The Current Status of Consumer Behavior Research: Developments During the 1968-1972 Period

David T. Kollat, Management Horizons, Inc.
Roger D. Blackwell, The Ohio State University
James F. Engel, Wheaton College
[ to cite ]:
David T. Kollat, Roger D. Blackwell, and James F. Engel (1972) ,"The Current Status of Consumer Behavior Research: Developments During the 1968-1972 Period", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 576-585.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 576-585

THE CURRENT STATUS OF CONSUMER BEHAVIOR RESEARCH: DEVELOPMENTS DURING THE 1968-1972 PERIOD

David T. Kollat, Management Horizons, Inc.

Roger D. Blackwell, The Ohio State University

James F. Engel, Wheaton College

[Adapted from Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (in press), Chapter 27.]

[David T. Kollat is Vice President-Research, Management Horizons, Inc., Columbus, Ohio. He was formerly Professor of Marketing, The Ohio State University. James F. Engel is Professor of Communications, Graduate School, Wheaton College. He was formerly Professor of Marketing, The Ohio State University. Roger D. Blackwell is Associate Professor of Marketing, The Ohio State University and Vice President, Management Horizons, Inc.]

While preparing the first edition of Consumer Behavior (Engel, Kollat, Blackwell, 1968) it became apparent that a number of basic problems had retarded progress in consumer research prior to 1968 and were likely to continue to do so unless they were recognized and resolved, or at least accommodated. These problems were concerned with the development of what was termed a research tradition or strategy of inquiry, and were later published in an article appearing in the Journal of Marketing Research (Kollat, Engel, Blackwell, 1970).

During the last twelve months the authors have been revising the Consumer Behavior text and have therefore had the opportunity to review consumer research published during the 1968-1972 period. This proved to be a formidable challenge since the volume of research during this period was nearly as large as the total body of knowledge that existed at the beginning of the period.

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate this voluminous output in terms of the progress that has been made toward the development of a research tradition in consumer behavior. The criteria that are used are the same as those that were employed in the earlier JMR discussion. Since some of the analysis is critical, it should be remembered that many evaluations are generalizations having notable exceptions, and that the intent is to try to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of future efforts rather than critique the efforts of individuals.

PERSPECTIVES ON PROGRESS

Utilization of Consumer Behavior Constructs Theories and Models

Prior to 1968, the majority of consumer research utilized, explicitly or implicitly, hypothetical constructs, theories, and what Nicosia (1966) has called "reduced-form" models. Examples include motivation, perception, learning, personality, attitudes and attitude change, social class, and risk-taking. These constructs have been employed in a variety of ways in an attempt to explain and/or predict some aspect of consumer behavior.

While these constructs are often significant and useful, there have been many instances where they have not been used properly. As Jacoby (1969) and others have shown, this problem is evident in many investigations of the relationship between personality and consumer behavior.

Jacoby illustrates his points by re-analyzing Evans' (1959) study of the personality differences between Ford and Chevrolet owners. Evans employed the Edwards Personal Preference Schedule and found only one difference significant at the . 05 level. From this, he concluded that personality had little, if any, relationship to consumer behavior. Jacoby shows that an entirely different picture emerges when the data are re-examined using specific hypotheses derived from a conceptual-psychological orientation. Specifically, Jacoby's analysis of Evans' data yielded 8 out of 11 correct predictions.

Unfortunately, the Jacoby example is not an isolated situation. For example, Brody and Cunningham ( 1968); Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1969); KassarJian (1971); and Wells and Tigert (1971) have demonstrated the value of personality and personality-oriented variables when used properly. In another area, there has been heated debate for many years about the relationship between attitudes and behavior. Yet Sheth and Talaryzk (1972) and Bass and Talaryzk (1972) have shown the importance of attitude in predicting consumer behavior when the theoretical basis for the concept is understood and used properly.

Thus, developments in this area during the last five years are mixed. On the one hand there is evidence that in many instances constructs and theories have been used improperly. On the other hand, there are an encouraging number of instances where proper utilization has yielded useful insights and results. Both developments suggest that when an aspect of consumer behavior is studied it is necessary to make certain that theoretical aspects are examined in detail and the theory is used correctly.

The second problem in using hypothetical constructs, traditional theories, and reduced-form models is that each plays a limited role in that consumer behavior is influenced by a variety of phenomena interacting in complex ways. According to Nicosia (1969), James Morgan (1958) was probably the first to point out that the exponential growth in the number of determinants of consumer behavior was causing increasing perplexity. During the last five years this problem has intensified to the point where it has become almost unmanageable.

