Consumer Psychology

Consumer psychology is the study of the consumers of goods and services regarding their buying patterns and reactions to advertising and marketing.

Consumer psychology seeks to explain human behavior in two basic ways: what the consumer wants and what the consumer needs. The logical explanation for fulfilling needs is a simple one. If a person lives in New York, that person needs a winter coat to survive the cold. But why the person buys a particular style or color hinges on the more complex issues of how any 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 publication, Journal of Consumer Psychology, as well as the Journal of Consumer Research and Psychology and Marketing, serve as the voice of those engaged in understanding why people buy what they buy.

What the consumer wants

The key to unlocking consumer psychology is to understand that desires take precedence over needs. In developed countries, with hundreds of brands of toothpaste, where new food products and electronic gadgets emerge daily, it is in the interest of product marketers to understand the relationship between financial and psychological factors that determine what people buy. In fact, consumer psychology uses more than simple psychology. This branch of psychology also encompasses both economics and culture.

What consumer psychologists know

In 1957, Vance Packard started a minor revolution with his book, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard uncovered the manipulations of the advertising business, done to ensure a certain brand of a product becomes a bestselling item. He urged consumers to be cautious and not fall prey to hidden meanings or symbols in advertising. He pointed out misleading representations regarding what a product could actually do for the buyer. His book was popular, and people began looking for the subtle messages in everything from liquor ads to spaghetti packages. Surprisingly, this interest had no impact at all on purchasing patterns: Consumers continued to buy the same products regardless of new information concerning actual utility of the item. Critical awareness in consumers did not necessarily offset their emotional needs or responses.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, household items such as computers and video recorders were new and considered luxury items. In the decades that followed, by virtue of a rapidly changing society, those items were no longer considered simple luxuries; schools and businesses required 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 complex factors motivate consumer purchase trends. They have discovered that in the most depressed economic times, sales of luxury items often go up.

Consumer psychology is a field that is likely to expand; an estimated $1 trillion worth of products had been purchased online by 2012. Online shopping habits might differ drastically from catalog sales or instore purchases. These trends as of 2015 were beginning to be studied and consumer psychologists were expected to be following the shifting buying patterns well into the future.

See also Advertising psychology ; Gestalt principles of organization ; Social psychology .



Kotler, Philip, and Nancy Lee. Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good. Los Angeles: Sage, 2008.

Wanke, Michaela. Social Psychology of Consumer Behavior. New York: Psychology Press, 2009.


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