Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

The Psychological Approach to Studying Consumer Behavior

Paul Lazarsfeld Forever Changed American Business.

“Have you ever noticed…that people never answer what you [ask]?”

- From the C.K. Chesterton detective story, “The Innocence of Father Brown”

 

One day in Vienna in 1930, the owners of a new laundry asked an instructor at the city’s famed university to help them grow their business. Many Austrian women were reluctant to send out their laundry, the instructor, a psychologist, learned, they thinking that doing so reduced their role as proper hausfrau. In interviewing existing customers, the psychologist learned that women who did use the laundry often first sent out their wash when an “emergency” occurred, such as a child becoming sick or houseguests unexpectedly dropping in. Once experiencing the joy of having someone else do their wash, however, the women were usually hooked, and became regular customers. This particular insight led the psychologist to suggest that the owners of the laundry send a letter describing the services of the business to every household in which a family member had recently died, knowing that the bereaved would find it difficult to do their own wash. The owners of the store tried the idea and business instantly picked up, lighting a spark under a new kind of research which would over the next few decades revolutionize global consumer culture.

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Paul Lazarsfeld’s clever, if ethically ambiguous, use of what he called the “psychological approach” to studying consumer behavior revealed the indisputable value of what would soon be called motivation (or motivational) research (or MR). Although he is hardly a household name, Lazarsfeld was one of the most important figures in the history of advertising and marketing, his approach to gleaning information from consumers very much like the way it is still done today. Pioneering “the analysis of the complex web of reasons and motives that determines the goal strivings of human actions,” Lazarsfeld was, according to Lewis A. Coser, author of Refugee Scholars in America, nothing less than “the father of sophisticated studies of mass communication.” A disciple of Alfred Adler (and his mother a prominent Adlerian psychotherapist), Lazarsfeld absorbed the ideas of this most sociological of Freud’s followers, creating a new, hybrid form of social science in the process. His most famous study, The Unemployed Workers of Marienthal, completed when he was a young man in Vienna, was an early attempt to quantify sociological fieldwork, this once radical pursuit something he would be obsessed with for the rest of his career.

Although a devout socialist, something quite typical among Viennese intellectuals between the wars, Lazarsfeld ironically found himself in the market research business when he needed to fund his Wirtschafts Psycholisches Institut (Psycho-Economic Institute), a center studying economic problems in Austria. “We were concerned with why our propaganda was unsuccessful,” the former member of the Socialist Student Movement remembered years later, “and wanted to conduct psychological studies to explain it.” With its depth interviews and analysis drawing from sociology, psychology, and psychoanalysis, the Institute almost incidentally found itself doing what were probably the most progressive market studies in the world in the 1930s. These studies were the beginnings of motivation research, something that one of Lazarsfeld’s students- Ernest Dichter- would bring to the United States and, in the process, change the course of American business.

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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