Behavior Control: Are Consumers Beyond Freedom and Dignity?

ABSTRACT - Humanists as well as consumer welfare advocates have raised with alacrity alarm about "mind control," "hidden persuaders" and subconscious manipulators of motivation. Now as a science of behavior as developed by Skinner, Bandura, and a host of disciplined, highly credentialed scholars emerge, and as their methods demonstrated in the laboratory continue to be replicated throughout the social and commercial world, the question and the issue become at once more substantive and real. This paper explores this new "science" of behavior modification and seeks to trace the significance of such methods on consumer welfare.


Rom J. Markin and Chem L. Narayana (1976) ,"Behavior Control: Are Consumers Beyond Freedom and Dignity?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 222-228.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 222-228


Rom J. Markin, Washington State University

Chem L. Narayana, Washington State University


Humanists as well as consumer welfare advocates have raised with alacrity alarm about "mind control," "hidden persuaders" and subconscious manipulators of motivation. Now as a science of behavior as developed by Skinner, Bandura, and a host of disciplined, highly credentialed scholars emerge, and as their methods demonstrated in the laboratory continue to be replicated throughout the social and commercial world, the question and the issue become at once more substantive and real. This paper explores this new "science" of behavior modification and seeks to trace the significance of such methods on consumer welfare.


In 1972 B. F. Skinner, the noted Harvard behaviorist-psychologist, published his now famous book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. [B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).] Skinner argued that free will, the basis of consumer sovereignty and freedom of choice, is no more than an illusion, a fiction of man's vanity, and that behavior, instead, is controlled by external influences. Although often haphazard and uncontrived, control is sometimes deliberately exercised by men and institutions for the purpose of getting others to do their bidding. Skinner is, of course, in favor of control and believes that the survival of our culture can only be assured if individuals are conditioned to want those things that serve the group interests.

Skinner contends that human behavior can be predicted and shaped through behavioral engineering precisely as if it were a chemical or biological process. This developing science of control aims to change the environment rather than the people. Behavioral engineering focuses on attempts to alter observable actions rather than feelings through a unique method of conditioning that has been used with rather startling success in both laboratory animals and humans in various controlled settings or environments. Such elaborate details have been undertaken to control or contrive the environmental setting that the technology, i.e., the hardware, the computers, and the reward and reinforcement contingencies, is referred to as behavioral technology or psycho-technology. Nonetheless, the lynch pin of the method consists simply of giving rewards to mold the subject to the experimenter's purpose.

Perry London, an articulate authority on behavioral engineering asserts that until recently attempts toward control focused on coercion, persuasion, inspiration, or education, and were almost always unpredictable. He goes on to add, however, that:

All this is changing now, and means are being found, in all the crafts and sciences of man, society and life, that will soon make possible precise control over much of people's individual activities, thoughts, emotions, moods and wills. Never in human history has this occurred before except as fantasy. [Perry London, Behavior Control (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969), 4.]

Behavior modification and control have mushroomed into prominence during the last decade and are being used with growing confidence throughout the population--from mental institutions to the marketplace, in children as well as adults. [There are a number of very readable pieces of literature which extend and elaborate on this argument. In addition to those already cited, i.e., the work of B. F. Skinner and Perry London, the reader might also enjoy examining the arguments found in the following: Albert D. Biderman and Hubert Zimmer, The Manipulation of Human Behavior (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1961) and William Hunt, Human Behavior and Its Control (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1971).] Three factors among others have led to this dramatic and, for some, shocking capability.

1. Knowledge of learning principles. Advances in how and why people learn have been rapid in recent years. Here also the behaviorist with his focus upon observable actions rather than mentalistic or mind states has spearheaded the development and understanding of how people learn and, hence, how behavior repertoires are changed via the now known rules of reinforcement.

2. Proliferation of technology. The widespread adoption and availability of modern technology, i.e., such extensions of man as radio, television, movies and electronic devices make it possible to present almost anything we want taught in effective packages which guarantee attention and interest. Thus, communication is assured in ways which are both intelligible and memorable.

3. The widespread use of computers. The computer enables the behavior modifier to process and store massive amounts of information. Large computer stored data banks provide almost limitless possibilities for possessing insight into the controlee's past behavior, his activities, his interests, and his opinions.


Understanding or Control?

Consumer analysts and researchers generally are loath to acknowledge that they wish or have a capability to control consumers. Studying consumers however is to attain understanding; understanding usually leads to a capability to predict; and a capability to predict increases the capability to control. But this capability worries the marketing practitioner as well as the consumer behavioralist because control is anathema to our concepts of consumer sovereignty and freedom of choice.

Marketers no doubt want the power to control and in some instances they have the power and use it; yet they deny its effectiveness by asserting that the consumer has the autonomy or the choice to accept or reject whatever is being promoted or merchandised.


The words freedom and dignity both are ranked high in the lexicon of consumer behavior. Marketers invariably invoke these concepts in discussions relating to consumer sovereignty, especially when questions arise relating to control of market situations. It is, furthermore, an endemic feature of our national political and social heritage that we extol the virtues of freedom and dignity by defining freedom in terms of states of mind, attitudes, or feelings. Man's struggle for freedom is not at all due to a will to be free but instead to certain behavioral processes characteristic of the human organism, the chief manifestation of which is the avoidance or escape from aversive or undesirable features of the environment.

Our tendency is to attribute freedom to an individual when the contingencies that guide his or her behavior are not readily apparent. Hence, the consumer in the marketplace may appear to be acting autonomously whereas in reality that consumer is behaving in accordance with well designed and deliberately arranged contingencies. Consumers feel that they have decision freedom--that is a real choice--when the options among which they choose are about equally attractive, that is when the options offer fairly equal net gains after calculating the costs and payoffs.

Traditionally we have extolled freedom because the need was felt to free people from aversive control. To free the individual from exploitation, from despots and charlatans who controlled through punitive methods, it was necessary to convince individuals that they could be free or that the power that was being used against them derived from them. Such a behavioral process has led to the conclusion that all control is wrong. Too often we don't recognize the fact that we are also controlled when we do what we want. "When I can choose from among options, I have freedom," is the way many would define freedom. Yet we are unprepared for the control that is exerted in making one want to do what one does.

Somewhat easier to deal with, dignity is usually related to self worth measured in vague units of responsibility. We consider people responsible for what they do. If the causes for a person's behavior are conspicuous we credit the causes, but if the causes are inconspicuous we credit the person. In the case of consumer behavior we have characteristically understood so little about the causes, motives, reasons, or contingencies that produce that behavior that we credit the causes to the consumer. Thus the literature of dignity is concerned with preserving due credit. Marketers and consumer psychologists go on imputing both freedom and dignity to consumer buyers by giving them credit for what they do--the items they choose, the stores they select, their allegiance to certain brands. By so doing we continue to pay homage to the autonomous man when, more realistically perhaps, we should be examining the environment that is responsible for this putative worthy behavior.

Autonomous Man Versus Machine Man

Characteristically, the conventional wisdom asserts that man initiates, originates, and creates, and to this extent his behavior is somewhat divine or autonomous. [B. F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior (New York: The Free Press, Collier Macmillan Limited, 1953). This book is a somewhat more technical treatment than Beyond Freedom and Dignity. However, it too is written at the intelligent layman's level of comprehension.] Such a notion contends that the inner man wills an action but that the outer man executes it. Skinnerians argue that the concept of autonomous man is an anachronism. A science of behavior replaces the notion of autonomous man--the fictional idea that behavior is the result of inner feelings, states of mind, expectancies and all that--with the more modern notion that man is an elaborate machine. The behaviorists assert that we cannot account for the behavior of any system while staying wholly inside it. Eventually we must look at those forces acting upon the organism from without.

A machine model of man has sterile and repulsive aspects for many persons. Our traditional philosophy and Christian backgrounds refute the notion of man as machine. The machine model view does not mean, however, that man rusts, clanks, whirs, or goes chug-chug. Nor is he a large warm, soft computer. What it does mean in a scientific sense is that man's behavior--like the machine--is lawful and limited. Lawful behavior is predictable and the general principles of human behavior apply to all individuals.

Most scientists today view man as a kind of machine--hence John Reiner describes man as an "Environmentally Modifiable Physico-Chemical Regulatory Device.'' [John M. Reiner, The Organism as an Adaptive Control System (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968).] George Miller alludes to man as "an information-processing and information gathering device.'' [George Miller, The Psychology of Communication (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1957).] Norbert Weiner defines a machine about like Miller does a man, as "a device for converting incoming messages into outgoing messages.'' [Norbert Weiner, God and Golem, Inc., A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinge Upon Religion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964).] Finally John Von Neuman circumscribes man with the phrase "self reproducing automata.'' [John von Neuman, Theory of Self Reproducing Automata, Arthur Bucks (ed) (Urbane, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1964).]

