Buyer decision processes are the decision making processes undertaken by consumers in regard to a potential market transaction before, during, and after the purchase of a product or service.
More generally, decision making is the cognitive process of selecting a course of action from among multiple alternatives. Common examples include shopping, deciding what to eat. Decision making is said to be a psychological construct. This means that although we can never "see" a decision, we can infer from observable behaviour that a decision has been made. Therefore we conclude that a psychological event that we call "decision making" has occurred. It is a construction that imputes commitment to action. That is, based on observable actions, we assume that people have made a commitment to effect the action.
In general there are three ways of analysing consumer buying decisions. They are:
- Economic models - These models are largely quantitative and are based on the assumptions of rationality and near perfect knowledge. The consumer is seen to maximize their utility. See consumer theory. Game theory can also be used in some circumstances.
- Psychological models - These models concentrate on psychological and cognitive processes such as motivation and need reduction. They are qualitative rather than quantitative and build on sociological factors like cultural influences and family influences.
- Consumer behaviour models - These are practical models used by marketers. They typically blend both economic and psychological models.
Nobel laureate Herbert Simon sees economic decision making as a vain attempt to be rational. He claims (in 1947 and 1957) that if a complete analysis is to be done, a decision will be immensely complex. He also says that peoples' information processing ability is very limited. The assumption of a perfectly rational economic actor is unrealistic. Often we are influenced by emotional and non-rational considerations. When we try to be rational we are at best only partially successful.
Models of buyer decision making
In an early study of the buyer decision process literature, Frank Nicosia (Nicosia, F. 1966; pp 9-21) identified three types of buyer decision making models. They are the univariate model (He called it the "simple scheme".) in which only one behavioural determinant was allowed in a stimulus-response type of relationship; the multi-variate model (He called it a "reduced form scheme".) in which numerous independent variables were assumed to determine buyer behaviour; and finally the system of equations model (He called it a "structural scheme" or "process scheme".) in which numerous functional relations (either univariate or multi-variate) interact in a complex system of equations. He concluded that only this third type of model is capable of expressing the complexity of buyer decision processes. In chapter 7, Nicosia builds a comprehensive model involving five modules. The encoding module includes determinants like "attributes of the brand", "environmental factors", "consumer's attributes", "attributes of the organization", and "attributes of the message". Other modules in the system include, consumer decoding, search and evaluation, decision, and consumption.
A general model of the buyer decision process consists of the following steps:
- Want recognition;
- Search of information on products that could satisfy the needs of the buyer;
- Alternative selection;
- Decision-making on buying the product;
- Post-purchase behavior.
There are a range of alternative models, but that of AIUAPR, which most directly links to the steps in the marketing/promotional process is often seen as the most generally useful;
- AWARENESS - before anything else can happen the potential customers must become aware that the product or service exists. Thus, the first task must be to gain the attention of the target audience. All the different models are, predictably, agreed on this first step. If the audience never hears the message they will not act on it, no matter how powerful it is.
- INTEREST - but it is not sufficient to grab their attention. The message must interest them and persuade them that the product or service is relevant to their needs. The content of the message(s) must therefore be meaningful and clearly relevant to that target audience's needs, and this is where marketing research can come into its own.
- UNDERSTANDING - once an interest is established, the prospective customer must be able to appreciate how well the offering may meet his or her needs, again as revealed by the marketing research. This may be no mean achievement where the copywriter has just fifty words, or ten seconds, to convey everything there is to say about it.
- ATTITUDES - but the message must go even further; to persuade the reader to adopt a sufficiently positive attitude towards the product or service that he or she will purchase it, albeit as a trial. There is no adequate way of describing how this may be achieved. It is simply down to the magic of the copywriters art; based on the strength of the product or service itself.
- PURCHASE - all the above stages might happen in a few minutes while the reader is considering the advertisement; in the comfort of his or her favourite armchair. The final buying decision, on the other hand, may take place some time later; perhaps weeks later, when the prospective buyer actually tries to find a shop which stocks the product.
- REPEAT PURCHASE - but in most cases this first purchase is best viewed as just a trial purchase. Only if the experience is a success for the customer will it be turned into repeat purchases. These repeats, not the single purchase which is the focus of most models, are where the vendors focus should be, for these are where the profits are generated. The earlier stages are merely a very necessary prerequisite for this!
This is a very simple model, and as such does apply quite generally. Its lessons are that you cannot obtain repeat purchasing without going through the stages of building awareness and then obtaining trial use; which has to be successful. It is a pattern which applies to all repeat purchase products and services; industrial goods just as much as baked beans. This simple theory is rarely taken any further - to look at the series of transactions which such repeat purchasing implies. The consumer's growing experience over a number of such transactions is often the determining factor in the later - and future - purchases. All the succeeding transactions are, thus, interdependent - and the overall decision-making process may accordingly be much more complex than most models allow for. 
Decision making style
According to I. B. Myers, a person's decision making process depends to a significant degree on their cognitive style. A study was performed to explore how different cognitive styles affect the decisions of people. Subjects were classified into two different cognitive styles, type A and type B, and were to engage in a task that involved making decisions (Cheng 39). The analysis in Cheng’s study shows that type A personalities, with a mean score 6,627, performed significantly better than people with type B personalities, with a mean score of 4,446 in making decisions for this task (56-57). This shows that a person’s decision making process depends upon their cognitive style. The relationship between decision style and the behavior of decision makers identifies an individual’s decision making style.
Determining Decision Making Style through the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
Starting from the work of Carl Jung, Myers developed the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test designed to identify a person’s preferences using a set of four bi-polar dimensions. The MBTI is tested to be accurate in determining people’s personality types. It exceeds 70% accuracy when determining a person’s personality dimensions (Gardner 46-50). The eight preferences on these dimensions are: thinking and feeling; extraversion and introversion; judgment and perception; and sensing and intuition. In its basic form, the test consists of a series of forced-choice questions that represent behavioral preferences (e.g., At a party I like to: [A] tell jokes to others, or [B] listen to others) and preferred self-descriptive adjectives (e.g., [A] daring or [B] cautious). The results are tabulated to indicate the preferences for each of the four scales, Extroversion-Introversion (EI), Sensing-Intuition (SN), Thinking-Feeling (TF), and Judgment-Perception (JP) (Pittenger 470). A person’s personality type helps determine their decision making style.
A person’s decision making style is based largely on how they score on the four dimensions of the MBTI. For example, an experiment by Henderson determined how decision style influenced the likelihood of people adopting children with a perception of risk (381). Different types of people’s personalities, received from the MBTI, were tested; SF’s (Sensation-Feeling) were most likely to adopt with 70% who saw very little risk, and 58% of ST’s (Sensation-Thinking) were least likely to adopt, who saw more of a risk. The amount of risk involved in adoption was influential in different personality decision making; 54% of SF’s would adopt at a high risk for complications while only 37% of ST’s would adopt (Henderson 382). People with different personalities and cognitive styles make different decisions which can be determined using the MBTI.
People use all eight personality types of the MBTI, but only one from each of the four basic preferences is generally favored. Someone that scored near the extroversion, sensing, thinking, and judgment end of the dimensions would tend to have a logical, analytical, objective, critical, and empirical decision making style. The combination of these four preferences results in the psychological type (in this example E-S-T-J). Extroversion is the preference that relates to drawing energy from outside oneself in the external world of peers, activities, and things (Kennedy 39). Sensing is the preference for paying attention to information that is perceived directly through the five senses and focusing on what actually exists. Thinking relates to organizing and structuring information to decide in a logical and objective way. Judgment relates to living a planned and organized life (Kennedy 39). How a person scores on the four personality scales determines their decision making style.
Using the MBTI people can predetermine how others will make decisions by determining their personalities. Over three million people a year complete the MBTI and nearly 40% of major corporations use this for team building, hiring and management development (Gardner 45). The MBTI helps many people, including managers and marketers determine employees and buyers personalities and decision making styles to make the best outcome for their business.
Validation Testing of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
To test the reliability of the MBTI many test-retest procedures have been done. According to Marcia Carlyn, the MBTI has been proven to be accurate by having the same person retake the test after a period of time and end up with the same personality dimensions 70% of the time (465). In 1996 J.A. Wright studied 94 elementary school teachers who were retested six years after they had originally taken the MBTI, 61% of them remained in the same category in all four dimensions. In each category, 83% of E-I types, 89% of S-N types, 90% of T-F types, and 90% of J-P types had no change (Carlyn 467).
A study of content validity in the MBTI was performed by Bradway in 1964; he tested 28 people who studied Jung’s theory (Carlyn 487). The Jungian analysts classified themselves in each category as either an E-I, S-N, and T-F. Then they were given the MBTI and compared their self-typing and the actual MBTI typing; 100% of their own thought and the MBTI agreed on E-I classification, 68% agreed on S-N classification, 61% agreed on the T-F classification, and 43% agreed on all three dimensions (Carlyn 468).
