Teaching Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - The rationale for and content of a business school course in consumer behavior are presented. The approach described here is organized around a comprehensive text; cases and instructor illustrations are used extensively to achieve a managerial orientation. The curricular setting of the course is first explained, and then goals, topics, and teaching methods are discussed.


Terrence V. O'Brien (1977) ,"Teaching Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04, eds. William D. Perreault, Jr., Atlanta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 274-275.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1977   Pages 274-275


Terrence V. O'Brien, Kansas State University


The rationale for and content of a business school course in consumer behavior are presented. The approach described here is organized around a comprehensive text; cases and instructor illustrations are used extensively to achieve a managerial orientation. The curricular setting of the course is first explained, and then goals, topics, and teaching methods are discussed.


The consumer behavior course in the College of Business Administration at Kansas State University (KSU), is labeled "Business 540: Consumer Behavior." Discussion in this paper reflects content as planned for the spring semester of 1977, the first time this author will have taught the KSU course. However, a similar course was offered at the University of Arizona during my seven years there and I often taught it.


Consumer Behavior is a required course in two undergraduate degree programs at KSU. The first is for marketing majors getting a B.S. in Business Administration. The second is for fashion marketing majors receiving the B.S. degree in Home Economics. In addition many students take the course as an elective but must first meet the prerequisite of basic marketing, which in turn requires macroeconomics and junior standing. The sources of students enrolled in the course over the past two regular semesters (not including summer school) are shown, by college, in Table I. Of the College of Business Administration students (60% of the total in Table 1), the largest contingent are marketing majors, followed in order of importance by those from general business, management, finance, and others.

It should be noted that KSU also has a course entitled "Consumer Psychology," taught in that department, and informally coordinated with our course. Jim Shanteau usually teaches it and his students are largely sophomores who have met a prerequisite of general psychology. His largest contingent of students is from the business college; tied for second place are psychology and journalism (which offers the University's only advertising courses). Shanteau's goals are research oriented and his students do several research projects. His texts are Bennett and Kassarjian (1972), Britt (1970), and Huff (1954).


The course is designed principally to accomplish two broad objectives. First, we want to gain familiarity with and achieve manageable integration of a range of behavioral concepts. These concepts are drawn from psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, communications, political science, economics and other fields. Increasingly, consumer behavior provides concepts of its own as it develops into a substantial and independent field of research and practice.



The main criterion students should have in mind regarding acceptance of these behavioral concepts is their contribution to our understanding of how consumers (and potential consumers) process information and make decisions. Then, the fit with what we already know along with the potential for marketing practice are always salient in our examination of concepts.

An implication of this first objective is that, since there are no behavioral course prerequisites for the class, we must overview some areas of other behavioral science disciplines. This means that for exceptionally well-prepared students some of our material may be redundant. But such students can certainly benefit from our particular orientation and may be able to contribute to everyone's insight on issues familiar to them; such participation is encouraged but not required.

The second broad course objective is to apply behavioral science concepts to real-world problems. We try to simulate actual experience by using extensive case problems throughout the course. We try to accomplish the first objective (conceptual) and the second (applied) simultaneously throughout the semester. While we normally assume the role of a marketer--a profit-motivated businessman--we also frequently consider the viewpoints of public policy makers, consumer educators, and consumers themselves.


Major course topics and the proportion of class time devoted to them appear in Table 2. The largest blocks of time are allocated to "bottom line" issues of actual consumer decision processes, purchase and post-purchase behavior, and individual dispositions to behave in certain ways. Remaining topics include highlighting and summarizing relevant concepts from traditional behavioral science disciplines, some miscellaneous issues (such as brand loyalty), and then integrating sessions to help fit the parts together (introduction, overview, and review).




Instructional materials are the Engel et al. (1973) text and the Blackwell et al. (1969) case hook. In the past, I have tried Howard and Sheth (1969) in this course, Robertson (1970), Webster and Wind (1972), various journal articles as student readings, and about a dozen films. Scores of other items have also been considered but none was actually adopted.

Class time is spent about equally in two areas, corresponding to the textbook and the casebook. First, I try to explain, integrate, extend, simplify, complicate, illustrate, and correct the text's treatment of a particular topic. Second, we simulate real world marketing decision making by discussion of cases. Two examples follow that illustrate the content of our class meetings.

First, particularly regarding the text, an important reminder to students is that explaining buyer behavior ultimately comes down to inference on the part of the observer. This observer is the 'explainer', who might be a marketing manager or staff person trying to map future promotional strategy, or a retailer determining which merchandise to stock and how it should be displayed and promoted.

In any event, you cannot often be sure that your data are perfect, that your observations or 'facts' are infallible. This is true, of course, of virtually all sensory experience, but in this applied field of consumer behavior the potential is very high for huge mistakes in interpretation. "Differing interpretations of the same event," is how Engel et al. (1973) express this, but in a too-cautious way.

Why is there a necessity for inference? We cannot directly observe the processes we are most interested in, such as information handling, deliberation, choice, intent, satisfaction, and so forth. What do we do then? Two things are important: (1) we are constantly sensitive to the quality of behavioral information, and (2) we exercise caution in extrapolating behavioral findings to new settings. The second, and final, illustration of the content of class meetings corresponds to use of the case method; what follows is the rationale provided to students for spending class time on cases.

What we try to do through cases in the consumer behavior course is to practice an approach to marketing situations that is sensitive to behavioral factors. First, the approach can be defined in terms of the following analytical framework (many other frameworks could do as well): (1) definition of the basic problem, (2) analysis of the situation in as much depth as possible and as appropriate, (3) identification and evaluation of alternative decisions or actions, and (4) selection and justification of some action(s) or inaction along with explicit expectations (even formal predictions) of results. Second, the behavioral factors in marketing situations are major concepts pointed out in the text or in class, such as perceptual structures of brand attributes. These are suggestive analytical dimensions for a particular case situation. Third, by sensitive, we mean there are a number of things we can be looking for in a problem situation, but we will hopefully not screen out important unexpected factors. Fourth, why this requires practice is that we want eventually to have simulated a stock of real-world experiences in the classroom that will be vivid background for each student when he or she faces actual marketing problems. At the same time, this practice orientation can reinforce and illustrate descriptive and prescriptive material in the text and enhance its acceptance by students.


Peter D. Bennett and Harold H. Kassarjian, Consumer Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

Roger D. Blackwell et al., Cases in Consumer Behavior (Hinsdale, IL: Dryden, 1969).

Stuart H. Britt, Psychological Experiments in Consumer Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1970).

James F. Engel et al., Consumer Behavior (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2nd. ed. 1973).

John A. Howard and Jagdish N. Sheth, The Theory of Buyer Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1969).

Darrell Huff. How to Lie With Statistics (New York: Norton, 1954).

Thomas S. Robertson, Consumer Behavior (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1970).

Frederick E. Webster, Jr. and Yoram Wind, Organizational Buying Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall 1972).



Terrence V. O'Brien, Kansas State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 04 | 1977

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