Consumer psychology, the study of psychological processes intertwined with the adoption, utilization, and disposal of products, services, or ideas, is a field of growing significance. Despite its prominence, formal Ph.D. degree programs specifically dedicated to this specialization remain scarce. Individuals venturing into this domain typically pursue a Ph.D. in a foundational discipline like social or experimental psychology, complemented by coursework in marketing and advertising.
Distinguishing practitioners of consumer psychology can be as straightforward as identifying their affiliation with esteemed organizations such as the Society for Consumer Psychology (SCP), a division (Division 23) of the American Psychological Association (APA), or the Association for Consumer Research (ACR). Additionally, their scholarly contributions find homes in publications like the Journal of Consumer Psychology and the Journal of Consumer Research. However, the influence of consumer psychology extends beyond its dedicated journals, with its insights frequently gracing the pages of broader publications like the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Advertising, the Journal of Advertising Research, Psychology and Marketing, the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, and Journal of Applied Psychology, among others.
For those eager to delve into the vibrant realm of current research endeavors, the Proceedings of the Annual SCP Winter Conference and ACR conferences offer windows into ongoing investigations. Additionally, the Handbook of Consumer Research (Robertson & Kassarjian, 1991) stands as a comprehensive resource, featuring extensive chapters that delve into topics germane to consumer psychology, guiding curious minds through the intricate tapestry of this ever-evolving field.
The roots of consumer psychology can be traced back to the early 20th century when psychologists began investigating the cognitive and emotional factors underlying consumer behavior. Over time, the field has evolved, incorporating insights from various branches of psychology, economics, sociology, and marketing. Notable figures like Ernest Dichter and Herbert Simon played pivotal roles in shaping the field, laying the foundation for modern consumer psychology.
Consumer Psychology: An Exploration of Diverse Interests and Methodologies
A thorough examination of publications in consumer psychology unveils a rich tapestry of research interests and methodologies. While a majority of consumer researchers still favor experimental laboratory methods to gain insights into the intricate processes underlying consumer choices, publications also feature case studies, qualitative investigations, and exploratory studies, offering fertile ground for further theoretical development and academic discourse.
Though relatively few psychology departments offer dedicated undergraduate courses in consumer psychology, most business schools incorporate courses on consumer behavior or buyer behavior into their curricula. Textbooks designed for these courses provide comprehensive overviews (Hoyer and McInnis, 1997; Kardes, 1999; Mowen and Minor, 1997).
Consumer psychologists find themselves in diverse professional roles, spanning academia, federal agencies, and the private sector. They serve as academic professors in marketing, advertising, or psychology programs, and they also contribute their expertise to federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and various branches of the military. Beyond government roles, consumer psychologists play essential parts in the research divisions of large marketing and public opinion research organizations, within major corporations, independent think tanks, and consulting firms.
The formalization of consumer psychology as a discipline took shape in the early 1960s with the establishment of the Society for Consumer Psychology, designated as Division 23 within the American Psychological Association (APA). The nascent leadership of this society included psychologists who held prominent positions in the research divisions of major advertising agencies. Businesses recognized the need for psychologists to develop research that could shed light on the psychological processes underpinning consumer preferences. This growing interest was partly driven by the high productivity of U.S. companies in the early 1950s, which led to a proliferation of choices in the marketplace. Prior to this era, demand was so robust that businesses could effortlessly sell their entire inventories, rendering the study of consumer desires and interests before production or advertising a superfluous endeavor.
Psychologists and other behavioral scientists, renowned for their robust training in theory, research methodology, and data analysis, were thus recruited to aid businesses in comprehending and anticipating consumer behaviors. As a result, many of the issues studied by consumer psychologists then and now align closely with major areas of inquiry in psychology as a whole.
