Consumer Psychology Research Paper

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Consumer behavior refers to the acquisition, consumption, and disposal of time and offerings (goods, services, and ideas) by decision-making units (individuals, dyads, and larger groups). Consumer behavior is pervasive and universal involving, as it does, choices made during the waking moments of virtually all human beings in all societies and cultures. In addition to overt observable behaviors (e.g., making a purchase, wearing a shirt, engaging in word-of-mouth communications regarding products), consumer behavior also includes the covert psychological states and processes (e.g., motives, learning, attitudes, decision making, past experience) that underlie and influence the overt behaviors. Last, while consumer behavior involves trying, rebuying, and increasing some behaviors, it also includes the cessation or lessening of some of those same behaviors (e.g., smoking, unsafe sex, eating fatty foods).

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Though also referring to the covert psychological processes, when used to describe a scholarly endeavor, consumer psychology refers to using distinctively psychological concepts and methods to understand consumer behavior. These days, scholars who employ clearly psychological concepts and methods to study consumer behavior are more likely to do so from venues other than departments of psychology.

1. The Complexity Of Consumer Behavior

Consumer behavior includes often-overlooked layers of complexity. Offerings may be acquired in ways other than via purchasing, including via renting, borrowing, trading, finding, stealing, as a gift, and so forth. Similarly, consumption—which occurs over time periods of varying duration (from the almost instantaneous munching and swallowing of a potato chip, through the wearing of a shirt for several years, to buying and living in a home for decades)—generally involves distinct facets, including using, maintaining (e.g., cleaning a suit), storing, and retrieving, all or some of which may be repeated over time. Once consumption ends, one may be faced with disposing of the item (or its container). One can decide to throw it away, convert it to serve some other purpose, trade or exchange it for something else, sell it, give it away, and so forth. Consumer behavior also reflects cyclical and contingent qualities. Having purchased, consumed, and disposed of a tube of toothpaste, we acquire a replacement and repeat the cycle. Car insurance and gasoline are generally acquired contingent upon having acquired a car.

Time is finite; how we choose to spend it has tremendous implications for virtually all other aspects of our lives. In some respects, one can actually buy and trade time, e.g., paying someone to mow our lawn and free our time for something else.

Offerings come in many forms and are not limited to products and services provided by commercial or for-profit entities. Offerings also include political candidates, television programs, newspaper articles, leisure time activities, different articles within the same newspaper, and so forth.

Engaging in consumer behavior involves several roles, including behaving as the decision maker, purchaser, and/or user. Often, these roles are confined to a single individual, as when one person chooses, purchaser, and then consumes a soft drink. Alternatively, they may involve two or more individuals (e.g., wife decides, husband purchases, child uses).

Last, consumer behaviors occur not in a vacuum, but in the context of everyday life where they tend to be influenced by numerous external factors, including cultural, social, political, environmental (e.g., not shopping during a snow storm) and physical (e.g., not wanting to stoop for a product on a low shelf ) considerations.

2. Why Study Consumer Behavior?

As understanding consumer behavior is often the key to business success, many who study consumer behavior come from disciplines (e.g., economics, marketing, advertising, retailing) that support business activities. But why do psychologists find it worthy of study? Discussed in greater detail elsewhere (Jacoby 1975, pp. 981–5), a few of the reasons are as follows.

Consumer behavior is a domain providing innumerable opportunities for important, socially meaningful research. Learning how to influence the underprivileged in the USA and elsewhere to adopt and increase consumption of products and services good for them and to cease consumer behaviors that are less appropriate or even harmful is one example. Studying why there is so high a rate of noncompliance with physician prescription dosage instructions and studying how to reduce this rate is another.

Attempting to understand consumer behavior forces one to consider a broader array of factors than is typical in much psychological research. This occasionally leads to seeing relationships that might not have been noted had one not been compelled to approach the subject using a broader (or at least different) perspective. Consumer theory and research thus have the potential to contribute to the development and extension of psychology itself. As an example of a conceptual contribution, consider a richer, more dynamic way of conceptualizing stimulus–organism–response (Jacoby 2002). As an example of an empirical contribution, consider the development of process methods that enable psychologists to better test dynamic theories regarding how information acquisition leads to the development of, and molecular changes in, higher order cognitive processes (Jacoby et al. 2002).

Consumer research provides numerous opportunities for working with dependent variables that, from the perspective of our test subjects, are meaningful and consequential. Further, because of the universal and pervasive nature of consumer behavior, this arena provides excellent opportunities for examining the validity and limits of psychological theory.

3. Evolution Of The Scholarly Approach To Studying Consumer Behavior

The origins of scholarly work on consumer behavior may be attributed to the economists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (e.g., Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Alfred Marshall). These economists held that a person’s desire for goods and services generally exceeded the person’s ability to pay. Therefore, buying decisions were theorized to result from a process during which a value was assigned to each desired offering based upon the person’s ‘rational’ assessment of that offering’s ability to satisfy his or her needs and desires. This want satisfying ability was termed ‘utility’ and it was held that consumers would seek to maximize utility. According to these economists, the price of the offering was the key element in the maximizing utility equation. Raising an offering’s price was predicted to lower its sales; lowering its price would increase sales. Though seemingly commonsensical, this proposition suggests that, given changes in price, consumers respond like billiard balls, buying when prices are lowered and refraining when prices rise. Little (per-haps nothing) else matters.

