescribed behaviors that they themselves hardly approve.

Clearly, much further study of these attempts to develop adaptive behaviors is required. The three studies reported today have made an important start toward suggesting questions and directions for this on-going investigation.



Donald Granbois, Indiana University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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