The Psychology Behind Consumer Behavior

Consumer psychologists study buying behavior
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Are you interested in why and how people buy some products and not others? Have you ever wondered how media messages influence a shopper's buying choices? If so, then you might be interested in the growing field known as consumer psychology.

Consumer psychology is a specialty area that studies how our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and perceptions influence how people buy and relate to goods and services. One formal definition of the field describes it as "the study of individuals, groups, or organizations and the processes they use to select, secure, use, and dispose of products, services, experiences, or ideas to satisfy needs and the impacts that these processes have on the consumer and society."

Professionals in this field look at things like the decision-making process, social persuasion, and motivation to help understand why shoppers buy some things but not others. In this overview of the profession, learn more about what consumer psychologists do and where they work.

The Science of Consumer Behavior

According to the Society for Consumer Psychology, Division 23 of the American Psychological Association, consumer psychology "employs theoretical psychological approaches to understanding consumers."

This field is often considered a sub-specialty of industrial-organizational psychology and is also known as the psychology of consumer behavior or the psychology of marketing.

Consumer psychologists study a variety of topics including:

  • How consumers choose businesses, products, and services
  • The thought processes and emotions behind consumer decisions
  • How environmental variables such as friends, family, media, and culture influence buying decisions
  • What motivates people to choose one product over another
  • How personal factors and individual differences affect people's buying choices
  • What marketers can do to effectively reach out to their target customers

What Consumer Psychologists Do

So what exactly does a typical consumer psychologist do? These professionals play a critical role not only in helping businesses understand what their customers want and need but also in helping sellers promote and market their products and services to buyers.

Consumer Psychologists Help Businesses Understand Their Customers: Because businesses need to understand their consumers in order to develop products and marketing campaigns that appeal to their target audience, consumer psychologists often spend a great deal of time learning more about what makes shoppers tick. This often involves first figuring out the target audience for a particular product including the gender, age, and socioeconomic status of the typical shopper.

Next, the consumer psychologist might begin researching the types of products and marketing messages that appeal to these types of buyers.

Consumer Psychologists Help Develop Marketing Messages: Other consumer psychologists might focus on social marketing, or how ideas and messages spread among groups. Researchers might be interested in getting out information about a product or an important public health message. Learning how beliefs and attitudes spread among groups can help organizations learn how to better get their message out and encourage word-of-mouth marketing.

Consumer Psychologists Conduct Research on Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors: Consumer psychologists often conduct research to learn more about buyer behavior. Common research methods used by these professionals include experiments, phone surveys, focus groups, direct observations, and questionnaires.

Chances are good that you have participated in at least one market research survey in your life. These are often conducted by phone, but may also be done online or through direct mail. In a survey, consumers are often asked to describe their past shopping behavior, factors that influenced their decision-making, and their future buying plans.

Researchers also typically gather details about each respondent's sex, age, race, educational history, and current financial situation. This type of information can be very useful since it allows researchers to look for patterns and learn more about who buys certain products.

For example, using a survey might allow researchers to discover that women between the ages of 30 and 45 who have a household income between $50,000 to $100,000 are most likely to buy a particular product or service. By knowing this, they can then begin designing marketing campaigns aimed at this target audience.

Education and Training Requirements

So what kind of training do you need if you want to be a consumer psychologist? Most entry-level jobs in consumer psychology require at least a bachelor's degree in psychology. Jobs at this level typically involve planning, conducting, and interpreting the results of market research campaigns.

Those interested in more advanced positions or in teaching at the university level will need a master's or doctorate degree in an area related to consumer psychology. Such degree options include general psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, marketing, and consumer studies.

If you are interested in becoming a consumer psychologist, focus on taking courses that will build your understanding of human behavior, marketing, social psychology, personality, and culture.

In addition to learning more about the factors that influence how people think and behave, having a solid background in advertising and marketing can also be very helpful. Finally, it is essential to be well-versed in experimental methods. Coursework in experimental design and statistics is essential.

Career Options

The career path you ultimately choose will depend a great deal upon your interests and educational background. For example, if you have an interest in conducting theoretical research and teaching, consider earning a doctorate degree so that you can teach courses and perform original research at a university. If you prefer to work in an area like market research, advertising, or sales, a bachelor's degree might be sufficient.

Other job options include acting as a consultant for private businesses or working for government agencies. In such jobs, consumer psychologists might be asked to perform a wide range of duties including development marketing campaigns, researching buyer trends, designing social media advertising, or analyzing statistics.

A Word From Verywell​

Understanding what makes people buy the things they do is much more than a guessing game. Businesses now employ consumer psychologists to scientifically evaluate their customer's decisions and choices. The next time you look at an advertisement or take a consumer survey, consider the role that consumer psychologists may have played in developing those messages and questionnaires.

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Article Sources

  • Hawkins, DI, Motherbaugh, DL, & Best, RJ. Consumer Behavior (Vol. e, 10th ed. ). New York: McGraw-Hill Irwin; 2007.