The Psychology of Consumption and the Birth of Modern Marketing

Isaac Mostovicz writes that that our subconscious psychological impulses may affect our buying habits more than we believe, according to Ernest Dichter...

A recent article in the Economist describes how Ernest Dichter, “the Freud of the supermarket age,” transformed marketing in the USA through his behavioural research and ground-breaking ideas around the role of the unconscious in sales.


Dichter was convinced that traditional analysis of consumers (at the time carried out through speculative and somewhat slapdash polling techniques) offered very little insight into buying psychology and presented a limited view of what makes consumers opt for one product over another.


Rather, by advocating in-depth psychoanalytical research in lengthy interviews, Dichter gathered that subconscious urges and socialized inhibitions are what affects consumers’ buying habits. Furthermore, Dichter understood that possessions are extensions of our own personalities, serving as “a kind of mirror, which reflects our own image.”


I have argued previously that luxury marketers must focus on the human characteristics that drive consumers. By a simple characterization of consumers into two personality types – Theta and Lambda, I created a dichotomy that allows marketers to better understand how consumers behave according to their values, unconscious motives, and desires.


The Theta personality seeks affiliation and control as an ultimate life purpose, so they seek acceptance to fit in within a desired group and use socially-derived understandings of product characteristics as a basis for their consumption.


Lambdas, on the other hand, seek achievement and uniqueness as an ultimate end goal, and so are more likely to interpret products based on their individual responses to the product, how it helps or prevents them to stand out, and how the product benchmarks against their regular consumptive patterns.


Today, in addition to the empirical analysis marketers carry out through geographic location, gender and income, new research and developments based on neuroscience show that Dichter’s insights are coming back into fashion.


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