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Consumer decision-making styles as a function of individual learning styles.

Consumer Decision-Making Styles as a Function of Individual Learning Styles

The decisions a consumer makes to purchase products and services are based on a process of learning. This is an almost axiomatic statement to consumer educators and those involved with consumer interest studies in general. Even though one assumes that consumers' learning and decision making are related phenomena, this relationship has not been systematically explored in consumer research.

The research reported in this paper explores the relationships between individuals' learning styles and their consumer decision-making styles. Using two recently validated methods for measuring learning styles and consumer decision-making styles, the intercorrelations of learning and decision-making styles are examined. As reported below important relationships exist between an individual's general style of learning and his or her specific style of consumer decision making. These relationships have important implications for the development of effective consumer education and informational programs. They are particularly relevant in understanding how differences in individual approaches to learning lead to widely different consumer decision-making styles.


Conceptual frameworks for measurement of learning styles and consumer decision-making styles are presented initially. Since the measurement of learning styles is relatively new and may be unfamiliar to some consumer analysts, it is discussed below.

A learning style is defined as "the way each person absorbs and retains information and/or skills" (Dunn 1984, p. 12). Each learner has an individual learning style, which is thought to be an enduring, patterned, and preferred mode of learning. The investigation of learning styles is a relatively new

field of educational theory and research, having started in the late 1970s. Evolving from early work on cognitive style (e.g., Kirby 1979), several major approaches to measuring and characterizing learning styles have evolved (e.g., Dunn and Dunn 1978; National Association of Secondary School Principals 1979, 1982; Gregorc 1982; Knaak 1983; Dunn 1984; Kolb 1984). These range from approaches characterizing the cognitive aspects of learning, such as abstractness or concreteness in learning (e.g., Gregorc 1982; Kolb 1984), to those that consider students' preferences for teaching methods (lectures, labs, etc.) and environments (lighting, seating) (e.g., Dunn and Dunn 1978). Because a central goal in understanding learning styles is to characterize how the mind operates when learning, the well-known methods include the cognitive characteristics of learning.

One of the most well developed approaches to learning styles, from both theoretical and empirical perspectives, is based on Kolb's (1984) experiential learning theory. Because of its extensive theoretical development and empirical validation, Kolb's work is the basis for the learning styles measure used in the present research. Kolb's approach is cognitive and has been derived from diverse foundations, including the psychological theories of Jung, the cognitive development theories of Piaget, the social psychology of Lewin, and the experienced-based learning advocated by Dewey.

Though the complete theory is intellectually complex, the underlying structure of the theory is straightforward. Basically, Kolb (1984) proposes that learning is conceived as a cycle of four stages: (1) learning starts with certain concrete experiences, (2) individuals make certain observations based on these experiences, (3) the learners develop abstract generalizations, and (4) the generalizations are tested and revised in new situations. Further, Kolb suggests an important hypothesis that learners use the following four different learning abilities to succeed.

(1) Concrete experience abilities, or an openness to being involved with new experiences and new situations openly and without bias (with emphasis on intuitive rather than analytical learning); (2) Reflective observation abilities, or an ability to understand the meaning of ideas, experiences, or situations by careful observation (open mindedness and thoughtful judgment are important); (3) Abstract conceptualization abilities, or an ability to integrate concepts into theories (emphasis on analyzing and thinking); (4) Active experimentation abilities, or an ability to apply theories or ideas to practical applications or to solving problems.

A methodology for measuring learning styles based on Kolb's theory has been established through empirical research (e.g., Kolb 1976, 1984). The only significant limitation of this research approach is that it is abstract in content and can be used only with adult, college-educated individuals. To adapt Kolb's theory and methods for application to a broader population (e.g., younger, less-educated persons as well as college-educated individuals), Kendall and Sproles (1986) developed a Secondary Learning Styles Inventory to measure the characteristics of learning styles among those reaching only the secondary school level.