In terms of the stimulus–organism–response (S–O–R) model familiar to psychologists, it can be seen that the ‘economic man’ conception is severely limited, suggesting as it does a relatively empty organism whose behavior is determined by economic stimuli and little else. According to the classic S–O–R formulation, external stimuli (e.g., price changes) first need to be perceived, understood, evaluated, and integrated with other psychological phenomena (e.g., past experience, current needs, attitudes, and expectations, etc.) before having impact, if any, on the individual’s behavior. Thus, while one can see various reasons why a price decrease would lead to increased purchase (as predicted by economic theory), one can also see various reasons why it would have either no effect (e.g., the price change does not represent a ‘just noticeable difference’; the consumer would purchase the same amount of the items regardless), or the reverse effect (e.g., sales decrease because the consumer interprets the price decrease as reflecting a decrease in quality, or because the consumer views the item as no longer having the desired snob appeal, etc.). To best understand and predict consumer behavior, we would have to know something about the consumer’s motives, a priori expectations, how the incoming information is perceived and interpreted, and so forth—namely, the factors traditionally studied by psychologists and then some. (Parenthetically, when this is done, it is often found that other factors are more important than price. Examination of con-temporary consumer behavior texts reveals that most devote fewer than a half dozen or so pages to price considerations.)

Responding to limitations in the ‘economic man’ model, both theorists and practitioners began adding variables to the stimulus and especially organism portions of the S–O–R model. During the 1930s through the 1960s, a number of European emigres trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, collectively known as ‘motivational researchers’ (e.g., Dichter 1960), became influential among the business com-munity. Other psychological constructs (including attitude and personality) also were introduced during this period. By the mid-1960s, the emerging models (developed not by psychologists, but by professors of marketing) reflected primarily psychological and/or sociological factors (e.g., Andreasen 1965, Engel et al. 1968, Howard and Sheth 1969). Engel et al.’s, book now in its seventh printing, was the most influential introductory text for perhaps 15 years and remains popular. The 1960s also represented the time when an increasing number of psychologists with a scholarly bent began studying consumer behavior. Reflecting evolution, a number of today’s leading texts (Hoyer and Maclnnis 1997, Peter and Olson 1999, Solomon 1999) are authored or co-authored by PhD psychologists (Hoyer, Olson, Solomon).

Around 1970, two developments did much to shape the emerging field. First came the formation of the Association for Consumer Research (ACR), today considered to be the principal scholarly organization in the field. Starting with a few hundred members in 1969–70, ACR’s membership consists of researchers from a wide variety of disciplines and now numbers nearly 2,000, including several hundred psychologists. Though its members focus on different issues (e.g., marketing researchers tend to be more interested in understanding purchase decisions, communication researchers more interested in interpersonal or mass media communication, home and family economists more interested in postpurchase issues, etc.), their shared frame of reference is that, influenced by elements in a complex environment, consumers are information-processing, problem solving, decision-making, choice-making beings. Its annual series, Advances in Consumer Research, best illustrates the diversity of the field.

The second major development was the introduction of the Journal of Consumer Research, the first journal devoted specifically to consumer research. Prior to the early 1970s, scholarly work on consumer behavior appeared sporadically in journals spanning many disciplines. Work having a behavioral science (including psychological) perspective tended to appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology and, to a lesser extent, in the Journal of Marketing and Journal of Marketing Research. While these journals continue to publish some of the better consumer research, their principal focuses lie elsewhere. A collaborative venture by a number of national societies, the first issue of the Journal of Consumer Research appeared in 1974 and quickly became the field’s flagship journal. Using the first 15 years of JCR publications, Hoffman and Holbrook (1993) provide an interesting perspective on the intellectual structure of the field. A 1991 JCR article by Cote et al. (1991) employ a citation analysis to assess the influence of the journal across the behavioral sciences. As a field of inquiry, consumer research is now interdisciplinary and intersect or, being conducted by researchers operating from within academia, government, industry, and public not-for-profit groups.

4. The Introduction Of Psychology To Studying Consumer Behavior

Interest by psychologists in consumer behavior and the factors that influence such behavior extends one hundred years. In 1900, H. Gale published work on the position of an advertisement on the printed page in ‘The University of Minnesota Studies on Psychology.’ Walter Dill Scott (whose dissertation on attention and persuasion was with Wundt), introduced the concepts of needs and motives in his 1903 book, The Theory of Advertising. Scott’s 1908 book, The Psychology of Advertising in Theory and Practice, emphasized psychology by placing the word in its title. However, except for occasional articles in the Journal of Applied Psychology, psychologists devoted little scholarly attention to consumer behavior during the first half of the twentieth century. When studied at all, consumer behavior was often viewed as convenient for testing more fundamental psychological propositions. For example, when the USA was experiencing shortages in traditional cuts of beef during World War II, Kurt Lewin’s classic studies on public versus private commitment assisted both government and industry in making internal meats (e.g., brain, liver, kidney) more palatable to the US consumer. With the exception of Katona (1951, 1960), who was essentially a voice in the wilderness, few psychologists studied consumer behavior for its intrinsic interest. Situated in industry, most members of APA’s Division of Consumer Psychology had an applied orientation and were interested in research that assisted business.

