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What is Consumer Psychology?

This document focuses on how to obtain Ph.D. level training in consumer psychology and on career opportunities for Ph.D. level consumer psychologists (we refer students interested in bachelor's and master's level positions to Appendix 2 in Kotler, P. and Armstrong, G. [1991]. Principles of Marketing. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall).

This document provides students in psychology, marketing, and communications with information about:

  • the orientation and the goals of consumer psychologists

  • the contributions they make

  • their research methods

  • their academic journals

  • graduate programs in consumer psychology and

  • career opportunities in consumer psychology

Consumer psychology is the study of human responses to product and service related information and experiences. Many responses are relevant, including affective (emotional), cognitive (beliefs and judgments), and behavioral (purchase decisions and consumption-related practices) responses. A broad range of product and service related information is relevant, including marketer initiated stimuli (e.g., advertisements, package labels, coupons, point-of-purchase displays), consumer magazines, and word-of-mouth communications from friends and relatives.

Responses to information about products and services are influenced by three major factors: (1) person variables (e.g., personality variables, prior attitudes and opinions), (2) situational variables (e.g., marketer initiated stimuli, product variables), and (3) person by situation interactions.

The goals of consumer psychologists are to describe, predict, influence, and/or explain consumer responses to product and service related information.


What Consumer Psychologists are Doing

IN THE LABORATORY a psychologist is photographing eye movements for a package design company as his subjects observe a succession of soft drink containers.

AT A GOVERNMENT BUREAU a psychologist presents the results of a study concerning consumer response to an advertising claim that is literally true but has false inferential implications.

ON AN OVERSEAS FLIGHT a psychologist is administering a series of projective questions to a sample of travelers for an airline.

AT AN AUTOMOBILE COMPANY a psychologist assesses consumer response to various combinations of product features to help engineers determine the optimal combination.

AT A UNIVERSITY a psychologist is helping develop a theoretical model of financial decisions made by families.

AT AN ADVERTISING AGENCY a psychologist is presenting study findings that show how well alternative commercials communicate, and improve attitudes toward a brand of coffee.


What Consumer Psychologists Contribute To

IN THE CLASSROOM a psychologist is teaching students about children's responses to advertisements and to children's television programs that promote program-related toys and action figures.

AT A RESEARCH FIRM a psychologist is conducting a group discussion with eight women who have stopped serving meat to their families.

AT A KITCHEN TABLE a psychologist is observing a successful life insurance salesman talk with a prospect.

IN THE COURTROOM a psychologist is testifying as an expert witness in a trademark infringement case.

IN AN ASIAN CAPITAL a psychologist studies how consumers from different cultures use a product differently.

Consumer psychologists are educators, researchers, and administrators. Increasing numbers are in management and policy level positions. Consumer psychologists get direct feedback from their work. They see how it changes things. Consumer psychology is a relatively young field with a very exciting future.

The success of a business enterprise through research and advice that leads to the effective development and marketing of products and services.

The welfare of the consumer by providing information to companies and consumers on products and services that best satisfy the wants of the public.

The work of government agencies that are responsible for product safety, identity of brand names, evaluation of advertising claims, and assessment of ethical marketing practices.

The field of psychology itself by bringing together and integrating other psychological disciplines into an applied research endeavor, and contributing its own theories, findings and methodologies to other areas of psychology.


Research Methods in Consumer Psychology

Research methods provide the foundation for all knowledge in a field of inquiry. Advances in a field depend critically on the quality and sophistication of available research methods. Fortunately, the most advanced research methods used in cognitive, social, developmental, and clinical psychology-such as covariance structure modeling, response latency-based methodologies, and computer simulation-can also be found in consumer psychology. Sophisticated physiological measures, scale development procedures, and multivariate statistical techniques are also used by consumer psychologists.


Academic Journals

Graduate students must master the basics of experimental methodology, survey research methods, and statistical analysis before they can study the advanced research methods listed above. Experiments must be designed so that alternative explanations for a cause-effect relationship are ruled out until only one explanation remains. Questionnaires must be designed so that question-wording effects, order effects, memory biases, and response-scale effects are minimized. The appropriate statistical procedures must be used to control for sampling error and for other sources of variation in subjects' responses.

The journals listed below can be found in libraries at all major universities.

The primary outlet for research in consumer psychology is the Journal of Consumer Psychology. This journal is sponsored by the Society for Consumer Psychology and is devoted entirely to consumer psychology.

A great deal of research in consumer psychology can be found in the Journal of Consumer Research. This is an interdisciplinary journal that also features research in consumer anthropology and consumer sociology.

Research in consumer psychology can be found in the major journals in social psychology, including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Public Opinion Quarterly, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, and the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Relevant research can also be found in the major journals in cognitive psychology, including Psychological Review, the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning. Memory. and Cognition, Cognitive Psychology, Memory & Cognition, and the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.

Finally, research in consumer psychology can also be found in business journals such as the Journal of Advertising, the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Business Research, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Psychology & Marketing, and the Journal of Economic Psychology.


Graduate Programs in Consumer Psychology

Many leading Ph.D. programs in psychology, marketing, and communications/advertising have faculty members that specialize in consumer psychology. The best way to identify the programs that are most appropriate for you is to read the journals listed. The articles that interest you also provide information about the authors and about their affiliations. Often the address of at least one of the authors is provided in a footnote. This information should prove to be useful in helping you to develop a list of programs to which to apply. Most departments will gladly supply a brochure describing their faculty.

The admission requirements of the leading Ph.D. programs are very competitive. It is best to apply to several programs. Scores on the GRE exam are weighted heavily by most psychology and communications/advertising departments, and scores on the GMAT exam are weighted heavily by most marketing departments. G.P.A.'s from your bachelor's and master's programs are also important (some departments allow you to bypass the master's degree). Transcripts and letters of recommendation are also required.

Career Opportunities in Consumer Psychology

Graduate training in consumer psychology is designed to provide students with:

  • experience in analyzing and evaluating human behavior patterns

  • an understanding of the scientific process and how to go about hypothesis testing

  • the ability to translate complex issues into testable alternatives

  • experience in both non-experimental and experimental design

  • the ability to apply descriptive and inferential statistics

  • the ability to analyze data and interpret findings

  • experience in writing proposals and research reports in a clear and precise manner

Many consumers psychologists find employment at teaching or research-oriented universities. However, many choose a nonacademic career path and find employment at a corporation, an advertising agency, a marketing research firm, a government, or a private consulting firm.

There is no one proven method for getting your first job in consumer psychology. Many factors (e.g., academic background, prior business experience, current economic conditions) will determine how quickly you will be successful in your job search. You should not only look for job listings in the APA Monitor, Marketing News, Advertising Age, or the Wall Street Journal. Another suggestion is to go to a business library and look up the names of the research directors of major corporations and advertising agencies. Send the directors a brief resume* telling them of your interests, and follow the letter up with a phone call asking for an opportunity to come in to learn about their business and to discuss your qualifications.

Another way to discover position openings and establish professional contacts in the field is to become active in organizations such as the Society for Consumer Psychology and some of the organizations listed below.

Professional Societies and Associations 

(see also links in the Related Sites section)

*** This edition is an updated version of an earlier edition prepared by the Public Relations Committee of Division 23 (especially William O. Bearden and Leon B. Kaplan). This edition was prepared by the Education and Training Committee of the Society for Consumer Psychology, consisting of Frank Kardes, Lynn Kahle, Sharon Shavitt, and Curt Haugtvedt.