What is consumer psychology? At its core, psychology is the study of uncovering the complexities behind human nature. And it does so through different perspectives—developmental (how we grow through time), cognitive (how we think), and social (how we relate to others). But what about the consumer perspective?
by Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman
Consumer psychology is the fundamental understanding of why consumers do what they do. At first blush, this might seem oddly straightforward. Why not just ask your consumers directly, right?
Imagine the following scenario. You walk into a lab, and you’re shown an array of stockings hanging on a wall. Your task is simple: Browse these stockings, make a selection, and tell us why. Simple. So let’s say you take a look at these, and settle on some nice ones. You’re asked to explain why and you respond with whatever comes to mind: maybe you liked the bright color, the fabric, or any combination of features.
But is that really why?
This was the set-up for the famous experiment dating back to the 1970s. What they found was that participants showed a very specific bias in their stocking selection. It wasn’t towards any specific color or type of fabric. Instead, it was for whatever stocking they put on the right-most side of the array. In controlled experiments across multiple trials, the ones on the right were chosen with shocking consistency.
This right-side bias is an interesting feature on its own. But the experiments weren’t interested in that per se. The most fascinating result in the experiment? Not a single person identified that as the reason for their choice. When asked why they made their decision, nobody ever said, “I just picked the ones on the right”. Put simply, people were completely unaware of their actual motivation.
Deconstructing Consumer Psychology
It turns out, this isn’t limited to stockings, but a much more general feature of our decision-making. Experiments and observations like this all point to the same general conclusion: Our consumer psychology suggests we’re remarkably bad at understanding why we do the things we do.
We have our own explanation which seems to make sense. But our own explanation, and the actual motivation, can be two very different things.
And this is why consumer psychology is so crucial. Consumer psychology is about unpacking this mystery, unlocking consumers’ hidden motivations, desires, and emotions. It’s concerned with questions like:
What are the mental processes involved, which ultimately produced this consumer experience?
Beyond the choice itself, what were the factors which lead to it, and was the consumer conscious of these factors?
What is it like, from the standpoint of subjective experience, to be that consumer at that time?
Marketing is often concerned with “what” people do, while consumer psychology is behind the “why” and the “how” of consumer behavior.
How Consumer Psychology Meets Ethical Marketing
Just like there are many perspectives on psychology, there are many perspectives on marketing. What are the advantages to incorporating consumer psychology?
Generally speaking, it provides a much more holistic perspective. It allows you to go beyond behavior, and into the mind; enabling the marketer to walk in the consumer’s shoes. This perspective allows marketers to be much more customer-centric in their approaches, designing consumer experiences which not only result in the correct business outcome, but are enjoyable, memorable, and emotionally rich.
In addition, consumer psychology is essential to ethical marketing. Here, behavior alone is skin deep and insufficient. It’s difficult to claim that a practice is ethical if the marketer has no clue as to the underlying psychological experience or impact. This may be especially crucial to conversations around compulsive technologies like smartphones and social media platforms.
From a behavior perspective, the consumer is merely staring into a screen for several hours a day. That may seem innocuous and maybe it is. But if underlying that behavior is an internal state of anxiety, depression, and insecurity, there’s a reason for concern and ethical scrutiny. Consumer psychology provides the perspective needed in order to better evaluate these ethical cases.
How Consumer Psychology Meets Marketing
Ultimately, psychology and marketing are two fields interested in the same general question: how can we better understand and better predict human behavior? This is an immense, and complicated question that has plagued both scientists and business people since time immemorial. Consumer psychology sits right at the nexus of these two fields.
Given the complexity of the human condition, we can’t expect easy answers. As Emerson Pugh once said, “If the Human Brain Were So Simple That We Could Understand It, We Would Be So Simple That We Couldn’t”.
And while both neuroscience and psychology are large multi-disciplinary fields, much of human nature still remains mysterious. Increasingly, consumer psychology will be crucial to unlocking this complexity. And in doing so, providing a fresh perspective to the marketing discipline.
Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”. You can check out more of their writing here.