Reading: Psychological Factors

Consumer Decisions and the Workings of the Psyche

When we talk about psychological factors that influence consumer decisions, we are referring to the workings of the mind or psyche: motivation, learning and socialization, attitudes and beliefs.

Black-and-white photo of two teenage girls lounging on couch, TV remotes in hand. Caption is Couch Potatoes.


A motive is the inner drive or pressure to take action to satisfy a need. A highly motivated person is a very goal-oriented individual. Whether goals are positive or negative, some individuals tend to have a high level of goal orientation, while others tend to have a lower level of goal orientation. People may display different levels of motivation in different aspects of their lives. For example, a high school junior may be flunking trigonometry (low motivation) while achieving champion performance levels at the video game Guitar Hero (high motivation).

For any consumer purchasing decision to happen, the need must be aroused to a high enough level that it serves as a motive. At any given time, a person has a variety of needs that are not of sufficient urgency to generate the motivation to act, while there are others for which he is highly motivated to act. The forces that create a sense of urgency and motivation may be internal (people get hungry), environmental (you see an ad for a Big Mac), or psychological (thinking about food makes you hungry).

For motivation to be useful in marketing practice, it is helpful for marketing managers to understand how motivation plays into a specific purchasing situation—what triggers consumers to set goals, take action, and solve their need-based problems.

Motivation starts with an unmet need, as does all consumer problem solving. One of the best-known theories about individual motivation is the work of A. H. Maslow, known as the hierarchy of needs. Maslow developed a model that lays out five different levels of human needs. These needs relate to one another other in a “need hierarchy,” with basic survival-oriented needs at the lower levels of the hierarchy, building up to higher emotional needs associated with love, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment. This hierarchy is shown in Figure 1, below:

Pyramid graphic depicting Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. At the bottom is physiological needs; next is safety and security; next is love and belonging; next is esteem; at the top is self-actualization.

Figure 1

Physiological needs are at the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy: hunger, thirst, and other basic drives. All living beings, regardless of their level of maturity, possess physiological needs. Physiological needs are omnipresent and recur throughout nature.

Safety and security are second in Maslow’s hierarchy. Safety and security needs imply a continued fulfillment of physiological needs, as well as the absence of the threat of physical harm. Safety and security encompass both physical and financial security, because financial security is linked to a person’s ability to have her physiological needs met. Health and physical well-being and protection from accidents are also associated with this level of need. This is considered an extension of the more basic needs.

Love and belonging are third in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Love encompasses the needs for belonging, friendship, human intimacy, and family. They involve a person’s interaction with others and the need to feel accepted by social groups, large or small.

Esteem is the fourth level. Esteem includes the need to feel good about oneself, to be respected and valued by others, and to have a positive self-image.

Self-actualization is the fifth and highest level in Maslow’s needs hierarchy. Also described as self-fulfillment, this is the need humans feel to reach their full potential and to accomplish all that they can with their talents and abilities. Different people may express this need in very different ways: for one person, self-actualization might involve musical or artistic pursuits, for another, it’s parenting, and for a third the focus might be athletics. At different points in their lives, individuals might express this need through different pursuits.

In his work, Maslow asserts that these five levels of needs operate on an unconscious level. In other words, people may not even be aware that they are concentrating on one particular level of need or an assortment of needs. Maslow’s theory suggests that lower levels of need must be met before an individual can focus on the upper levels of needs. At the same time, a person may experience several different needs simultaneously. How an individual is motivated to act depends on the importance of each need.

When we think about Maslow’s needs hierarchy in the context of marketing and segmentation, we might use the hierarchy to help identify a common level of needs for a given segment. Effective and powerful marketing may operate at any level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Consider the following examples:

  • In-N-Out Burger’s freeway billboards featuring a giant, 3-D cheeseburger (physiological needs)
  • Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You Mom” ad campaign featuring dedicated parents of Olympic athletes and their loving relationships (love & belonging)
  • The U.S. Army’s famous “Be All You Can Be” slogan and advertising campaigns encouraging young adults to join the army (self-actualization), shown in the following video.

Learning and Socialization

In the context of consumer behavior, learning is defined as changes in behavior that result from previous experiences. Learning is an ongoing process that is dynamic, adaptive, and subject to change. Learning does not include behavior associated with instinctive responses or temporary states of an individual, such as hunger, fatigue, or sleep.

Learning is an experience and practice that actually brings about changes in behavior. For example, in order to learn to play tennis, you might learn about the rules of the game and the skills tennis players need. You would practice the skills and participate in tennis games to gain experience. Learning can also take place without actually participating in the physical experience. You can learn about something conceptually, too. In other words, you could learn to play tennis by observing experts and reading about how to play without actually doing it. This is called nonexperiential learning.

Picture of an elderly man sniffing a glass of red wine. A woman is in the background.

Consumer decisions can be influenced by both experiential and nonexperiential learning. Take an example of buying wine. Suppose you are at a winery and you are considering buying a bottle of zinfandel, which you have never tried before. If you taste the wine and discover you don’t care for the strong spicy flavor, you have learned experientially that you do not like zinfandel. On the other hand, you could ask the tasting-room host about the flavor of zinfandel, and she might say that it resembles strong ginger ale, in which case you might decide not to buy the wine because you don’t like ginger ale. In this second case, you have learned about the product nonexperientially.

