What is consumer psychology?

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Psychologists have investigated many aspects of consumer behavior; the ultimate goal of nearly all research on consumers is to understand how consumers obtain and process information and why they choose some goods and services and not others.
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The decision-making approach to understanding consumer behavior follows from the assumption that the consumer is someone who seeks and takes in information from numerous sources, processes it, and then makes a selection from a set of alternatives. A major proponent of this view is James R. Bettman. The essence of his theory, presented in An Information Processing Theory of Consumer Choice (1979), is an explanation of how consumers react to information—from advertisers, friends, family, salespeople, and so on. The theory integrates six components of information processing: limitations in the human capacity to process information; the motivation to move from some initial state to a desired state; attention to and perceptual encoding of information; the search for information from memory and the external environment, and the evaluation of this information; decision processes; and the effects of consumption and learning. All these components are related through the construct of choice. Put another way, one becomes motivated, pays attention, obtains and evaluates information, learns, and compares alternatives to reach a goal. Because of its comprehensive nature, Bettman’s theory of consumer choice has been highly influential in the academic and marketing communities.

The information-processing and decision-making perspectives on consumer purchases stand in sharp contrast to an alternative view, called behavioral influence, which presumes that consumers respond directly to pressures of the environment and give little or no conscious thought to their purchases. There is some evidence that consumer purchase decisions can be influenced by factors (such as music) of which they are unaware. Hence, consumers can be influenced by factors that they cannot evaluate and weigh in a decision process. This raises special concerns about methods of protecting consumers.

Perhaps the most useful and enduring theory to explain consumer behavior is Martin Fishbein and Icek Azjen’s theory of reasoned action. This theory states that behavior results from an intention. For example, the purchasing of a product is a consequence of an intention to purchase that product. Thus, what is important to understand is how people form intentions. Consumers form intentions by taking into account two types of information. One is their overall evaluation of the product. The other is the subjective norms supporting purchase of the product. According to this theory, people plan to purchase a product if they evaluate it positively and believe that their purchase of it would be approved by those who are important to them. Because this theory emphasizes attitudes concerning a behavior toward an object and not only the object itself, it has successfully predicted many behaviors that attitudes alone could not.

In reality, the extent to which information is sought, evaluated, and weighed in a decision process on the part of a consumer depends greatly on the extent to which the consumer is involved in the process. The complexity of the decision process varies with consumer involvement. If the consumer is relatively uninvolved, the search for information is likely to be limited, with little evaluation of alternatives. With such routine decision making, there is little opportunity for the formation of attitudes toward the product—until after purchase or consumption. Involvement is thought to be a result of the personality of the consumer, the nature of the product, and characteristics of the situation. Consumers who are more self-confident, younger, more educated, or less experienced with the product category tend to engage in a more extensive information search. Consumers show greater information search for products with higher perceived financial, performance, social, or physical risk. Situational factors such as amount of time, quantity of product, or store alternatives also help determine the extent of information search.

The consumer’s decision to buy involves two major components: what brand to buy and where to purchase it. The decision process used to purchase a product can be classified as either compensatory or noncompensatory. With a compensatory rule, only the overall evaluation is important. This means that high evaluations on one dimension can compensate for low ones on another. In contrast, a noncompensatory rule results in a product being eliminated if it falls below an acceptable level on one dimension, regardless of its standing on other dimensions.

The decision process has been monitored by a variety of techniques to learn whether compensatory or noncompensatory rules are being used. Another objective of studying the consumer-choice process is to learn how information is selected and used. Researchers have used eye-movement monitors, computerized information displays, and information boards to track the order and extent of information search. Research by cognitive psychologists has shown that people tend to compare products on a single attribute rather than forming overall evaluations of each product and then making comparisons. This points to the value of displaying information such as unit price or nutritional values, which facilitates comparisons across products.

The Difficulties of Prediction

The prediction of behavior on the basis of attitudes has always been complex. While it is true that people who have a positive attitude toward a product buy more of it than those who do not, other hypothesized links between attitudes and behavior simply do not hold. For example, lifestyle surveys have shown an increasing trend toward the belief that meal preparation should take as little time as possible. Yet during the same time period in which these surveys were conducted, sales of frozen pizza remained constant and sales of frozen dinners fell.

Along similar lines, attitudes toward advertisements do not necessarily correlate with attitudes toward the product being advertised, let alone with purchase of the product. Even a specific attitude may fail to predict behavior toward an object. To demonstrate this, one might ask a friend to describe her attitude toward a Mercedes or a Porsche and toward a Kia. The attitude of many people toward the former is far more favorable, but in reality they are less likely to purchase their preferred make of automobile.

