The study of psychological processes as they relate to the adoption, use, and disposal of products, services, or ideas is known as consumer psychology. At present, no Ph.D. degree programs offer formal degrees in this specialty. Persons associated with the discipline typically obtain a Ph.D. degree in a base discipline like social or experimental psychology and supportive coursework in marketing and advertising. Consumer psychologists are perhaps most easily identified by their membership in the Society for Consumer Psychology (SCP; Division 23 of APA) or the Association for Consumer Research (ACR) and their publications in the Journal of Consumer Psychology or the Journal of Consumer Research. Journals containing consumer psychology articles include 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, to name a few. The Proceedings of the Annual SCP Winter Conference and ACR conferences provide a view of current research activities and the Handbook of Consumer Research (Robertson & Kassarjian. 1991) includes extensive chapters on topics relevant to consumer psychology.
An examination of such publications reveals a wide range of interests and methods of inquiry. While experimental laboratory methods are still favored by the majority of consumer researchers for gaining insight into the processes underlying ultimate consumer choices, case studies, along with qualitative and exploratory studies also appear in the publications and provide fertile ground for additional theoretical development and academic debate. While relatively few psychology departments have undergraduate courses devoted solely to the topic, most business schools have courses on consumer behavior or buyer behavior. Textbooks for such courses provide a nice overview (Hoyer and Mclnnis, 1997; Kardes, 1999; Mowen and Minor, 1997). Consumer psychologists hold jobs as academic professors in marketing, advertising, or psychology programs as well as in federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and various branches of the military. Consumer psychologists also serve in research divisions of large marketing and public opinion research organizations, large corporations, independent think tanks, and consulting organizations.
The discipline of consumer psychology was formalized in the early 1960s with the founding of the Society for Consumer Psychology as Division 23 of the APA. Early leadership of the Society included psychologists who were in charge of research divisions of large advertising agencies. Businesses hired psychologists to develop research that would provide insight into the psychological processes related to consumer preferences. This interest was, in part, driven by the high productivity of U.S. companies in the early 1950s that provided consumers with many choices in the marketplace. Prior to this time, demand was so high that businesses were able to sell their complete inventories and felt little need to study the desires and interests of consumers prior to manufacturing or advertising their products. Psychologists and other behavioral scientists, with their strong training in theory, research methodology, and data analysis were recruited to help businesses understand and predict the behaviors of consumers. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, many of the issues studied by consumer psychologists then and now are similar to major issues studied in psychology in general. A recent review of the literature by Jacoby, Johar, and Morrin (1998) categorized current consumer research as focused on the general areas of (1) sensation and perception; (2) factors associated with gaining and keeping consumer attention as well as preattentive processes; (3) categorization of stimuli; (4) inference making, the development of additional beliefs based on stimulus information or missing information; (5) information search, the efforts of consumers to learn about aspects of products and services prior to purchase; (6) memory factors associated with brands; (7) research on the role of affect (8) research on attitude formation and change processes.
Consumer psychology research, like research in other areas of psychology, has witnessed increasing sophistication in theoretical and methodological approaches. Whereas early research and theory often sought to identify the “one true process” responsible for effects observed in studies, more recent theory and research focuses on understanding how different levels of situational and individual difference factors can result in similar outcomes but by way of very different kinds of processes. For example, a theory frequently employed in consumer psychology studies on the topic of attitude change is the elaboration likelihood model (ELM; Petty and Cacioppo, 1986). The ELM postulates that attitude change tends to follow one of two routes. Individuals following the central route carefully consider and evaluate information in support of a position in deriving their attitude toward a product. In contrast, individuals following the peripheral route may develop equally positive attitudes by simple associations of factors in the message (e.g. the attractiveness of a message source). Importantly, the ELM identifies a variety of situational and individual difference factors that moderate the route to persuasion. For example, high levels of personal relevance typically lead to central route processes whereas low levels of relevance increase the chances of attitudes being formed or changed via the peripheral route. Importantly, research has shown that the extent of thinking about product attributes in the formation of an attitude is associated with attitude strength—the ability of the attitude to stay positive over time, resist change in the face of attack, and predict behavior (Petty, Haugtvedt, & Smith, 1995). The ELM and related theoretical approaches currently serve as useful guides in finding answers to research questions in both basic and applied consumer psychology.
Consumer psychologists, since their early days as consultants to businesses, have long been advocates of the appropriate use of theory and method in research. Along with their interest in helping businesses provide products that are more accurate matches to consumer needs and desires (something good for both the consumer and business), consumer psychologists have become strong advocates for the use of business and marketing techniques, along with complete consumer research, in areas like health psychology and social policy (e.g., HIV prevention, changes in dietary and exercise habits, pollution reduction, etc., Goldberg, Fishbein, & Middlestadt, 1997).
Consumer psychology is a discipline at the interface of basic and applied psychology. In a broad sense, consumer psychologists are interested in contributing to general social science understanding along with specific interests in the roles of learning, memory, attitude change, purchase decisions, product use behaviors, and interpersonal communication about products and services as they relate to the development of more efficient and effective product design and communication strategies. Consumer psychologists are also interested in the use of psychological theories and methods in the prevention of miscommunication or inappropriate influence of marketing efforts. Thus, consumer psychology expertise is also relevant to the development of product information labels and other vehicles designed to aid consumers in making choices that may be in their best interest (e.g., lower fat or lower sodium food items, etc.). Consumer psychologists are thus often called upon to develop research projects that answer specific applied questions such as “What is the best format for a nutrition label?” Answering such applied questions usually requires a thorough understanding of basic research in an area and the ability to translate such understanding into creative research designs. Attempts to answer such questions sometimes lead to the observation that the existing basic research in an area requires more development. The discipline as a whole is enhanced by sharing of efforts and expertise by persons more interested in basic processes and those more interested in answering specific applied questions.
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 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.