A contemporary review of the literature by Jacoby, Johar, and Morrin (1998) categorizes current consumer research into several general areas:
- Sensation and Perception
- Factors Influencing Consumer Attention and Preattentive Processes
- Categorization of Stimuli
- Inference Making, Involving the Development of Beliefs Based on Stimulus Information
- Information Search, Representing Consumer Efforts to Acquire Product and Service Knowledge Before Purchase
- Memory Factors Pertaining to Brands
- Research on the Role of Affect
- Research on Attitude Formation and Change Processes
Consumer psychology, as a dynamic field at the intersection of psychology, marketing, and economics, continues to evolve, reflecting the evolving landscape of consumer behavior and the multifaceted influences that shape it.
Advancements in Consumer Psychology: A Shift Towards Complexity
Consumer psychology research, akin to research in various branches of psychology, has undergone a remarkable evolution in theoretical and methodological sophistication. In its early stages, research and theories often pursued the elusive “one true process” to explain observed effects. In contrast, contemporary research and theory delve into the intricate interplay of situational factors and individual differences, recognizing that similar outcomes may result from distinct processes influenced by various factors.
For instance, one frequently employed theory in consumer psychology, particularly in studies related to attitude change, is the elaboration likelihood model (ELM), as proposed by Petty and Cacioppo in 1986. The ELM posits two primary routes to attitude change: the central route and the peripheral route. Those following the central route meticulously assess and evaluate information when forming their attitudes towards a product, while individuals on the peripheral route may develop equally positive attitudes based on simpler associations within the message, such as the attractiveness of the message source. Crucially, the ELM identifies an array of situational and individual difference factors that modulate the path to persuasion. For instance, high levels of personal relevance typically steer individuals towards central route processes, whereas low relevance increases the likelihood of attitudes being shaped via the peripheral route. Significantly, research indicates that the extent of contemplation about product attributes during attitude formation correlates with attitude strength—an attribute’s ability to remain positive over time, resist change when challenged, and forecast behavior (Petty, Haugtvedt, & Smith, 1995). The ELM, alongside related theoretical frameworks, currently serves as a valuable compass for addressing research inquiries in both fundamental and applied consumer psychology.
Consumer psychologists, tracing their roots as consultants to businesses, have consistently championed the judicious application of theory and methodology in research. Beyond their commitment to aiding businesses in delivering products closely aligned with consumer needs and desires—beneficial for both consumers and businesses—consumer psychologists have advocated for the infusion of business and marketing techniques, coupled with comprehensive consumer research, into domains such as health psychology and social policy. This broader scope encompasses endeavors like HIV prevention, encouraging changes in dietary and exercise habits, and reducing pollution (Goldberg, Fishbein, & Middlestadt, 1997).
Consumer psychology stands as a discipline that straddles the realms of fundamental and applied psychology. In the broader context, consumer psychologists aim to contribute to the overarching understanding of social sciences. Simultaneously, they harbor specific interests in elucidating the roles of learning, memory, attitude change, purchase decisions, product utilization behaviors, and interpersonal communication concerning products and services. These pursuits are inextricably tied to the development of more efficient and effective product designs and communication strategies. Furthermore, consumer psychologists are deeply engaged in the application of psychological theories and methods to thwart miscommunication or unwarranted influence stemming from marketing endeavors. This extends to crafting product information labels and other tools designed to guide consumers in making choices that align with their best interests, such as selecting lower-fat or lower-sodium food items. Consequently, consumer psychologists frequently find themselves tasked with formulating research endeavors aimed at addressing specific applied questions, like “What constitutes the optimal format for a nutrition label?” Addressing such pragmatic queries invariably demands a profound comprehension of the fundamental research in a given domain and the ability to translate this knowledge into innovative research designs.
In some instances, efforts to resolve these questions unveil the need for further development in foundational research areas. Hence, the discipline as a whole thrives on the synergy between individuals with a penchant for elucidating fundamental processes and those fervently dedicated to addressing applied queries. This collaborative exchange propels the field forward, fostering its growth and evolution.
Like many areas of psychology, there exists a constant tension between the basic theoretical development and understanding in an area and the development of research projects and papers that communicate actionable ideas to practitioners. Such a challenge makes the discipline of consumer psychology a very interesting and ever changing adventure. Consumer psychology is very much an interdisciplinary enterprise. Consumer psychologists have the opportunity to contribute to the development of basic knowledge in psychology and a variety of related disciplines, as well as the use of psychology in improving social, economic, and physical environments.
