The Irrationality of Rational Consumer Behaviour

Individual = Collective

When it comes to consumption, we believe me make rational choices. Buying bio food without palm oils and not falling into the trap of ‘buy 2 get 1 for free’ offers. We fail to understand that, here too, individuality is a total illusion: the individual won’t make it far, neither in career related matters nor in consumption choices of all kinds – food, clothes, holidays etc.

Although the dominant cultural model of the 21st century modern society is individualism, it is, in reality, a collective development. It is not an individual, dissociated choice but rather a collective, almost global trend that gave way for more individuals to follow. It is less rebellious than we think (or hope) it was.

Behaviour Influences in 5 Acts

In order to understand this issue better, I looked into the depths of social psychological models of consumer behaviour and Tim Jackson’s excellent book about Motivation of Sustainable Consumption.

Jackson points out the long history of the development of behaviour models: from rational to irrationally complex behaviour theories. From somewhat predictable to ‘it is really not that simple’. And from internal (rational) to external (social norms) to integrative (a combination of it all) models.

With freedom (of choice) comes complexity.

Tim Jackson

The key question here is: What influences are our consumption choices subject to and how do we motivate behaviour change towards environmentally-friendly alternatives?

Act 1: Functionality & Identity

Consumption is a rather complex interplay of functionalityidentity formation and maintenance. On the one hand, it satisfies needs for food, housing and leisure activities. On the other hand, it plays a highly symbolic role in our lives. It expresses social cohesion, status, personal and cultural meaning making – a satisfaction of desires, tastes and preferences that are, above all, flexible and reliable on the context and therefore subject to constant change.

How does this influence our behaviours and how socially driven are our behaviours in reality?

Act 2: Society & Ideals

Beyond the common understanding that material goods are a representation of social status, Jackson highlights that they do similarly serve as ‘bridges to our displaced ideals’. They exemplify the expectations and aspirations we have towards our future and who we believe we deserve to be (and what to have). We get closer to these ideals by choosing what to consume now, which car to drive now and where we spend our holidays next month, for example. This has very little to do with a total rational choice and increasingly to do with what social norms and standards surround us.

Some theories even go as far as to advocate that not only our attitudes and actions but even our concept of self is socially created. As we are talking about a very complex issue it thus does require a multi-layer and more diversified perspective to take other factors into account.

Act 3: Habit & Affect

The integrative model that I like to present at this point is the Theory of Interpersonal Behaviour by Triandis elaborated in 1977. It integrates the influence of habit and affect on our behaviours besides the already mentioned factors of functionality, identity, social norms and ‘bridges’.

Habits actually serve to make our lives easier by saving cognitive efforts and engaging in automatic activities. Imagine you had to elaborate on questions such as if your choice was socially correct, stimulating healthy and responsible consumption while being totally within your budget – every time you went shopping. We do that once for every new choice and from then rather save time and energy to worry about other things.

Although rationally aware of the many ‘shoulds’, we still at times buy chips instead of veggie sticks, a mostly affective choice. Beware of strong values and attitudes as they could come into the way of affect. If your beliefs and your created concept of self (‘I am a responsible and healthy eater’) are more dominant than your affect, veggie sticks will win. And if you, out of habit, directly rush towards the veggie sticks as soon as you enter the supermarket, your habit is aligned with your intention, beliefs and values (‘eating consciously is good for the environment‘).

If, though, just one of the mentioned features are not as portrayed, you might experience an internal battle (just think about someone that intends to quit smoking).

Act 4: Accessibility

Another instance of consumer behaviour is accessibility, in our example of veggie sticks. If no supermarket (or ‘Späti‘) is around or closed then this last external factor simply destroys all intention, values and habits. It is the ‘Endgegner‘ (can be translated with ‘the final opponent’) of choice! 

Accessibility is fundamental for choice.

Those who have invented the Späti-System in Berlin (small shops that are open all night), are geniuses – Endgegner battle is won, consumer happy – even though your choices are drastically minimized.

Final Act: Context

One interesting element of the integrative consumption model still remains to be discussed: behaviour that changes when the context changes. Let’s go back to the example: If nothing else but chips were available at the Späti and you had nowhere else to go while, imagine being pregnant and craving, you might happily go for the chips. If that craving was true for your best friend and she specifically requested chips, you would also (more or less) happily reach for the chips. If you were 14 again and did not worry about any consequences for your own or the planet’s health, that same choice might apply. Or, if the newest trend amongst your peers is to eat chips after Tuesday’s Hot Yoga session, you may adapt to the group, too.

As you can see, it really is not that simple. Especially far from simple to predict or control someone’s behaviour. A well-known proverb could be adjusted to help setting the following rule-of-thumb: 

Show me the 5 people that surround you and I know your irrational consumption choices.

Outro: Integrity is Key

What could be motivators that encourages consumers to make sustainable choices then? I suggest the following: Clear intention stemming from reflected on and deeply rooted beliefs backed up by strong, life-supporting values of respect, preservation and care – not only for oneself and our closest circle of humans but also for all human and non-human creatures that yield the rich and diverse ecosystem of our planet Earth. If for a long enough time you consistently create a habit out of this intention against the odds of consumer affection and differing ideals which the society around you has generated, your consumption choices are perfectly aligned in present AND future situations.

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

C.S. Lewis

To remember is the following: Consumption choices can be of small (veggie sticks vs. chips) or large scale (voting for the green party vs. the car or oil companies lobbied one). What does count for both is that they always have a direct and indirect impact: first on our personal well-being, then the collective well-being and last but not least on our planet’s well-being.

We cannot change it all at once or save the world all by ourself but we can start to question choices (the normal’s) we have made a long time ago, critically contemplate the production and supply chain of products, gain knowledge and then make a well-informed and conscious decision.

How will you chose next time?


Source: Jackson, T. (2005). Motivating Sustainable Consumption: A Review of Evidence on Consumer Behaviour and Behavioural Change. Guildford: University of Surrey.

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