Since 1966, several attempts have been made to design models comprehensive enough to deal with the multiplicity of determinants and the interrelationships of various constructs, theories, and reduced-form models. Nicosia (1966), Howard and Sheth (1969), Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (1968), and many others (Andreason, 1965; Ehrenberg, 1969) have proposed models, or frameworks, or conceptual schemes, of varying degrees of comprehensiveness and sophistication.

These models have had little influence on consumer research during the last five years. Indeed, it is rare to find a published study that has utilized, been based on, or even influenced by, any of the models identified above (Pellemans, 1971; Dominquez and Burger, 1971).

In 1968 the authors discussed the "conceptualization artifact" problem. This refers to the fact that without an integrative model the researcher does not know what variables should be included and controlled. Therefore, it is impossible to determine how many of the "significant" and "nonsignificant" findings would change if these variables were not neglected.

As mentioned above, the consumer behavior literature has doubled during the last five years. This constitutes a remarkable achievement by almost any standard. Unfortunately, however, it would not be surprising if over 90 percent of the findings and lack of findings prove to be wrong because they are artifacts of the reduced-form conceptualizations that have been used.

Why do researchers avoid the use of integrative models? One of the most commonly mentioned reasons is that the models are wrong; they are overly-simplistic or merely frameworks that have some expositional value, at least in the constructors' mind(s). While these points of view are plausible, and perhaps true, they cannot be accepted as true at this point in time because they have not been subJected to adequate empirical testing. In our review of the literature we have not found a single test of the Nicosia or Engel, Kollat and Blackwell models. Zaltman, Pinson and Angelmar (in press) arrived at the same conclusion.

Farley and Ring's (1970) empirical test of the Howard-Sheth model is perhaps the most interesting development in this area during recent years. Their work indicates that considerable advances are required in measures before valid assessment of that model can be established. Their research also demonstrates that the Howard-Sheth model is more than an impressive flowchart; rather, the implied relationships in the model provide some directions for deriving inferences and testing relationships.

Farley and Ring's efforts suggest another reason why integrative models have not been tested -- some, including our own are partially or totally untestable. This suggests the need to devote more attention to the modeling-testing sequence. Most comprehensive models attempt to do at least two things. First, they record which variables are known to interact with which other variables. Second, they reveal which interactions need to be and have not yet been studied (theoretically and empirically). Most of the research used to construct these models proceeds from theoretical statements -- "Y is caused by X, Z and V" -- to direct empirical tests.

As Nicosia (1969) has pointed out, one of the shortcomings of this procedure is that the statistics obtained may actually be produced by different causal networks of interactions among the variables. As long as the interpretation of statistical results is ambiguous, it is not clear which theory is actually being tested; thus, the empirical results cannot be used to refine the original idea of how the phenomenon works. Rather, the result is an endless cascade of qualifications, and an unmanageable number of empirically-tested and non-rejected hypotheses.

To overcome these problems Nicosia recommends the insertion of a methodological operation between the set of theoretical statements and the empirical test. Predictably, the operation is a formal mathematical specification of the network of interactions the researcher has in mind. This is done by translating the hypothesized network (flowcharts) into formal models.

During the last five years there has been little work done in building, analyzing, and testing sophisticated mathematical models that predict and explain brand choice on the basis of interactions among a variety of variables over time. In the past, those knowledgeable in substantive areas have typically lacked super-sophisticated mathematical skills. Simultaneously, individuals possessing modeling expertise have often lacked a rigorous understanding of the substantive dimensions of the behavior being modeled. There is encouraging evidence that some terminal degree programs are correcting this skill imbalance. Hopefully a merger of these two types of competences will accelerate progress in the future.

Research Priorities

Prior to 1968, most consumer research occurred because of the availability of data, the convenience of research and mathematical techniques, and/or the attractiveness and appeal of certain behavioral constructs. While this orientation was understandable and Justifiable in the short run, it is not effective, efficient, or responsible in the long run. Accordingly, the authors recommended that research priorities be established. These priorities should identify what "aspects" of consumer behavior are of the greatest importance, and what phenomena need to be investigated so that these key areas can be understood.

There has not been any progress in these areas during the 1968-1972 period. Most research -- perhaps as much as 95 percent -- continues to be data-technique-construct motivated and oriented. Thus, as never before, the profession faces what Robertson and Ward (1972) have recently called the "payoff dilemma":

The crux of the consumer behavior researcher's dilemma is that he seeks to engage in theoretical and conceptual research and, at the same time to meet the "action" needs of its users. This is a familiar dilemma for the researcher in an applied field and places him in a difficult and sometimes compromising role. Judging from the results to date he has not handled the role conflict very well, for the consumer behavior field is both immature theoretically, yet has failed for the most part to meet the needs of its users -- marketing management, government and consumerist advocates. and most of all consumers.