Based on administration of this instrument to 482 high school students in grades 9-12, Kolb's experiential learning theory was partially confirmed, but additional characteristics of learning style were found as well. The research identified these six characteristics of learning style: (1) Serious, Analytical Learner, or one who enjoys thinking through difficult material in a serious and abstract manner; (2) Active, Practical Learner, or a person who is experience-oriented and enjoys learning by doing practical learning activities; (3) Observation-Centered Learner, or one who enjoys first seeing and then doing in his or her learning experiences; (4) Passive, Accepting Learner, or one who is a quiet, basically uninvolved learner who prefers to absorb passively or reflectively what is seen and heard; (5) Concrete, Detailed, Fact-Oriented Learner, or a person who enjoys "nitty-gritty," meticulous details of the learning experience; and (6) Nonadaptive, Struggling Learner, or one who feels uncertain while learning and perceives learning as a difficult experience. These six characteristics of learning style have also been validated further in a later study by Sproles, Cox, and Sproles (1987), on a sample of over 2,000 high school students throughout Arizona. Thus, the Secondary Learning Styles Inventory appears to have validity and generalizability to large populations of less-educated, younger learners.

Now the measurement of consumer decision-making styles is discussed briefly. A consumer decision-making style is defined as "a mental orientation characterizing a consumer's approach to making consumer choices" (Sproles and Kendall 1986). Relevant literature suggests consumer styles may be characterized by the lifestyle approach, the consumer typology approach, and the consumer characteristic approach (e.g., Bettman 1979; Jacoby and Chestnut 1978; Maynes 1976; Miller 1981; Sproles 1984; Wells 1974; Westbrook and Black 1985).

Based on this literature, Sproles and Kendall (1986) reported the factor analytic validation of a Consumer Styles Inventory measuring eight basic characteristics of consumer decision-making styles: (1) Perfectionistic, High-Quality-Conscious Consumer, a characteristic measuring the degree to which a consumer searches carefully and systematically for the best quality in products; (2) Brand-Conscious, Price-Equals-Quality Consumer, a characteristic measuring a consumer's orientation toward buying the more expensive, well-known national brands; (3) Novelty- and Fashion-Conscious Consumer, a characteristic identifying consumers who appear to like new and innovative products and gain excitement from seeking out new things; (4) Recreational and Shopping-Conscious Consumer, a characteristic measuring the extent to which a consumer finds shopping a pleasant activity and shops just for the fun of it; (5) Price-Conscious, Value-for-Money Consumer, a characteristic identifying a consumer with particularly high consciousness of sale prices and lower prices in general; (6) Impulsive, Careless Consumer, a trait identifying one who tends to buy at the spur of the moment and to appear unconcerned about how much he or she spends (or getting "best buys"); (7) Confused by Overchoice Consumer, a person perceiving too many brands and stores from which to choose and who likely experiences information overload in the market; and (8) Habitual, Brand-Loyal Consumer, a characteristic indicating a consumer who repetitively chooses the same favorite brands and stores.


The Secondary Learning Styles Inventory and the Consumer Styles Inventory were administered to all 501 students in 29 secondary home economics classes in five high schools in the Tucson area. The high schools included urban, suburban, and rural locations and represented the socioeconomic and cultural groups in the area. The sample was 81 percent female and 19 percent male. Thirty-three percent were in the ninth grade, 34 percent in the tenth, 24 percent in the eleventh, and 9 percent in the twelfth grade. Half of the subjects were 14-15 years old, and half were 16-18 years old. All questionnaires were edited, and those with incomplete or unlikely responses were deleted, resulting in 482 usable questionnaires.

Using data from the sample of 482 subjects, the learning style characteristics were confirmed by factor analysis. Similarly, consumer decision-making style characteristics were identified by a separate factor analysis. In both factor analyses the principal components method with varimax (orthogonal) rotation of factors and communality estimates of 1.0 were employed. Further details of this methodology and validation of measures are reported in Kendall and Sproles (1986) and Sproles and Kendall (1986).