It must certainly be recognized that in relation to behavior, it is the doctrine of free will or autonomous man that is most threatened by the machine model of man. The fact is, most Skinnerians contend, actions and behavior are determined by the environment--not by the inner man, mind states, mentalistic feelings, attitudes, perceptions, or other such fictions.


Current use of the terms cause and effect involve relating a cause to an independent variable and effect to the dependent variable. In consumer behavior models following this approach, the independent variable has been attributed to such mechanisms as attitude, perceptions, motivations, or other internal mind states; or internal drives such as achievement, affiliation, and aggression. Because these internal traits cannot be observed, their presence must be inferred from the actual observation of objective behavior. Thus if a person demonstrates a high degree of brand loyalty to a particular brand, we infer that he holds a favorable attitude toward the brand. We then generalize that he is brand loyal to Product X because he has a favorable attitude toward Product X. Notice that the reasoning is circular.

A prevailing modern point of view attributes the causes of behavior to goals or purposes. Thus instead of arguing that behavior is caused by drives which push, we assert that behavior is caused by goals which pull. Too often the practice of looking inside the individual for an explanation of behavior has tended to obscure the variables outside the organism which are readily observable for direct scientific analysis. The fact is, state the behaviorists, behavior is not determined from within but from without--behavior is shaped by its consequences. By setting up contingencies of reinforcement, a particular bit of desired behavior is rewarded to make sure that it will be repeated.

Modifying Behavior--Insight or Action Approaches

Our young discipline of consumer behavior has characteristically assumed that behavior is attributable to inner states of mind. This insight approach to consumer behavior would posit that motives, attitudes, cognitions, or other psychological causes dictate behavior. The marketer who uses the insight approach attempts with his advertising to create favorable attitudes, cognitions, or images toward his product or institution; and these favorable inner psychological mind states are then supposed to increase the consumer's predisposition for the seller's products. It is the old Aristotelian idea that "what is impressed will be expressed." Marketers who use insight techniques are always suggesting that their products will make the consumer happier, more socially acceptable, more poised, or generally more successful. Insight approaches used in both print and electronic media are most often straightforward projections of information or ideas designed to lead customers to an understanding of themselves and their need systems through the use of association, interpretation, and perceived relationships. The copy in print media insight advertising is usually a statement of claims and purposes. For example, an Excedrin advertisement states:

"You might guess just by looking that Excedrin has more pain reliever than the aspirin tablet. But more importantly, there is evidence from two medical research studies that Excedrin performs significantly better than the common aspirin tablet. More pain reliever. And evidence of its greater effectiveness. That's what Excedrin has to offer you."

In television advertising which utilizes insight approaches, the presentations are equally straightforward and the message is projected as a monologue by the announcer.

More bizarre and less frequently employed insight approaches are often based upon the notion that the inner causes or motives which compel people to buy goods are centered deep within the emotions or personality of the individual. These hidden emotions are often thought to border on libidinous themes and unusual symbolism. Ferreting out these emotions is the task of the motivation researchers who use small samples and subjective techniques borrowed from the psychoanalytic school. ["Psyching Them Out: Ernest Dichter Thrives Selling Firms Research on 'Hidden Emotions.'" Wall Street Journal, (Monday, November 20, 1972), 1.]

However, determining what selling and merchandising appeals based upon these findings to direct to consumers has never been a question easy to resolve.

It would appear that more and more advertisers are increasingly moving to action oriented approaches to behavior modification. In some instances their use is not so much by design as the result of happy or fortuitous accident. Instead of focusing on the motives, attitudes, or mentalistic states that allegedly produce a consumer's behavior, i.e., dissonance, search, evaluation, or information processing, action approaches tend to focus effort on the behavior proper without much concern over its origins or its meaning.

According to action oriented theorists, most consumer symptoms (anxiety, dissonance, perceived risk, search, confusion, overconsumption, and so forth) are really nothing more than habit patterns which have been learned or acquired through a process of conditioning and are therefore capable of being extinguished or modified through several techniques of demonstrated effectiveness. Action oriented advertisers assume their respective purposes in terms of specific behavioral objectives to be (1) the disclosure of problems, (2) the channeling of attention, and (3) the reformation of behavior.

Action approaches are comprehensive attacks beginning with massive data accumulation which provide baseline information on existing behavior. For this reason alone, action approach advertisers utilize heavily quantitative studies based upon large samples and extensive use of statistical analysis concerned with mapping consumer space preferences and psychographic and life style analyses. These studies provide telling data regarding the activities, interests, and opinions of market segments such as heavy users so that appeals which are compatible with their life styles can be developed and, more importantly, so that these appeals can be projected in a total managed setting to assure the greatest amount of exposure and interest in the given advertisement.

