Presidential Address Dimensions of Consumer Expertise Or Lack Thereof


Joseph W. Alba (2000) ,"Presidential Address Dimensions of Consumer Expertise Or Lack Thereof", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-9.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 1-9



Joseph W. Alba, University of Florida

A previous effort to understand consumer knowledge made a fundamental distinction between familiarity and true expertiseCthe latter of which was defined in terms of some fairly sophisticated cognitive skills (Alba and Hutchinson 1987). From a very different vantage point, one may question consumers’ basic cognitive abilities and level of knowledge. For example, consider the surprising finding by Dickson and Sawyer (1990) regarding consumers’ low awareness of grocery prices even under very favorable conditions. Such findings beg the question of where consumer researchers should set their expectations regarding consumer expertise. Perhaps it is the case that knowledge is generally low and skills are weak or irrelevant. If so, traditional consumer research has little chance of shedding light on the problem.

Casual observation of everyday knowledge and skill paints a depressing picture. Surveys of the general population reveal extraordinary ignorance of civics, surprising levels of belief in the occult, and lack of basic arithmetic ability (Blinder 1991; Gallup and Newport 1991; Mitchell 1996; Nisbet 1998; Tyson 1998). In the consumer domain, awareness of the dangers of deadly products such as cigarettes is relatively lowand understanding of basic economics is woeful (Bernheim 1994; Cohen 1996; Capon, Fitzsimons, and Prince 1996). Ignorance within these domains can lead to catastrophe. Unlike the case of price knowledge, there may be few "vigilantes" to guard consumer welfare.

A task of consumer research is to understand ill-advised decisions and behaviors. I will argue that much suboptimal behavior is attributable to "mindlessness." However, I do not refer to the term in its colloquial sense, which tends toward low involvement, shallow processing, orCas described by Langer (1997)Cbeing on "automatic pilot." Consumer researchers have become experts in low involvement effects. Moreover, low consumer involvement may have few policy implications. A lack of involvement should be self-correcting if it results in costly errors. The same may not be said for mindlessness in the sense described here.

In the remainder of this presentation I describe ten other "dimensions" of mindlessness. I will argue that each dimension may lead to dysfunctional outcomes; however, I will also argue that some aspects of mindlessness may serve an adaptive function and that the undesirable outcomes that occasionally result are exceptions to otherwise useful processes.


Singing in G Minor

Although there is much discussion about the nature of intelligence, the classic notion is one of general intelligenceCor the "g" factor (see Flynn 1999; Neisser et al. 1996; Sternberg and Kaufman 1998 for discussions of trends and nuances). It is important to keep in mind the obvious reality that, except in Lake Wobegon, approximately half the population is below average in intelligence. I do not make this point lightly. Most researchers live in environments that are not representative, and consumer research is a discipline that needs to make some overture to external validity. Although there is legitimate disagreement with some of the assertions Robert Ferber made in his well-known editorial regarding "research by convenience" (Ferber 1977), there is much truth in the observation that our experimental subjects are not representative of the general population. As Sears (1986) observed, college students have been preselected on the basis of their cognitive skills (see also Wells 1993). Thus, whether due to differences in innate competence or level of formal education, it is no surprise that results from more representative samples reveal a disturbing inability to engage in important but basic cognitive tasks. For example, in a simple test of consumers’ ability to determine the best buy among competing brands, nearly 40% of the sample may employ methods that make little conceptual sense (Capon and Kuhn 1982). At a minimum, it seems that ability should be incorporated into consumer research as a background variable (Lynch 1982).

Lack of competence cannot be characterized as either mindful or adaptive.


