Psychology Paper


How can psychology inform our understanding of how consumers behave?


Title: How can psychology inform our understanding of how consumers behave?


Psychology plays a crucial role in our understanding of consumer behavior. For instance, concepts such as perception and attention, which constitute some of the core areas of focus in psychology discourse, can explain how consumers arrive at various decisions. Other issues that are critical to our understanding of consumer behavior include biases in the decision-making process, attitude formation, and attitude change. Psychologists have already developed various theories to explain these concepts.

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            Moreover, through psychological theories, it becomes easier to understand various aspects impacting on consumer buying behavior, for instance branding, branding personality, motivation, buyers’ personality, and opinion leadership. It is also evident that consumers are influenced by a myriad of factors in their buying decisions, for example fashions, family influences, and lifestyle.

The thesis of this paper is that psychology plays a critical role in creating an understanding of the buying behavior of consumers in all situations. With this understanding, it becomes easier for sellers to position their products appropriately in the market and to meet the consumers’ needs.  This paper explores the various ways through which psychology can enrich our understanding of how consumers behave.

Role of perception and attention in consumer behavior

            In psychology, discourse on consumer behavior dwells on, among other things, the concepts of attention, perception and learning. Psychologists point out that the process of perceiving products and services is one that entails continuous filtering of the most relevant information. In this process, consumers identify the most crucial changes and ignore those that do not matter a lot to them. A case in point is a company’s packaging method, which may go unchanged for a long time. Once changes are made to the packaging method, consumers quickly notice the effort. This explains why many companies rebrand numerous times without losing brand identity.

Capturing the attention of consumers is always a priority in the world of advertising (Shavitt, 2008). Once the consumers’ attention has been captured, marketers vary the intervals within which certain information is provided in order to appear to be offering a reward to consumers for acting in a certain way. In this way, the advertisers achieve their goal of shaping the consumers’ behavior in a particular manner. This evidence is supported by psychological research, which shows that the way consumers interpret information regarding a product is greatly influenced by the information that has already been memorized and internalized (Solomon, 2006).

In psychology, perception is defined as the active process of recognizing, organizing, and interpreting stimuli. In layman’s language, perception occurs after an individual has seen, heard, touched, smelled, or even tasted objects and has subsequently made sense of them. During this process, the focus is normally on certain elements of these objects and events to the detriment of those that are not accorded the attention (Solomon, 2006). An in-depth understanding of how individuals perceive objects and events is necessary making a sense of how consumers can be made aware of certain products. The understanding also sends light on how consumers come to learn about certain products and to even try them out.

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The core aim of perception is always to detect changes in the environment (Egidi, 2008). On this basis, one can understand the fact that consumers may easily stop noticing objects that are not changing (Solomon, 2006). It is for this reason that many professional marketing specialists feel the need to update adverts, packaging styles, and company logos. They feel that without such changes, consumers may stop noticing the company’s products, and this may lead to a slump in sales. Another strategy of making change easily noticeable entails by using stimuli that is increasingly intense.

The products and services that are perceived by consumers are not determined simply by the information that is subjected to their senses. To illustrate this, Foxall (1994) points out that it is impossible for the consumer to internalize all the information he comes across while walking inside a shopping mall. To deal with this problem, the consumer refrains from assigning equal importance to each item he sees. Instead, he engages in selective attention to determine which items he is going to be consciously aware of.

According to Blythe (2008) many theories of perception and attention indicate that the manner in which consumers perceive products and services is greatly determined by the associations that the consumers make between these products themselves and advertising and packaging efforts. A consumer may buy an item because he or she saw an exciting advert on television. Similarly, attention on a certain detergent may be caused by the use of the consumers’ favorite colors in the packaging process.

Role of learning theories in understanding consumer behavior

The learning process plays a crucial role in the way consumers become aware of a wide range of products and services paraded to them by sellers. This learning process is best described from a psychological perspective. Consumer researchers borrow heavily from psychological theories of learning in their quest for a better understanding of the knowledge acquisition process by consumers (Solomon, 2006).

One of the first theories of learning to be developed was classical conditioning. In this theory, Ivan Pavlov used the dogs’ salivary reflex to understand the learning behavior of animals (Hoyer, 2007). Pavlov noticed that this reflex was triggered not just by the sight of food, but also by other events occurring prior to the sighting of food, such as footsteps of the approaching feeder and the sound of the bell (Hoyer, 2007). Pavlov argued that the events occurring prior to the feeding of the dog such as the sound of the bell and the footsteps of the person feeding the dog represented the conditioned or learned stimulus (Hoyer, 2007). On the other hand, the unconditioned or unlearned stimulus was presented by the sight of the food itself.

The pairing of the learned stimulus with the unlearned stimulus caused a situation where the dog could salivate even when only the conditioned stimulus was presented. The implication of this theory is that a wide range of reflexes can occur within the human nervous system, relating to phenomena such as hunger, sexual arousal, and thirst. These reflexes may be triggered by stimuli that are completely unrelated to the phenomena.

