Consumer Behavior Analysis: Behavioral Economics Meets the Marketplace

Article excerpt

The extension of behavior analysis into realms beyond the traditional experimental analysis of animal behavior makes possible the investigation of areas of human behavior that have previously been the province of such disciplines as cognitive psychology and microeconomics. This extension has taken two forms, which have, although usually separately, contributed to the translation of behavior analytic methods and results into the study of behavior in natural settings. The first is the application of behavior analytic methods to the broader realm of behavior, often incorporating field experimental designs that maximize the continuity of the laboratory-based study of behavior with the applied sphere of activity. Applied behavior analysis exemplifies this tendency par excellence. Another example is the way in which the use of methods of scientific analysis and interpretation, developed and honed in behavior analysis in its more traditional contexts, has given birth in recent decades to behavioral economics, which combines the experimental methodology of operant psychology with microeconomics Behavioral economics has also been successfully combined with the analysis of behavior in general as well as with applied behavior analysis in human contexts. The second trend has been toward the interpretation of behavior, the complexities of which preclude an experimental analysis, based on an extrapolation of the principles of behavior that have been demonstrated in controlled experimental settings. In all of these enterprises, the aim has been to enlarge the capacity of behavior analysis to elucidate human activity in natural settings, with the aim of demonstrating that a behaviorist understanding can be provided for such behavior, and sometimes with the aim of modifying that behavior. In this paper, we describe an extension of behavior analysis toward understanding the behavior of human consumers in market contexts; specifically, we are concerned with the ways in which behavioral economics has been taken a stage further to embrace the analysis of human consumers' behavior in natural settings provided by market economies. In short, we are arguing for consumer behavior analysis as an integral component of applied behavior analysis.

Since its inception, consumer behavior analysis has been understood as the application of behavioral economics to consumer behavior in marketing-oriented economies (Foxall, 2001, 2002). It has, therefore, been concerned primarily with human behavior, in naturally occurring settings, subject to marketing influence. This does not rule out in any way comparative methodologies: the behavior of non-human animals, the use of experimental methods, the analysis of subsistence economies (e.g., through barter), and so forth. In time these may well form part of the core of consumer behavior analysis; for the moment, the emphasis is on marketing-oriented economies. The unifying framework for this research is the Behavioral Perspective Model (BPM), which has formed the basis of the exploration of behavioral economics in consumer behavior analysis.

Why behavioral economics? Behavior is economic in the sense that it can be studied as the allocation of a limited number of responses to produce an array of benefits; at the same time, this allocation incurs costs (Staddon, 1980). This covers all that behavior analysts study as operant choice: It is not that the behavior itself is inherently economic but that certain tools can be brought to bear in its analysis. The benefits and costs relate ultimately to biological fitness and are seen most graphically in the acquisition of primary reinforcers, in the course of which potentially fitness-enhancing alternatives are foregone. But secondary reinforcers also play a central role in the relationship of individual conduct to biological fitness via economic choice.

Operant behavior is therefore economic behavior in that it is the allocation of a limited number of responses among competing alternatives. …