Behavioristic action oriented approaches are most concerned of course with the reformation of behavior and with the continued reinforcement of already generated desired behavior. Behavioristic advertisements attempt to simulate a problem oriented situation by dramatically illustrating the problem. For example, a bad cold, an upset stomach, a worker with aching muscles or one who needs something for a headache, a busy harassed homemaker who needs help in the kitchen, children with too many activities, a husband who can manage the little expenses but doesn't want to face the prospect of complete financial disaster in the case of 'major sickness or other health emergencies, an older man who is cross or out of sorts with his grandchildren because of irregularity. Once the problem is dramatized as real and relevant, the solution is posed. The advertisement invariably stresses the way practical and sensible people--"people like you and me"--solve the problem. Finally, the rewarding, reinforcing, satisfying aspects of the solution are strongly emphasized.

The emphasis on action oriented approaches can be greatly attributed to the increasing use of television as an advertising medium. Television affords a unique opportunity to arrange desired contingencies. It provides an astounding number of perceptual sensations; color, brightness, size, shape, movement, volume, and pitch. Plus, television has so great a potential as an attention getting medium, an affect-creating medium and, of course, as a message-creating medium. Hence, the most successful of action oriented advertisements are frequently television commercials. Proctor and Gamble has reaped unusual successes utilizing this approach with such products as Head and Shoulders shampoo, Ivory Liquid detergent, and most remarkably with Crest toothpaste. Such commercials usually involve a transaction or dialogue, between two or more persons. One of these persons invariably is shown complimenting or stroking the problem solver for his or her adeptness, concern, practicality, or sagacity. This device is easily recognizable in such well known ads as Crest's "Look Mom, no cavities;" Nyquil and Absorbine Jr., "You're a good wife Mabel;" Geritol's "How do you stay so young and beautiful Mother?" Jello's "You're a good Mom;" Pillsbury's "Nothing says loving, like something from the oven." This technique is nothing other than operant conditioning which consists of reinforcing or rewarding consumers, in a simulated fashion, for appropriate responses. Many of today's most successful products are promoted and advertised on the basis of such action approaches--Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, McDonalds Drive-in, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nyquil, Absorbine Jr., Alka Seltzer, Phillips Milk of Magnesia, Pepto Bismol, Folgers coffee, Crest toothpaste, Head and Shoulders shampoo and many other products. In some instances the appeal and contingency management are overt or even blatant. In others the appeal and the staging are subtle and indirect. Action approaches work because of vicarious modeling. People have a tendency to emulate those things that bring satisfaction to others in the hope of securing similar rewards and satisfaction for themselves.

Advertisers cannot animate consumer puppets through operant conditioning, but they can shape behavior and increase the probability of generating desired responses. And marketers and behavior modifiers in the world of commerce are beginning to look increasingly at these action approaches as a means of directly controlling consumer behavior--either as single strategies or in conjunction with the older and more prevalent insight approaches.

The Pertinent Question

A Pertinent question has been raised which suggests that we had best begin to debate seriously the merits of operant conditioning and action approach strategies in the marketplace. Hansen asks, "Are stable traits residing within the individual the major source of variation in behavior, or is such variation mainly ascribable to differences in the situations people encounter?'' [Fleming Hansen, Consumer Choice Behavior: A Cognitive Theory (New York: The Free Press, 1972), 42.] Recent research tends to question the notion that behavior is a function of inner causes such as attitudes, personality, or motivations. [In the case of criticism concerning personality studies the reader might like to examine the article by J. M. Hunt, "Traditional Personality Theory in the Light of Recent Evidence," American Scientist, 53 (1965), 80-96. Attitude studies are somewhat more numerous. For example see, R. A. Bauer, "Does Attitude Change Take Place Before or After Behavior Change?" in L. Adler and I. Crespi (eds.) Attitude Research on the Rocks (Chicago, American Marketing Association, 1968). Also, H. J. Ehrilich, "Attitudes, Behavior, and the Intervening Variables," The American Sociologist, Vol. 4, No. 1, (February 1969), 29-34.] And furthermore the reason which is offered in explanation of this condition is that such factors as personality or attitudes fail to take into accord important situational variables. Our young discipline of consumer behavior has probably been too preoccupied with studying consumer traits, internal mind states, and subjective unobservable mechanisms such as personality, attitude, motives, and perceptions, and too little concerned with how situations or environments might be manipulated in order to modify behavior. Our models of consumer behavior are almost all cognitive models which stress the reasoning, information processing, mentalistic aspects of behavior. While some little attention is devoted to the issue of how the consumer transforms the situational input to behavioral output, the consumer is still too often viewed in terms of inner drives and mind states; as the autonomous man who originates and creates rather than as the organism who reacts, responds, and is shaped and modified by the astute manipulation of his environment or by clever situation management. Management is essentially planning, and planning is concerned with controlling the events in one's environment--that is the essence of contingency management.