The role conflict described by Robertson and Ward is one of the most serious problems facing the profession. It is rare to find a research study that discusses the role and implications of that study in terms of the development or testing of a theoretical understanding of consumer behavior. Alternatively, many studies that purport to be user oriented either avoid implications entirely or discuss them at an embarrassingly superficial level. It is interesting to speculate about what the current status of the space program would be if NASA had used our ad hoc approach to selecting research topics. Some people feel that the present arrangement is as it should be; that researchers should be free to research whatever they want to regardless of its relevance. Curiously, many of the same people also talk about the social responsibilities of corporations. What are the social and ethical responsibilities of consumer researchers? How do we Justify the resources we are consuming? Admittedly the field is young,-but does the totality of individual efforts constitute a logical and defensible program that will yield progress?

Use of Longitudinal and Experimental Designs

Consumer behavior researchers typically use three types of research designs -- cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal, and experiments or quasi-experimental. Historically, cross-sectional surveys have been the most common.

The appropriateness of each method depends, of course, on the type of problem, the reasons for the study, the research budget, and the researcher's conceptualization of the problem. On balance, however, longitudinal and experimental designs are preferable, and, hence, in 1968 more widespread use of these two designs was recommended.

Mixed progress has been made in this area during the 1968-1972 period. Although longitudinal studies are still relatively rare (Pennington, 1968), the growing use of experimental designs is encouraging (Granger and Billson, 1972; McConnell, 1968).

Standardized Definitions

The pre-1968 consumer behavior literature was replete with varying definitions of what were presumably the same variables and constructs. Brand loyalty, opinion leaders, innovation, culture, personality, information seeking, and impulse purchasing are but a few examples of constructs that have a bewildering array of definitions.

Quite obviously, the definition heterogeneity problem makes it difficult and hazardous to compare, synthesize, and accumulate findings. Accordingly, the authors recommended the development of standardized definitions, or at least agreed upon points of departure.

Unfortunately, no progress has been made in this area during the last five years. Rather, in many cases, there has been a proliferation of definitions. Consequently, although there is considerably more research output, progress is not as great as it would have been if standardized definitions had been developed and adopted.

Standardized Variable Categories

In 1968, the authors also pointed out the category heterogeneity problem that plagues many variables and constructs. Family life cycle, family role structure, and social class are examples of constructs that suffer from this problem.

Since this category variance also makes it difficult to compare and synthesize findings, it was suggested that standardized variable categories be developed and adopted. Instead of improving, this problem has intensified during the last five years. It is difficult to understand why it is possible to develop standardized demographic variable categories but not standardized behavioral categories.

Richer Dependent Variables

Regardless of the complexity of the dependent variable, researchers typically measure it unidimensionally. If dependent variables were measured multidimensionally, the independent variables that are significant might change. Hence, wider use of multidimensional measures was recommended in 1968.

There have been many attempts to deal with the "dimensionality artifact" problem during the 1968-1972 period. The growing use of multidimensional scaling techniques is perhaps the most encouraging development in this area (Green and Rao, 1972; Day, 1972; Lehmann, 1972) . There have been other interesting developments. For example, studies of brand loyalty (measured unidimensionally) have been characterized by the absence of significant relationships with consumer characteristics. Yet, when loyalty is measured multidimensionally, significant relationships have surfaced (Carman, 1970; Day, 1969). Overall, important progress has been made in the use of multidimensional measures of dependent variables.

Replication

Prior to 1968, replication was rarely practiced in consumer research. Unfortunately, this behavior has not changed during the last five years. Thus, most findings and propositions continue to be based upon single studies by a single researcher, or multiple studies by multiple researchers using different definitions and variable categories. Quite obviously, this practice invites invalid conclusions due to unusual sample characteristics, distortion in experimental control, and a variety of other methodological artifacts. Hopefully, a replication tradition will be promoted and practiced in the future.

There have been encouraging developments in a related area. Prior to 1968, the literature was dominated by "one-shot" studies using samples that were small, out-of-date, or questionable on other grounds; e.g., college students, women's club members, etc. The one-shot characteristic limits the researcher's ability to investigate the phenomenon in a rigorous and comprehensive manner.

In contrast, research efforts that seem to have had a decisive impact on the discipline during the last five years are major research programs. These programs are longer-term efforts that systematically investigate many dimensions of a phenomenon, and usually, but not always, involve larger and better quality samples. Examples include the King-Summers ( 1970) thrust in opinion leadership and diffusion, the Pessemier-Tigert-Wells (Wells and Tigert, 1971) investigations of psychographics and other profiling and clustering techniques, the Green (Green and Rao, 1972) stream in multi-dimensional scaling, and the Howard-Sheth, et.al. (Howard, 1971) tests of their theory of buyer behavior.