Society will never be homogeneous in ability, and it will always be the case that some segments will not function as highly as others. To sharpen the point, however, consider only those individuals in the upper half of the distribution. The question concerns whether above-average IQCor gCcan serve as a good surrogate for one’s ability to function "intelligently." The answer appears to be "no." IQ tests do not measure the basic disposition toward rational thought and behavior. In particular, educational psychologists have been concerned with the notion of dysrationaliaCor the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence (Stanovich 1994). For example, when presented with a contentious issue such as whetherviolence on TV begets real-life violence, subjects who are asked to provide an opinion and rationale often exhibit very shallow reasoning (see Perkins, Faraday, and Bushey 1991). Such results cannot be attributed entirely to a lack of motivation or education (Perkins 1985; Perkins et al. 1991). Moreover, even if attributed to lack of training, it must be remembered that less than 25% of adults complete a college level of education. Thus, it is easy to understand the effectiveness ofCand necessity forC "sound-bite" political campaigns.

The precise reason for such outcomes is unclear. One possibility is that people latch onto a plausible chain of reasoning and then cease without investigating other avenues (Perkins 1985). In fact, a similar type of "satisficing" has been observed in jury decision making (Kuhn, Weinstock, and Flaton 1994). A different interpretation is suggested by a Piagetian perspective. The lack of ability to reason abstractly is akin to the failure to attain the formal operational level of cognitive development. By some accounts, most adults fail to reach this level of thought. As Gray (1990) notes, formal operations may develop from need. Cognitive structures (including formal operations) represent adaptations that are constructed "when the combination enhances the biological or psychological functioning of the individual with(in) the existing acknowledged environment." We may surmise that even for those who possess the innate ability, the need is often not present.

This perspective, along with the accompanying empirical results, offer an interesting contrast to decision research that touts the adaptive abilities of consumers (e.g., Payne, Bettman, and Johnson 1988). Inasmuch as there is no reason to doubt the robust results produced within the latter paradigm, it may be the case that consumers have adapted to environments that require trade-offs among clearly defined alternatives and attributes and in which a reasonable decision can be achieved via the use of simplifying heuristics. By its nature, sophisticated abstract thinking eschews the use of heuristics. Thus, prior research has restricted itself to only a subset of the problems that consumers must solve with their minds. We still know little about how or how well consumers reason about complex issues such as the merits of food irradiation and other problems that lack clear structure.

As in the case of low absolute ability, dysrationalia is neither mindful nor adaptive. The remaining dimensions differ in this regard. My expanded view of mindlessness refers not only to the appropriateness of consumers’ behavior but also to consumers’ lack of conscious control over their decisions, thoughts, intentions, and actions.

Upper versus Lower, Not Left versus Right

Consumer research pertaining to brain structure has focused on hemispheric effects. However, a more significant distinction may be made between the upper and lower portions of the brain. Of course, it is not unique to argue that the upper and lower brain have different functions or that people are sometimes guided by the lower brain (Sloman 1996). Typically, the lower brain is invoked to explain "thoughtless" behavior. This interpretation of lower brain influence is consistent with traditional views that equate mindlessness with low involvement and shallow processingCsuch as when a consumer explains a silly purchase by stating "I just wasn’t thinking." In terms of our expanded view of mindlessness and the issue of control, however, the important question concerns whether the lower brain can dominate the upper brain when we are earnestly thinking to the best of our abilities.

We can identify at least three examples of lower brain dominance. First, there are the common occasions on which feelings dominate cognition during the process of risk assessment. A consumer who has a fear of flying will not lose that fear when informed of the base rates of fatalities across different modes of transportation. As Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, and Welch (1998) note,

"(f)eelings about risk depend, in large part, on mental images and unconscious associations, which are insensitive to changes in probability. As a result, feelings about risk and cognitive risk perceptions often diverge, sometimes strikingly."

