reasoned response vs classical conditioning

thinking process

A conversation around a recent post on medium vs. message reminded me of another debate that arouses strong opinion: reasoned response vs classical conditioning.

It’s a fascinating question: do we absorb advertising messages and subsequently respond to them in a reasoned manner, or are our responses more subliminal?

This question has significant importance, because it relates to the broader issue of whether advertising’s purpose is simply to influence people’s attitudes, or whether we expect it to drive behaviour more directly.

Let’s examine the two sides of the argument.

Reasoned Response

reasoned response

The Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) was originally proposed by behavioural psychologists Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen in 1975. They asserted that people’s behaviour results from a series of mental processes, and that our actions are cognitive responses to our inner desires, the context in which we become aware of those desires, and the associated societal norms.

In simple terms, the TRA proposes that people evaluate a variety of influences before deciding how to behave.

From this perspective, TRA incorporates elements of  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In his seminal study, A Theory of Human Needs, Maslow asserted that people’s behaviour is guided by a predetermined hierarchy of physical and emotional needs:

maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow suggested that people only attempt to satisfy higher-order needs once needs lower down the hierarchy have been met. I’d contend that a reasonable level of confidence that these lower order needs can or will be satisfied is sufficient for the person to focus on higher-order needs.

So, for example, in a situation where someone is literally dying of thirst, the ‘physiological‘ need is dominant – that person will drink whatever they can find. However, when it comes to having a relaxed, social drink in a bar, ‘love and belonging‘ and ‘self-esteem‘ needs take precedence, and the decision-making process changes.

If we extend this theory to brand communications, we can infer that advertising’s role is to stimulate reasoned behaviour by influencing people’s attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions.

Classical Conditioning

pavlov's dog

An alternative school of thought suggests that at least some of our behaviour is involuntary – a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to external stimuli.

It builds on a ground-breaking piece of research by Ivan Pavolv. By repeatedly ringing a bell shortly before feeding his dogs, Pavolv noted that, after a while, he could induce them to salivate purely by ringing the bell; the dogs had been ‘conditioned’ to associate the ringing of the bell with the imminent arrival of food.

Some advertisers have taken Pavlov’s findings to mean that we can ‘train’ people to respond directly to advertising stimuli, and so ‘control’ their behaviour. While such a hypothesis may appear extreme, Pavolv’s findings do suggest that such ‘involuntary’ responses are plausible.

However, a more reasonable interpretation of Pavlov’s findings can be found in the principles underlying effective frequency.

What’s the consensus?

Psychologists still can’t agree which side has more validity, as this recent post from Matthew Taylor illustrates.

From an advertising perspective, my personal belief is that Reasoned Response is a more sustainable approach to establishing and nurturing relationships. However, I recognise that others put more faith in the Classical Conditioning model.

What do you think? Let me know by voting in the poll below:


5 Responses to “reasoned response vs classical conditioning”

  1. 1 Karen September 30, 2009 at 19:24

    Thanks for reminding me of all the communication theories i learnt at school…i think i shd look up my books before voting…

  2. 2 John Barton September 30, 2009 at 19:55

    Thanks for the interesting post. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. A book that may be of interest to you is “Essence of Decision.” It’s an older text book that takes a close look at the very serious decisions made by Kennedy and Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book is views the crisis from 3 decision making points of view: Rational Actor (like Reasoned Response), Organizational and Political. One of the points of the book is that people are only sometimes “rational actors” who look at the options available and make an informed, rational decision. Other factors often have an influence. Another point I thought it made, was that analyzing a decision from just one model’s point of view is not sufficient, but using all three can give you insights and perhaps better understanding of the situation. Granted making a decision about what drink you will have is different from nuclear brinkmanship, but I think the brain works similarity, regardless of the situation. Here is a Wikipedia link with more information on the book:

  3. 3 phil October 3, 2009 at 20:05

    Interesting post, Eskimon. Very interesting.

    If I were to summarize your question/poll: Are we rational when we buy or are we conditioned to certain stimuli when we buy?

    I say, it’s difficult to boil down the buying process into an either/or question: when one wants to buy a car, for example, one wants to get as many info about the car as possible. But when one treks towards the store – and is at the dealership, we become more irrational. Colors, brands, promises (e.g., promos, freebies), salesperson’s pitch and personality, the quality of the service… all these add up. We may end up buying the car we had in mind – or not.

    Just because we’ve had a rational thinking process guarantees that at the point of purchase, we will remain rational. The last mile towards the purchase still matters – and perhaps, it could be far more important than what we think in advertising.

    People decide on heuristics – we think in shortcuts. The theory of reasoned action – I believe – accepts the presence of heuristics: In its original form, TRA talks of the ease of making the decision (the risk-reward) and the subjective norms (i.e., how others think about the decision “I am about to make”). Affecting both are “attitudes” – long-held beliefs, perceptions (positive or negative), and preconceptions – all of which help humans process information. In other words, heuristics.

    Now why talk about heuristics? Because once we talk about heuristics, “rational” becomes muddled. “How can one be rational if one relies on shortcuts, preconceived notions, and pre-learned beliefs/behaviors?” A rational person will have to rely on tabula rasa – a clean slate that considers all potential possibilities.

    So are we then ‘conditioned’?

    We are if we want to think of people as mere replicates of Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s pigeons. That when we advertise a really cold bottle or can of Coke in the middle of summer, everyone and all who see the ad goes to the store and gets themselves a Coke.

    What then?

    I tend to think that yes, we are rational – but in a very special way. We rely on experience – our own and of others’. We rely on short-cuts, that even when we want to say we are rational, we’re not purely rational. We can be swayed. We can be moved. And decisions can change in the blink an eye – in spite of having thought through things very carefully.

    Yet at the same time, I don’t think we “conditioned” – that if we see an ad, we immediately want one and buy one.


    As an aside: If I recall correctly, TRA tried to explain the bridge between attitudes and behavior. But (again, if memory serves me right), the framework holds – from attitudes (subjective norms and ease of implementation) down to formation of new attitudes that can be called “purchase intention” or “intent to act”. BUT does the intention become a reality? Not always.

    In my research when I was finishing up my uni days using Ajzen/Fishbein’s TRA, we found significant similarities between two groups of people in terms of attitudes towards an action. We also found NO differences between the ‘intent’ to do the action. But we were studying juvenile delinquents and non-delinquents.

    Attitudinally, they were similar. Intent-wise, they were similar (in the simulated cases that we gave them). The way they think and judge certain scenarios, there were no differences.

    But they were two significantly different groups.

    Attitude change does not necessarily and immediately lead to change in behaviors.

  4. 4 eskimon October 5, 2009 at 20:42

    John, Phil – thanks very much for sharing these thoughts.

    I agree with your sentiments – people are so complex that even if we were ever to fully understand motivations, people would start to behave counter to our understanding simply to demonstrate their will.

    The purpose of forcing the either / or stance was to provoke this very debate, and I think your comments are very useful.

  1. 1 advertising and sales « eskimon Trackback on October 6, 2009 at 11:56

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Other Distractions


%d bloggers like this: