Consumer Satisfaction As the Ultimate Life Force

ABSTRACT - The paper deals with the nature of satisfaction and its relation to pleasure in an information processing framework. Methodological problems in the measurement of Quality of Life are considered as well as the problems arising in use of subjective social indicators for policy decisions.


Clark Leavitt (1976) ,"Consumer Satisfaction As the Ultimate Life Force", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 252-258.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 252-258


Clark Leavitt, The Ohio State University


The paper deals with the nature of satisfaction and its relation to pleasure in an information processing framework. Methodological problems in the measurement of Quality of Life are considered as well as the problems arising in use of subjective social indicators for policy decisions.

Satisfaction as a phenomenon is important for several reasons. It is--or at least should be--a key concept in any theory of behavior. As I have suggested elsewhere (Leavitt, 1975) it represents an opportunity to make the field of consumer behavior more than just another area of applied psychology. Perhaps most important of all: satisfaction is the criterion of the quality of life. This paper explores the implications of the last statement.

Most scholars would agree that we all strive for some kind of positive state. Many terms have been used to label it: gratification, pleasure, positive hedonic tone, happiness, joy, enlightenment, self-actualization, nirvana and many others. The term satisfaction has the advantage of being widely used and philosophically neutral. Four underlying questions concerning satisfaction will be discussed in order to quell the rise of unreasonable expectations. I note at the outset that the most important question--How do we achieve this most desired state?--will not be discussed. The four questions are:

1. Is satisfaction pluralistic in some sense? If so, how does consumer satisfaction fit with other sources?

2. Is satisfaction measurable?

3. What are the methodological problems and caveats to be considered in measuring satisfaction?

4. What should we do with the results?

This is the logical order of these questions. However, I would like to begin by discussing the last question--What do we do with our measures of satisfaction after we have invested the time and effort to work them out? I see two broad possibilities: general monitoring of the state of the organization, either the entire social system or some part of it such as the corporation, and program evaluation: that is, assessment of planned experimental intervention. The first use is very much tied up with the social indicators movement and I would like to first review this movement and place consumer satisfaction in that framework.


Historically, the development of social statistics in the United States relied upon individual investigators developing ad hoc estimates in pursuit of their specific interests (Darmstadter, 1966). The first major departure from this tradition occurred in the thirties as a result of the government's mandate to adopt positive programs to facilitate economic recovery. To provide the information required for planning and assessment, the national income and product accounts, the nation's first social statistics were devised (Kuznets, 1956), based primarily on the macroeconomic theories of Keynes and his students (Lewis, 1952).

The accounts were continually revised, elaborated and disaggregated in response to the changing nature of the major economic problems facing the nation: war mobilization, postwar recovery, recession and inflation (Lewis, 1952). While criticisms were leveled at individual measures on statistical or technical grounds (Kuznets, 1948), their applicability as a measure of the state of the nation, or the general welfare was seldom challenged until recently (Galbraith, 1973).

But a growing concern for other aspects of life has given rise to a doubt regarding the suitability of economic measures as sole indicators of the state of society. [U.S. President, Research Commission on National Goals. Goals for Americans: Programs for Action in the Sixties. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall 1960. Also, Bauer, Raymond A. "Data Needs of a Science for Solving Social Problems," Address to the 1968-69 Seminar Series, The Travelers Research Center, Inc. November 7, 1963. These developments find precedent in U.S. President, Research Commission on Social Trends. Recent Social Trends in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933. However, the recommendations of this commission, which was chaired by William Ogburn, were largely lost amongst the pressing concerns of economic issues.] The heightened salience of social, cultural and environmental goals, and their institutionalization in "Great Society" programs, brought the need for data portraying the nation's status and rate of progress along these dimensions into bold relief (Gross, 1966).

In response a voluminous literature has developed in a very brief period (Wilcox, 1972). A major portion of this body of work is devoted to conceptual and theoretical considerations (Bauer, 1970). The definitions, attributes and hazards of a system of social measurements have been widely debated. Investigators have suggested the use of objective, and more recently, subjective indicators to measure and monitor the quality of life. Legislation has been proposed which would give such assessments equal footing with the national income and product accounts.

