Theoretical Approaches to Study of Consumer Behaviour

Theoretical Approaches to the Study of Consumer Behavior

Consumer models are nothing but a framework based on a particular study by a particular researcher that provides guidelines for consumer buying behavior understanding. The consumer behavior models provide better insight to marketers for taking important decisions regarding various marketing mixed elements.

It describes various factors that influence ultimate consumer buying behavior, specifically with reference to Indian consumers. Economic models and Haward Sheth models are important. Indian consumer behavior for consumer durables followed more or less resembled factors in such two models.

Economic Man Model

Under economics, it is assumed that man is a rational human being, who will evaluate all the alternatives in terms of cost and value received and select the product/service which gives him/her maximum satisfaction (utility). Consumers are assumed to follow the principle of maximum utility based on the law of diminishing marginal utility.

It is assumed that with limited purchasing power, and a set of needs and tastes, a consumer will allocate his/her expenditure over different products at given prices so as to maximize utility.

The law of submarginal utility enables him to secure maximum utility from limited purchasing power. The economic model of consumer behavior is unidimensional. This means that buying decisions of a person are governed by the concept of utility. Being a rational man he will make his purchase decisions with the intention of maximizing the utility/benefits.

The economic model is based on certain predictions of buying behavior:

  • Lesser the price of the product, the more will be the quantity purchased,

  • Lesser the price of the substitute product, the lesser will be the quantity of the original product bought (substitution effect),

  • The more the purchasing power more will be the quantity purchased (income effect).

The assumption about the rational behavior of human beings has been challenged by the behavioral scientists. They are of the opinion that while the predictions are useful, the model only explains how a consumer ought to behave. It does not throw light on how the consumer actually behaves.

Behaviourist Model

In 1920 John B. Watson published a landmark study into behavior which became known as ‘Little Albert’ (Watson and Rayner 1920). This study involved teaching a small child (Albert) to fear otherwise benign objects through repeated pairing with loud noises.

The study proved that behavior can be learned by external events and thus largely discredited the Psychodynamic approach that was predominant at the time.

Essentially Behaviourism is a family of philosophies stating that behavior is explained by external events and that all things that organisms do, including actions, thoughts, and feelings can be regarded as behaviors.

The causation of behavior is attributed to factors external to the individual. The most influential proponents of the behavioral approach were Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) who investigated classical conditioning, John Watson (1878-1958) who rejected introspective methods and Burrhus Skinner (1904-1990) who developed operant conditioning.

Each of these developments relied heavily on logical positivism purporting that objective and empirical methods used in the physical sciences can be applied to the study of consumer behavior (Eysenck and Keane 2000).

There are a number of branches of research that conform to the major tenets of behaviorism but differ subtly in other ways. Initially ‘Classical Behaviourism’, established by John Watson, required the entirely objective study of behavior, with no mental life or internal states being accepted.

Human thoughts were regarded by Watson as ‘covert’ speech (Sternberg 1996), and strict monism was adhered to (Foxall 1990). Between 1930 and 1950 Skinner founded ‘Radical Behaviourism’ which acknowledges the existence of feelings, states of mind, and introspection, however, still regard these factors as epiphenomenal (Skinner 1938 and Nye 1979).

The assumed role of internal processes continued to evolve in subsequent decades, leading to more cognitive approaches with a new branch of study ‘Cognitive Behaviourism’ claiming that intrapersonal cognitive events and processes are causative and the primary irreducible determinants of overt behavior (Hillner 1984, p107).

While behavioral research still contributes to our understanding of human behavior, it is now widely recognized as being only part of any possible full explanation (Stewart 1994). Behaviorism does not appear to adequately account for the great diversity of responses generated by a population exposed to similar, or even near-identical stimuli.

Cognitive Model

In stark contrast to the foundations of Classical Behaviouralism, the cognitive approach ascribes observed action (behavior) to intrapersonal cognition. The individual is viewed as an ‘information processor’.