The behaviorists contend that a "science of behavior" must replace the intuitive wisdom of the old style diagnostician with the objective and analytical procedure of the clinic. And when such procedures lead us to an understanding of the laws and generalities of a system, we are then ready to deal effectively with some part of our world. By predicting the occurrence of an event we are able to anticipate and cope with that event. Furthermore, by arranging and controlling conditions in the ways suggested by the laws of a system we then not only anticipate and predict, we control or cause an event to occur or to assume certain dimensions. Such is the behaviorist notion of a science of behavior.

Behaviorism is primarily dichotomized into two schools; the classical conditioning school and the operant conditioning school. Both classical conditioning via association and operant conditioning are important double barreled approaches to scientific behavioral engineering. Conditioning is the basis of nearly all habits, all skills and in some people's estimation, nearly all learning. Classical conditioning is the cornerstone of behavioral engineering because through classical conditioning and association we can control and modify the emotions, especially mood. And mood is the emotional basis of behavior; manipulating one tends to coerce the other.

Operant conditioning means the learning of instrumental behavior, i.e., behavior that serves a purpose, solves a problem, answers a question, provides escape from aversion or pain, or contrariwise leads to the attainment of pleasure. Most behavior, at least a large part of consumer behavior, is trial and error involving several responses. The most useful responses are habituated or learned. When the consumer acts or behaves in the marketplace, his behavior is goal or problem oriented. If a product satisfies him, he is reinforced, and the probability that he will purchase the product subsequently is increased. If on the other hand, his behavior is punished or negatively reinforced, he continues to seek new responses by engaging in alternation behavior until such time as his responses are more suitably rewarded. Thus the consumer is an operant, and through operant conditioning we can shape and modify almost all instrumental or purposive actions. If behavior is shaped by its consequences we need only to control and to manipulate the consequences in order to manipulate or shape the behavior.

Hence through the dual application of classical conditioning and operant conditioning we may well be moving toward a science of behavior that is not only deliberate but equally precise. Such a science must manifest four capacities: [London, op. cit., 25ff.] (1) to produce a specific variety of effects, (2) to control the intensity of effects, (3) to specify the domain of effects, and (4) to control the duration of effects. Right now these conditions can be met in the laboratory and the raw material for behavior control in the laboratory has become the catalytic agent in the marketplace. The basis for a behavior technology in the marketplace is simply a plan for implementing what is already known. Although these raw materials and capabilities have already been used casually, perhaps even by accident, their planned systematic use is increasing and eventually they will be used more and more deliberately.

How Behavior is Controlled and Modified

In spite of the really great differences and wide variations exhibited in consumer behavior, there are at the same time great similarities in behavior manifested by those whose past experiences and current situations are similar. Hence their behavior is obviously shaped by their similar environments and these environments are influencing because of such phenomena as socialization, modeling, and culture.

Socialization. Socialization and the socialization process have to do with the activities and methods by which people influence one another through mutual interchange of thoughts, feelings, and actions. In so many words we are taught to value and esteem particular actions. Such reinforcement leads to the repetition of these actions; thus through the process of social learning we are taught the ways of our society in relation to our own need fulfillment activities. Hence socialization is concerned with behavior modification and control and it utilizes the technology and procedures of operant conditioning such as social reinforcement, praise, instruction, and prompting.

Modeling. Modeling is a particular and unique phenomenon related to socialization. Evidence supports the modeling theory of behavior modification to the extent that what one sees guides and influences what he does. The behavior of both children and adults is shaped and modified by such psychological processes as social perception, interpersonal perception, and the social exchange process of interaction. These phenomena, basically concerned with social learning, ultimately shape and modify the response repertoire. For example, television has become potentially, if not realistically, a more important means for facilitating modeling than any other medium or institution. A steady diet of television has a powerful influence on the viewer. [For a more detailed view see Scott Ward and Daniel B. Wakeman "Family and Media Influences on Adolescent Consumer Behavior," American Behavioral Scientist 14(Jan-Feb., 1971), 415-427.] Television shapes the way people view the world and the kind of people they will be. We can let it shape others as it sees fit or we can shape it to fit our notions of what the culture ought to be.

