Consumer Choice As an Evolutionary Process: an Operant Interpretation of Adopter Behavior

ABSTRACT - Growth of knowledge in consumer research requires alternative interpretations of consumer choice to the prevailing trait and information processing models derived from structural psychology. Consumer behavior may be construed as environmentally determined, an evolutionary process in which the replication of patterns of choice is explained by the metaprinciple of selection by consequences. The Behavioral Perspective Model of purchase and consumption (BPM) is described and applied to the communication of innovations. The role of interpretation in consumer research is discussed.


Gordon R. Foxall (1994) ,"Consumer Choice As an Evolutionary Process: an Operant Interpretation of Adopter Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 312-317.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 312-317


Gordon R. Foxall, University of Birmingham


Growth of knowledge in consumer research requires alternative interpretations of consumer choice to the prevailing trait and information processing models derived from structural psychology. Consumer behavior may be construed as environmentally determined, an evolutionary process in which the replication of patterns of choice is explained by the metaprinciple of selection by consequences. The Behavioral Perspective Model of purchase and consumption (BPM) is described and applied to the communication of innovations. The role of interpretation in consumer research is discussed.


Structural accounts of human activity assume that observed behavior results from what is happening within the individual (e.g. Hillner 1984). An objection to structural accounts in consumer research is that they continue to dominate inquiry to the exclusion of the other, equally valid element in a complementary approach to behavioral science, selection by consequences (Skinner 1981), which embraces both evolution by natural selection and the evolution of human behavior and cultures. Although any process in which gradual and incremental change occurs over time is frequently described as 'evolutionary' (Faber and Proops 1991), an evolutionary explanation requires a causal mechanism to account for historical development (Van Parijs 1980). The principle of selection by environmental consequences is the basis of a range of explanatory mechanisms in the biological, social and psychological sciences (Skinner 1981). Common to all is that the inferred selective operation of the environment is held to determine the continuity of an organism, practice or organization and the class or species to which it belongs. In the neo-Darwinist synthesis, a predisposing genotype contains the potential of an organism to develop and behave, adapt and survive; but, it is, ultimately, the adaptation of the phenotype to the environment that decides it biological fitness, or capacity to reproduce, and - thereby - that of the genetic material to replicate (Dawkins 1986).

The evolutionary explanation of behavior in social science, has been identified by van Parijs (1981) as operant conditioning, the procedure in which the rate of a response is determined by the prior consequences of similar behavior (Skinner 1974). Selection by consequences thus applies both to the 'contingencies of survival' that determine the course of natural selection, and to the 'contingencies of reinforcement' that shape and maintain operant behavior. Cultural evolution is a subset of the latter: practices that result in the wellbeing and survival of social groups or organizations are thereby selected and transmitted from generation to generation (Skinner 1981). Dawkins (1988: 33) points out that, whereas in natural selection 'the replicators are the genes, and the consequences by which they are selected are their phenotypic effects', in operant conditioning 'the replicators are the habits in the animal's repertoire, originally spontaneously produced (the equivalent of mutation). The consequences are reinforcement, positive and negative [and punishment]'.


The operant paradigm appears from time to time in consumer research (e.g. Berry and Kunkel 1970; Nord and Peter 1990) but only recently has it been subjected to a detailed critique that permits its usefulness to a pluralistic consumer research to be gauged (Foxall 1987, 1990). The resulting Behavioral Perspective Model of purchase and consumption (BPM) relates patterns of consumer choice to their differing environmental consequences. Detailed accounts of the derivation and application of the model (Figure 1) are available (Foxall 1990, 1992a, 1992b, 1992c, 1993a). The following is, therefore, only a summary. There are three kinds of effective consequence of consumer behavior. Hedonic reinforcement derives from the satisfaction produced by buying, owning and consuming economic goods (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982). Informational reinforcement is provided by feedback on the consumer's performance, especially the social status produced by conspicuous consumption. Aversive consequences are the costs of consuming: relinquishing money, waiting in line, forgoing alternative products, etc. (Wearden 1988).

The antecedent events that set the scene for consumer behavior form the behavior setting. This consists of all the physical, social and temporal elements that signal the likely consequences of behaving in a particular way. Behavior settings facilitate or inhibit consumer movement and choice and form a continuum from the most open (where consumers are positively reinforced, free to choose their behavior) to the most closed (where agencies other than the consumer largely determine the pattern of pre-purchase, purchase and consumption behaviors). The consumer is represented in two ways: their learning history is the cumulative effect of rewarding and punishing outcomes of past behavior; it represents the personal factors influencing consumer choice and primes the consumer's approach/avoidance responses; and state variables, moods, ability to pay, deprivation, influence momentary purchase and consumption, etc.