This intrapersonal causation clearly challenges the explicative power of environmental variables suggested in Behavioural approaches, however, an influential role of the environment and social experience is acknowledged, with consumers actively seeking and receiving environmental and social stimuli as informational inputs aiding internal decision-making.

Early Stimulus-Organism-Response models suggest a linear relationship between the three stages with environmental and social stimuli acting as external antecedents to the organism. This approach assumes that stimuli act upon an inactive and unprepared organism.

Most modern theorists now, however, acknowledge that information processing is conducted by an active organism whose past experience will influence not only the processing of such information but even what information is sought and received.

Information processing will be both stimulus-driven and concept-driven. This development has resulted in more recent depictions of consumer decision-making being circular in fashion, or drawn through a Venn diagram.

Four key strengths of cognitivism as a means of explaining consumer behavior:

  • Its closeness to the common-sense explanations of everyday discourse makess it an intuitively attractive means of offering explanations of everyday behaviors such as purchasing and consuming;

  • The ability of consumers to describe their experiences in terms of their attitudes, wants, needs and motives ensures that an explanation proceeds in the same terms as the description of what is explained;

  • It brings a measure of unity and consensus to a still-young field of inquiry;

  • The extensive use made by other social science and humanity disciplines of cognitive explanation has assisted the conceptual development of this line of consumer research by making possible the borrowing of theoretical and methodological inputs.

A cognitive approach is more appropriate in the examination of ethical purchasing behaviour. Firstly, the complexity of such actions cannot be accommodated through behavioural models and secondly, the benefits of ethical consumption are largely vicarious in nature, requiring extensive intrapersonal evaluation.

Humanistic Model

Of the three key areas that Natarajan and Bagozzi identified (1999), it is the study of the volitional stages of decision-making that has received the most productive theoretical effort. The cognitive models appear well covered in generic Consumer Behaviour texts and are often portrayed as providing the best available explanation of consumer decision-making.

Despite this, however, there are a growing number of academic writers highlighting the limitations of the Cognitive approach and publishing new research attempting to further understand specific aspects of behavior.

These new approaches can be described as humanistic as they seek to explore concepts introspective to the individual consumer rather than describe generic processes.

Theory of Trying

The Theory of Trying (Bagozzi and Warshaw 1990) depicted in the Figure provides an interesting alternative approach to the models previously considered. Rather than examining explicit behavior, the model assesses trying to act.

Subjective norms, attitudes toward the process or means of trying, attitudes and expectations of success, and attitudes and expectations of failure are posed as the key antecedent variables to intention to try; itself the key precursor to trying.

Past behavior has been found to influence consumer choice in a number of studies (Bagozzi and Kimmel 1995, Leone, Perugini et al. 1999, Norman and Conner 1996), and is thus integrated as a key influence within the theory.

Bagozzi et al. (2002) suggest in the discussion of this theory that rather than consumers having behavioral intentions, they rather have behavioral goals in many situations, and they must expend effort and make purposive endeavors to fulfill these goals.

To date, the theory of trying has mostly been applied to health-related decisions, and only a few studies have applied it to retail consumption decisions. Some parts of the theory have been supported empirically, but not all of the variables have been found to be significant in every test (Bay and Daniel 2003).

In a fillip to the theory, Gould et al. (1997) published research into the reasons for consumers ‘failing to try to consume’. In this case, consumers are said to either fail to see or be ignorant of their options or make a conscious effort not to consume (Schiffman and Kanuk 2007). The first of these two points may have relevance in the field of ethical clothing.

  • Dr. A Sarangapani, (2009), A Textbook on Rural Consumer Behaviour in India – A Study of FMCGs, Laxmi Publications Ltd.

  • Satish K Batra and S.H.H. Kazmi, (2009), Consumer Behaviour2nd, Excel Books

  • S. Ramesh Kumar, (2009), Consumer Behaviour and Branding: Concepts, Readings, and Cases – The Indian Context, Pearson Education
  • Ramanuj Majumdar, (2010), Consumer Behaviour: Insights From Indian Market, PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd.

  • Evans, Jamal and Foxall, (2007), Consumer Behaviour, John Wiley & Sons




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