The Continuing Quest to Unlock the Mystery of Consumer Behavior

Donna L. Roberts, Ph.D.

Consumer behavior is one of the most pervasive of human behaviors.  Virtually every individual is a consumer at some level and aspects of consumer behavior occur daily in the lives of most people.  Since human beings spend much of their lives consuming products and services – from houses, food and clothing to transportation, health and recreational services – it follows that consumer behavior represents an integral part of human behavior and cannot be separated or considered distinct from general human functioning.  In short, many of the same issues that influence individuals’ behavior as human beings influence their behavior as consumers.  Therefore, the assessments used to study various aspects of human behavior – e.g., personality type assessments– are potentially applicable in the study of consumer behavior insofar as they assess, describe or predict those aspects of general human behavior that are relevant to the more specific behavior.

Much of the existing consumer related personality research was conducted from the 1950s through the 1980s and focused on identifying specific characteristics that explained differences in consumers’ purchasing patterns.  This early research (Advertising Research Foundation, 1964; Arndt, 1986; Evans, 1959; Jacoby, 1969; Kassarjian, 1979; Kassarjian & Sheffet, 1991; Koponen, 1960; Myers, 1967; Wells & Beard, 1973; Westfall, 1962), which used general personality measures to explain and predict broad aspects of consumer behavior, proved largely disappointing and inconclusive.  The resulting failure to generate support for the intuitively logical assumption that individual differences influence consumer related behavior highlighted the need for new research to fill the existing gap by isolating more specific aspects of consumer behavior and more precisely defined variables.

While some of the early studies indicated potential for explaining and predicting certain consumer behaviors via personality traits (Bearden, Netemeyer & Teel, 1989; Bearden & Rose, 1990; Cacioppo, Petty & Morris, 1983; Calder & Burnkrant, 1977; Haugtvedt, Petty & Cacioppo, 1992), much of the research, instead, has been criticized for falling short of this goal (Bearden, LaForge, & Ingram, 2007; Blackwell, Miniard & Engel, 2006; Brody & Cunningham, 1968; Cohen, 1967; Horton, 1973a, b; Hoyer, MacInnis & Pieters, 2012; Kassarjian, 1971; Massey, Frank, & Lodahl, 1968), leaving a gap in the field of research between the variable of personality and the relationship to specific consumer behaviors.  Collectively, these studies concluded that because personality represents the conglomeration of characteristics that determine general patterns of behavior, significant relationships are not likely to be found that reflect specificity to the extent of individual brand choice.  Instead, it is more likely that significant relationships exist between personality and behaviors consumers adopt for approaching, modifying and reacting to the market environment (i.e., between the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the consumer behavior and not the specific ‘what’) (Arnould, Price & Zinkhan, 2004; Nunes & Merrighue, 2007; Solomon, 2010).  As a result of these identified problems, further research was proposed to determine the role of aspects of personality in consumer behavior. 

With respect to the fields of consumer behavior and advertising, the study of personality has spanned the temporal and theoretical landscape from Sigmund Freud to modern theorists of personality, motivation and social psychology (Dichter, 1960; Endler & Rosenstein, 1997; Loef, Antonides & Raaij, 2003; Martineau, 1957) and yet, a significant gap in the knowledge still exists (Baumgartner, 2002; Bosnjak, Bratko, Galesic & Tuten, 2007; Nunes & Merrighue, 2007).  One of the major criticisms of the early research relating personality to consumer behavior was the lack of theoretical foundation (Baumgartner, 2002).  Specifically, critics point to the creation of so-called personality measures devoid of established theoretical rationale (Kassarjian & Sheffet, 1991).

Early on, advertisers sought research that would yield a direct linear link between a specific consumer type and advertising that would have immediate effect in the marketplace (Evans, 1959; Kassarjian, 1971).  More current evaluative research of advertising effects acknowledges a much more complex and multifaceted set of factors involved in consumer decision-making and persuasion and thus employs a variety of techniques and measurements – including engagement tests, memory tests, persuasion tests, direct response counts, frame-by-frame tests and brand tracking to assess various aspects of consumer response (Moriarity, Mitchell & Wells, 2009).  This perspective addresses the aforementioned criticisms that early research was too broad in scope and thus overlooked the various component factors that contributed to a resultant behavior.

The more recent consumer research seeks to both address the knowledge gap and circumvent the early shortcomings by applying established theoretical approaches in explaining individual differences in consumption behavior – i.e., approaches based in established personality theories (Harris & Lee, 2004; Harris & Mowen, 2001; McDaniel, Lim & Mahan, 2007; Mowen, 2010; Mowen, Harris & Bone, 2004; Mowen & Spears, 1999).



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