Psychological Techniques and Concepts in Research

March 31, 2024

Marketing researchers are concerned with how our thoughts and emotions impact consumer behavior such as likelihood to purchase products or services and brand loyalty. Marketing research focuses on understanding and predicting opinions and behaviors – specifically those related to consumerism.

The discipline of psychology aims to understand human behavior on a broader scale. The American Psychological Association defines psychology with the following:

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. The discipline embraces all aspects of the human experience — from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged. In every conceivable setting from scientific research centers to mental healthcare services, "the understanding of behavior" is the enterprise of psychologists.

Modern day marketing research draws heavily on several psychological techniques and concepts that are very useful in understanding consumers’ responses to brands, products, concepts, advertising, and social issues. Two major areas include Qualitative Projective Techniques and Values Evaluation.

Qualitative Projective Techniques

When people put forth a conscious effort to remember something, they are using what cognitive psychologists refer to as explicit memory. In contrast, implicit memory is evident when we effortlessly or unconsciously remember things. We often do not consciously remember how to drive and navigate familiar roadways, for example, we just do it implicitly. In addition to procedural memories such as driving familiar roadways, attitudes and beliefs are also implicit. Implicit attitudes and beliefs affect behavior, but they must be measured indirectly because by definition they are below conscious awareness.

Evaluating attitudes and beliefs that are below conscious awareness is particularly useful for marketing researchers; connections to brands and product preferences often stem from beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and emotions in which consumers are not consciously aware. Projective techniques are tools that get at those deeper emotions and cognitions.

Some common projective techniques used in marketing research include word associations, imagery associations, grouping and choice ordering techniques, imagery associations with consumer personalities, and personification activities. Projective techniques are typically used in depth interviews or traditional focus groups, but they are also used in digital and in-person quantitative research as well. The techniques are useful in branding research and tend to yield rich and accurate information especially when the goal is to understand deep emotional connections and cognitions toward brands, products, and services.

Values Evaluation

In psychology as well as other social sciences the role of personal and cultural values is important to understanding behavior. Analyzing the effects of values on behavior can be done at several different levels. In anthropology values are examined at the level of cultural patterns. In sociology values are examined at the level of social group ideologies and customs. In psychology values are analyzed in the context of personal attitudes and motives.

For marketing researchers, assessment of value systems at these various “levels” (personal to social group to cultural) helps with understanding the effects of motives, attitudes, lifestyles, mindsets, and ideologies on changing trends. Marketing and business challenges do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a larger context that includes changing personal, social, and cultural values.

One can look to the food industry as an example. While there has probably always been a sector of foodies, now more than ever food-conscious consumers have a variety of interests and motives for organic, free-range, hormone free and garden-to-table options. Restaurants have responded with healthier options. Increasingly the public demands to know exactly what is in their food and the source of their food. Laws are now mandating the display of calories and serving sizes. The food industry is changing to reflect our society’s changing values. Within our society, some are more health-conscious about their food than others but as a whole there is some shift toward quality.

Another example of the role of values in consumerism includes the increasing number of companies who have gone “green” or who proudly claim to donate a portion of profits to a particular cause. Here we see the consumer is buying much more than a product; the consumer is choosing options for products and services that align with their own values. Maybe they are even willing to pay more for a product such as a cup of coffee if that coffee also comes with the promise of a good deed. On the Starbucks website one can find a plethora of information about the company giving back to communities and the environment.

Even more recently, there has been a shift to talking about companies’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. At Starbucks, this includes pages and videos on their website that showcase this commitment in hiring practices and accessibility in terms of the disabled community at their stores.

The following slogan appears on the Starbucks website page on their broad commitment to DEI and the Global community:

Expect more than coffee.

With every cup, with every conversation, with every community we nurture the limitless possibilities of human connection.

The Starbucks slogan is directly tapping into a shared value system with consumers, allowing the customer to feel extra good about buying Starbucks coffee.

Studying values in marketing research (qualitatively or quantitatively) can help with understanding how a company’s customers are naturally segmented by lifestyle and values. Such findings can illuminate the extent to which campaigns like the slogan above will influence brand image and impact sales.

Sharpening the Researcher’s Ability to Understand and Predict Behavior

Psychology as well as other social science disciplines continue to influence the work done by marketing researchers. Projective techniques get at underlying cognitions and emotions that consumers have about brands, products, services, and advertising. Values evaluations are useful for understanding trends and customer segments, especially as they relate to lifestyle, personal motivation and changing cultural values.

While only two concepts have been addressed here, there are in fact many other examples of how marketing research borrows from other disciplines. The utility of any one technique or conceptual approach must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; the research methods employed for any given study should always reflect the best approach for answering a company’s specific research questions. Borrowing techniques and concepts from other disciplines like psychology can help answer those research questions and, ultimately, sharpen marketing researchers’ ability to understand and predict consumer behavior. The researchers using these techniques and concepts should be fully versed in the reasons for use, appropriate application, analysis, and reporting.

The author, Evette Joyce is from Q2 Insights, Inc., a research, and innovation consulting firm headquartered in San Diego. To contact Q2 Insights, please call (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or at