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How Do Psychological Disorders Affect Consumer Behavior, and How Should Marketers Respond?

Sep 29, 2022
Vanderbilt Consumer Behavior Expert proposes new area of research at the intersection of clinical psychology and marketing

By Nathaniel Luce

The field of consumer behavior has revealed countless insights on purchase preferences, messaging responses, and other tactical pieces of information that marketers can use to shape their products and promotions and drive higher sales. What is less understood is how these marketing efforts affect consumers with clinical disorders, positively or negatively.

The research that does bridge clinical psychology with consumer behavior has uncovered valuable findings:

  • Individuals exhibiting high symptoms of adult separation anxiety disorder are particularly susceptible to advertisements that appeal to the notion of “coming home.”
  • Clinical symptoms can drive how individuals judge and choose among consumer options.
  • Military members experiencing the stress of being away from home and without ready access to commodities are more prone to compulsive purchases post-deployment, while those who are fired upon and/or exposed to the carnage of combat experience the opposite effect.
  • Marketing can move individuals with addictive disorders toward or away from addiction.
  • Body-related messaging and imagery has a direct impact on the likelihood of disordered eating behaviors.

A consumer behavior expert at Vanderbilt is seeking to develop a new field of research that helps marketers and consumers make decisions with mental health in mind.

Steve Posavac, E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Marketing at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, is advocating for the development of a psychological subfield dubbed “Clinical Consumer Psychology” – the study of how dysfunctional and maladaptive cognitive and behavioral processes interact with individuals’ consumer experiences and behaviors.

In the paper “Toward a Clinical Consumer Psychology,” Posavac and his co-authors argue that a better understanding of how clinical disorders can be worsened or improved by consumptive behaviors and marketing messages can facilitate improved mental health in a variety of ways.

“Clinically relevant psychological phenomena are a big part of everyday life,” said Posavac. “Marketers as well as mental health practitioners can be more effective when they appreciate the interface of clinical and consumer psychology.”

The paper poses several research questions that explore the role of clinical disorders on consumer behavior processes, how marketers can use clinical phenomena to better serve consumer segments while appreciating potential vulnerabilities, consumption’s ability to alleviate and exacerbate distress, and more.

“Our team is hopeful that laying out promising research directions will drive interest among marketers as well as clinical psychologists in understanding the important but underappreciated interplay between the two fields,” said Posavac.

For Posavac and his co-authors, the goal of promoting Clinical Consumer Psychology isn’t just to better understand the human experience, but also to improve it.

“Ultimately, both marketing and clinical psychology are service fields. Developing a robust clinical consumer psychology literature has strong potential to help practitioners in each to be more effective,” noted Posavac.

“Toward a Consumer Psychology”, published in the June edition of Frontiers in Psychology, was co-authored by Steve Posavac, Heidi D. Posavac, Donald R. Gaffney, and Frank R. Kardes.

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