Consumer Behavior

Understanding Consumer Behavior

Consumer behavior, or how people buy and use goods and services, is a hotbed of psychological research, particularly for companies trying to sell their products to as many consumers as possible. Since what people buy—and why they buy it—impacts many different facets of their lives, research into consumer behavior ties together issues of communication (How do different people respond to advertising and marketing?), identity (Do purchases signify personality?), social status, decision-making, and mental and physical health.

Corporations, political campaigns, and nonprofit organizations all consult findings about consumer behavior to determine how best to market products, candidates, or issues—in some cases, by manipulating people's fears, their least-healthy habits, or their worst tendencies. But consumers aren’t powerless: Learning the different strategies companies use, as well as the psychological explanations for people's often confusing purchasing decisions, can help individuals more consciously decide what, when, and why to buy.

Advertising and Marketing

Two vast, interrelated industries—advertising and marketing—are dedicated to introducing people to products and convincing them to make a purchase. Since the public’s desires tend to change over time, however, what works in one product’s campaign won’t necessarily work for another’s. To adapt their messages for a fickle audience, advertisers employ focus groups, market research, and psychological studies to better understand what compels people to commit to purchases. Everyone has heard the advertising maxim “sex sells,” for instance—but exactly what, when, and why sex can be used to successfully market a product is the subject of much debate among ad makers and behavioral researchers, amid evidence that pitches to the perceived “lowest common denominator” may inspire consumer backlash.


Deception, Media

Why We Buy

Much of what people purchase—like food, shelter, or medical care—is necessary for their health and security. But what compels someone to buy the things that aren’t necessary, like the latest iPhone or an impractical pair of high-heeled shoes? Extraneous purchases may be driven by a need to display one’s social status, or in response to an emotion like sadness or boredom. In other instances, retailers may successfully manipulate the desire for a “good deal” by making an unneeded item seem especially affordable or portraying it as being in limited supply. In a capitalist society, people will continue to be tempted by unnecessary goods and services, but recognizing common manipulation tactics may help them save money—and stress—in the long term.

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