Factor scores were calculated for each individual for each factor identified in the two factor analyses. The factor scores derived are standardized and uncorrelated, as they are based on orthogonal rotation. Using these factor scores as a data base, three statistical approaches were used to explore the interrelationships between individuals' learning styles and their consumer decision-making styles: (1) Pearson correlation to assess the basic association between each learning style and consumer style characteristic, (2) stepwise multiple regression analysis of each consumer style characteristic as a dependent variable and the six learning style characteristics as independent variables, and (3) a canonical correlation analysis of the eight consumer style versus six learning style characteristics. These analyses provide a complete exploration of univariate and multivariate relationships among the data.


Table 1 presents the statistically significant (p [is less than] .05) univariate correlations of each individual consumer style and learning style characteristic and the multiple R from the multiple regression analysis (right column of Table 1). Given that normalized and uncorrelated variables are used in the regressions, the Pearson correlations of Table 1 are identical to the standardized regression coefficients from multiple regression analysis; thus regression coefficients are not reported separately. Overall, a total of 21 of the 48 learning style and consumer style characteristic pairs had significant relations (less than three would be significant at the .05 level by chance alone). In five of the eight regression analyses, two or more learning style characteristics were significant predictors (p [is less than] .05) of consumer styles. In total, these findings suggest that there are substantial significant interrelationships between consumers' learning and decision-making. These important relationships are described below for each individual consumer style characteristic.

First, the perfectionistic consumer style characteristic is described. Four of six learning style characteristics are significantly related to perfectionistic, quality-conscious consumer behavior. A serious, analytical learning style appears to be correlated most strongly with this characteristic. Also, active learning and observation-centered learning appear positively associated with the perfectionistic consumer characteristic. However, passive and accepting learning are negatively correlated, reinforcing the findings on the other characteristics. These relationships suggest that consumers who are perfectionistic and high-quality-conscious in their behaviors have systematic and involved learning characteristics that enhance their highly goal-oriented behaviors as consumers. These have important implications that are discussed in the conclusions.

Second, the brand-conscious consumer characteristic has a minimal relationship to learning style characteristics. Only the nonadaptive struggling learning characteristic was found to be associated with brand-conscious consumer behavior, and this has only a modest correlation, although it does indicate some broad relationship. This tentatively suggests that some brand-conscious individuals choose this consumer style because they are nonadaptive learners and find choosing known brands an expedient strategy for making consumer choices requiring little thinking and learning.

The novelty- and fashion-conscious consumer characteristic also has important and noticeable associations with specific learning characteristics. Significant positive correlations were found with serious learning, observation-centered learning, and passive, accepting learning. Thus, the novelty- and fashion-conscious consumer is somewhat similar in style to the perfectionistic one, but with the important exception that this person may have a passive and accepting learning characteristic as well. This implies that the novelty- and fashion-conscious consumer may not always be concerned with the implications of buying new and novel products, which could include negative results either in the performance of products or in their social acceptability.

The recreational shopping-conscious consumer's learning style is negatively associated with nonadaptive, struggling learning. Therefore, the recreational shopper appears to have a learning style that favors involvement in and enjoyment of shopping. This can be particularly true for a younger consumer who engages in shopping as a social experience with peers. However, since no other learning characteristic correlates with recreational shopping, it can be questioned whether any serious or systematic learning is actively applied by such a shopper.

The price-value-conscious consumer characteristic is associated positively with five of the six learning style characteristics. Especially notable are the positive associations of this consumer style with active learning and concrete, fact-oriented learning. It would seem that a person who is price and value conscious prefers an active learning process, perhaps by shopping a number of stores and also enjoys the details of learning, which could include learning the characteristics and prices of various products. Thus, the price-value-conscious individual appears to have an involved and comprehensive learning style, well adapted to shopping the market in depth and doing careful comparisons.

