Consumer Psychology:

Why Buyers Buy

By James Atkinson, LLB

Consumer Psychology - Why Buyers Buy: It's very helpful to conduct a consumer purchase process survey of your market. Before you do that however, it’s important to understand why people buy. It’s an enduring and fundamental question for marketers.

(Prior to this series of articles and for a deeper understanding of consumer behavior please see: Persuasion Psychology.)

Online consumer behavior is not a mystery. Modern marketing research and psychology provide answers to marketers that are tested and proven. Customer buying behavior is is often recognized by veteran marketers who derive their knowledge from their own long term marketing experience.

So what’s the secret behind consumer purchasing behavior? According to Drs Glenn and Sharon Livingston, marketing psychologists, there are actually two:

  1. All purchases are the result of an emotional need. People meet their needs with action – by buying products.

  2. It’s not only emotions that motivate purchase – buyers have to logically justify the purchase. 

These two consumer purchasing axioms have been subjected to rigorous scientific market research and real-world testing. But what do they mean and how can they help you first to market and then make sales from prospects and buyers?

First, let’s define an emotion. One approach is to say that emotions have evolved for a particular function – for example to keep oneself safe. An emotion is a label we give to a physical experience when we sense that an action is required. 

Importantly, emotions don’t exist in a vacuum – they always cause some sort of REACTION – thus the term “emotional reaction”. However, when you are marketing and you simply take an emotional need it’s quite difficult to draw out buyer responses from that pure emotion.

Our emotional energies range from the highest peaks of happiness to the lowest pits of depression.  So why not just ASK the buyer what motivates them? After all, emotions help us communicate. 

Problem is: if you ask buyers why they buy a particular product, you are probably going to get very contradictory answers. For example, many people believe - or like to believe - that marketing has no effect on them. They want to believe that they make purely rational decisions. Uncovering the emotional motivators may be threatening.

There are in effect barriers to discovery if you simply ASK buyers what motivates them about a particular product or market. The next image illustrates this:  

consumer psychology marketing barriers

So, in your consumer behavior analysis you are going to have to do something different if you want to learn why buyers BUY in your market.

Most buyers consider that they make buying decisions from objective or recognizable criteria. The idea that marketers act as “hidden persuaders” threatens this snug and cozy view.

According to Arlie Hochschild, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, the demands of everyday life cause us to try to regulate our feelings in order to fit in with our perceived “norms” of a particular situation.

That is, we manage our feelings and emotions so that they produce acceptable displays according to ideological and cultural standards. Thus, if you ask a Mercedes buyer why they buy an expensive luxury car they probably won’t say: “So I can feel wealthy and have my neighbors look up to me.”  They’ll more likely find some another reason, like: “Because of the fantastic safety features.”

Assuming the respondent really wants to be SEEN as being successful, you won’t get a straight answer for your marketing profile.  An interviewee may think that if you discover REAL reasons, you’ll then use the information to sell them things they don’t particularly want.  Furthermore, the presence of emotional motivation is often unconscious, so consumers may not be able to articulate it even if they wanted to.

Solution: If you want to know why buyers buy you have to look for emotions that are submerged or feelings that are not easily communicated. Let’s investigate further...

Consumer Psychology > Why Buyers Buy > The Buyer's Mind >


Glenn & Sharon Livingston - Glenn and Sharon are noted psychologists in online marketing. They state that emotional benefits are nothing more than "Something nice I can say about myself because I use your product or service". For a much more detailed essay with examples and categories of emotional benefits, please see:

Arlie Hochschild - The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: The University of California Press (1983). Reprinted in 2003.


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