A second example comes from the arena of political science, which shows that voters can be strongly influenced by the facial features of political candidates (Rosenberg, Bohan, McCafferty, and Harris 1986; Rosenberg, Kahn, and Tran 1991). This result is not surprising, all other things equal. However, an influence of facial cues is found even when encountered in the context of other, much more diagnostic information such as party affiliation and specific stances on major issues. The influence of the facial cues may be sufficiently strong to reverse the outcome of an election. Some have even argued that voters respond by instinct to physical cues and, consequently, that their choices are based on primal emotions that are later justified with objective reasons (Wall Street Journal 1999). Again, lower instincts dominate reasoning even in contexts in which the decision is important and reasoning presumably is engaged. Such results are profound from a consumer research perspective in light of the attention traditionally devoted to multiattribute decision making and reasoned action.

Third and more broadly, there is the frequent observation of nonconsequentialist decisions in which choices do not reflect the desirability of alternative outcomes (Frisch and Clemen 1994). Baron (1994) argues that nonconsequentialism obtains when people overgeneralize if-then rules to which they are normally committed. Inasmuch as nonconsequentialism is observed even when decision makers are confronted with decisions that require and receive significant amounts of thought, it represents a strong test of lower-brain dominance. The origin of such rules is unclear. As Baron speculates, rules may be learned or innate. Both sources will be discussed below. Regardless of origin, however, the nature of nonconsequentialism brings into question the notion of control. Consider the following observation by Ayton and Harvey (1994) regarding Baron’s results:

"(Subjects’) attempts to reach their objectives have been disrupted by a strong habitual form of reasoning. Given their lack of control over such reasoning, they are no more to blame for its results than a car driver having a heart attack is to blame for the ensuing crash."

From this vantage point, decisions and behavior are mindless in the sense that habit overrules reason. People may be highly involved in the decision process, yet their responses fit an S-R model. Nonetheless, one might presume that the behavior is largely adaptive. Insofar as the rules are generally valid, they lead to appropriate decisions in most instances.

Can’t Say "No" to Drugs

Consumer research tends to view lack of control in terms of compulsiveness and, in particular, compulsive buying (see, e.g., O’Guinn and Faber 1989; Hirschman 1992; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991; Rook and Fisher 1995). Restricted in this way, compulsiveness is a fringe issue because clinical compulsive buying has been estimated to occur in only 1% to 6% of people (McElroy, Keck, and Phillips 1995). However, the problem can be viewed more broadly if considered in the context of visceral influences and ego depletion.

First consider visceral factors such as hunger, thirst, anger, and pain. Such influences on behavior are notable for their "chemical" origin. Although one may shun the opportunity to ingest a drug, chemical influences that arise naturally and internally cannot be so easily resisted. The chemical influence on behavior rises and falls with its level in the system. Loewenstein (1996) argues that as the level rises, all goods not associated with addressing the associted desire lose value and goods associated with the desire become valued exclusively. Consequently, attention is focused on the present and the need to address the desire becomes focal. Interesting speculation by Loewenstein concerns the effects of visceral factors on retrospective assessment, forecasting, and empathy. Specifically, it may be very difficult to experience the feeling prompted by a visceral influence when the influence is weak. Thus, we cannot retrospectively assess the true impact visceral influences had on our past behavior nor can we predict the impact visceral influences will have on our future behavior. For this reason, intention (cognition) and behavior may show little relationship. Moreover, if the individual in question is unable to assess the past and future impact of a visceral influence on behavior, an external observer (e.g., a policy maker) will be particularly unable to understand its controlling effect. Operating under one set of biases, a policy maker may attribute lack of control to a weak will. Although it is difficult to estimate the extent to which everyday behavior is guided by visceral factors, Loewenstein concludes that

"much behavior is non-volitional or only partly volitionalCeven in situations characterized by substantial deliberation."

Some might find Loewenstein’s conclusion to be extreme because some, albeit small, capacity to withstand the visceral pressure is always available to the individual. However, at least one view of self-regulation argues that the human ability to resist impulses of all sorts can be severely limited. Baumeister views self-regulation not as a skill or form of knowledge but rather as a form of energy that is easily depleted (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice 1998; Baumeister and Heatherton 1996). In several studies, Baumeister et al. show that different but minor acts of volition are followed by a loss of volition in other situations. They note:

"The ease with which we have been able to produce ego depletion using small laboratory manipulations suggests that the extent of the resource is quite limited, which implies that it would be seriously inadequate for directing all of a person’s behavior, so conscious, free choice must remain at best restricted to a very small proportion of human behavior."