Objective Indicators. Early attempts to use objective indicators were primarily of an illustrative nature. Scholars proposing that a certain aspect of life be measured demonstrated the feasibility of their positions by discussing examples of available data that assessed, or could serve as a surrogate for, the concept under consideration (e.g., Thorndik, McHale, 1967). More recently, the objective approach has been extended to more fully recognize the need for multiple dimensions. Cross-sectional studies have compared the quality of life in different countries (Rummel, 1969), states or regions (Liu, 1973) and most frequently, urban areas (Flax, 1972). The status of various segments of the population has been studied, including racial and ethnic minorities (Rokeach, 1970), women (Ferriss), youth, the aged (Todd, 1970) and others.

Terleckyj, in a most comprehensive work, sets forth nineteen national goals related to six major areas of concern: Health and Safety; Education, Skills and Living Standards; Income; Economic Equality; Human Habitat; and Art, Science and Free Time. After describing existing statistics measuring the current status in each area, activities and programs facilitating progress toward each objective are discussed. Estimates are then made for the next decade of feasible accomplishments and the costs of these increments.

While advancing our knowledge of the process of social measurement, the objective approaches are subject to several major criticisms. First, there is a tendency for the measures selected to reflect a programmatic, or institutional bias. The dimensions actually considered are most often suggested by existing data which, in turn, reflect the goals and priorities of established social, bureaucratic and political elites. This inhibits judgment as to the completeness or correctness of the goal set itself. Further, while purporting to measure a wide range of life's aspects, many quantitative systems of indicators, implicitly, consider only the distribution of economic resources (James, 1972).

A second criticism, closely related to the first, is that goals and measures are most frequently examined in isolation. There is often no scheme for weighing general goals or the individual statistics taken as indicative of progress towards these objectives (Mitchell). Exceptions are found in Terleckyj's attention to overall budgetary constraints, in the factor analytic studies by Gitter and various collaborators, of crime (Gitter, 1971), and education (Gitter, 1970) and in Wilson's discussion of socio-economic indicators.

Finally, the very essence of quality of life measurement would seem to be the determination of the goals, aspirations, hopes, fears and satisfactions of the major segments of the population (Maslow, 1972). Once identified, the researcher's task becomes the measurement of the level and rate of progress of society along these dimensions. While objective data can provide certain insights, only perceptual and behavioral measures are capable of fully defining the relevant variables and generating the desired assessments.

Social Experimentation

The use of quality of life indicators in a system of "social accounts" clearly stems from an economic tradition embodying a very different attitude toward data than that of psychologists. On the other hand, there is a long tradition of program evaluation in which more concern is shown for the kinds of measurement problems that experimental psychologists are more likely to take seriously.

But the divergent values and emphasis stem ultimately from the question of which is the cart and which is the horse. The economist seems to operate on the assumption that a system manager, if he has enough information about the state of the system, can anticipate and avoid problems.

The opposite point of view has been eloquently expressed by Campbell beginning with his paper, "Reforms as Experiments'' (1968). He has taken the position that society needs to develop the habit of regarding its problem solving efforts as tentative and in need of experimental evaluation. This suggests an entirely different use of satisfaction measures and an entirely different set of methodological concerns. Primarily, I have in mind those discussed by Campbell and Stanley (1965) under the rubric of quasi-experimental design.


Subjective measures of the quality of life have received far less attention in the literature than their objective counterparts. However, many studies of attitudes and beliefs related to individual problem areas can advance our understanding of the quality of life concept. Recent examples include studies of attitudes towards the use of violence as a change mechanism (Blumenthal, 1971), job satisfaction (Herrick, 1972), the utility of housing (Shinn, 1972), citizen and consumer satisfaction (Lingoes, 1972), and various environmental issues. Returning to our original list of four questions, I would like to consider to what extent satisfaction is plural and many-faceted and where consumer satisfaction fits in. Works such as those just mentioned add to the substantive knowledge concerning individual aspects of the quality of life and, frequently, make major methodological contributions. However, they do not attend to the problem of weighting in aggregating individual facets according to their importance.