Marketing relies heavily on nonexperiential learning, using tactics like customer testimonials, case studies, and blogger reviews to teach new customers through the experiences and opinions of others. Consumers themselves seek out resources for nonexperiential learning when they read book and product reviews on Amazon, film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and restaurant reviews on Yelp.

Another characteristic of learning is that the changes may be immediate or anticipated. In other words, learning may be taking place even if there is no evidence of it. We can store our learning until it’s needed, and we do this often with purchasing decisions. For example, a person might read up on product reviews for the latest set of tablet computers even though she doesn’t expect to buy one soon. Eventually she may be in the market, and at that point she can put her learning to use.

Reinforcement is the process of having your learning validated through rewards or punishments, which confirm that what you learned was correct. Over time, reinforcement can shape strong patterns of behavior. Suppose a consumer’s first car purchase is a Subaru. He loves the car and finds it to be safe, reliable, energy efficient, and a great value for the money. Each positive experience with his car rewards him and reinforces what he has learned about Subarus: they are great cars. When he decides to replace the car, positive reinforcement will almost certainly lead him to consider a Subaru again. Reinforcement can work in positive or negative ways, with consumers experiencing rewards or punishments that influence their decisions.

Socialization is the process by which people develop knowledge and skills that make them more or less able members of their society. Socialized behaviors are learned and modified throughout a person’s lifetime. This social learning approach stresses “socialization agents” (i.e. other people) who transmit cognitive and behavioral patterns to the learner. These people can be anyone: a parent, friend, celebrity spokesperson, teacher, role model, etc. In the case of socialization in consumer behavior, this takes place in the course of the person’s interaction with other people in various social settings. Socialization agents might include any person, organization, or information source that comes into contact with the consumer.

Consumers acquire this information from other individuals through the processes of modeling, reinforcement, and social interaction. Modeling involves imitation of the agent’s behavior. For example, a teenager may acquire a brand-name preference for Adidas from friends and teammates. Marketers can take advantage of this idea by employing product spokespeople who have strong credibility with their target consumers, as in the case of NBA star LeBron James for Nike.  As noted above, reinforcement involves either a reward or a punishment mechanism used by the agent. When a colleague compliments a coworker on her outfit, it conveys a rewarding message about the type of clothing to wear to work. Marketers might use reinforcement by providing good product performance, excellent post-purchase services, or some similar rewarding experience. Social interaction may include a combination of modeling and reinforcement in a variety of social settings. These variables can influence learning by having an impact on the relationship between the consumer and other people.

Attitudes and Beliefs

Attitudes and beliefs represent another psychological factor that influences consumer behavior. A belief is a conviction a person holds about something, such as “dark chocolate is bitter,” or “dark chocolate is delicious,” or “dark chocolate is good for baking.” An attitude is a consistent view of something that encompasses the belief as well as an emotional feeling and a related behavior.  For example, an attitude about dark chocolate might be expressed as a belief (“dark chocolate is delicious”), a feeling (“dark chocolate makes me happy,”) and a behavior (“I eat dark chocolate every afternoon as a pick-me-up”).

People have beliefs and attitudes about all sorts of things: food, family, politics, places, holidays, religion, brands, and so on. Beliefs and attitudes may be positive, negative, or neutral, and they may be based on opinion or fact. It is important for marketers to understand how beliefs and attitudes may affect consumer behavior and decision making. If an incorrect or detrimental belief exists among the general population or a target audience, marketing efforts may be needed to change people’s minds.

For example, in 1993, rumors erupted and spread widely about a syringe allegedly being found inside a can of Diet Pepsi. The entire incident turned out to be a hoax, but PepsiCo responded not only with strong immediate public statements but also with videos and a public relations campaign to quell the rumors and reassure consumers that Pepsi products are safe.

Beliefs and attitudes do not always translate into behaviors: in some situations customers may choose to do something despite their personal views. Suppose a consumer likes pizza but does not like Pizza Hut. In a social setting where everyone else wants to go to Pizza Hut for dinner, this person might go along with the group rather than dining alone or skipping dinner.

When consumer attitudes present a major stumbling block, marketers have two choices: either they can change consumers’ attitudes to become with their product, or they can change the product to match attitudes. Often it is easier to change the product than to change consumers’ attitudes. Attitudes can be very difficult to change, chiefly because they are intertwined with a pattern of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. Changing the attitude requires changing the whole pattern. As a rule, it is easier for marketing to align with existing attitudes rather than trying to alter them.

Of course, exceptions are possible. For example, a father of young children might detest minivans right up to the moment he drives one off car lot. As he experiences the car’s many great features and sees how well suited it is for transporting his family, his attitude gradually shifts until he becomes a fan. This attitude-adjusting premise is the thinking behind Toyota’s popular “Swagger Wagon” ad series for the Toyota Sienna shown in the following video:

Marketers may also look for opportunities to reshape or create new attitudes in moments when consumers may be more open-minded, as with a product redesign or a new product introduction.