This emphasis began changing in the mid-1960s. The first chapter on consumer psychology appeared in Annual Review of Psychology (Twedt 1965). The second appeared (Perloff 1968) three years later, as did a chapter in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Krugman 1968). In addition to the traditional focus on the consumer qua purchaser (i.e., as the object of business interests), these contributors focused greater attention on the consumer qua consumer. This emphasis became entrenched during the decade that followed (Jacoby 1975, 1976), gaining even greater strength in the intervening quarter century (Jacoby et al. 1998). By the early 1980s, the dominant focus of APA’s Division of Consumer Psychology (which had been renamed The Society for Consumer Psychology) had shifted to studying the consumer qua consumer. In 1992, it began publishing the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Concurrent with increasing numbers of psychologists finding that consumer behavior merited their scholarly attention, scholars in other disciplines eagerly embraced psychological theory and methods for their own consumer behavior research, with many advising their doctoral students to minor in psychology (particularly social, cognitive, or measurement psychology). Cross-fertilization was enhanced as increasing numbers of newly minted PhDs in social, cognitive, and experimental psychology assumed faculty positions in departments of marketing and other disciplines where they studied consumer behavior. A number subsequently became highly regarded scholars and leaders in the field. Adding to this trend, prominent psychologists began participating in Society for Consumer Psychology and Association for Consumer Research conferences, occasionally publishing articles in consumer behavior journals; examples include William McGuire (1976), Robert Zajonc (Zajonc and Markus 1982), and Daniel Kahneman (Ratner et al. 1999).

5. Current Content And Focii Of Consumer Psychological Research

A psychologist reading today’s introductory texts would feel right at home. Even those not (co-) authored by psychologists most often devote chapters to familiar subjects, including motives, attention, perception, categorization and comprehending, learning, memory, attitudes, persuasion, and decision-making. Large portions of other chapters are devoted to personality, values, cognitive dissonance, the self, affect, and symbolic considerations. Much of the remaining content tends to be sociocultural in nature, with chapters typically covering cultural and cross-cultural influences, subcultures, social class, reference and other group (e.g., age, gender, race, religion) influences, and family and household considerations.

Though consumer researchers study a wide variety of psychological phenomena and topics, some have dominated. Attitude theory has enjoyed sustained popularity for more than three decades. During the early 1970s, hardly an issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, or Journal of Marketing Research appeared without at least one (and often more than one) article making heavy use of Fishbein’s seminal work (cf. Fishbein and Ajzen 1975). Since the late 1980s, attention has shifted to more contemporary attitude theories (Chaiken 1980).

In the early 1970s, research on various aspects of cognitive processes (including judgment and decision-making) surfaced, quickly providing what currently remains the dominant intellectual focus in the field. Summaries of this work, as well as work on other topics, may be found in The Handbook of Consumer Behavior (Robertson and Kassarjian 1991). More recently, mood, affect, and the nature of the consumption experience also have captured substantial researcher attention. It is expected that all these emphases will continue to remain strong.

Another thrust has been increasing attention de-voted to how consumer research may be used to develop, evaluate, and influence public policy affecting consumer well-being. While research of this sort sometimes appears in the journals noted above, much is now published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, a journal established for this purpose in around 1980.

The field has experienced shifts in research methodology. Early nonpsychological research placed great reliance on surveys. As psychological factors assumed greater prominence in the field’s models, experimentation became and remains the dominant methodological approach. Since the 1990s there has been a gradual acceptance of qualitative research methods of various sorts—ethnographic, interpretivistic, introspective, etc.). Approximately 15 to 20 percent of the currently published work utilizes such methods, and this trend is expected to continue.

6. Emerging Focii In Consumer Research

In addition to the emphases mentioned above, other anticipated trends include the following. First, though we do not expect many to forsake reliance on static verbal report methods, it is expected that consumer researchers will gradually display greater use of qualitative and quantitative methods that capture the dynamic nature of the behavior and underlying psycho-logical processes. Second, while some work has always focused on socially important issues and improving social welfare, we expect to see an increase in such research. Third, we expect consumer researchers to be drawn into applying their expertise in a number of other realms. Such a trend has been emerging in the legal arena, where consumer psychologists are called on to study phenomena such as deceptive advertising, trademark confusion, and product misuse liability. The Internet and e-business represent another realm where considerable consumer research can safely be predicted.

Last, as noted, the Association for Consumer Research is widely acknowledged to be the central organization for consumer researchers of any stripe. Unlike the Society for Consumer Psychology, which subscribes to the American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics, the governance of ACR has resisted efforts to develop and implement any such code. This is regrettable, especially given the tremendous opportunities that consumer researchers, as researchers and consultants, have for affecting all consumers. Accordingly, one would hope and expect ACR’s neglect to change, preferably sooner rather than later.


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