The impulsive consumer characteristic has three significant relationships with learning styles. One of these is especially intriguing, the finding that impulsiveness is strongly associated with nonadaptive, struggling learning. This indicates that someone who engages in less planning or information seeking in his or her consumer behavior has difficulty in learning or does not want to be bothered with the learning process. This explanation is further reinforced by the negative correlation between impulsive consumer behavior and the serious, analytical learning characteristic. It could be that some impulsive consumers may actually be "turned off" by or avoid a serious approach to learning.

For the seventh consumer characteristic, confused by overchoice, significant associations with three of the six learning characteristics are found. The confused consumer seems likely to possess the passive, accepting learning characteristic; the concrete, fact-oriented learning characteristic; and the nonadaptive, struggling learning characteristic. These are revealing findings, for they suggest that a consumer becomes confused or "information overloaded" as a result of being overly detail- and fact-oriented in learning style. This person may become mentally overloaded when trying to learn too much about too many different brands or products. Further, the confused consumer appears likely to be a nonadaptive, struggling learner, one who might easily become confused or overwhelmed in a complex multichoice market. Finally, this consumer seems to be passive rather than active in his or her learning style, which contributes to his or her unsureness and confusion in decision-making.

The final feature examined is the habitual, brand-loyal consumer characteristic. Only one learning style characteristic is found to be associated with this consumer characteristic. Habitual behavior appears to be associated with serious learning. This suggests that habitual consumer behavior may come from careful learning experiences that have led to positive outcomes, thus reinforcing this repeated behavior.

Canonical correlation analysis provides another multivariate perspective of consumers' decision-making styles as a function of individual learning styles. Table 2 summarizes results of this analysis and shows the canonical coefficients for the four statistically significant roots. The meanings of each root can be described by examining the items with the highest canonical coefficients in each of the two variable sets. All of the roots are interpretable, and several build an even stronger case for the specific relationships between learning and decision-making just revealed, while also suggesting some subtleties of these associations. Of the four roots, the first two are most important and interpretable. Examining the first root, increasing scores on perfectionistic and price-value-conscious consumer styles appear to be associated with serious, analytical learning and active, practical learning. This relationship is theoretically plausible; perfectionistic (quality-conscious) and value-conscious styles sometimes will be associated with consumer characteristics and both of these would be best facilitated by a serious and active learning style. The second root shows that impulsiveness and confused by overchoice characteristics are associated with passive and nonadaptive, struggling learning. This is also consistent with theory, as it suggests these less functional or thought-oriented styles are associated with learning difficulties and an uninvolved approach to learning.

The third root is less transparent, but it appears to reinforce the relation between a consumer's impulsiveness and struggling learning. In addition, other coefficients of this root suggest a more complex set of learning problems, i.e., avoidance of detailed learning, associated with the impulsive consumer style. Finally, the fourth root links recreational and value-conscious shopping styles positively to active learning and negatively to serious and struggling learning. This root is theoretically consistent, as it associates a fun-conscious and economy-oriented consumer style with an active but less serious approach to learning. This also implies the existence of an approach to the market that is very involved, pleasure-centered, and yet goal-oriented as well. While this may not be a fully serious or perfectionistic approach, it seems a relatively confident approach, as the negative association with struggling learning suggests.


This exploratory study examines the interrelationships between individual learning styles and specific consumer decision-making styles. Statistically significant relationships are found between 21 of the 48 learning style-consumer style characteristic pairs; this is a substantial number. Previous research has not explored the extent of these interrelationships, but the present study indicates that the major characteristics of consumer decision making have important foundations in individual learning styles. In this concluding section attention focuses on the most important findings and their applications to the fields of consumer education and information.

Perhaps the most important findings with educational implications are the relationships found between perfectionistic, high-quality-conscious consumer decision making and an active and serious approach to learning. These findings imply that consumers seeking the best results (e.g., quality, performance) in their purchases have a particular learning style that employs systematic and careful market search, observation, and learning. Consumer educators often recommend such learning approaches for consumers to achieve their goals, and these findings reinforce the validity of this educational approach.

