Why we buy: consumer psychology

Dr James Intriligator at Bangor University examines some of the ways in which researchers in the relatively new field of consumer psychology are helping businesses better understand the people they are trying to sell to.

To be successful in business, it doesn’t hurt to know a fair bit about how your potential consumers make decisions, and what can negatively or positively affect this process.

You’ve probably seen the advert. It was filmed in black and white. A man stands on a beach looking at very large waves. A voice over starts: “He waits; that’s what he does…” and a backing track with a heavy baseline kicks in. The man and his companions run into the surf and when they start surfing white horses appear behind them. They surf the waves and then collapse on the beach happy. Only then is the product revealed.

It’s a different kind of advert, but has it sufficiently 'hooked' you for you to remember the drink involved, or to change your opinion of that brand? Or does it just make you want to go to the beach? 

Market researchers who were asking questions like these twenty years ago could only take peoples' answers at face value. Today - using the tools of the new field of consumer psychology - it doesn't matter if you don’t answer market researchers' questions totally honestly, because they can now study your pre-conscious reactions. For example, by tracking your brain's electrical activity while you watch the advert, marketers can know how you really feel about it. They can know what you know before you know you know it!

In Bangor University's Centre for Experimental Consumer Psychology (which includes one of the UK's first-ever graduate programmes in consumer psychology) researchers are using the very latest tools and techniques of cognitive neuroscience - MRIs, brain scans, EEGs, implicit association tasks, eye-tracking - to study consumer behaviour.

With the knowledge gained, this emerging discipline can not only help companies market and brand products more effectively, but they can also help tackle other related issues, such as reducing packaging waste and even encouraging green consumerism.

An example of this is the work of the centre's director, Professor Jane Raymond, with the UK-wide Waste and Recycling Action Programme, where she has lead a study into how consumers perceive the quality of products sold in glass and plastic bottles. Her study has helped provide answers to questions such as if consumers associate heavier bottles with higher-quality products, can manufacturers substitute lighter bottles, perhaps in more interesting shapes, without losing ground in perceived quality?

Another example of the sort of insights this new discipline can bring is contained within the PhD of Dr Felicity Greenwell. Dr Greenwell studied the implicit reactions to websites, to ask whether photos of faces on websites help users to trust the sites. Her study found that users implicitly trust a smiling woman on a website more than a smiling man, however most trustworthy is a woman with a neutral expression so remember that next time you see an image like that on a website!

The UK is at the forefront of this new discipline and consumer psychology programmes are attracting students from all over the world from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds including business, marketing, psychology, even fine art and literature. Graduates can then go on to pursue PhDs, to work in market research companies or for large multinationals and some have even founded their own consulting firms.

Ultimately, of course, whether or not you choose to study consumer psychology, you’re already a consumer. In watching adverts created by businesses to sell their products and by reacting to them, you’re employing several (largely unconscious) psychological processes: perception, attention, memory and decision-making.

Today’s corporations are investing millions into understanding these processes and the total dynamics of consumer behaviour. They’re looking for people who understand business and psychology - and how they come together. To become one of those people, undertaking postgraduate study in one of the UK’s many higher education institutions is the best place to start.

Dr James Intriligator
Senior Lecturer
School of Psychology
Bangor University