Two academics, Brian Young and Mike Nicholson, answer questions posed by a reader about consumer psychology – and they have quite different views
Although officially retired, Dr Brian Young still does work at the University of Exeter. He teaches
a module on advertising and consumer psychology on the MSc in Economic and Consumer Psychology as well as a final-year seminar on economic and consumer socialisation. Dr Mike Nicholson is Lecturer in Marketing and Director of the Doctorate of Business Administration at Durham Business School.
How did you start working in consumer psychology?
BY I was originally a developmental psychologist. When I arrived at Exeter there was a strong economic psychology group. Given my background, I got interested in the child’s role in the economic and social world: how consumer psychology would play
out from a lifespan developmental perspective, looking at the bigger picture of the economic psychology of everyday life. People don’t just consume – they are potentially involved in the world of money, buying, selling and planning their affairs (or being looked after by others) from conception to death.
MN My route started in business and then moved on to academic study. I worked in retail and started teaching as part of a career break. My PhD was on behavioural analysis of consumer choice.
What is consumer psychology?
BY It can be seen as part of economic psychology for the reasons I’ve given above. Children, for example, don’t just desire brands and products – these are linked into family decision making, understanding, use of money, and so on. Consumer psychology is also about how we can become better consumers – and
I don’t just mean more skilled and informed, but self-consciously aware and critical consumers. In my view it’s not about improving marketing but about the place of children and adults in a world where we’re involved in the consumption of objects and services all the time.
We spend most of our time in economic exchange and consumption. It seems to me it’s a very valuable field for psychology to study.
MN It’s an area of applied psychology which looks at how customers interact with products and services as well as interactions within markets.
Training tried to cover too many approaches and there was a danger that students got a very superficial run through of cognitive, behaviourist, humanist and other schools. Nowadays, courses tend to concentrate on one approach.
Is the area growing?
BY Yes, but it hasn’t yet reached a critical mass in the UK to the extent of career-minded psychologists gravitating to a centre of excellence where they would be confident of getting grants and publishing in the top journals.
MN Yes. Markets are getting more competitive: companies are looking for more scientific approaches to their activities and are offering increased funding. The area is becoming more experimental.
The field is growing internationally. I lecture at Fundan University in Shanghai, and China is very interested
in areas such as decision science .
Student numbers at the business school are growing as well. There are about 240 doing related optional and compulsory course components in marketing, MBA and Doctorate in Business Administration courses.
What’s the best training route?
BY We recruit internationally at Exeter. Of the dozen or so students on our small but perfectly formed MSc, the majority come from overseas. We tend to recruit people with first degrees in psychology, but that’s not essential. Some students have economics degrees. The psychology content in the MSc is final year or master’s level, so if you haven’t studied psychology formally you have to run fast!
There are two issues for students wishing to take a postgraduate degree in the area. First, you should be open to a range of methods and theories and be eclectic in that sense – you’ll have to deal with a wide variety of subjects with different traditions of inquiry. Successful PhD students in our area tend to look at topics that cross boundaries.
Second, this is not a soft option. It’s potentially very rewarding for that reason, but expect experimental economics and some statistical modelling. I think there’s a misunderstanding among psychologists that the area is simply about talking in marketing clichés about brands. It’s an intellectually challenging area.
MN A first degree in psychology, a master’s in business or marketing then doing a PhD in a subject that interests you. If you want to go down this route you must have a real interest in seeing psychology applied practically and a genuine fascination for business.
What do you think the future will hold?
BY I’m not convinced we’ll become a Division within the Society, simply because of the small number of psychologists involved in the field. This will also affect whether research centres or units are set up in university departments and schools. Internationally though there is a growing interest, in universities and, especially, business and management schools.
MN Social marketing is a growing area. This looks at the use of marketing and other techniques to achieve behaviour modification for some social good: a major contemporary focus is on health. The internet has fuelled research: Do people behave differently in virtual environments? What impact do online formats have on advertising?
Another issue is the growth of the profession. I predict that the Society will recognise it as a Division. Like
other Divisions, members will be people grounded in a traditional area of practice who apply it with a specific client group.
There are already overlaps between our works and other psychological specialities – occupational psychology for instance – and these can only grow.
What sorts of jobs do graduates from your courses take up?
BY A lot of them go into market research, advertising and marketing companies and marketing departments in a wide variety of organisations, but there is a need for more teachers in the area. My view here
is that, rather like my experience, you should get a job in a traditional area of psychology and once you have established yourself then develop your interests in the specific field. So a social psychologist interested in advertising, or a cognitive psychologist pursuing research in consumer choice, would be valuable.