Group Decision Making Process
Group composition creates better decision making skills with different personalities working together. In a study by Volkema, groups were composed on the basis of cognitive style, some groups had one type of dimension from the MBTI (S-J’s) and other groups had multiple dimensions (a mix of N-T, N-F, S-J, S-P) (112). In order to analyze their decision making styles each group was hypothetically placed in a life-threatening situation and had to rank a list of 15 items in order of importance. Each person ranked the items individually and then with their group. Comparing each score with the correct survival ranking score determined how people’s decision making was affected in groups. The average group score was 7.6 points better than the average individual score. The average score for groups with multiple personalities was 10.8 points better and for groups with the same personality dimensions was 4.4 points better than individuals (Volkema 114-16). Working in groups with a variety of people composed of multiple personalities and cognitive styles, often produces a better outcome in decision making rather than individually.
Cognitive and personal biases in decision making
It is generally agreed that biases can creep into our decision making processes, calling into question the correctness of a decision. Below is a list of some of the more common cognitive biases.
- Selective search for evidence - We tend to be willing to gather facts that support certain conclusions but disregard other facts that support different conclusions.
- Premature termination of search for evidence - We tend to accept the first alternative that looks like it might work.
- Conservatism and inertia - Unwillingness to change thought patterns that we have used in the past in the face of new circumstances.
- Experiential limitations - Unwillingness or inability to look beyond the scope of our past experiences; rejection of the unfamiliar.
- Selective perception - We actively screen-out information that we do not think is salient.
- Wishful thinking or optimism - We tend to want to see things in a positive light and this can distort our perception and thinking.
- Recency - We tend to place more attention on more recent information and either ignore or forget more distant information.
- Repetition bias - A willingness to believe what we have been told most often and by the greatest number of different of sources.
- Anchoring - Decisions are unduly influenced by initial information that shapes our view of subsequent information.
- Group think - Peer pressure to conform to the opinions held by the group.
- Source credibility bias - We reject something if we have a bias against the person, organization, or group to which the person belongs: We are inclined to accept a statement by someone we like.
- Incremental decision making and escalating commitment - We look at a decision as a small step in a process and this tends to perpetuate a series of similar decisions. This can be contrasted with zero-based decision making.
- Inconsistency - The unwillingness to apply the same decision criteria in similar situations.
- Attribution asymmetry - We tend to attribute our success to our abilities and talents, but we attribute our failures to bad luck and external factors. We attribute other's success to good luck, and their failures to their mistakes.
- Role fulfilment - We conform to the decision making expectations that others have of someone in our position.
- Underestimating uncertainty and the illusion of control - We tend to underestimate future uncertainty because we tend to believe we have more control over events than we really do.
- Faulty generalizations - In order to simplify an extremely complex world, we tend to group things and people. These simplifying generalizations can bias decision making processes.
- Ascription of causality - We tend to ascribe causation even when the evidence only suggests correlation. Just because birds fly to the equatorial regions when the trees lose their leaves, does not mean that the birds migrate because the trees lose their leaves.
- Carlyn, Marcia. “An Assessment of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.” Journal of Personality Assessment. 41.5 (1977): 461-73.
- Cheng, Many M., Peter F. Luckett, and Axel K. Schulz. “The Effects of Cogntive Style Diversity on Decision-Making Dyads: An Empirical Analysis in the Context of a Complex Task.” Behavioral Research in Accounting. 15 (2003): 39-62.
- Gardner, William L., and Mark J. Martinko. “Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to Study Managers: A Literature Review and Research Agenda.” Journal of Mangement. 22.1 (1996): 45-83.
- Henderson, John C., and Paul C. Nutt. “Influence of Decision Style on Decision Making Behavior.” Management Science. 26.4 (1980): 371-386.
- Kennedy, Bryan R., and Ashely D. Kennedy. “Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in Career Counseling.” Journal of Employment Counseling. 41.1 (2004): 38-44.
- Myers, I. (1962) Introduction to Type: A description of the theory and applications of the Myers-Briggs type indicator, Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto Ca., 1962.
- Nicosia, F. (1966) Consumer Decision Processes, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1966.
- Pittenger, David J. “The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.” Review of Educational Research. 63:4 (1993): 467-488.
- Simon, H. (1947) Administrative behaviour, Macmillan, New York, 1947, (also 2nd edition 1957).
- Volkema, Roger J., and Ronald H. Gorman. "The Influence of Cognitive-Based Group Composition on Decision-Making Process and Outcome." Journal of Management Studies. 35.1 (1998): 105-121.
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