"these results point to a potentially serious constraint on the human capacity for control (including self-control) and deliberate decision making."

This conclusion is perfectly consistent withCbut more broadly applicable thanCthe conclusion reached by Loewenstein. Whereas Loewenstein highlights specific physiological forces, Baumeister allows for a variety of internal and external effects. Consumer research is not alone in its inattention to ambient influences on behavior (see Kipnis 1997). Just as uncomfortably warm temperatures may stimulate aggressive behavior (Anderson 1987), consumer self-control may be constrained by a variety of environmental factors under the control of neither the consumer or the firm.

It is difficult to view impulsive behavior as mindful, inasmuch as many impulsive acts are regretted in retrospect. Some aspects of impulsive behavior are surely adaptive, however, insofar as they serve basic regulatory needs.

Hello, Darwin

A minor branch of psychology argues that some behaviors are guided by evolutionary predispositions. Unfortunately, the assertions made by evolutionary psychologists receive less credence than those from other domains due to the difficulty of garnering experimental support. For example, consider again the issue of impulsiveness. Bill Clinton has been accused of lacking discretion in some of his behavior. Although it may be possible to attribute his actions to the combined effects of visceral forces and ego depletion, other factors may also be at work. Recently, Hillary linton added to the mix by referring to the President’s upbringing. The First Lady, of course, was attempting to make attributions to his early environment. However, she might have gone one more step. Some have argued that a stressful upbringing (e.g., lack of a father) leads to insecure attachment to parents, behavior problems, precocious sexuality, and unstable marriage. One theory goes a step further by invoking evolution (Belsky, Steinberg, and Draper 1991). The theory argues that humans have evolved to be sensitive to the context they experience early in life. If their experience leads to lack of trust in others, they will attempt to mate sooner and with more variety in order to ensure reproductive success. This theory lacks persuasive empirical support, and each citizen may place as much credence in it as s/he sees fit. However, Hillary Clinton’s experience illustrates another important point. Her attempted explanation was denounced from all corners. Apparently, the publicCas well as policy makersCare not yet ready to accept the notion of nonvolitional behavior.

On a slightly less speculative note, Bjorklund and Kipp (1996) review evidence regarding gender differences in inhibition from an evolutionary perspective. They report some evidence that females may be more able than males to resist temptation and delay gratification. The explanation, based partly on parental investment theory, is that the benefits of self-control are higher for women than menCas are the costs of impulsiveness. Insofar as the theory is correct, two implications follow. First, the relevant behavior has physiological underpinnings. That is, predispositions toward or away from impulsive behavior has a neural or chemical origin. Second, it is unlikely that people have conscious insight into these neural or chemical causes. For those occasions on which females demonstrate less impulsiveness and greater ability to delay gratification, our cultural predisposition will be to attribute the cause to "will" or some other personality variable.

Parental investment theory is somewhat restricted to a particular class of behaviors. However, the possibility of evolutionarily guided behavior has been extended to many other domains. In fact, a very explicit statement of inclusivity has recently been offered by the esteemed physiological psychologist Michael Gazzaniga (1997). He asks the fundamental question, "What are brains for?" and responds as follows:

"Sex. Indeed, I would argue that the cathedrals we build, the books we read and write, the science we create, the cars we drive, the stocks we buy and sell, all of the mergers, the politics, the wars we wageCin short, everything that constitutes the intricate web of life that we have constructed around ourselves with our amazingly large brainsCserves a very simple purpose. Sex."