Opinion leaders, key influentials and significant others are all instrumental in shaping consumer behavior. Such is the essence of social exchange theory. If receiving approval or rewards is reinforcing to someone, his behavior can conceivably be shaped by withholding the approval or rewards and making them contingent on appropriate or desired behavior. [The notion of social exchange theory is developed more extensively by George C. Homans, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (New York: Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, 1961).]

Culture. Culture is, in effect, learned behavioral dispositions passed from one generation to another--a form of nonbiological heritage. The social environment, or culture, shapes and maintains the behavior of those who live in it by establishing the rules, norms, and expectancies of behavior. Hence our children are taught to mind Mommy and Daddy, to love their country, to respect God, to brush their teeth (preferably with Crest), to eat their vegetables, and to do whatever else the cultural norms, customs, and folkways dictate at a particular time.

Certainly our culture, consumption and materialistically oriented, affects and shapes consumer behavior. We are still largely work ethic oriented because work is the means to money and money is the means to goods. Material well being--the ability to buy washing machines and corn poppers--is much of what America has always been about. Americans are not born, however, with a drive for goods--this capacity is shaped and influenced by the very nature of the materialistic-acquisitive orientation of the culture.

Design or Accident

As long as behavior shaping and control via such phenomena as socialization, modeling, and culture are perceived as loose jointed, uncoordinated efforts of benevolent controllers, we view the impact of such control as accidental, innocuous, and therefore nonthreatening. However, if these efforts are seem in the light of a grand design by a malevolent or totalitarian controller they are likely to be construed as vicious, dangerous, subversive, and evil. Our perceptions of these two opposing viewpoints are shaped by our own past experiences through socialization and inculturation. We evaluate alien attempts to control as coercive, whereas our own efforts, perhaps because they are more subtle, are not considered coercive. Our western notions condition us to believe that control via information is hardly control at all. Yet education, prayer, rhetoric, propaganda, demagoguery, semantic seduction, and advertising are all typical examples of control by information.

The elicitation of personal information about someone increases enormously the possibility for controlling him. And we are increasing with geometric proportions our knowledge about people--their attitudes, their behavior, and their innermost feelings about the most private aspects of their lives such as sex, finances, religion, and so on. The use of data banks, psychographic profiles, and perceptual mapping devices have effectively extended our range for controlling behavior. [The significance of each of these respective procedures is detailed in the following: Richard L. Nolan, "Computer Data Bases: The Future is Now," Harvard Business Review, 51-5(Sept-Oct., 1973), 98-115.  William D. Wells and Douglas J. Tigert, "Activities, Interests and Opinions," Journal of Advertising Research, 4(Aug. 1971), 27-35.  P. E. Green and F. J. Cormone, "Multidimensional Scaling: An Introduction and Comparison of Nonmetric Unfolding Techniques," Journal of Marketing Research, 6-3 (Aug., 1969) 330-341.] This increased knowledge about consumer's, voter's, and viewer's activities, interests and opinions can be used effectively by a potential controller to manage the contingencies so that the environment of behavior is more pleasant and reinforcing and thus more likely to generate the desired kind and frequency of behavior. The expenditures for voter analysis, media studies, and market research are in the interest and design of a better system of control. Information is knowledge and knowledge is power -- over people.


Consumer behavior is largely affected and shaped by operant conditioning activities. What is called seduction by intellectuals is called salesmanship and marketing by most other people. The chief means of consumer behavior control and modification is information dissemination. Most of this information is verbal and the prototype for verbal control is again salesmanship and marketing. However, marketers affect and shape behavior by means other than verbal cues. Product development, styling, and design; promotional activities such as advertising, personal selling, testimonials, and modeling; pricing, store location, interior store design, layout, spatial arrangement, decor, color, and lighting; all of these modern merchandising devices--methods for structuring the environment of buying and consumption--are control efforts for shaping behavior through rewards and reinforcement.

Is it just a fortuitous accident or is it primitive psycho-logic that merchandise is so frequently called "goods?" Perhaps it is both, but "good" is a powerful reinforcer and goods as merchandise and services are increasingly sought for their rewarding and reinforcing effects. If behavior is shaped by its consequences, consumers are wooed and rewarded with a thousand gewgaws, gadgets, praises, and approbations. They are told to "indulge themselves," that they "deserve a break today," that "they only go around once," to enjoy "the real thing"--in short in an increasingly hedonistic culture to seek pleasure - and the marketplace is the place where pleasure is found.

