Are We Really Free to Buy What We Want?

A Beginner's Guide for Buyer Behaviour and Persuasion Techniques

By Hannah Golding

“Marketing isn’t a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions”. This famous quote by authors Al Reis and Jack Trout captures the core of the art of persuasion in consumer psychology. What really matters to customers isn’t price, nor how good the product is… what matters is how it seizes the customers feelings and the benefits that come with it. I’ve always wondered what makes a customer buy one product over another, and so here, I’m looking to find why people say ‘yes’, and how these findings are applied to the real world.

From studying psychology and reading up on consumerism, I have noticed that a lot of research has found that our buying behaviours are affected by situational, social, and psychological influences that persuade us to buy certain products. Here are the 3 approaches broken down:

1.         Purchase factors

This includes aspects of our buying experience like what’s around us that can really affect our behaviour as customers. For example, a study found that 70% of participants agreed that they preferred stores that play music. And in regard to a profitable outcome of this, another study found that in comparison to fast-tempo background music, slow-tempo background music in restaurants encouraged groups to stay longer at the table and purchase more beverages… resulting in a larger turnover! In this case, more soothing background music created a more relaxing purchasing environment. In contrast, it’s been found that loud music can encourage a larger turnover in supermarkets. They found that although this made customers spend less time in the supermarket, the rate of spending was greater during the louder sessions of music.

2.         Social factors

This involves associations we make with people, for example referring to a reference group (where the buyer looks to others when wanting to form attitudes about a purchase). The Asch Phenomenon points out that some people can conform to certain judgements made by their reference group (in this case, people of higher status) because of social pressure. However, critics have said this theory could be considered out dated as it reflected 1950 USA cultural state at the time meaning participants were more likely to conform. In comparison, a replication study showed that contemporary British participants didn’t show the same compliance. The Asch Phenomenon still, however, remains important as it offers one of the first scientific explanations that voiced the importance of social influences on our decision making. In regard to consumerism, a study found that teenage girls looked most to their parents and peer groups for approval of their spending behaviour, preparing to pay a lot of cash for big brands they thought were ‘cool’.

3.         Psychological factors

These are things that are going on in the mind of the consumer that affect what we purchase. Our motivations can play a huge role in what we buy, and marketers tend to play on this. ‘The PSSP Hierarchy of Needs’ outlines different levels of personal requirements or ‘motivations’ that marketers try to appeal to, from our basic needs like food and water, safety needs such as security, social needs like belonging… all the way up to our supposed personal needs, like buying the latest Mercedes Benz because it will make us feel prestige. Although the PSSP model has been criticised for lacking empirical evidence about whether consumers pass through each stage chronologically, it helps distinguish between the likely objectives a consumer may look for at each stage of an advertising campaign.

Sex sells!

This is probably one of the most famous consumer psychology theories in history. Founder of consumer psychology, behaviourist John Watson, laid out a new scientific approach to psychology that relied on experiments rather than assumptions, by using data to target certain consumers. Although Watson had a controversial career, his theories in regard to behaviourism contributed massively to the world of psychology and even received a Gold Medal from the American Psychological Association for his dedication to the field!

Watson’s behaviourism theory assumes that behaviour is observable and that stimuli can provoke emotion that makes a customer want to make a purchase. In light of this, Watson tried to highlight how emotions can impact us so strongly on our buying decisions through this cigarette study by focusing on brand loyalty. He tested participant’s reaction to smoking cigarettes whilst being oblivious to brand name and interestingly, despite being exposed to the brands beforehand, subjects were unable to tell between the different cigarettes being smoked. Here, Watson executed a sound explanation of the effects of brand loyalty on our purchasing decisions. Watson put his findings to practice and created many successful campaigns, one of which being the Pebeco toothpaste advert. This targeted women in encouraging an emotional response from using other seductive women to persuade women to smoke, as long as they used the Pebeco toothpaste. The advert included no health benefits… just focused on making female consumers feel as though to have more sex appeal (a frightening juxtaposition!).

Consumer Psychology in the now.

Whilst theories such as Watson’s are fairly old, many modern psychologists still integrate the foundations of his work. Though this is not to say this consumer psychology isn’t changing with the times. Consumer psychologists are still in keeping with Watson’s principles but have discovered new ways to research through the use of Neuromarketing. Neuromarketing – the study of merging consumer behaviour and neuroscience - first arose in 2002 and is currently gaining rapid credibility. This means researchers are able to detect consumer behaviour by looking at the brain through the use of machinery such as fMRI and eye tracking.

This is the case in most areas of psychology as researchers have become more aware of Neuromarketing as a more effective alternative in comparison to Watson’s ancient ways of assessing effective persuasion techniques. Neuromarketing can now allow marketers to probe the brains of consumers into why which sorts of advertising triggers success or failure in grasping consumer’s emotions without having to rely on their verbal feedback. Despite its ethical considerations being called into question, its ludicrous not to think that Neuromarketing provides a more powerful insight into the mind of the modern-day consumer.

fMRI scanners support Watson’s theory of brand loyalty. In one study, an fMRI did reveal that different parts of the brain were activated if people were aware or not aware of whether they were drinking certain branded drinks; Coke or Pepsi. For example, when participants were aware of the brand they were drinking, they said they preferred Coke, but when they weren’t aware of which brand they were drinking, they actually said they preferred Pepsi. Despite failing to provide an explanation of how our brain handles these preferences, the fMRI reflected this Coke brand loyalty. In this context, using fMRI to assess consumer’s loyalty towards a product has become more reliable from a biological perspective. And in turn, persuasion techniques that play on these emotions can be allocated more effectively by marketers.

And with online shopping dominating the internet, companies are having to adjust to the ever-changing consumer platform. From doing your everyday online food shop to booking your next summer holiday, we all like a straightforward purchasing environment on the web. We as users have clear expectations of where web options are located on the web page and companies try to conform to this. Through the use of eye tracking, findings suggest that when web options were placed according to our user expectations, buyers could use the website faster and remembered how to for next time. Fewer eye fixations indicated better user experience and so the company gets the thumbs up on good first impressions, persuading consumers to use the website again, in hope of more potential sales, so the company makes more profit etc… and hopefully there won’t be an unsatisfied user in sight!

In answer to my question…

So, are we really free to buy what we want? Given the evidence, I’d say that no, we never have been, and never will be free of influences affecting our buying behaviour. There are numerous explanations of how persuasion techniques used in marketing lead us to buy certain things, and due to the rise of technology, consumer psychologists can tap into our ways of thinking with more clarity due to support from modern machinery. But in psychology only one answer remains universal – ‘it depends’… because science cannot actually ‘prove’ anything at all!

About The Author

Hannah is a second year Psychology student at Canterbury Christ Church University. Hannah recently started a Neuromarketing Internship with Space Between to pursue her career interest in Consumer Psychology.