How Understanding Consumerism Can Improve Marketing Ethics – Psychology Today

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Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.
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Posted March 13, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
At its core, psychology is the study of uncovering the complexities behind human nature. And it does so through different perspectives—developmental (how we grow through time), cognitive (how we think), and social (how we relate to others). But what about the consumer perspective?
Consumer psychology is the study of how humans operate within the consumer environment: why we like what we like, why we buy what we buy. At first blush, this might seem like a very straightforward discipline. Researchers can just approach people while they shop and ask them, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Imagine the following scenario. You walk into a lab, and you’re shown an array of stockings hanging on a wall. Your task is simple: Browse these stockings, make a selection, and tell us why. Simple. So let’s say you take a look at these, and settle on some nice ones. You’re asked to explain why and you respond with whatever comes to mind: maybe you liked the bright color, the fabric, or any combination of features.
But is that really why?
This was the setup for a famous experiment dating back to the 1970s. What they found was that participants showed a very specific bias in their stocking selection. It wasn’t towards any specific color or type of fabric. Instead, it was for whatever stocking they put on the right-most side of the array. In controlled experiments across multiple trials, the ones on the right were chosen with shocking consistency.
This right-side bias is an interesting feature on its own. But the experiments weren’t interested in that per se. The most fascinating result in the experiment? Not a single person identified that as the reason for their choice. When asked why they made their decision, nobody ever said, “I just picked the ones on the right.” Put simply, people were completely unaware of their actual motivation.
It turns out, this isn’t limited to stockings, but a much more general feature of our decision-making.
Experiments and observations like this all point to the same general conclusion: Our consumer psychology suggests we’re remarkably bad at understanding why we do the things we do.
We have our own explanation which seems to make sense. But our own explanation, and the actual motivation, can be two very different things.
And this is why consumer psychology is so crucial. It’s about unpacking this mystery, unlocking consumers’ hidden motivations, desires, and emotions. It’s specifically concerned with questions like:
Just like there are many perspectives on psychology, there are many perspectives on marketing. What are the advantages to incorporating consumer psychology?
Generally speaking, it provides a much more holistic perspective. It allows you to go beyond behavior, and into the mind; enabling the marketer to walk in the consumer’s shoes. This perspective allows marketers to be much more customer-centric in their approaches, designing consumer experiences which not only result in the correct business outcome, but are enjoyable, memorable, and emotionally rich.
This perspective is essential to ethical marketing. Here, behavior alone is skin-deep and insufficient. It’s difficult to claim that a practice is ethical if the marketer has no clue as to the underlying psychological experience or impact. This may be especially crucial to conversations around compulsive technologies like smartphones and social media platforms.
From a behavior perspective, the consumer is merely staring into a screen for several hours a day. That may seem innocuous and maybe it is. But if underlying that behavior is an internal state of anxiety, depression, and insecurity, there’s a reason for concern and ethical scrutiny. Consumer psychology provides the perspective needed in order to better evaluate these ethical cases.
Ultimately, psychology and marketing are two fields interested in the same general question: How can we better understand and better predict human behavior? This is an immense and complicated question that has plagued both scientists and business people since time immemorial. Consumer psychology sits right at the nexus of these two fields.
Given the complexity of the human condition, we can’t expect easy answers. As Emerson Pugh once said, “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
And while both neuroscience and psychology are large multidisciplinary fields, much of human nature still remains mysterious. Increasingly, consumer psychology will be crucial to unlocking this complexity. And in doing so, providing a fresh perspective to the marketing discipline.
This post also appeared on the consumer psychology blog MJISME.
Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological review, 84(3), 231.
Matt Johnson, Ph.D., is a writer, speaker, and professor at Hult International Business School and Harvard University School of Continuing Education. He is the author of Branding That Means Business: How to Build Enduring Bonds between Brands, Consumers and Markets.
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Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.

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