This is not to suggest that consumers are mindless automatons. Human behavior is a function of millions of nerve cells with a multi-complex spatio-temporal integration of so many factors that its direct control and manipulation is not feasible. In particular, high-level, top of the head, rational-cognitive decision processes are not directly manipulable.

We should not hurriedly assume, however, that really important or seemingly sophisticated consumer behavior is therefore safe from the effects of shaping and control. If anything, what we need badly to acknowledge is that a large portion of consumer behavior is not cognitive or rational to begin with but rests, not in the higher reaches of the intellect, but in the middle, back, and sides of the head, and in the anxieties, hostilities, lusts, and frustrations which humans in general and consumers in particular share with lower animals.

The fact that so much consumer behavior is shaped in an operant fashion perhaps even refutes the notion of the cognitive consumer; the model of a highly rational goal striving, problem solving, information seeking, extracting, processing consumer; a consumer who consciously reasons; a prowling, roving human computer. Such a traditional concept may very well reflect a tragic misunderstanding of our notions regarding consumers' intelligence, rationality and intellectual autonomy. Empirical research on consumer decision processes has, in fact, documented that consumers:

1. Do not seek extensive amounts of information in relation to purchase and consumption problems

2. Do not process large amounts of information in relation to purchase and consumption problems

3. Do not appear to engage in extensive problem solving behavior even in relation to big ticket or capital intensive items such as automobiles, houses, and major appliances. [These ideas and the research upon which they are predicted can be reviewed more extensively in Rom J. Markin, Consumer Behavior: A Cognitive Approach (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1974), especially Chapter 17.]

It is also rather well known but only begrudgingly acknowledged in the formal literature of consumer behavior that most decisions are made on the basis of limited cognitive activity involving selective cues and that these cues are more in the psychological realms of the effective-emotional amygdala than in the cognitive realm of the cerebral cortex.

Thus a more relevant model of the consumer would be one possessed of more realistic attributes; attributes which acknowledge the frailty of the human condition. This model would admit to the emotional-affective nature of the consumer. Consumer behavioralists, much like Hamlet, are too prone to look at man and say, "How like a god!" Perhaps they should, like Pavlov, take another look and say, "How like a dog!'' [The analogy is only metaphorical and suggests that human organisms are largely emotional-affectively oriented. Even a dog can say "I like it." This implies no demeaning of the human condition.]

Behavioral engineering is practiced upon consumers be- cause those who attempt to influence consumers have power. The giant corporations of America constitute the planning system for engineering and programming public tastes. [These ideas are based upon those of John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics and the Public Purpose (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973).] Rather than being governed by market forces, these corporations control the market by setting prices and creating consumer demand for products. Those who manage the great corporations that comprise the planning sector of our economy have vast manipulative and shaping power. They develop their own peculiar purposes and they are able to impose their own purposes on others which is the very basis of power. The techno-structure of this corporate sector consists of multilevel merchandisers such as the big 8 oil companies. Secrecy is a passion within these companies because corporate managers understand better than anyone else that controlling information is the key to exercising power. Of course, these demand and taste shaping corporations play an interesting politico-psychological game. They recognize that the safest way to exercise power is to pretend that it resides elsewhere. Thus, the corporate multi-level merchandiser likes to dwell on the notion of the sovereign customer who dictates his will to the obedient producers of electric forks, multicolored underarm deodorants and folding water beds. This is, of course, consistent with their complementary pronouncements which assert that the corporation is socially responsible, subordinate to the state, and that the antitrust laws are adequate to preserve the market.

Thus all "people fixers" share a common purpose--to mobilize, repair, and program man. Behavioral engineering is alive and well in consumer behavior because we have a consumer who is receptive and merchandisers and corporate planners with the power and the inclination.


Behavior control techniques are neither good nor bad as such, but it would go without saying, they can be misapplied. It would seem that we need behavioral accountants as well as behavioral engineers. That is, we need responsible people to weigh, analyze, and measure the impact of behavior shaping and to evaluate its effects in terms of the overall welfare of the culture. Even this suggestion has frightening portents for some. There is such a well ingrained aversion to the ideology of control that we are all afraid to manipulate people. We live in a twilight of authority. We accept the status quo without qualm or reaction. We are so afraid of effective controls that we go right on accepting controls that are subtle, insidious, and sometimes even malevolent and injurious.