In the context of consumer behavior, the classical conditioning theory provides evidence on the ease with which individuals can be conditioned to relate a certain stimuli to an unrelated event. Consumers can acquire complex behavior by being rewarded with certain stimuli until the desired responses have been internalized. Many advertisers use the knowledge acquired in classical conditioning theory to pair learned stimuli with unlearned stimuli with the objective of inculcating certain buying behaviors in consumers.

 Biases in the consumer’s decision-making process

Psychological analyses show that the decision-making process of consumers as far as competing products are concerned is not always guided by logical comparison of the products being offered. Rather, consumers are susceptible to the use of the so-called biases or mental ‘shortcuts’ (Solomon, 2006). On this basis, one can easily understand how businesses succeed in influencing the decisions made by consumers (Gibson, 2008). Such business strategists understand that consumers tend to form certain attitudes regarding products and services. They therefore embark on a major undertaking of changing these attitudes, in most cases through the establishment of a brand personality.

One of the main manifestations of bias among consumers is making decisions simply on the basis of habit. When consumers minimize the amount of thought they can dedicate to a specific decision, they easily make illogical decisions. This is particularly the case in low-involvement products such as toothbrush, shoe polish, margarine, and washing detergent.

However, an understanding of psychology shows that at some point, the consumer receives stimuli, perhaps from an advert, to venture out and search beyond his habitual decisions. At such times, the consumer has to engage in some evaluation of products to determine the most appropriate one. In some cases, the consumer may lack the opportunity, motivation or even the ability to carry out a logical evaluation of the products. This results to a situation where the decision-making process is influenced by various biases.

Solomon (1999) observes that biases have the potential to interfere with any thought process of the consumer regardless of the how careful he may intend to be during the decision-making process. These biases are of great relevance in commercial settings, and sellers deliberate employ them to tilt sales in their favor. The two most common biases that psychologists have researched a lot on include ‘the ambiguity effect’ and ‘anchoring’.

In the ambiguity effect, focus is on the probability of the consumer getting a favorable outcome. Consumers have a tendency to pick options for which they know the probability of getting a favorable outcome. Advertisers easily create the impression of the existence of a favorable outcome by stressing that a favorable outcome is guaranteed upon using the product or service in question. They also cast doubts regarding the achievement of a similar outcome in the event that a competing product is consumed.

             On other hand, anchoring entails a reference point or ‘anchor’ that has been implicitly suggested for use as the starting point by consumers in their decision-making process. For example, a consumer may come across a toothbrush with two price tags, one of which has been cancelled out. The price that has been cancelled (the previous price) may be higher, for example by 100 percent, compared to the current price. The implicit suggestion is that the price of the toothbrush had dropped by 100 percentage points. Most consumers tend to rush to buy such a toothbrush simply because of the suggested drop in price. In this case, sellers simply set a very high price standard on which consumers base their decisions when judging the price of the product.

            Other common forms of bias include categorization, confirmation bias, hyperbolic discounting, conformity, diversification, and determinant attributes (Janiszewski & Warlop, 1993). According to Schiffman (2000), categorization is best understood through the concept of long-term memory as understood in psychology. In this case, each individual item that an individual is always viewed as part of a schema or a broader information package. The schemas are made up of different pieces of knowledge with relationships with each other.

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Through the organization of schema into a hierarchy, far-reaching implications on the decision-making process by consumers are realized. For instance, the location of a specific brand within a broad schema tends to have implications on how consumers react to it. Marketers who understand this often endeavor to reposition their products in efforts to persuade consumers that a specific product belongs in a certain schema, and within a particular level within the hierarchy. The decisions that consumers make are highly likely to be influenced by this form of persuasion.

            Similarly, it is also possible to relate the use of confirmation bias to certain psychological concepts. Through confirmation bias, consumers endeavor to look for information that supports their preconceived notions regarding a product. They seek mental ‘shortcuts’ by actively avoiding all information that fails to support their preconceived notions and beliefs regarding a product. This explains why many advertisers are keen to focus a lot of attention on the arguments that consumers already agree with.


In conclusion, psychology no doubt plays a critical role in informing our understanding of consumer behavior. Through reference to different psychological concepts and theories, it is possible to understand how consumers make purchase decisions, how they form attitudes regarding products, and how advertisers sometimes succeed in changing these attitudes and ultimately persuading them to buy certain products.

This paper has demonstrated that the field of psychology offers valuable insights in the understanding of perception and attention as well as learning theories in the context of consumer behavior. Without this knowledge, it would be difficult to understand why consumers actively focus their attention on certain products while ignoring others. Similarly, it would be difficult why consumers make biases and illogical purchase decisions. In this regard, the concepts of ambiguity effect, anchoring, categorization, and confirmation bias are crucial in efforts to put into perspective the place of psychology in discourse on consumer behavior.


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Foxall, G, 1994, Consumer psychology for marketing, Cengage Learning, London.

Gibson, B, 2008, ‘Can evaluative conditioning change attitudes toward mature brands? New evidence from the Implicit Association Test’, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 178-188.

Hoyer, W, 2007, Consumer behavior (Fourth Edition), Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Janiszewski, C, & Warlop, L, 1993, ‘The influence of classical conditioning procedures on subsequent attention to the conditioned brand’, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 171-189.

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