In an evolutionary account of consumer behavior, the learning history which predisposes certain types of activity can be considered the equivalent of the genotype; the pattern of behavior resulting from this predisposition and the selecting environment, the phenotype (Faber and Proops 1991). Since cultural evolution is Lamarckian, the environmental factors (behavior setting, some state variables, consequences) can be most appropriately considered in relation to the rate at which behavior, the phenotype, is repeated. Four broad classes of consumer behavior can be inferred from the pattern of high/low hedonic and informational reinforcement that maintains them (Figure 2). Maintenance consists of activities necessary for the consumer's physical survival and welfare (e.g. food) and the fulfilment of the minimal obligations entailed in membership of a social system (e.g. paying taxes). Accumulation includes the consumer behaviors involved in certain kinds of saving, collecting, and instalment buying. Pleasure includes such activities as the consumption of popular entertainment. Finally, Accomplishment is consumer behavior reflecting social and economic achievement: acquisition and conspicuous consumption of status goods, displaying products and services that signal personal attainment. Both types of reinforcer figure in the maintenance of each of the four classes, though to differing extents.


Initial versus Later Adopters

These four classes of consumer behavior can be viewed as a hierarchy. The successive lifestyles, which are a function of experience rather than age, of many consumers are likely to be characterized by Maintenance, then Accumulation, then Pleasure, then Accomplishment. Figure 3 proposes another sequence, by which the communication of innovations may be interpreted in a behavioral perspective. The rationale for this sequence is most apparent in considering the differences between the initial and later adopters (cf. Midgley 1977; Rogers 1983). The general argument is that initial adopters are drawn from those consumers whose behavior, for the product class/category in question, is described as Accomplishment. This may be a general lifestyle characteristic of this group. They are experienced consumers who have a level of product knowledge and expertise in consumption plus a degree of wealth that allows then to make earlier adoption decisions and to act on them. They are not necessarily older than later adopters but, at least in the product class under consideration, are sufficiently economically socialized to act first. They should, therefore, differ from later adopters on all four explanatory variables posited by the BPM. Initiators, as opposed to later adopters will exhibit differences in the pattern of hedonic and informational reinforcement that maintains their behavior, a learning history that predisposes them towards earlier adoption, a susceptibility to the motivating effect of behavior setting elements that encourage earlier adoption, and the presence of state variables that facilitate earlier rather than later adoption.







Pattern of Reinforcement. By assuming that Initiators' consumer behavior is characterized by Accomplishment, the model understands that they are susceptible to relatively high levels of both hedonic (pleasurable/utilitarian) and informational (social/symbolic) reinforcement. This is consistent with the evidence. Not only incentives, based on relative economic benefit and utility, but also social recognition and status motivate the first buyers of innovations (Bandura 1986). The rewards of early adoption identified repeatedly in the diffusion literature may be classified as producing primarily economic benefit (hedonic reinforcement) (Rogers 1983; Gatignon and Robertson 1991). Among the sources of economic advantage are some innovation characteristics usually treated separately but which are fundamentally related to the economic, technical and functional benefits that are contingent upon adoption: relative advantage, compatibility, low complexity and low economic risk.

These are elements in the consumer's learning process, which actually refers to a class of economic costs. All are concerned with the costs and benefits of integrating the innovation into an existing physical and social system, particularly with the joint effects (cost reduction and/or the release of synergy) of operating it alongside existing equipment or practices. Economic advantage consists in what has hitherto been described as incentives or hedonic reinforcement (Gatignon and Robertson 1991). Social benefit is the conferral of status, usually through he conspicuous use of the innovation, though sometimes through its highly visible purchase. The prestige which accrues from these consumer behaviors may derive from others' admiration of the economic relative advantages conferred by the innovation but, unless the item is additionally amenable to social observation, it cannot deliver the additional social advantages which corresponds to feedback or informational reinforcement (Gatignon and Robertson 1991). Not only are these sources of economic and social benefit known to be associated with the speedier diffusion of innovations: Initiators perceive greater positive benefit (relative advantage, conspicuousness, compatibility) and lower negative consequences (risk, complexity) than do later adopters.

Learning History. Initiators generally have a shorter decision process than that of later adopters. They are venturesome, impulsive, able and willing to bear risks and make relatively rapid decisions to adopt. The new products they buy are discontinuous innovations, having maximal impact on current consumption patterns. Initiators need less interpersonal influence than later adopters, having less need for others to legitimize their adoption decisions. Midgley (1977: 49) defines innovativeness as 'the degree to which an individual makes innovation decisions independently of the communicated experience of others'. Moreover, initiators are more self-reliant and inner-directed than later adopters (Midgley and Dowling 1978). But their behavior is far from spontaneous and innate. Initiators have greater expertise with the relevant product class, possibly deriving from their heavy use of the product and their opinion leadership (Gatignon and Robertson 1991). Their capacity to recognize atypicality, to think in abstractions, combining product features, to deal with a large number of separate product dimensions, and to examine the environment for new products are also indicative of experience and expertise (Gatignon and Robertson 1991). Their being less influenced than later adopters by interpersonal communications is the result of experience; like any other behavior, it is the outcome of a situationally-determined learning history, the consolidated outcome of contingency-based learning and vicarious adoption with the product class and exposure to the innovation in question mediated by mass communication.

