Psychology And Marketing Research Paper

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Marketing is an applied field. It is synonymous in everyday parlance with the economic activity of selling, and especially with advertising. The field, however, is construed differently by most professional practitioners. The American Marketing Association defines marketing as, ‘the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy indi idual and organizational goals’ (emphasis added). While marketing draws upon a wide range of social sciences, including anthropology, economics, and sociology, the emphasis on satisfying goals implies that insight into the psychology of the customer is particularly important for the marketer. Thus a company might offer a new microwave oven that is the product of work by electrical and industrial engineers, home economists, financial analysts, etc. A marketer would bring to this effort a focus on how consumers will think about the product and how it will fit with their Behavior.

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Marketing is hence an applied field in that interventions are designed with regard to the psychological responses of consumers. Marketing research is commonly used to learn more about these responses. In practice this can be as simple, and as particularistic, as surveys asking about product preferences or usage and qualitative research such as focus groups eliciting more in-depth reactions from consumers. Academic researchers typically conduct more complex studies. An example is the work of Simonson (1990) on the variety of brands consumers choose for consumption over multiple occasions. He finds that the set of brands chosen reflects greater variety when the choices for multiple consumption occasions are made at a single point in time (i.e., simultaneously) vs. being made just prior to each consumption occasion (i.e., sequentially). This observation can be applied to marketing situations such as the design of retail stores. If a store, for instance, is intended as a convenience store to be used for items consumed immediately, it will not be necessary for it to carry as large a selection of products as with, say, a traditional grocery store that is used to build the household pantry inventory.

Psychology and marketing are thus intimately related. Marketing is based on an assessment of psychological response. The goal of marketing research is to enhance the applicability of these assessments to marketing situations of interest. There are two approaches to achieving this goal and each leads to a different view of exactly how psychology and marketing are connected.

1. Effects Application

One approach is that marketing research can focus on effects application (EA) (Calder et al. 1981, Calder and Tybout 1999). Research starts with psychological notions and proceeds by creating a research setting that allows the mapping of observed effects directly into situations of marketing interest. If the research setting is similar enough to the ‘real’ situation, the research is thought to generalize to these situations. From the perspective of this approach, it is important to conduct research with people who match the demographics and other characteristics of target consumers. Likewise the research setting, including independent variable treatments, should match the types of experiences people would have in the marketplace. Effects application studies are applied by extrapolating observed effects to a situation of interest.

The Simonson study described above can be viewed as an example of EA research. The research was no doubt motivated by psychological considerations, such as notions of consumers’ desire for variety and their motivation to simplify complex tasks. The important thing is that although this research is motivated by psychological considerations it is the effect, greater variety with simultaneous versus sequential purchases, that is of primary interest. And the issue of application hinges on whether the effect can be directly generalized to marketing situations of interest. Because the original study was conducted with student subjects in a laboratory setting, the applicability to purchases in the marketplace might be viewed as suspect. For this reason, Simonson and Winer (1992) sought to enhance applicability by demonstrating the same effect with actual consumer purchase data from in-store scanner records. They looked at whether consumers bought a greater variety of yogurt flavors when they were buying larger quantities of yogurt. The argument from an EA perspective is that scanner data, in which actual consumers spent their own money in real stores, makes the effect more directly applicable to marketing contexts than the laboratory study.

Other studies in the marketing literature use a related but somewhat different effects strategy. These studies seek to demonstrate the robustness of effects by demonstrating them across a variety of settings. Thus Strahilevitz and Myers (1998) draw upon notions of mental accounting to predict that the promise of a donation to charity will be a more effective incentive for consumer purchase when the product for which the incentive is offered is frivolous rather than practical. They find support for their prediction across three experiments that employ different stimuli. The robustness of the phenomenon, rather than the correspondence between the demonstrations and naturally occurring settings, provides the rationale for applying the effect to marketing contexts.

The EA approach views the relationship between psychology and marketing as follows: psychology provides important examples of psychological phenomena. It is the task of marketing research to investigate these effects in special research settings designed to be applicable to marketing situations of interest. Marketers thus draw from the psychological literature possible effects that must be observed in research settings that, by virtue of their similarity, are applicable to marketing situations. Or, alternatively, enough different settings are used to suggest robustness.

2. Theory Application

A second major approach leads to a very different view of the relationship between psychology and marketing, as well as what indeed it means for a discipline like marketing to be an applied field. This approach is called theory application (TA) (Calder et al. 1981, Calder and Tybout 1999). TA studies are designed to be applicable in a different way than are EA studies. The focus is on theory as an explanation of observed effects. It is not the effects that are expected to generalize; it is the explanation. Effects are used to test the theory. It is the theory that is expected to generalize to marketing situations.

This focus on theory testing leads in practice to marketing research studies that look quite different from EA studies. There is no requirement that research participants match consumers on demographic or other characteristics (unless this is relevant to the test of theory), nor is it important that things such as real money or natural marketing contexts be used in TA studies. Moreover, replicating the same effect over many situations is not regarded as particularly informative. This is because TA studies seek only to establish a strong explanation, not to generalize by virtue of similarity of the research setting and marketing situation or on the basis of robustness. Instead of focusing on whether the greater variety with simultaneous choices effect can be obtained in a setting that sufficiently resembles marketing situations, a TA approach would concentrate on developing the theoretical explanation.

