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Consumer Psychology

What the consumer wants, What consumer psychologists know

The study of the behavior of consumers of goods and services regarding their buying patterns and reactions to advertising and marketing.

Consumer psychology seeks to explain human, or consumer behavior, in two basic ways: what the consumer wants and what the consumer needs. The logical explanation for fulfilling the needs is a simple one. If a person lives in New York, that person needs a winter coat to survive the cold outside. But why the person buys a particular style or color hinges on the more complex issues of why a particular choice is made. The Society for Consumer Psychology is a division of the American Psychological Association (APA). The group's main focus is conducting scientific research, development and practice in the field. Its quarterly journal, Journal of Consumer Psychology as well as another publication, Journal of Consumer Research and Psychology and Marketing, periodically serves as the voice of those engaged in the understanding of why people buy what they buy.

What the consumer wants

The key to unlocking consumer psychology is understanding that desires rule over needs when it comes to consumer purchase. In a modern world with hundreds of brands of toothpaste, where new food products and electronic gadgets emerge daily, it is the interest of psychologists, as well as those marketing the products, to understand the relationship between financial and psychological factors that make people buy what they buy. In fact, consumer psychology utilizes more than simply psychology. It must study economics and culture too. Accordingly, there are several principles at play when examining this issue.

Psychology views certain factors that include: 1) The Gestalt principle. If you want to know why a particular restaurant is popular, it is important to understand what cultural implications are present beside the food; 2) The Iceberg principle. What could be the superficial or seemingly rational reason a person might have for making a purchase (the need)? What other factors (wants) influence it? For instance, even if shoes are purchased as foot protection, the desired shoe may be open-toed, strapless, and come with six-inch heels; 3) The Dynamic principle.

Consumer psychology studies issues like why the need for transportation is coupled with the want for a luxury vehicle, like this BMW. (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced with permission.)

People and their motivations constantly change, whether influenced by social, economic, or psychological factors. The millionaire who grew up in dire poverty might still buy the cheapest margarine because the psychological motivation takes time to catch up to the economic status; and 4) Image and Symbolism. From product spokespersons to the picture on a candy bar wrapper, the ever-elusive association people make with a product might be a big factor in whether or not they buy it, more than the nature or quality of the product itself.

What consumer psychologists know

In 1957, a writer named Vance Packard started a minor revolution with his book, The Hidden Persuader. Packard uncovered the manipulations of the advertising community, done to ensure a certain brand of a product becomes a best-selling item. He urged consumers to be cautious and not fall prey to hidden meanings or symbols in advertising, and pointed out less-than-honest representations of what a product could do for the buyer. The book was popular, and people started looking for the subtle messages in everything from liquor ads to spaghetti packages. What they also did, and often, is buy the product anyway. Their awareness did not necessarily combat their emotional needs.

Psychologists understand that in the burgeoning economy of the early twenty-first century people's needs and wants are continually growing too. In the 1970s and early 1980s, household items such as computers and video recorders were new, and counted as luxuries. By 1999, by virtue of a changing society, those items had become more than simple luxuries, as schools and businesses often came to require their use. Complex human behavior can take one invention and create a hierarchy of needs around it. Whereas economists or marketing strategists might look to numbers—wages or interest levels—psychologists know that something more motivates the consumer purchase trends. They have discovered that often in the most depressed economic times, the sales of luxury items go up.

Consumer psychology is a pursuit that is likely to expand now that an estimated $5 billion worth of products were purchased online by the spring of 2000. Online shopping habits might differ drastically from catalogue sales or in-store purchases. These trends are just beginning to be studied, and certainly consumer psychologists will be studying buying habits well into the twenty-first century.

Jane Spear

Further Reading

Asker, Jennifer L. "The malleable self: the role of self-expression in persuasion." Journal of Marketing Research, (February 1999).

Bidlake, Suzanne. "Scents of real purpose." Marketing, (October 15, 1992).

Dawar, Niraj. "Product-harm crises and the signaling ability of brands." International Studies of management & Organization, (Fall 1998).

Dichter, E. "Consumer Psychology." In Encyclopedia of Psychology, Second Edition. Ray Corsini, ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons 1994.

Krugman, Herbert E. "Pavlov's dog and the future of consumer psychology." Journal of Advertising Research, (Nov-Dec 1994).

LaFreniere, Andrea. "Buyer psychology, consumer confidence: how to post sales in today's marketplace (housing market)." Professional Builder and Remodeler, (May 1,1991).

McKenna, Joseph F. "Brand management: just do it." Industry Week, (March 20, 1995).

Further Information

Society for Consumer Psychology of the American Psychological Association. c/o 313 Commerce West Building, 1206 South 6th Street, Champaign, IL, USA. 61820, (217) 333-4550.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage