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Freudian Psychology

The Psychology of Consumer Behavior

Research into consumers’ minds is rooted in psychoanalysis.

Key points

  • Psychoanalytic theory served as the basis for research into consumer behavior.
  • American society in the post-World War II years was an ideal climate for psychoanalytic theory to thrive.
  • Psychoanalytic techniques were widely applied in consumer research in the 1950s.

While the psychology of consumer behavior would veer off into a number of different directions in the 1950s, its core remained psychoanalytic theory brought over from Europe in the 1930s. Nothing happened by chance in the human mind, the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, had put forth. It was this idea that explained why marketers believed they had to probe consumers’ minds for the less-than-obvious.

Value of Unconscious Thoughts

Not only was each “psychic event” meaningful in some way, according to Freud, but each one was also determined by those preceding it, suggesting there was a certain logic even to the irrational. Unconscious thoughts were as significant, frequent, and normal as conscious ones in the universe of psychoanalysis, making them just as valuable to marketers as to therapists in terms of understanding people’s behavior.

It was ironic that psychologists of Freud’s own time considered his theories so strange when they became so popular with experts and laypeople alike in postwar America. “Thought” was strictly a conscious concept to psychologists a century ago when for Freud much of the activity of the human mind was unconscious.

Such unorthodox views made Freud persona non grata at universities until the 1930s when psychoanalysis finally began to be taken seriously. Academics in other social sciences—cultural anthropology, sociology, and even social psychology—were particularly hostile to psychoanalysis; their scorn receded only when they were thrown together in interdisciplinary military departments during World War II.

Immediately after that war, clinical psychology began to be taught en masse at universities, with hundreds of psychoanalysts soon hanging out their shingles to tackle Americans’ many emotional problems. The business community, which had viewed Freud, with his preoccupation with sex, as irrelevant at best, too started warming up to psychoanalysis at mid-century. “As more and more psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, and anthropologists plunged into the hurly-burly of the advertising offices,” noted Edith Witt in 1959, “the difference between an adman and a behavioral scientist became only a matter of degree.”

Although such a thing had of course not at all been on Freud’s own mind, the revolutionary form of psychology that had developed in Austria in the late 19th century fit like a glove with American-style marketing some 50 years later. Freud had focused on the self, after all, and what better resource than consumer culture to create a unique personality and stand out from the crowd?

Theory of Need Gratification

Freud’s theory of need gratification, whereby the relative satisfaction of one’s needs as a child shaped one’s adult personality, too was something marketers were very happy to learn about, knowing their ad agencies could figure out ways to complete (or compensate for) what was missing from consumers’ lives. Maslow’s theory of needs, first published in 1954—when excitement around consumer research was beginning to peak—also came in handy, offering marketers another model by which to better understand and more effectively sell products to consumers.

It was Freud, however, who researchers looked to first to get deep into consumers’ minds, where the reasons for their frequently inexplicable behavior resided. His concept of the unconscious, with its hidden desires that shaped people’s behavior, was a particularly powerful idea for marketers to embrace and exploit. Rationalization, the process by which conscious or unconscious acts were made to appear rational, was another psychiatric concept marketers could easily relate to.

Projection, an unconscious mechanism people used to cast off their weaknesses onto others, would turn out to be an ideal consumer research technique, as would free association, which Freud used to extract unconscious feelings and thoughts. Freud was, in short, a godsend to Madison Avenue; his radical views were ideal to advance consumer culture by allowing postwar Americans’ ids to run free.

With peer pressure, conformity, and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses defining themes in American society in the 1950s, psychoanalysis was not surprisingly having a field day; the fear of being somehow “abnormal” was perhaps at an all-time high. It was specifically the profound anxiety of not being in control, of losing one’s mind, that provided a perfect breeding ground for Freudian thought to resonate so strongly.

Other cultural factors—the triumph of a new medium specifically designed to promote consumerism (television), the trust in “experts” and “research” of all stripes, the realization that politicians could and should be marketed as brands, and, of course, the baby boom—too helped pave the way for various forms of research into consumers’ minds to flourish.


Samuel, Lawrence R. (2010). Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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