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"Effects of Functional Illiteracy on Consumer Behavior: The Dark Side of Consumer Decision-Making (Revised)"

Madhu Viswanathan and James Harris


First Author :

Madhu Viswanathan
Business Administration
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1206 S. Sixth Street, M/C 706
Champaign, IL 61820

Second Author :

James Harris

Abstract :
Skills associated with functional literacy carry important implications for consumers. Yet, past research on functionally illiterate consumers is almost non-existent. In this study, a variety of methods, such as in-depth interviews and observations in a shopping environment of students enrolled at an adult education center, were used to understand functionally illiterate consumers. The findings suggest a high degree of concrete thinking exemplified by dependence on aural and visual information, use of numbers as concrete information, intuitive processing, lack of planning and emphasis on contextual learning, as well as dependence on others and maintenance of self-esteem in service encounters. Behavioral outcomes observed include perceptual decision-making, and high loyalty to retail outlets. These themes were accentuated at lower levels of functional literacy, where extreme dependence on others and the use of rudimentary defensive practices to avoid negative experiences were common. These data suggest a model of decision-making with little effort spent on evaluation of alternatives and most effort spent on perceptual-level processes such as locating a product and reading price information. Interviews of comparison groups of functionally literate poor consumers and consumers with English as a second language provided similarities and contrasts that isolate the effects of functional illiteracy on consumer behavior. The results were interpreted theoretically within the framework of the Elaboration Likelihood Model. This research raises questions about the almost constant assumption in past consumer behavior of a certain level of generic ability that consumers possess. Whereas the model of a cognitive miser has been prevalent in consumer behavior, the model that best describes functionally illiterate consumers is one of a cognitive survivor. Important practical implications for marketers and policy makers are also discussed.
Manuscript Received : 2001
Manuscript Published : 2001
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