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3.4 Psychological Factors That Affect People’s Buying Behavior

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs works.
  2. Outline the additional psychological factors that affect people’s buying behavior.


MotivationThe inward drive people have to get what they need. is the inward drive we have to get what we need. In the mid-1900s, Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, developed the hierarchy of needs shown in Figure 3.8 "Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs".

Figure 3.8 Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow theorized that people have to fulfill their basic needs—like the need for food, water, and sleep—before they can begin fulfilling higher-level needs. Have you ever gone shopping when you were tired or hungry? Even if you were shopping for something that would make you envy of your friends (maybe a new car) you probably wanted to sleep or eat even worse. (Forget the car. Just give me a nap and a candy bar.)

People’s needs can be recurring, such as the physiological need for hunger. You eat breakfast and are hungry at lunchtime and then again in the evening. Other needs tend to be enduring, such as the need for shelter, clothing, and safety. Still other needs arise at different points in time in a person’s life. For example, during grade school and high school, your social needs probably rose to the forefront. You wanted to have friends and get a date. Perhaps this prompted you to buy certain types of clothing or electronic devices. After high school, you began thinking about how people would view you in your “station” in life, so you decided to pay for college and get a professional degree, thereby fulfilling your need for esteem. If you’re lucky, at some point you will realize Maslow’s state of self-actualization: You will believe you have become the person in life that you feel you were meant to be.

Marketing professionals understand Maslow’s hierarchy. Take the need for people to feel secure and safe. Following the economic crisis that began in 2008, the sales of new automobiles dropped sharply virtually everywhere around the world—except the sales of Hyundai vehicles. Hyundai ran an ad campaign that assured car buyers they could return their vehicles if they couldn’t make the payments on them without damaging their credit. Other carmakers began offering similar programs after they saw how successful Hyundai had been.

Likewise, banks began offering “worry-free” mortgages to ease the minds of would-be homebuyers. For a fee of about $500, First Mortgage Corp., a Texas-based bank, offered to make a homeowner’s mortgage payment for six months if he or she got laid off.Andrea Jares, “New Programs Are Taking Worries from Home Buying,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 7, 2010, 1C–2C.

The Consumer’s Perception

PerceptionHow people interpret the world around them. is how you interpret the world around you and make sense of it in your brain. You do so via stimuli that affect your different senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. How you combine these senses also makes a difference. For example, in one study, consumers were blindfolded and asked to drink a new brand of clear beer. Most of them said the product tasted like regular beer. However, when the blindfolds came off and they drank the beer, many of them described it as “watery” tasting.Laura Ries, In the Boardroom: Why Left-Brained Management and Right-Brain Marketing Don’t See Eye-to-Eye (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

Using different types of stimuli, marketing professionals try to make you more perceptive to their products whether you need them or not. It’s not an easy job. Consumers today are bombarded with all types of marketing from every angle—television, radio, magazines, the Internet, and even bathroom walls. It’s been estimated that the average consumer is exposed to about three thousand advertisements per day.Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1999). Consumers are also multitasking more today than in the past. They are surfing the Internet, watching television, and checking their cell phones for text messages simultaneously. All day, every day, we are receiving information. Some, but not all, of it makes it into our brains.

Have you ever read or thought about something and then started noticing ads and information about it popping up everywhere? That’s because your perception of it had become heightened. Many people are more perceptive to advertisements for products they need. Selective perceptionThe process whereby a person filters information based on how relevant it is to them. is the process of filtering out information based on how relevant it is to you. It’s been described as a “suit of armor” that helps you filter out information you don’t need. At other times, people forget information, even if it’s quite relevant to them, which is called selective retentionThe process whereby a person retains information based on how well it matches their values and beliefs.. Usually the information contradicts the person’s belief. A longtime chain smoker who forgets much of the information communicated during an antismoking commercial is an example.

To be sure their advertising messages get through to you, companies use repetition. How tired of iPhone commercials were you before they tapered off the tube? How often do you see the same commercial aired during a single television show?

Video Clip

A Parody of an iPhone Commercial

(click to see video)

Check out this parody on Apple’s iPhone commercial.

Using surprising stimuli is also a technique. Sometimes this is called shock advertisingAdvertising designed to startle people so as to get their attention.. The clothing makers Benetton and Calvin Klein are probably best known for their shocking advertising. Calvin Klein sparked an uproar when it featured scantily clad prepubescent teens in its ads. There’s evidence that shock advertising actually works, though. One study found that shocking content increased attention, benefited memory, and positively influenced behavior among a group of university students.Darren W. Dahl, Kristina D. Frankenberger, and Rajesh V. Manchanda, “Does It Pay to Shock? Reactions to Shocking and Nonshocking Advertising Content among University Students,” Journal of Advertising Research 43, no. 3 (2003): 268–80.

Subliminal advertisingAdvertising that is not apparent to consumers but is thought to be perceived subconsciously by them. is the opposite of shock advertising. It involves exposing consumers to marketing stimuli—photos, ads, message, and so forth—by stealthily embedding them in movies, ads, and other media. For example, the words Drink Coca-Cola might be flashed for a millisecond on a movie screen. Consumers were thought to perceive the information subconsciously, and it would make them buy products. Keep in mind that today it’s common to see brands such as Coke being consumed in movies and television programs, but there’s nothing subliminal about it. Coke and other companies often pay to have their products in the shows.