This weighting task has been approached in a limited number of more broadly focused studies. Bettman's investigations of citizen's preferences for social consumption (Bettman, 1971) and Sawchuk and Gitter's study of eight dimensions of the quality of life (Sawchuk, 1971) might be mentioned. But like those employing objective indicators, they are characterized by ex ante specification of the variables to be considered. Discovering the overall dimensionality of the quality of life concept and making an empirically-based assessment of the representativeness of the set of measures employed are strategies largely ignored. There are, however, three notable exceptions:

1. Post-treatment interviews with the students responding to the instrument used by Sawchuk and Gitter indicated that the HEW aspects examined in the study formed an incomplete description of the quality of life (Gitter, 1971). A content analysis was performed and the sixteen aspects of life shown in Table 1 resulted. This set of dimensions has been studied in two subsequent works.



Gitter and Franklin collected ratings for a variety of target persons using these dimensions. The scores were averaged, across targets, and factor analyzed. Four factors explaining 65% of the variance resulted: Physical Context, Security, Aesthetic-Intellectual, and Compatibility.

In a parallel effort Gitter and Knoche obtained ratings of the importance of the same set of dimensions (Gitter, 1971). Again the results were factor analyzed. Three factors were derived explaining the 65% of variance in the original data: Social Acceptability, Security, and Aesthetic-Intellectual.

Unfortunately, Gitter and Knoche do not present the results of a four factor rotation of their data. However, the general comparability of the two sets of results can be seen from Table 2. Stem 10, Morality and Values, was not seen by the authors as showing significant loadings in either study. Each of the other dimensions appears in one of the analyses with a significant loading. The greatest difference between the two seems to be the emergence of the "Physical Context" factor in the Gitter and Franklin Study.





2. Dalkey and Rourke employed a panel of students in an iterative procedure designed to discover and rank the relevant dimensions. Initially, a large number of open-ended responses were obtained from the subjects. These were grouped by the authors into 48 categories. Similarity ratings between pairs of categories were obtained and the best of dimensions was reduced to 13 factors through a cluster analysis of these ratings. Finally, a Delphi procedure was employed to generate importance ratings for these factors. The resulting factors and their importance ratings are shown in Table 3.

3. By far the most ambitious project reported is that of Andrews and Withey (1974). They developed the components of life satisfaction on a much more adequate basis than the two previous studies. They then used the components to predict an overall satisfaction rating. This procedure positions the consumer satisfaction component in an adequate, and representative framework, thus offering the best estimate of the importance of consumer related satisfactions in the narrow sense of commercially available products and services. Most areas of satisfaction are consumption related however, (see Table 4).


By answering the first question we have certainly answered the second: Is satisfaction measurable? It is measurable in many ways. What happens when they disagree? Is some overall scale the final arbiter?

Ultimately, the only answer here can be an experimental one. If people find themselves in an obviously better life which of their subjective responses is most sensitive to this fact? This suggests a program of validation in which an array of measures are used under field conditions to study this impact of actual change done perhaps on an experimental scale.


What do we do with the results? I have already pointed to two types of use for the social system at large: trend indicators for general monitoring and indicators program evaluation for use in experimentation.

Perhaps more important is our need to understand how satisfaction actually works as a feedback servo-mechanism to control productive and marketing efforts. Both Stokes (1975) and Rosenberg (Czepiel, Rosenburg and Akerele, 1974) have discussed the broad policy implications as well as the methodological entailments. Sturdivant and Ginter (1975) at Ohio State have discussed the problem from the point of view of the corporation. We (Leavitt, 1974) have formulated a micro-analytic behavioral model of the marketing communication system which postulates a specific relation between satisfaction and repurchase behavior. It is in expanding and testing this kind of formulation that a sensitive measure of satisfaction may find the greatest relevance.



To reverse the old saw: "If something can be measured it exists." This may reflect best the present state of the art - a state of neglect.


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Clark Leavitt, The Ohio State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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