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Why Study Consumer Psychology?
While many of the millions of people who watch the Super Bowl get hyped up for the TV commercials along with the game and halftime show, the ads do not guarantee sales, says consumer psychologist Richard Feiberg. “A study by Feinberg suggests that even if people watch the commercials, they have a limited impact on longer-term memory,” wrote Judith Barra Austin for the Purdue University News Service (referring to the fact the ads may be aired only once). “And if consumers cannot remember the companies or the products, the commercials do not lead to sales.”
This is just one of the many fascinating topics consumer psychologists delve into. From subliminal messages and the timing of marketing campaigns to evaluating the spending habits of families or shopping tastes of different generations, consumer psychologists study how and why consumers make decisions. “Consumer psychology is the study of human responses to product and service related information and experiences,” states The University of Oregon’s Psychology Peer Advising site. “Many responses are relevant, including affective (emotional), cognitive (beliefs and judgments), and behavioral (purchase decisions and consumption-related practices) responses.”
Consumer Psychologists – At a Glance
- Degree Level Requirements: Ph.D. to become a recognized psychologist, but those interested in consumer psychology can enter related careers with less education.
- Certification/Licensure Requirements: Generally speaking licensure is not required (as consumer psychologists usually do not provide direct psychological services to patients) [see section below].
- Specializations: Various intriguing specializations, including consumer memory, how attitudes change, influences on the unconscious, the diversity of consumer audiences and social media.
- Median Annual Salaries: $68,640 *
- Job Outlook: 22% growth from 2010 to 2020 **
The field of consumer psychology offers many career opportunities for psychologists with a doctoral degree and also to those with less education but who are still versed in the discipline.
“From subliminal messages and the timing of marketing campaigns to evaluating the spending habits of families or shopping tastes of different generations, consumer psychologists study how and why consumers make decisions.”
Consumer Psychologist Career & Job Description
Consumer psychologists can work for a variety of settings including colleges/universities, research organizations and firms, educational foundations, government agencies, private companies, advertising agencies, media outlets (print, broadcast and online) and more. A consumer psychologist’s career could potentially involve extensive travel, especially if their work focuses on the relationship between culture and consumption.
“A consumer psychologist’s career could potentially involve extensive travel, especially if their work focuses on the relationship between culture and consumption.”
Consumer psychologists can lead very fulfilling careers, sometimes ‘wearing multiple hats’. Some of these roles might include:
- Conducting research (through various means such as focus groups, interviews, administering surveys and ethnographies—qualitative fieldwork that yields descriptions of cultural/social practices). Research is conducted in a variety of areas (see consumer psychology specializations below). According to PSI CHI, The International Honor Society in Psychology, a consumer psychologist might even be doing experiments such as, “photographing eye movements for a package design company as his research participants observe a succession of soft drink containers.”
- Teaching as a professor in colleges and universities. Consumer psychologists might not only teach consumer psychology courses. Instead or in addition they may teach classes related to social psychology, applied psychology, consumer behavior, marketing, management, research methods, advertising and more.
- Assisting government health agencies design and improve public service messages to promote positive behaviors, such as anti-drug or safe sex campaigns.
- Working as a consultant for private companies to assess consumer response to products and services or to evaluate the effectiveness of advertisements created in-house or by an ad agency. (“Jane E. Raymond, PhD, professor of experimental consumer psychology at the University of Wales in Bangor, often consults with companies directly, testing their ads to make sure they got their money’s worth from ad agencies,” wrote Rebecca A. Clay for the APA article “Advertising as science.”)
- Sharing expertise and advice with advertising agencies, such as how the brain absorbs messaging, the ideal placement/timing of information on a homepage, in a magazine or television slot, the fine balance between words and images, and more.
- Testifying in court or other legal proceedings as an expert witness (i.e. in litigation cases).
- Sharing information with the general public as an author of books and articles, as a keynote speaker and more.
- Providing training to relevant personnel, such as sales staff, customer service representatives, call center managers and more.
Specializations & Concentrations
While consumer psychologists focus on consumption practices, the intriguing field is still incredibly vast. Just some of the specializations or concentrations within consumer psychology include:
- Consumer memory
- Capturing and retaining consumer interest/intrigue
- How to influence Attitudes/Perception
- Health and Wellness
- Social Media
- Exploring consumer behavior among different generations, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, genders or lifestyles etc.