The general public became aware of subliminal advertising in the 1960s. Many people considered the practice to be subversive, and in 1974, the Federal Communications Commission condemned it. Its effectiveness is somewhat sketchy, in any case. It didn’t help that much of the original research on it, conducted in the 1950s by a market researcher who was trying to drum up business for his market research firm, was fabricated.Cynthia Crossen, “For a Time in the ’50s, A Huckster Fanned Fears of Ad ‘Hypnosis,’” Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2007, eastern edition, B1.

People are still fascinated by subliminal advertising, however. To create “buzz” about the television show The Mole in 2008, ABC began hyping it by airing short commercials composed of just a few frames. If you blinked, you missed it. Some television stations actually called ABC to figure out what was going on. One-second ads were later rolled out to movie theaters.Josef Adalian, “ABC Hopes ‘Mole’ Isn’t Just a Blip,” Television Week, June 2, 2008, 3.

Even if your marketing effort reaches consumers and they retain it, different consumers can perceive it differently. Show two people the same product and you’ll get two different perceptions of it. One man sees Pledge, an outstanding furniture polish, while another sees a can of spray no different from any other furniture polish. One woman sees a luxurious Gucci purse, and the other sees an overpriced bag to hold keys and makeup.James Chartrand, “Why Targeting Selective Perception Captures Immediate Attention,” (accessed October 14, 2009). A couple of frames about The Mole might make you want to see the television show. However, your friend might see the ad, find it stupid, and never tune in to watch the show.


LearningThe process by which consumers change their behavior after they gain information or experience with a product. refers to the process by which consumers change their behavior after they gain information or experience a product. It’s the reason you don’t buy a crummy product twice. Learning doesn’t just affect what you buy, however. It affects how you shop. People with limited experience about a product or brand generally seek out more information about it than people who have used it before.

Companies try to get consumers to learn about their products in different ways. Car dealerships offer test drives. Pharmaceutical reps leave behind lots of free items at doctor’s offices with medication names and logos written all over them—pens, coffee cups, magnets, and so on. Free samples of products that come in the mail or are delivered with newspapers are another example. To promote its new line of coffees, McDonald’s offered customers free samples to try.

Another kind of learning is operant conditioningA type of behavior that’s repeated when it’s rewarded., which is what occurs when researchers are able to get a mouse to run through a maze for a piece cheese or a dog to salivate just by ringing a bell. Companies engage in operant conditioning by rewarding consumers, too. The prizes that come in Cracker Jacks and with McDonald’s Happy Meals are examples. The rewards cause consumers to want to repeat their purchasing behaviors. Other rewards include free tans offered with gym memberships, punch cards that give you a free Subway sandwich after a certain number of purchases, and free car washes when you fill up your car with a tank of gas.

Consumer’s Attitude

Attitudes“Mental positions” or emotional feelings people have about products, services, companies, ideas, issues, or institutions. are “mental positions” or emotional feelings people have about products, services, companies, ideas, issues, or institutions.“Dictionary of Marketing Terms,” (accessed October 14, 2009). Attitudes tend to be enduring, and because they are based on people’s values and beliefs, they are hard to change. That doesn’t stop sellers from trying, though. They want people to have positive rather than negative feelings about their offerings. A few years ago, KFC began running ads to the effect that fried chicken was healthy—until the U.S. Federal Trade Commission told the company to stop. Wendy’s slogan to the effect that its products are “way better than fast food” is another example. Fast food has a negative connotation, so Wendy’s is trying to get consumers to think about its offerings as being better.

A good example of a shift in the attitudes of consumers relates to banks. The taxpayer-paid government bailouts of big banks that began in 2008 provoked the wrath of Americans, creating an opportunity for small banks not involved in the credit derivates and subprime mortgage mess. The Worthington National Bank, a small bank in Fort Worth, Texas, ran billboards reading: “Did Your Bank Take a Bailout? We didn’t.” Another read: “Just Say NO to Bailout Banks. Bank Responsibly!” The Worthington Bank received tens of millions in new deposits soon after running these campaigns.Joe Mantone, “Banking on TARP Stigma,” SNLi, March 16, 2009, (accessed October 14, 2009).

Figure 3.9

Worthington National, a small Texas bank, capitalized on people’s bad attitudes toward big banks that accepted bailouts from the government in 2008–2009. After running billboards with this message, the bank received millions of dollars in new deposits.

Key Takeaway

Psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized that people have to fulfill their basic needs—like the need for food, water, and sleep—before they can begin fulfilling higher-level needs. Perception is how you interpret the world around you and make sense of it in your brain. To be sure their advertising messages get through to you, companies often resort to repetition. Shocking advertising and subliminal advertising are two other methods. Learning is the process by which consumers change their behavior after they gain information about or experience with a product. Consumers’ attitudes are the “mental positions” people take based on their values and beliefs. Attitudes tend to be enduring and are often difficult for companies to change.

Review Questions

  1. How does Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs help marketing professionals?
  2. How does the process of perception work and how can companies use it to their advantage in their marketing?
  3. What types of learning do companies try to get consumers to engage in?