It might, for example, be hypothesized in connection with the variety-seeking research discussed above that the simultaneous choice setting is more cognitively demanding than the sequential choice setting and, thus, leads consumers to employ cognitive strategies that simplify the task. Simplification might be achieved by expanding the set of selected items, thereby obviating the need to make finer discriminations among the items. Here we have an explanation of the variety seeking effect as opposed to the effect itself. Evidence for this explanation, and against rival explanations (i.e., that simultaneous choice makes potential satiation more salient and thereby encourages variety seeking), is the goal of TA research. Application to marketing situations is based on the rigor with which the theory has been tested and how well the theory describes the marketing situation.

Research by Meyers-Levy and Peracchio (1995) provides a good example of TA research. These authors examined the processes that underlie consumers’ responses to full color, black and white, and color-highlighted advertisement pictures. Petty and Cacioppo’s (1983) elaboration likelihood model (ELM) served as a starting point for Meyers-Levy and Peracchio’s theorizing. ELM describes two routes to persuasion: a central route where people are motivated by relevance to process detailed arguments and a peripheral route where people are not motivated to process detailed arguments and instead respond to peripheral cues. Meyers-Levy and Peracchio reasoned that the correspondence between the cognitive resources made available and those required to process the advertisement claim might moderate processing via the central route.

Specifically, when processing motivation is high and the advertisement claim requires few resources to substantiate it, advertisements that include color will be more persuasive than black and white ones. This is expected because individuals will have sufficient cognitive resources to process the color and the color will substantiate and reinforce the advertisement claim. However, when more resources are needed to assess the advertisement claim, either a black and white picture or one in which color is used to highlight only those aspects of the picture that are relevant to the claim, is expected to be more persuasive than a full color advertisement. This is because individuals will lack sufficient resources to substantiate the advertisement claim and process full color information.

Meyers-Levy and Peracchio’s hypotheses received support in two laboratory experiments conducted with student subjects. As a result, their integration of ELM with the notions of cognitive resource matching is preferred to an explanation based on ELM alone. Further, they demonstrate that cues are not per se either central or peripheral, but rather depend on the match between the resources required and available. It is Meyers-Levy and Peracchio’s theoretical explanation of their effects, rather than the effects themselves, that is applied to marketing contexts beyond the particular one they examined.

As the above discussion makes clear, the research setting and subjects are not of primary interest in TA research, it is the explanation being tested. MeyersLevy and Peracchio’s studies would not generalize to marketing situations based on similarity between the research setting and subjects. However their theorizing might be applied to any number of marketing contexts. This application would use the theory to design an intervention for the situation of interest that according to the theory would work in a desired way. The explanation provided by the theory would predict an outcome but it would do so based on the design of the intervention suggested by the theory.

An example of this kind of theory application may be helpful. Suppose there is an interest in communicating with consumers who are in the market for a new car. Presumably such individuals are motivated to engage in detailed processing of message claims. Meyers-Levy and Peracchio’s theorizing would suggest that full color advertisements be used to substantiate and reinforce claims related to styling (which may be apprehended with relatively few resources) but black and white advertisements be employed when presenting detailed information about the car’s features and warranty. The design of the advertisements thus constitutes an application of the theory and leads to different expectations for the ads.

The important point about the above application is, again, that it does not depend on matching the settings of studies to the particular concern with advertising. It only matters that the theory has received support and that it describes the marketing situation of interest. Note also that there is always the possibility that there are other, unanticipated factors involved in the situation of interest that may not be taken into account by the theory. In our advertising example, for instance, the color resolution or the particular colors chosen might be unappealing, in which case the use of color might undermine rather than reinforce the style claim. Such possibilities have two implications. One is that any application via TA research has the potential to fail (just as with EA research where it is impossible to match on all differences between the research setting and situations of interest). The other is that it may be desirable to conduct intervention testing (Calder et al. 1981, Calder and Tybout 1999), in which more factors are allowed to vary freely than in the typical theory test-oriented TA study. This can increase confidence in the application, but because this will ordinarily be a weak test of the theory, it does not increase support of the theory per se, and the application still depends most critically on the prior TA research.

3. Conclusion

To return to the relationship between psychology and marketing, as we have seen, one account of this relationship is provided by the EA approach. Psychological phenomena motivate EA studies that are applied by virtue of the similarity of the research setting to marketing situations of interest. The alternative TA approach, however, provides a very different perspective. On this view the relationship of psychology and marketing is much more reciprocal and synergistic, as demonstrated in the discussion of Meyers-Levy and Peracchio’s (1995) work.

With the TA approach marketing research is primarily engaged in testing psychological theories. This work is no different from the theory-testing work that goes on in psychology. It is only that marketing researchers have selected certain theories for further development and testing; these theories are ones that are considered especially promising for application. This applicability is based on the relevance of the theory to marketing situations. The success of the application depends most critically on the rigor of the TA studies supporting the theory, both within psychology and marketing. As experience with such applications increases, assisted in some cases by intervention testing, there will be an additional source of feedback about theories. It is the cooperative aspect of testing theories, through both TA research and the process of theory application, which constitutes the relationship between psychology and marketing. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, marketing continues to explore both paths to application.


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  2. Calder B J, Tybout A M 1999 A vision of theory, research, and the future of business schools. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 27: 359–66
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  4. Petty R E, Cacioppo J T 1983 Attitude Change: Central and Peripheral Routes to Persuasion. Springer Verlag, New York
  5. Simonson I 1990 The effect of purchase quantity and timing on variety seeking Behavior. Journal of Marketing Research 27: 150–62
  6. Simonson I, Winer R S 1992 The influence of purchase quantity and display format on consumer preference for variety. Journal of Consumer Research 19: 133–8
  7. Strahilevitz M, Myers J G 1998 Donations to charity as purchase incentives: How well they work may depend on what you are trying to sell. Journal of Consumer Research 24: 434–46
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