- Corporate social responsibility
- Non-conscious influences
- Long-term customer relations
- Legal applications
- Research methodologies
- Comparing forms of media/message delivery
The Educational Journey
To become an “official” psychologist, you need to complete a doctoral degree. However, those interested in consumer psychology can pursue careers after completing a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree as well. Those interested in consumer psychology should ideally complete courses/training in psychology, research methods and communication, as well as business-related courses, such as marketing, advertising and/or management.
Bachelor’s Degree: If you are interested in consumer psychology from the get go, you might like to complete a psychology degree and, when given the choice, selecting courses such as consumer psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, research methods/statistics and social psychology. (Some undergraduate programs may offer a consumer psychology minor or concentration option). For electives try to take some courses such as accounting, advertising, economics, marketing and business administration. Tailor your internship (or create a volunteer experience) so it takes place at a relevant workplace, such as a marketing department, advertising agency or business.
Relevant careers with a Bachelor’s Degree: According to Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan (in the fourth edition of their book Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World, 2013), those who complete a Bachelor’s degree and have experience/are interested in consumer psychology should pursue careers at an advertising firm (such as an assistant to the advertising manager, assistant media planner or media coordinator position); in real estate (agents must be licensed); or as a public relations specialist/information officer. If you are particularly interested in the research aspect, apply for research assistant positions at your alma mater, other universities or for other research firms/organizations.
Master’s Degree: Numerous universities offer relevant graduate programs, such as a Master’s in Psychology with a Consumer and/or Social Psychology specialization, Master’s in Social Psychology, Master’s in Consumer Behavior and/or Market Research or a Master’s in Consumer Science.
Careers with a Master’s Degree: According to Kuther and Morgan, those who have completed a Master’s degree related to consumer psychology are eligible for careers such as market research analyst, product development consultant, sales manager, public relations manager and advertising manager. Those who are research focused should also apply for research associate/coordinator positions. In some cases universities will also hire Master degree holders as Assistant Professors.
Doctoral Degree: To become a “full-fledged” consumer psychologist that researches, teaches and/or consults, etc., you need to complete a doctoral degree. Relevant options include a Ph.D. in Consumer Behavior, a Ph.D. in Experimental Social Psychology or a Ph.D. in Psychology (or a related field) with research/practice that focuses on a topic within consumer psychology. (Universities will also hire consumer psychologists to teach in other departments, such as Commerce, Consumer Science or Marketing Departments.)
Note that there is more than one educational path to becoming a consumer psychologist. For example, a consumer psychologist may have completed a Bachelor’s degree in sociology, travel management or something completely different, and an MBA or a Masters in Statistics or another field; on the other hand, a consumer psychologist may have completed a psychology degree at every academic level.
“Those interested in consumer psychology should ideally complete courses/training in psychology, research methods and communication, as well as business-related courses, such as marketing, advertising and/or management.”
Certification & Licensing Requirements
Generally speaking, a psychologist must be licensed if they are providing psychological services to patients (like assessments and counseling). Since consumer psychologists typically do not fulfill these types of roles, licensure is generally not required.
The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), which represents the alliance of licensing boards by state, province and territory (as licensing requirements vary by jurisdiction), states that psychologists employed as academics, researchers and the like may be exempt from licensure; but that there is a trend towards requiring psychologists employed by government agencies, for example, to become licensed.
It is best to find out the qualifications required by your prospective employers and to consult the ASPPB’s website to find out what the licensing requirements are for your jurisdiction.
Career Spotlight – Consumer Psychologist, Kim Yarrow Ph.D.
Kim Yarrow is a renowned and award winning consumer psychologist.
- She completed her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (Wright Institute in Berkeley)
- At Golden Gate University she is the Chair of the Psychology Department and a professor in both the Marketing and Psychology Departments.
- She is a researcher/ethnographer, consultant and keynote speaker.
- She wrote the book Gen Buy (How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail) and is a regular contributor to publications such as Psychology Today, Time Magazine and The Huffington Post.
While certifications are not mandatory, they can distinguish consumer psychologists as experts in their field. A relevant specialty credential offered through the ABPP (American Board of Professional Psychology) is its “Organizational & Business Consulting Psychology” certification. Some colleges/universities also offer consumer psychology certificate programs.
Finally, as a consumer psychologist it may be beneficial to have professional affiliations or become a member of such organizations as the Society for Consumer Psychology (SCP)—which is affiliated with the American Psychological Association (APA)—, the Association for Consumer Research (ACR), the Society for Consumer Affairs Professionals (SOCAP) and others.
- * May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- ** May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- † Salary data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-5
- ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-6