MN We have terrific people and they’re often snapped up by market research and advertising agencies before the end of their courses. You rarely see jobs with the title Consumer Psychologist – they tend to work in communications and analysis in both profit and not-for-profit organisations, often in marketing or research departments.
How would you sum up?
BY If you look at the map of how psychology is applied to real-life issues, then you’ll find some gaps – one of them is how people operate in the economic and commercial world. This is not just about how we make choices as individuals between attractive options
but the effect those choices have on other aspects of our lives. There’s a growing interest in the effect that financial decisions have on family life – buying
a house for instance – and the different behaviours and effects consumer choices have at different life stages. I can get quite evangelical! I think this is an area psychology has missed out on. It’s been held back by a misunderstanding of what it studies, how it studies it and how important it is.
MN Let me use myself as an example.
I’m a psychologist. I share with other psychologists a body of knowledge, an approach, a range of techniques and a set of professional standards. I apply my knowledge to a very specific group of people – consumers. Consumption permeates our lives, so this is an important area of study and work. I think people have been dismissive or critical of it in the past. But psychology has always had a relationship with advertising. You can argue that John B. Watson was more of a success at J. Walter Thompson than as a psychologist!
To find out more about the area, our contributors recommend:
Journal of Consumer Research: www.journals.uchicago.edu/JCR/
Journal of Consumer Psychology: www.jstor.org/journals/10577408.html
The Association for Consumer Research: www.acrwebsite.org
The National Social Marketing Centre: www.nsms.org.uk/public/default.aspx
Webley, P., Burgoyne, C.B., Lea, S.E.G. & Young, B.M. (2001). The economic psychology of everyday life. Hove: Psychology Press.
The Consumer Behaviour Analysis Research programme: www.cf.ac.uk/carbs/research/groups/cbar
Survival of the fittest
Ian Florance talks to Britt Tajet-Foxell about how she ended up working with ballet dancers, rowers and Olympic skiers
Psychology is a much more varied profession than many of its practitioners and clients recognise. Individuals follow very different qualification routes. They apply their skills and knowledge in every area of society.
Britt Tajet-Foxell is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist but originally trained as a physiotherapist. She describes her fascinating journey.
Air hostess or physiotherapist?
I grew up in Norway. In the 1960s seemingly every Norwegian girl wanted to train as an air hostess or a physiotherapist. I finally decided to become a physiotherapist after a period learning French in Paris. Norwegian physiotherapy courses were all over-subscribed so I came to St Thomas’ in London to study, married a doctor and stayed here.
Of dancers and their injuries
Luck plays a huge part in people’s lives and careers. In the early 1970s the Royal Ballet advertised for a physiotherapist. The Royal Ballet Company management was, and is, forward-looking. Physiotherapy was in its infancy in ballet and
I was one of the first physiotherapists to work for the company.
I worked on the ‘mechanical’ treatment of injuries. In those days we didn’t address issues such as self-confidence, motivation and self-esteem. A lot of the techniques and models had been developed in sports contexts and we pulled them across and adapted them.
Ballet dancers are inspiring people to work with; they are exceptionally fit, motivated, intelligent, professional and self-aware. They are also frequently injured. Men tend to get back, shoulder and neck injuries from lifting; women have problems with knees and ankles.
I became fascinated by the psychological aspects of injury and recovery very early on. Take two dancers with, to all intents and purposes, the same injury, the same age and role, the same treatment. The
one variable will be their progress and rate of recovery. One of them might never get back on stage: the other might recover very quickly and develop into be a better dancer than he or she was before the injury. The difference has to be psychological or social and revolves around issues such as motivation, self-beliefs, confidence, communication skills, support, drive, desire, mental toughness.
By this stage my marriage had broken up. I remarried – my present husband is an actor – and became pregnant. I decided it would be difficult to combine home and work. The company toured around 32 weeks a year at that time.
Age gives credibility
I decided to go back to university. My interest in rehabilitation led me to do a degree in psychology at Goldmiths College. A careers talk by a business consultant interested me in occupational psychology. I was in my forties and the consultant stressed that when undertaking work in large organisations, age gives you credibility: it is an advantage.
I think this is still good advice: a just-graduated psychologist in their twenties has to work very hard to win the trust of an experienced chief executive.
I undertook an MSc in occupational psychology.