Novelty- and fashion-conscious consumers also have a particular learning style, one that has implications for consumer education directed toward this type of consumer. Note that their learning style is similar to persons who are perfectionistic, with the major exception that the novelty-conscious consumer is likely to be a passive learner. The novelty-conscious consumer may sometimes be passive in the sense of willingly accepting new things with little concern for outcomes and may not consider the implications of these actions. Since novelty and fashion products are sometimes risky and unproven consumer choices, it may be necessary to educate such consumers to the potential negative consequences of their "passive and accepting" approach to novel products. Passive and accepting learning always has the potential of leading to negative consequences, and this is a negative aspect to being novelty- and fashion-conscious in consumer behavior.

Those consumers who have high recreational shopping consciousness appear to have a far different learning style with important educational implications. Here little relationship to the more "thought-oriented" characteristics of learning (e.g., serious and concrete learning characteristics) is found. The recreational shopper is seeking fun and thrills, to be sure, but should also be aware that this strategy seems to de-emphasize careful and rational learning. However, it is also noted that those individuals who emphasize recreational shopping consciousness are probably not struggling learners. Thus, they may apply some learning to their decision making but likely less than consumer educators believe leads to the desired goals of the consumer.

With respect to the price-value-conscious consumer, an integrated and comprehensive combination of learning style characteristics appears to be present. The price-value-conscious consumer seems to have many potentially constructive learning behaviors, which should not be surprising given that price-value-consciousness involves serious comparison shopping and learning of alternatives. This consumer clearly brings a variety of learning styles to the decision-making process.

Perhaps the biggest learning problems found in this research are among those who are impulsive and confused by overchoice. For those two characteristics, important associations with nonadaptive, struggling learning were found. Thus, consumers who are impulsive or confused by overchoice may have learning difficulties that make them special targets for consumer education. For these consumers, education about more serious and analytical learning as well as observation-centered learning is indicated. However, educators should also note that encouraging a concrete and fact-oriented learning style may actually cause some of these consumers to be confused. Thus, overly serious concrete and fact-oriented learning can actually be dysfunctional to such consumers.

Finally, consider the educational implications related to the brand-conscious and habitual, brand-loyal consumer characteristics. Although some findings were significant, these are the most equivocal of this research. This is probably because younger consumers (the subjects of this study) have had little time to form lasting habits or brand loyalties. The findings suggest that brand consciousness may be related to nonadaptive learning, and for such consumers, being conscious of brands simply is an escape mechanism to avoid learning. If so, this finding suggests a problem for consumer educators. However, in contrast, habitual consumer behavior has a significant relationship to a potentially helpful learning style characteristic: serious, analytical learning. Though these findings are tentative, they imply that consumers who are habitual and brand-loyal may be using some careful learning strategies and may have formed their habits from past learning that led to positive outcomes with specific brands or stores. For such consumers, habitual behavior is a very functional consumer style.

In conclusion, this research has implied that consumer decision making is a function of the particular learning style a consumer pursues. In fact, there may be a direct causal relationship between general learning styles and the specific consumer decision-making styles people follow. However, it is important to point out that a cause-effect relationship has not been proven in this research. What this exploratory research has accomplished is the identification of likely associations between learning and consumer decision making. It is important for consumer researchers to continue these types of investigations, for although a relationship is assumed here, research has not previously linked learning to decision making. In particular, studies of the specific learning styles applied to specific purchases (such as automobiles, appliances, fashions, and foods) would be very appropriate. Such studies could focus on the types of learning used, the depth of information processing, and other cognitive or affective aspects of the learning style leading to the final decision. Thus, this study is one step toward formally delineating the associations of human learning and consumer decision making, but it is one of many steps that must be taken before those relationships and their causal nature are understood.


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Elizabeth Kendall Sproles is an Associate Professor and George B. Sproles is a Professor in the School of Family and Consumer Resources at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.
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Author:Sproles, Elizabeth Kendall; Sproles, George B.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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