Consumer psychology, a subfield of psychology, delves into the intricate relationship between consumers and the products and services they encounter daily. It explores the psychological processes, motivations, behaviors, and influences that shape consumers’ choices, preferences, and buying decisions. Understanding consumer psychology is crucial for businesses and marketers seeking to create effective marketing strategies and enhance customer satisfaction.
Consumer Decision-Making Process
Consumer decision-making is at the core of consumer psychology. It involves a series of steps:
- Problem Recognition: The process begins when consumers recognize a need or problem. This could be a tangible need, like buying a new smartphone, or a psychological one, like seeking social acceptance.
- Information Search: Once the need is recognized, consumers embark on information gathering. They may seek information from various sources, including friends, family, online reviews, and advertisements.
- Evaluation of Alternatives: Consumers assess the available options, comparing features, benefits, and prices. Psychological factors, such as perceived value and brand loyalty, often come into play.
- Purchase Decision: After evaluating alternatives, consumers make a purchase decision. External factors like promotions and sales tactics can influence this decision.
- Post-Purchase Evaluation: Following the purchase, consumers assess their satisfaction with the product or service. This evaluation informs future decisions and can lead to brand loyalty or word-of-mouth recommendations.
Influences on Consumer Behavior
Consumer behavior is shaped by a multitude of factors:
- Psychological Factors: These include perception, motivation, attitudes, beliefs, and learning. For example, an individual’s perception of a product’s quality can greatly influence their decision to buy it.
- Social Factors: The people around us have a profound impact on our buying decisions. Social influences, such as family, peers, and culture, play a significant role in shaping consumer behavior.
- Economic Factors: Income, budget constraints, and economic conditions can determine what consumers can afford and influence their choices.
- Marketing and Advertising: Companies employ various marketing techniques, from emotional appeals to persuasive messaging, to influence consumers’ preferences and decisions.
- Situational Factors: The context in which a purchase is made, such as time constraints or the physical environment, can impact consumer choices.
Consumer Behavior in the Digital Age
The rise of e-commerce and digital marketing has transformed consumer behavior. Online shopping, social media, and personalized advertising have created new opportunities and challenges for businesses. Consumer psychology now encompasses the study of online reviews, user experience design, and the impact of social media influencers on purchasing decisions.
Consumer psychology also addresses ethical concerns, such as deceptive advertising, the exploitation of vulnerable consumers, and privacy issues related to data collection and targeted marketing. Researchers and practitioners in the field grapple with the responsibility of ensuring ethical consumer practices.
Consumer psychology provides valuable insights into the complex world of consumer behavior. By understanding the psychological processes that guide consumer choices, businesses can develop more effective marketing strategies and build lasting relationships with their customers. This interdisciplinary field continues to evolve as it explores the ever-changing landscape of consumer behavior, especially in the digital age.
Consumer Psychology References:
- Goldberg, M. E., Fishbein, M., & Middlestadt, S. E. (1997). Social marketing, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Hoyer, D., &Maclnnis, D. J. (1997). Consumer behavior. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Jacoby, J., Johar, V., & Morrin, M. (1998). Consumer behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 319-344.
- Kardes, R. (1999). Consumer behavior and managerial decision making. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- M. C. (1996). Preschoolers learning of brand names from visual cues. Journal of Consumer Research, 23, 251-261.
- Mowen, J. , & Minor, M. (1998). Consumer behavior (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change. New York: Springer-Verlag.
- Petty, R. E.. Haugtvedt, P.. & Smith, S. M. (1995) Elaboration as a determinant of attitude strength: Creating attitudes that are persistent. resistant, and predictive of behavior. In R. E. Petty & J. A. Kronick (Eds.), Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences (pp. 93-130). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- T. S.. & Kassarjian, H. (1991). Handbook of consumer research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.