However, Gazzaniga further argues that brains do much more. Although the brain may have been adapted for specific functions related to survival, it is capable of applying its potential to unrelated problems, which Gazzaniga refers to as incidental mechanisms. Thus, he further argues:

"The far-reaching implication of the evolutionary view is that models built to explain various psychological and behavioral processes are examining the #noise’ of the honed and highly efficient neural system that is devoted to making decisions about survival."

It is relevant to consumer research that this same point has been made by evolutionary psychologists who apply their perspective to a variety of social and cognitive processesCincluding those related to basic reasoning and frequently investigated decision tasks (see Buss et al. 1998; Cosmides and Tooby 1994, 1996; Gigerenzer and Hoffrage 1995).

Insofar as human behavior is driven by evolved dispositions, we may classify it as mindless. In this instance, it is also adaptive by definition.

Familiality, Not Familiarity

Familiality refers to nonevolutionary genetic influences on behavior. The field of behavioral genetics is relatively young, but findings to date bear strongly on the issue of volitional control. For example, consider that one’s genetic constitution has been found to influence a variety of behaviors and traits, including divorce, religiosity, criminality, sexual orientation, cigarette smoking behavior, and personality traits such as altruism and aggression (see Lerman et al. 1999; McGue and Lykken 1992; Pianezza, Sellers and Tyndale 1998; Plomin 1990; Rose 1995; Rushton et al. 1986; Tesser 1993; Turkheimer 1998; Waller et al. 1990). In most cases, however, specific genetic markers have not been isolated nor are they likely to be isolated by future research. As Turkheimer (1998) notes, there may be genetically influenced generic dispositions that influence a variety of specific behaviors. In addition, environmental experience may determine the degree to which a genetic predisposition for a particular behavior is revealed in actual behavior (Bronfenbrenner and Ceci 1994). That nature and nurture contribute independently and interactively to behavior does not detract from the fact that the effect of "will" may be small indeed. As a particular example pertinent to consumer behavior, it is not the case that the cessation of cigarette smoking is strictly a function of willpower or, more important, that individual differences in smoking behavior are driven by willpower. The ease with which one individual is able to self-regulate will differ from that of another person for reasons that are strictly physiological. Thus, when defense lawyers for cigarette companies argue that evidence of smoking cessation in one person is evidence for the practicality of cessation in other people they exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of biological causation. Any individual’s behavior is likely to be multicausal, and the mixture of different causes will be idiosyncratic. The analogy to Horatio Alger is misleading, indeed (Albee 1996). Impulsiveness itself may be the outcome of a complex mixture of psychobiological influences (Patterson and Newman 1993).

As with Darwinian effects, behavior that is under the influence of genetic predispositions cannot be viewed as mindful in the sense of being volitional. However, it is difficult to understand how many of the aforementioned behaviors can be viewed as adaptive.

Bias? What Bias?

Consumer research has demonstrated a keen aptitude for uncovering biases in judgment and decision making (see, e.g., Kardes 1994). There is little need to review these effects. For present purposes, the key issue concerns the extent to which decision biases have a volitional component. Due to the paradigms used in much of this research, a conclusion not unlike that drawn by Ayton and Harvey regarding nonconsequentialist thinking seems applicable here as well. In fact, Wilson and Brekke (1994), who categorize many of these biases under the umbrella of "mental contamination," refer to processes

" whereby a person has an unwanted judgment, emotion, or behavior because of mental processing that is unconscious or uncontrollable."

Thus, decision makers who fall prey to such biases are motivated to make unbiased judgments, generally feel (sometimes strongly) that their judgments are unbiased, and will interpret their decisions and actions as "reasoned." In fact, the reasoning may follow the decision and consumer introspection may reflect causal misattribution (see Nisbett and Wilson 1977).

The conclusion drawn by Wilson and Brekke, if correct, leaves even less room for volition than the preceding dimensions. Whereas visceral effects, evolution, and genetics may create predispositions that constrain volition, mental contamination is deemed unconscious and uncontrollable. If so, the use of caveat emptor as a regulatory philosophy lacks a scientific and moral foundation.

The effects of mental contamination are unambiguously mindless. Because the term refers to a broad array of biases, a single assessment regarding its adaptive character is less clear. In most cases it is difficult to make a case in favor of adaptiveness (e.g., halo, perseverance, anchoring, stereotyping, automatic inference, source misattribution, and framing). However, truth bias (Gilbert 1991) may facilitate functioning in the aggregate.

Automatic Passenger

The conclusion drawn by Wilson and Brekke may be broadened beyond the context of decision making. High profile research on automaticity suggests that lack of conscious control occurs across the broad array of human endeavor. The body (and mind) drift on the currents of environmental cues and neither the cues nor the reactions to them rise to the level of conscious awareness (see Bargh 1997 and commentaries for a full discussion). Bargh and Chartrand (1999) summarize this viewpoint as follows:

"Most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance"

They further argue:

"So, it may be, especially for evaluations and judgments of novel people and objects, that what we think we are doing while consciously deliberating in actuality has no effect on the outcome of the judgment, as it has already been made through relatively immediate, automatic means."

The position adopted by Bargh and Chartrand regarding volitional control corresponds closely to those previously described by Ayton and Harvey, Baumeister, evolutionary psychologists, Loewenstein, political scientists, and Wilson and Brekke. However, each of these parties arrives at the conclusion via a different process. Thus, multiple forcesCfrom both within and withoutCmay conspire to constrain volitional behavior.

Automatic behavior fits the description of mindlessness adopted here. It also fits the criterion for being adaptive. As Bargh and Chartrand note, automatic processing is highly efficient. Life requires too many responses to too many stimuli to expect widespread intentional mediation.

The Soul of the Old Machine

There is a tendency to hedge when drawing conclusions regarding the extent to which human behavior can be characterized as volitional. As some of the preceding quotations reveal, many researchers are willing to limit the role of volition but nonetheless are unwilling to abandon the influence of will and consciousness. However, uncompromising views have been articulated that describe the perception of self-control as an illusion and the perception of conscious control as a case of misplaced causal attribution.

For many consumer researchers, this view was anticipated by Nisbett and Wilson (1977) over two decades ago. Although frequently cited with regard to methodological concerns, their deeper point begs the question of will. Nisbett and Wilson’s subjects often could not identify the true cause of their own beliefs and behaviors. If one is unaware of what truly caused a response, how can it be argued that one has conscious control over the response?

More recently, this problem has been addressed in philosophical, logical, and physiological terms. It is quite natural for philosophers and people of like mind to ponder the nature of free will (see, e.g., Dennett 1998; Sagan and Druyan 1997; Wilson 1998). Barsalou (1993), who likens free will to a homunculus, states:

"Like behaviorists, most cognitive psychologists believe that the fundamental laws of the physical world determine behavior completely. Whereas behaviorists view control as only existing in the environment, however, cognitive psychologists view it as also existing in cognitive mechanisms, such as productions. Certainly people believe they experience free will. Yet, most cognitive psychologists believe that physical mechanisms produce an illusion of free will just as they produce all other cognitive phenomena. The illusion of free will is simply one more remarkable phenomenon in human cognition that cognitive psychologists must explain."

Phenomenologically, critics of free will have wrestled with the overwhelming sense that we control our actions. The simple but logical insight is that the relationship between our thoughts and our subsequent actions is only correlational. As with any correlation, the causality may be reversed or may be driven by a third variable. In the words of Wegner and Wheatley (1999):

"it may be that people experience conscious will when they interpret their own thought as the cause of their action. This idea means that people can experience conscious will quite independent of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and actions."

"willis not a thing that inheres in objects or people, but rather is a perception that follows from the constant conjunction of events."

"We come to think of these prior thoughts as intentions, and we develop the strong sense that the intentions have causal force even though they are just previews of what we may do. The real causal mechanism is the marvelously intricate web of causation that is the topic of scientific psychology. The sense of will is not directly connected to this web..."

"... the real causal mechanisms underlying behavior are never present in consciousness. Rather, the engines of causation are unconscious mechanisms of the mind."

"The unique human convenience of conscious thoughts that preview our actions gives us the privilege of feeling we willfully cause what we do. In fact, unconscious and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action as well, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving thought as the cause of action."

This view is echoed by Carver (1997):

"Consciousness may be simply the experiential readout of a problem solving process that facilitates (and may even be necessary to) the organism’s long-term functioning. But it isn’t obvious to me why it’s necessary to assume that it is more than just thatCa readout of information about something that’s going on inside."

These arguments have received support of the physiological kind. Specifically, Libet (1985) reports that preconscious readiness to perform a physical act precedes the conscious experience of wanting to do so (see Brown 1988; Libet 1985 and commentaries; Hoffman and Kravitz 1987; Velmans 1991 and commentaries).

The last word on the nature and purpose of consciousness surely has not been written. However, insofar as the views expressed above are valid, mindful behaviorCas defined in terms of volitionCdoes not exist in any form. Is such a system adaptive? One can only speculate. If the system has evolved in this manner, it is difficult to characterize it as maladaptive.

Rats and Pigeons, Not HAL

The final dimension of mindlessness also contains a mix of philosophy and empiricism. Since the time Turing proposed his test, we have attempted to understand the uniqueness of humans by comparing our functioning to that of computers. Although similarities of structure and process may exist, the computer metaphor may be inappropriate and unnecessary. Instead, the best foil may be animals that occupy a much lower position on the evolutionary ladder. The developing field of "animal cognition," along with animal research on "self-control" draws into question not only the uniqueness of human nature but also the need to incorporate elaborate mentalistic assumptions into our explanations of it. Insofar as animal behavior mimics that of humans, is it not unparsimonious to assume a central role for consciousness and will?

Consider first the case of animal cognition. As Wasserman (1993) notes, animal behavior is often viewed as irrelevant to humans despite the existence of several analogous results on so-called cognitive tasks. Wasserman concludes:

"animal memory is far more complex and flexible than was once thought and . . . similar control processes may modulate both human and animal memory. Such empirical parallels are, of course, all the more significant given that the nonhuman animals in all these investigations were nonverbal creatures."

Quoting Segal, Wasserman further advances the argument as follows:

"Animal cognition does not imply awareness. To say that an animal learns about environmental relationships or relationships between its behavior and its consequences and then acts on that knowledge is not to say that the animal knows it has knowledge, or knows what it is doing. At no time is it necessary that the organism be an active, conscious participant in its information-processing functions; biological matter may be sufficientCas physical matter is sufficient to do comparable problem-solving tasks in the digital computer."

Interestingly, in our own research involving consumer learning of product quality, we have been notably unsuccessful at refuting animal learning processes and much more successful at discounting accounts based on models of human reasoning (van Osselaer and Alba 2000).

With regard to volition, a behavioral description of self-control may be expressed as the choice of a more valuable but more delayed reinforcer over a less valuable but less delayed reinforcer. By this definition, it is interesting to note that Rachlin and Green (1972) showed that pigeons will learn to prefer an option that prevents them from being exposed to a tempting alternative optionCnot unlike the restraints humans place on themselves to prevent undesirable behavior. Of course, human instantiation of such behavior inspires attributions of cleverness and strength of character. More recently, Rachlin has advanced his theory of teleological behaviorism which attempts to account for self-control more generally (see Rachlin 1995 and commentaries). The key aspect of teleological behaviorism is the distinction between particular acts (such as eating a piece of chocolate cake) and wider patterns of acts (such as maintaining a diet). If the pattern becomes a reinforced habit, self-control is exhibited. As expected from behaviorist explanations, the need to make assumptions about mental constructs and internal states is not obvious.