These initial adopters model the new consumption behavior to the less active sections of the population and thereby initiate the market (Rogers 1983). The behavior of the Initiator group is associated with innovations that confer substantial relative advantage over currently-used products and methods, both economic and social. In the terms of the BPM, such innovative adoption is maintained by high levels of both hedonic and informational reinforcement. These consumers can afford to acquire the tangible benefits of innovative products; it he process of consuming them, they enhance their status and prestige (Bandura 1986). Moreover, they can afford to undertake the early adoption of some innovations that fail: event his conveys to others that the adopter has the economic means and socials standing to disregard the occasional loss. They have positive attitudes towards newness and progress, and are more likely than others to be offered credit and, if required, to accept it (Rogers 1983).

State and Setting Variables. Initiators are affluent relative to members of the later adopter categories, risk takers who are eager to try the innovation for its own sake. There is no unequivocal evidence of their being older than other adopters. But they have higher social status, greater upward social mobility, and a more favourable attitude towards credit than later adopters. They also show more extensive social participation, are 'cosmopolitan', have greater knowledge about innovations and display more opinion leadership (Rogers 1983), all of which are likely to be the result of more extensive consumer experience. Most crucially of all, and true of a wide range of product classes including food, personal care items, domestic appliances, computers and computer services (Gatignon and Robertson 1985) is that initiators are already established and heavier users of the product category in question. They are experienced users with a high level of product field expertise, which may account for the absence of communicated experience in their innovative decision making. Moreover, they are likely to have established relationships with retailers or other suppliers and to be able to arrange trial of the new product; the effect is to enlarge their learning history and enable quicker comparisons and decisions to be made.

Categories of Later Adopters

'People who strive to distinguish themselves from the common and the ordinary adopt new styles in clothing, grooming, recreational activities, and conduct, thereby achieving distinctive status' Bandura 1986: 150). But the capacity of an innovation to confer status is closely linked to its exclusivity: as it diffuses, it becomes commonplace. When the product is approaching the end of its life cycle, it has become a routine acquisition, appealing only to those who are tradition bound, economically limited, and so conservative as to try new (to them) products that have been severely tried and tested by preceding adopters. By the time these consumers (the Last Adopters) adopt it, the product has ceased to be an innovation in any radical sense: it may embody continuous improvements of a minor kind but its adoption is unlikely to have an extensive impact on consumption. These consumers, the Laggards, are depicted in the diffusion literature as having no capacity for leadership, including opinion leadership: they are not, therefore, reinforced by high levels of informational reinforcement. What hedonic reinforcement maintains their behavior is similarly of low intensity: only products that cannot fail are assumed.

Between the Initiators and the Last Adopters are the Earlier Imitators (Rogers's 'deliberate' Early Majority), and the Later Imitators (Rogers's 'sceptical' Later Majority). The assignment of these adopter groups respectively to the contingencies maintaining consumer lifestyles marked by Pleasure/Utility and Accumulation is not quite as clear-cut as that of the first and last adopter categories to Accomplishment and Maintenance. But the characterizations are supported by the diffusion literature. The Earlier Imitators are not leaders despite their fairly high level of social interaction: they are not reinforced primarily by informational consequences of their actions. Moreover, their interest is in 'getting it right' when they try new products: they are cautious, taking time to deliberate before deciding. These actions suggest a high level of functional utility, hedonic reinforcement. The behavior of the Later Imitators is negatively motivated. This group adopts an innovation only when it has become economically essential to do so - its members are not seeking hedonic reinforcement, however. When they do adopt the item, it is principally for reasons of social pressure: they must finally adopt in order not to lose the honour or esteem of their fellows. Their adoptive behavior is thus negatively reinforced but by considerations of informational reinforcement. Products adopted by these adopter categories are dynamically-continuous; they embody improvements incorporated by manufacturers who by this time have experience of the market's requirements and may represent considerable extensions of the functional attributes of the innovation. They impact on consumption patterns and are purchased by groups seeking price and utility advantages.


This analysis indicates that it is feasible to present an alternative, though complementary, interpretation of consumer choice which attributes its changing topography to environmental rather than intrapersonal determinants. Whether these accounts must remain incommensurable remains to be seen, though the recent growth of cognitive ethology suggests that this is improbable. The paper also demonstrates that it is possible to apply the metaprinciple of selection by consequences to expand the range of interpretations available to consumer researchers. By contributing to an interactionist (person x situation) approach to consumer behavior, the model and its interpretations appear in line with emerging thought on the most appropriate methodological approach to research. Current attention is focused on the empirical correspondence of the model and its testing, the implications of rule-governed, as opposed to contingency-shaped consumer behavior, and the application of the model to the consumption of financial services and asset management (Foxall 1993b).

A broader research theme is the relationship of operant classes to the competitive environment, to develop an ecological analysis of successive operants much as strategic theorists have related industrial structure to its competitive determinants (e.g. Lambkin 1990). Since we are concerned with the population of consumer responses, competition is ultimately between the operant classes or 'species' of consumer behavior, each maintained by its unique combination of environmental consequences (Table 1). What environmental conditions make each of these more likely than the others at a particular time? Why does selection among these variations occur when it does? It is also necessary to propose why not all eligible consumers join the requisite adoption category for a particular innovation, e.g. why not all who have reached the Accomplishment stage even for the product class in question become Initiators.




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Gordon R. Foxall, University of Birmingham


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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