Faced with the same choice now I think I’d chose to study occupational or clinical rather than sports psychology. It gives me a very specific approach to working with dancers and sportspeople.
Again, the forward thinking of the Royal Ballet Company management led to my rehabilitation psychology work with dancers. I had been doing locum work as a physiotherapist, but the company management knew that I’d gone back to university to study psychology. I was asked to work with a girl who had had surgery and come back to work. She’d then dislocated her knee and on return, developed a stress facture in her metatarsals. She was suffering anxiety attacks when she came into the dance studio each morning.
We managed to overcome these anxiety problems successfully and I received referrals for a number of other dancers. Finally the Ballet Company created the position of Consultant Psychologist, which I still hold.
When the company asked me to write a report on models of physiotherapy in sport I rang up the British Olympic Association (BOA) and talked to their psychologist Brian Miller. As a result of a meeting at South Mimms service station, I joined their psychology advisory group. I’m now the rehabilitation psychologist within the British Olympic Medical Institute. I also have
a role with the Norwegian Olympic Team.
Overcoming resistance to psychology
In both areas of my work – dancing and sport – there is natural resistance to psychological interventions. Sports people tend to associate psychology with abnormal behaviour and mental health problems. There are a number of ways to cope with this.
Sponsorship is important. The Royal Ballet Company management backed me with their pioneering thinking. In the BOA, Dr Richard Budgett the Director of Medical Services, has constantly used my services with his clients and helped overcome resistance.
Second, you need to be very honest and upfront in your communications.
Third, both of my main client groupings are very aware of injury issues and of their physical condition. They’re also acutely aware of performance issues. In essence, the rehabilitation process for dancers and athletes is the same as that for any other profession. But physical fitness is of paramount importance to athletes and dancers. Their identity is tied up with achieving goals and fulfilling potential. Any injury is seen as something that might prevent them getting to where they have been working towards from an early age.
So my work is about translating motivation into measurable performance in rehabilitation from injury. My occupational psychology study helped here. I see ballet and sport as being made up of measurable performance criteria. This is an easier
model to use in sport given the objective nature of measures of success: how fast someone runs, how high they jump. But ballet dancers are very good at reporting on their performance levels and whether they are improving or not.
I draw on my physiotherapy training all the time, but there are boundaries. I work with physiotherapists so I completely confine myself to psychological interventions. When seeing an injured athlete, it’s important to help them shift away from ‘injury-behaviour’ and into performance behaviour; to use the injury as a springboard to gain insight which is going to make them into even more powerful athletes.
I use a variety of techniques: cognitive behaviour therapy is a core tool but, as a rather isolated practitioner, it’s been important to me to constantly add to my techniques and knowledge. I’m part of a self-organising CPD and support group of occupational psychologists which meets whenever we get the chance.
‘I’m an old sofa’
It’s important not to get too excited about clients’ performance and to stay neutral, but I genuinely admire their dedication and intelligence. High profile cases bring their own excitement. Sir Clive Woodward wrote about my work with him before the Rugby World Cup. After winning his second gold medial in Athens, the Olympic rower Jamie Cracknell said ‘She categorically made me row better than ever before’. But there are other sorts of satisfaction.
I see myself as ‘an old sofa’ in the Royal Ballet Company. People know me and what I do and accept it as part of their support service. This is a real change from earlier suspicion.
My next challenge is travelling to the Beijing Olympics with the Norwegian team. This shows just how important psychology has become in many different sports. I’ll also be working with a number of British team members, and it’s possible the Royal Ballet will be there as well. So, all my professional ‘paths’ will come together. I can’t wait!
I‘ve seen rehabilitation psychology develop and achieve so much. That’s a real privilege.
I For more information on Britt’s work with the British Olympic Association, see www.olympics.org.uk/omi/
Could you be the Society's next Chief Executive?
In anticipation of the retirement later this year of the Society’s current chief executive, Tim Cornford, a replacement is being sought who can ‘lead the further development of this world class learned Society’. The candidate should have credentials as a psychologist.
The role involves facilitating the development and implementation of strategic and operational plans for all the Society’s activities; encouraging a high performing, cohesive team environment; and working closely with the Board of Trustees and Representative Council, advising on policy and procedural initiatives and their implementation.
As well as their credentials as a psychologist, the candidate will have proven successful experience as a leader of a medium/large-sized organisation or within a well-respected academic environment; financial planning and objective setting skills; and a track record in team building and staff motivation.
The post attracts a six-figure package. See p.349 for more details.
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