Because such explanations are driven by fundamental laws of learning, they must be viewed as adaptive. However, because differences between humans and laboratory animals in terms of expressed behavior may be difficult to discern, a case for mindfulness is again difficult to construct.


Mindlessness takes many shapes beyond the traditional conception of shallow or rigid thinking. My much expanded view of mindlessness has been intentionally extreme and one-sided. With regard to ability to function adequately in a complex world, I have accentuated the negative. For example, training people to reason more effectively is sometimes effective (cf., Larrick, Morgan, and Nisbett 1990; Perkins and Grotzer 1997). Moreover, it may be unwise to make general statements about consumer competence based on conventional measures of ability (Sternberg, Wagner, Williams, and Horvath 1995). In some instances, a surprising degree of "practical intelligence" may emerge that enables reasonably high levels of performance on isolated tasks and which may be viewed in terms of adaptation to specific environments (see Ceci and Liker 1986; Lave, Murtaugh, and de la Rocha 1984; Scribner 1986). Consumer research is not solely about theory testing (cf. Petty and Cacioppo 1996). There is value in obtaining an accurate profile of consumers’ true level of knowledge and ability to reason.

Questions concerning self-regulation and volition, alas, are not so easily addressed because they do not bear on science alone. The research described above is not only alien to some of our intuitions but also speaks to tightly guarded political philosophies and perhaps to deeper moral philosophies. Consider not only the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s explanation of her husband’s behavior but also this statement from an influential advisor in a previous administration:

"Holding one person accountable for the actions of another is the beginning of a police state. Blaming inanimate objects for the sins of people is truly sick." (Roberts 1999)

Such extreme views are unlikely to yield to scientific evidence. Although many other people may take a more moderate position, they are also likely to be ignorant of pertinent scientific discoveries. Hence, juries may continue to exonerate cigarette manufacturers for the simple reasons that cigarette packages contain warnings and that willpower is a measure of a person’s character. Traditional views of a "just world" (Lerner and Miller 1978) and personal responsibility (Schlenker et al. 1994) are not likely to change soon.

Consumer researchers also need to alter their focus. Our discipline has been extremely narrow in its investigations of ability and volitionCa situation that is especially distressing given our implicit responsibility to address policy. However, consumer research is not alone. The cognitive revolution that continues to dominate psychological research has led to an emphasis on mentalism over behavior and a preference for proximal over distal influences on behavior (cf. Kenrick 1994). Moreover, the discomfort regarding determinism is not restricted to the population at large. As argued by Banaji, Blair, and Glaser (1997):

"From our perspective, the most important discoveries in social psychology are those that show the power of situational forces in determining behavior, with the two shining examples even 30 years later being experiments on obedience to authority (Milgram, 1963) and on bystander nonintervention (Latane & Darley, 1968)."

"forces in the situation, of which (people) may be little aware, can have a determining influence on their actions, even those actions that have immense consequences for the well-being and survival of themselves and their fellow beings. The view of human nature revealed by these early experiments continues to be a difficult one to endorse, perhaps especially by Western minds, because it suggests that the will to freely choose a course of action may be illusory. Such a view is additionally problematic because it pointedly raises the qestion of whether reward for benevolent actions or retributions for heinous ones should legitimately be assigned to the actor who performs them."

Although Banaji et al. focus on environmental causation, I have argued that volitional constraints are many and varied. Future research may elaborate and supplement the list (e.g., Brennan, Grekin, and Mednick 1999). Perhaps resistance to the present view of volition is partly attributable to misunderstanding of its implications. Lack of volition does not imply a lack of adherence to societal norms or values. In some instances, such as when visceral and genetic influences are involved, more empathy and less moralizing are in order. In other instances, such as when environmental forces create and control behavior, society may invent rewards and punishments to achieve whatever norms of conduct it desires. In this regard, consumer researchers should not take a backseat to economists or lawmakers.


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Joseph W. Alba, University of Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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