This website uses cookies to store information on your computer. Some of these cookies are used for visitor analysis, others are essential to making our site function properly and improve the user experience. By using this site, you consent to the placement of these cookies. Click Accept to consent and dismiss this message or Deny to leave this website. Read our Privacy Statement for more.
Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2001

Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2001 | Volume 6 | Issue 1


What is Consumer Psychology?

Marien Friestad
University of Oregon

Consumer psychology is the study of how people relate to the products and services that they purchase or use. Division 23, the Society for Consumer Psychology (SCP), is made up of people committed to bringing a wide range of psychological disciplines into this applied research endeavor. SCP-Division 23 also works to contribute its own theories, findings, and methodologies to other areas of psychology. Consumer psychologists study virtually all psychological and behavioral responses that can occur within the context of a person's role as a consumer. And consistent with the goals of psychologists from other areas, research carried out by consumer psychologists is designed to describe, predict, explain, and/or influence consumer responses to product- and service-related information and experiences. For example, research by members of SCP may be used to

  • provide information to companies and consumers on what the public needs or wants
  • help an organization (either profit or nonprofit) effectively develop and market products, services, or ideas
  • guide 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

Consumer psychology contains a broad range of theoretical, conceptual, and methodological perspectives. However, currently the strongest representation comes from researchers in the areas of cognitive psychology, social psychology, marketing, and advertising.

History of Consumer Psychology

The roots of SCP-Division 23 can be traced back to psychologists such as Kurt Lewin and George Katona. During World War II, Lewin worked to identify scientifically valid strategies to remedy perceived shortages in protein foods by encouraging consumers to eat internal organ meats, such as livers, hearts, and kidneys. Katona pioneered the use of survey research methodologies to forecast trends in consumer buying. Today, the index of consumer sentiment is used as a leading economic indicator.

Some years later a proposal by Stuart Kamen and Howard Schultz led to the official "birth" of Division 23 in 1961. Since that time Divison 23 has grown from a small group of psychologists to a much larger and eclectic group of psychologists, marketers, and advertisers.

Throughout those years and up to the current day, the core idea has been to maintain a singular focus on the consumer while incorporating the broadest possible range of content areas from psychology (e.g., experimental, evaluation-measurement, developmental, psychometric, personality, social, industrial-organizational, family, media). Thus a core value of SCP-Division 23 is that our research and our membership seek to incorporate diversity in theory, content, methods, applications, and the backgrounds of our members.

What Consumer Psychologists are Doing

Consumer psychologists are educators, researchers, consultants, managers, administrators, and policy makers. The majority of the members of SCP-Division 23 work in universities, although increasing numbers are also employed in management- and policy-level positions within both the public and private sectors. Academic positions for consumer psychologists are found most frequently in business schools, although a significant number also work within schools and departments that focus on advertising and communication.

The following examples, which are by no means exhaustive, will help to demonstrate the range of activities that are undertaken by consumer psychologists.

  • In the laboratory—a psychologist is photographing eye movements for a package design company as his research participants 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.
  • 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.
Training in Consumer Psychology

In the early years of the discipline, consumer psychologists were individuals who had a PhD in psychology or a related quantitative discipline (statistics, economics). As those researchers took positions in business schools across the country, they began training their own doctoral students. Thus, today many consumer psychologists have advanced degrees in marketing, management, or advertising.

Therefore, an undergraduate student with a degree in psychology and a genuine interest in consumer psychology would be wise to seek graduate training within a professional school or department. If the ultimate goal is an academic position at a university, then students should apply to doctoral programs in the type of department where they will ultimately be seeking an academic position (e.g., advertising, marketing). Students who feel they would like to pursue consumer psychology in a business setting would also benefit from business training. If, however, a student does wish to continue their graduate training in a psychology department, then they should take additional courses from the graduate programs in the relevant professional school, and also consider working with a faculty member from that school on research projects.

Regardless of the ultimate career goal of a student of consumer psychology, rigorous training in research methods is critical. Graduate students must master the basics of experimental methodology, survey research methods, and statistical analysis before they can study more advanced research methods such as covariance structure modeling, response latency-based methodologies, and computer simulation. Such training should enable students to produce well-designed experiments that rule out alternative explanations for a cause-effect relationship, and/or questionnaires that minimize question-wording effects, order effects, memory biases, and response-scale effects. Finally, knowledge of the appropriate statistical procedures must also be acquired so as to control for sampling error and for other sources of variation in participants' responses.

Many leading graduate 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 below. 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 you may apply.

  • Journal of Consumer Psychology. This journal is the primary outlet for research in consumer psychology. Sponsored by the Society for Consumer Psychology (SCP - Division 23), it is devoted entirely to consumer psychology.
  • Journal of Consumer Research. This interdisciplinary journal, sponsored by the Association for Consumer Research, contains a great deal of research in consumer psychology. It also contains research in consumer anthropology and sociology.
  • Business research journals such as the Journal of Advertising, the Journal of Marketing Research, and the Journal of Marketing also contain research focused on consumer psychology.
  • Finally, 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; as well as 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.

Just as there is tremendous diversity in the backgrounds, theoretical and methodological expertise, and interests of consumer psychologists, there are diverse paths toward a job in consumer psychology. A student's academic background and prior business experience (as well as the current economic conditions) will determine how quick and successful that student will be in a job search. Prime sources of job listings are the APA Monitor, Marketing News, Advertising Age, and the Wall Street Journal. Students who are interested in working in the private sector can also use the business library to look up the names of the research directors of major corporations and advertising agencies. Finally, professional contacts can be made through becoming an active member in organizations such as the Society for Consumer Psychology. More information about SCP and related organizations can be found at our website:

Marian Friestad, PhD, is an associate professor of marketing in the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon. She received her MA and PhD in mass communication, and a BA in communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She recently served (1998-2000) as the dean of the graduate school at the University of Oregon. She teaches courses in marketing communications, consumer behavior, and marketing research at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Her research interests include memory, emotions, persuasion, and folk knowledge of persuasion and marketing. She is an active member, and current president, of the Society for Consumer Psychology (Division 23). Her other professional memberships include the Association for Consumer Research, American Marketing Association, and the American Academy of Advertising.

Copyright 2001 (Vol. 6, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

Psi Chi Central Office
651 East 4th Street, Suite 600
Chattanooga, TN 37403

Phone: 423.756.2044 | Fax: 423.265.1529


Certified member of the
Association of College Honor Societies