One reason the theory of reasoned action has been successful is that it does not attempt to link attitudes to behaviors in general. Because of this, the prediction of specific behaviors toward “attitude objects” can be achieved. This theory can also be applied to changing specific behaviors. For example, if a person does not intend to engage in a safety practice, a traditional attitude-change approach would attempt to persuade the person of the value of the practice. Fishbein and Azjen’s theory, however, suggests an alternative: persuading the person of the existence of subjective norms supporting the safety practice. This approach is not suggested by any other theoretical perspective on consumer behavior.

The debates about information and consumer decision making have had an impact on public policy and regulatory activities. William Wilkie identifies three concerns in the policy arena, all of them relating to the type, amount, and form of information that should be provided to consumers. First is the goal of providing consumers with complete information. Only by being fully informed can people spend their time, money, and effort in their best interest. Yet complete information may be impossible, and, even if it is available, the consumer may be unwilling or unable to process it all in decision making.

The second objective of public policy is to provide information that is “choice-neutral.” Since the marketing community presents information that will favor particular brands, public policy provides balance with an emphasis on objective information. The last, and most difficult, public policy application concerns trade-offs between the freedom of marketers to control information dissemination and the costs and benefits of information to consumers. This is likely to remain a politically controversial matter.

An understanding of the decision rules used by consumers can be applied effectively in marketing. The use of noncompensatory rules is encouraged by product ratings of critical factors such as safety. It is easy to eliminate those brands that do not possess a certain rating or “seal of approval” from further consideration. Another application of this principle can be seen in attempts to create the belief that consideration of a particular attribute should dominate the choice process. By stressing price and only price, the marketer is in effect telling the consumer that no other attributes are relevant. No matter how competing brands may be evaluated on other attributes, they cannot compensate for inferior positions on the price dimension.

A good illustration of strategies to promote noncompensatory decision rules can be seen in the environmental movement. By focusing consumers on the environmental impact of their purchases, marketers prevent other attributes from being taken into consideration. Sometimes this can lead to the purchase of one product over another, as in the case of cloth rather than disposable diapers; or one brand of the product may be chosen over alternatives, as in the case of nonchlorine rather than chlorine bleach or a high- rather than a low-energy-efficient appliance. In the most extreme cases, noncompensatory rules in decision making can lead to “negative purchases”: If all brands of tuna fish are obtained through techniques that kill dolphins, no brand is bought. Similarly, consumption of products with possible health hazards falls if a single dimension dominates information search and noncompensatory rules are used by consumers. No price reduction or rebate will induce one to purchase any brand if the product itself is judged unacceptable along the health dimension. One way of inhibiting such negative purchase decisions is to create ambiguity about the actual health hazards of the product or about information on product risks. With an overload of information that is difficult to process effectively, the consumer may become more reluctant to deem a product below the threshold necessary for purchase.

Advertising and Consumption

There have historically been three independent forces stimulating research on consumer behavior. One arises from the desire to influence consumers. Consumer decision-making research combines with advertising and marketing to create desires for products, preferences for brands, and patterns of consumption. An opposing force encouraging consumer behavior research is the desire to protect consumers; organizations committed to consumer rights have identified their own agendas for research on the decision-making processes of consumers. The third group interested in consumer behavior consists of scientists with a fundamental interest in human behavior as it occurs in the marketplace. The field on the whole is neutral with respect to the interests of consumers or those who wish to influence them.

The strong emphasis on decision making in the field of consumer psychology has, as in many areas in psychology, been encouraged by the cognitive revolution. Although researchers continue to recognize that people respond to affective and emotional appeals, they have become more attuned to consumers’ conscious processing of information. This trend can be expected to continue. The need to gather and evaluate information will grow as products and services become more diverse and complex. Another reason that consumer psychology will continue to place an emphasis on decision making is consumers’ demand for more complete and accurate information about goods and services.

One of the limitations of the cognitive theories of consumer decision making is that they typically fail to take into account differences between individuals and groups of people. Consumer psychology is likely to become increasingly concerned with market segmentation as the ability to understand the diverse needs of various groups develops. Further specialization of research on the aged and children as consumers is also predictable. Among emerging global trends is an increased interest in marketing to women around the world. The rise of Internet shopping has also made enormous changes in consumer behavior, diminishing the face-to-face interaction of consumer and salesperson and vastly increasing the ease of comparison shopping.


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