What Is Consumer Psychology?

Woman reading cereal packaging in the supermarket.

Consumers make a decision with every single purchase. This decision-making process occurs when they pick out something as small as a box of cereal or as large as a brand-new vehicle. For every product they choose, countless similar products remain unsold.

Understanding how and when consumers buy the products and services that they do is all part of what consumer psychology is: a specialty of psychology that focuses on how consumers relate to the products and services that they buy. However, this field is concerned with more than just what consumers pick up in a store or a shopping mall. Consumer psychology can also be applied to different contexts, such as advertising campaigns, corporate branding and politics.

Different psychological factors, such as identity, communication tendencies and cultural background, coalesce to build an individual’s consumer behavioral profile. Professionals at companies and organizations that take the time to understand consumer psychology, such as through an advanced education, are able to build better advertising campaigns and more effective marketing strategies.

Consumer Psychology Defined

Consumer psychology is what people think of when they want to know the whys and wherefores of a consumer’s purchasing decisions. After all, even impulse buying has underlying psychology: A person might crave sugar at the sight of a candy bar while going through the checkout lane and might decide which candy to buy based on past experiences.

Consumer psychology examines consumers’ perceptions, beliefs, feelings and thoughts and considers all of them when examining purchasing behavior. It also accounts for social persuasion and motivation from third parties to purchasing decisions, such as commercials or advertising.

For example, after seeing a lot of McDonald’s commercials, a person may recently have bought a Quarter Pounder with cheese, or perhaps Quarter Pounders were on sale, making purchasing one a fiscally savvy meal choice. Still another possibility is that the consumer perceives McDonald’s to be a trusted brand. Consumer psychology can weigh all those factors for why consumers want what they want and what ultimately makes them go through with a purchase.

The field of consumer psychology is often connected to organizational psychology because they both focus on the study of human behavior and what motivates it. Informally, consumer psychology is often referred to as the psychology of marketing because of how marketing agencies and companies use it to try to better tailor their marketing efforts to consumers.

Businesses, salespeople and marketing departments often need very sophisticated research and solutions to take advantage of consumer psychology. For that, they usually enlist the services of a consumer psychologist.

The Role of the Consumer Psychologist

Companies, organizations and marketing firms can hire consumer psychologists to help them understand customer behavior by studying the emotions and motivations behind a purchase. Consumer psychologists take into account external motivators, the environment and other personal variables that may influence the consumer.

Consumer psychologists can collect data about consumers using a wide variety of methods. The most common methods include the following:

  • Phone surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Consumer questionnaires
  • Direct observations
  • Purchased experiments

After consumer psychologists collect enough data, they can identify trends and patterns among consumers. Attributes such as gender, income, age, race, education, religion and region all add up to customer archetypes, such as the Innocent (traditional, hopeful and romantic) or the Explorer (adventurous, innovative and active). That’s just one way the consumer psychologist can make determinations based on hard data so that companies understand their most likely customer and why they make the purchases that they do.

The Influence of Consumer Psychology

One of the biggest influences of consumer psychology is how its findings can be directly applied to marketing campaigns. For example, a consumer psychologist may determine that men between 24 and 35 with a household income of less than $50,000 are buying a certain type of soft drink. Keeping that information in mind, a marketing agency could design a marketing campaign directly targeted at that demographic. Better targeting usually yields better results.

Consumer psychologists may also encourage individuals to engage in behaviors that they normally wouldn’t. For example, convincing consumers to switch over to a more ecologically sustainable way of life is a trending topic in the consumer psychology world.

Examples of this kind of lifestyle change could be investing in solar panels for the home, eating less meat, choosing recycled goods or investing in an electric car to reduce carbon emissions. In this way, consumer psychology can be used to make a positive lasting impact on society and the planet.

However, fully measuring the impact of consumer psychology’s influence on consumers remains a challenge because collecting data on consumers is typically a one-time affair that comes in the form of a survey or questionnaire. Long-term studies and follow-up studies on specific groups who’ve been surveyed before aren’t typically conducted. For example, it would be difficult to get the same 500 people who participated in a phone survey to participate in it again many years later.

Consumer psychology can be a powerful tool to measure the current or likely behavior of consumers, but not so much how they change or stay the same in the long term.

Be a Positive Influence

Consumer psychology is an important component in marketing and in discovering why consumers make the purchasing decisions that they do. Companies in several different industries use the tactics of consumer psychology to build out their customer profiles and better tailor their marketing campaigns to those who are most likely to respond. Additionally, consumer psychology is increasingly being used to positively influence people to make decisions that benefit everyone.

Consumer psychology may be what will influence the modern American consumer to consider switching over from a gas to an electric vehicle and reevaluating their recycling habits. For those who are interested in becoming part of the solution, an online Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) degree from USC can be a great first step.

With courses in consumer psychology, organizational psychology and research methods in applied psychology, you can lay the foundation for a thriving career in consumer psychology upon graduation.

Take the first step towards a profession in consumer psychology with USC.

Recommended Reading

How Cultural Competence in the Workplace Creates Psychological Safety for Employees

How Does Consumer Psychology Influence User Experience?

Why Companies Need an Organizational Development Consultant in 2022


Example Sources:

American Psychological Association, Consumer Behavior

American Psychological Association, Industrial and Organizational Psychology

American Psychological Association, “The Goods on Consumer Behavior”

Entrepreneur, “How to Use Digital Consumer Psychology to Stand Out From the Competition

LinkedIn, “Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Marketing — Better Understanding of Human Behavior”

Psychology Today, Consumer Behavior

Psychology Today, “Two Challenges With Quantifying Virtuous Consumer Behavior”

ResearchGate, “Consumer Psychology: Evolving Goals and Research Orientations”

Verywell Mind, “What Is Consumer Psychology?”