These and other researchers have attained critical mass in studying some aspect of consumer behavior. If the research program approach were used in other areas -- social class, reference groups, purchase intentions, store choice, and shopper profiles, to mention just a few -- progress would probably accelerate.

Generalizing Findings

To what extent are consumer behavior findings artifacts of the research design, subjects used, and variables controlled? To what degree are findings derived from an analysis of a specific type of consumer decision applicable to other types of decisions? Certainly in many cases it is not proper to generalize findings across decision situations, or from a research design to the "real world". Ont he other hand, generalizing as far as possible avoids researching consumer behavior in unnecessarily minute detail. For these reasons, the authors have pointed up the growing need for classification systems for types of decisions and choices which, if properly designed, would permit a legitimate degree of generalization.

During recent years, these issues have received more attention. For example, Farley, Howard and Weinstein (1971) have analyzed the stability of attitude structures. Similarly, Pessemier and Bruno (1971) have studied the stability and reliability of activity and attitude measures. In both instances, important insights were uncovered.

Simultaneously, there have been numerous attempts to develop various types of classification schemes. Some efforts have focused primarily on classification techniques such as factor or cluster analytic models and latent structure analysis (Nyers an Nicosia, 1969). Others have experimented with a variety of behavioral concepts (Montgomery and Silk, 1971; Anderson, 1971; Johnson, 1971).

From a theoretical perspective, Robertson and Ward (1972) have encouraged the development of more "middle-range" theories. These are theories intermediate to the minor working hypotheses evolved in abundance during the day-to-day routines of research, and the all-inclusive speculations comprising a master conceptual scheme.

Although these efforts have not resolved the questions of generalizability, at least attempts are being made to confront and understand the issues. Future efforts using alternative conceptual schemes, empirically derived classifications, and new analytic techniques should accelerate progress.

Broadening the Uses and Horizons of Consumer Research

As mentioned earlier, there are three major end users of consumer research -- marketing management, government and consumerist advocates, and consumers. User-oriented research has continued to be directed primarily toward marketing management. Some progress has been made in beginning to understand the behavioral problems of the disadvantaged, but very little research attention has been devoted to consumer exploitation or protection, or the behavioral implications of legal and regulatory actions. Hopefully this imbalance will be corrected in the future.

During the 1968-1972 period consumer research focused almost exclusively on the micro behavior of individual consumers or market segments, and ignored macro behavior issues. As Nicosia and Glock (1968) have pointed out, many economic and social problems cannot be solved unless we gain an understanding of the relationships between changing patterns of consumption and changes in social and cultural values. Consider these issues:

1. What effect would smaller families have on consumption patterns?

2. Will the new values and life styles of some youth change as they grow older? If not, how will they affect consumption?

3. Will the women's liberation movement become more important? If so, how will it affect purchasing and consumption patterns?

4. How will the cost of clean air and water change consumption patterns?

5. How will the four-day work week affect expenditure patterns?

These are not idle issues. Some observers estimate that variations in these behaviors patterns could make a difference of $500 billion in the 1980 Gross National Product (Silberman, 1971). These types of questions deserve serious attention.

Information Summary and Retrieval Systems

Several years ago it became clear that there would be a research explosion and that it would be difficult for both researchers and practitioners to have an awareness and working knowledge of published research relevant to their problems unless steps were taken to accommodate the problem. Two steps were recommended: annual literature reviews, and the development of a consumer behavior research retrieval system.

To date neither of these steps have been taken. Unless action is initiated in the near future, by 1980 it may be impossible to have a comprehensive understanding of even relatively small components of consumer behavior.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

Risking oversimplification, Exhibit 1 summarizes the authors' evaluations of developments in consumer research during the 1968-1972 period. Some will feel that the evaluations are too rigorous, while others will contend that they are not strict enough. Inevitably, important contributions have been omitted although certainly not intentionally.

Good progress has been made in some areas -- the use of experimental designs, the use of richer dependent variables, and the development of research programs rather than "one-shot" studies. However, in most areas progress has been limited or nonexistent.

Recently the National Science Council (1969) evaluated the state of knowledge in the behavioral sciences. They concluded that actual accomplishment has not been consistent with the magnitude of effort. Unfortunately, this conclusion appears applicable to the field of consumer research. Programs designed to resolve or at least accommodate the issues discussed above might help correct the results-effort imbalance in the future.

EXHIBIT 1

SUMMARY OF DEVELOPMENTS IN CONSUMER RESEARCH DURING THE 1968-1972 PERIOD

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