Our western humanistic philosophy has taught us that control presumes to relegate man to an animal status, robbing him of his choices and foreclosing on his possibilities and potentialities. We believe in a noncoercive control system where people are not seduced into compliance, yet our entire marketing-consumption oriented economy is based upon seduction or sales promotion. Our traditions have further shaped us to believe in self direction--the idea that people should be free, to decide for themselves how they want to live their own lives. Yet again our belief systems are prostituted when compared with our practices. We mouth these notions, yet as educators, administrators, marketers, and governmental officials, we continue to talk about planning, organizing, controlling, contingency management, and situation management.

Consumer behavioralists are not immune from this hypocrisy either. Most of us have had a kind of schizoid attitude regarding what it is we are about, our intentions, our motives, and just who it is we are attempting to serve. Some small part of the time we act as if we are attempting to create a better environment for fish but our real efforts are more in the nature of building and designing better hooks for catching more fish. Thus, we too pay homage to the myth of freedom and dignity but we are not opposed to subjecting con-summers to the indignity of the Skinner box.

Consumer behavioralists need to teach people how to be better consume:5, not necessarily how to consume more. We need to teach people how to use and seek information; how to sharpen their perceptual learning abilities. The alternative to control is awareness. An aware, enlightened, knowledgeable consumer is better insulated against manipulation. The consumer movement itself is an attempt to free the individual from aversive control and to assure the consumer's right to safety, to be informed, to choose, to be heard.

The most effective means of controlling the controllers is through counter control. For without counter control, the controller has an increasing tendency to become first careless, then callous, and ultimately cruel. Through counter control efforts, an enlightened consumer or an honest, creditable, judicious government can bring about a balance of power between the market planners and consumers. Power does corrupt but the only antidote to power is power and the best measures for counter control rest with the power of government, education, families, business, and individuals. And this power is the power to know, to reason, to seek, to ask, and to demand response and initiative.

Control seen in this perspective is not quite so awesome in its prospects. Even though man is controlled largely by his environment, he, in turn, largely controls his environment. It is only through awareness and through deliberate efforts at counter control, plus courage and insight, that we may be able to recapture from behavioral engineering and technology both our freedom and our dignity.


R. A. Bauer, "Does Attitude Change Take Place Before or After Behavior Change?" in L. Adler and I. Crespi (eds.) Attitude Research on the Rocks, (Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1968).

Albert D. Biderman and Hubert Zimmer, The Manipulation of Human Behavior (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1961).

H. J. Ehrilich, "Attitudes, Behavior, and the Intervening Variables," The American Sociologist, 4 (February, 1969), 29-34.

John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics and the Public Purpose (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973).

P. E. Green and F. J. Cormone, "Multidimensional Scaling: An Introduction and Comparison of Nonmetric Unfolding Techniques," Journal of Marketing Research, 6 (August, 1969), 330-341.

Fleming Hansen, Consumer Choice Behavior: A Cognitive Theory (New York: The Free Press, 1972).

George C. Homans, Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961).

J. M. Hunt, "Traditional Personality Theory in the Light of Recent Evidence," American Scientist, 53 (1965), 80-96.

Perry London, Behavior Control (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969).

Rom J. Markin, Consumer Behavior: A Cognitive Approach (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1974).

George Miller, The Psychology of Communication (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1967).

Richard L. Nolan, "Computer Data Bases: The Future is Now," Harvard Business Review, 51 (September-October, 1973), 98-115.

"Psyching Them Out: Ernest Dichter Thrives Selling Firms Research on 'Hidden Emotions.'" Wall Street Journal, (Monday, November 20, 1972), 1.

John M. Reiner, The Organism as an Adaptive Control System (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968).

B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).

B. F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior (New York: The Free Press, Collier Macmillan, Ltd., 1953).

John Von Neuman, Theory of Self Reproducing Automata, Arthur Bucks (ed) (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964).

Scott Ward and Daniel B. Wackman "Family and Media Influences on Adolescent Consumer Behavior," American Behavioral Scientist, 14 (January-February, 1971), 415-427.

Norbert Weiner, God and Golem, Inc., A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinge Upon Religion, (Cambridge: MIT Press 1964).

William D. Wells and Douglas J. Tigert, "Activities, Interests and Opinions," Journal of Advertising Research, 4 (August, 1971), 27-35.



Rom J. Markin, Washington State University
Chem L. Narayana, Washington State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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