Taking ADvantage
Psychology of Consumer Behavior


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

This chapter is a basic overview of consumer psychology to help the average person understand the rest of Taking ADvantage, and doesn't pretend to be comprehensive. It's merely a starting point.

Oog wanders down the Pliocene beach, searching for food, water, shelter, and a female. Ugh comes the other way, looking for food, water, shelter, and a male. Spotting Ugh, Oog runs up and starts sweet-grunting her, strutting and expanding his puny chest, showing what a prime specimen of primate-hood he is. Ugh looks him over, checks the beach to see if there are any better males around to choose from. Seeing none, she shrugs her narrow shoulders, and accepts Oog's overtures.

A minute later they're cracking shellfish with rocks.


Millions of years ago, Oog and Ugh, our thousands-great grandparents, were slowly turning into human beings. As they did so, they also laid the basis for human thought, both conscious and subconscious.

The conscious mind is the one we're aware of (that's what makes it conscious). We perceive with it, think with it, act with it. It's the one that allows us to decide how to react to the world around us or what do to.

However, the subconscious mind is the one with which this book is concerned. The subconscious mind influences how we consciously perceive and decide. In particular, the subconscious mind influences our behavior, what we actually do in response to a stimulus.


The subconscious mind is composed of two basic elements: instincts and learned responses.


Instincts are hardwired into the brain, the genetic legacy of millions of years of evolution.

Instincts arise as ancestral animals react to sensory stimuli in such a way that they survive. For example, a proto-deer ("proto" from the Greek for "first") detects the odor of sabre-tooth tiger. It collapses to the ground and freezes as an unreasoned reaction. It simply does it because something in its make-up leads it to. Others in its herd run because that is in their make-up as a reaction to a threat. The tiger catches one that is running and drags it off. The one that froze gets up and walks off, alive.

Those animals that survive pass their genes on to descendants. Those that die, don't. Eventually the reactions can become hardwired into the brain -- the descendants of the freezing proto-deer automatically, instinctively, freeze when threatened. Thus it is that instincts evolve.

Instincts make a creature react automatically to stimuli. For example, a deer fawn, descended from the proto-deer above, instinctively freezes still, barely breathing, when it senses danger through sight, sound or smell. Chickens and geese run from the shadow cast by a hawk, or a cardboard cutout of a hawk, though they have had no previous experience with either shadow or hawk. Predatory animals such as lions and dogs will fight viciously until one of the opponents does an appeasement gesture. The gesture can be exposing the throat or lying down and turning belly up. Upon seeing the appeasement gesture the winner instinctively stops attacking. It accepts the gesture and allows the loser to live, although perhaps with an admonitory cuff to drive the lesson home.

The brain carries out instinctive reactions without conscious control. If we follow the trail from perception to reaction we can see how instinct works. The brain is a mass of interconnected nerve endings. When a goose sees a shadow of a hawk the nerve endings in the eye detect the shapes and shades. These nerve endings trigger impulses along the optic nerve to the brain.

The brain compares the shadow's characteristics to what it has stored in terms of verticals, horizontals and curves. For example, some brain cells identify the horizontal line of the top of the wing. Other cells identify the verticals of the tail, yet others the various curves of head and feathers. Each of these cells trigger synapses which send impulses to other parts of the brain which assemble them into the total impression of the hawk.

Impulses now fire at other brain cells. These cells, based on which other brain cells send them impulses, in a sense vote on how the body should react. If most of the impulses are from cells that identify the shadow as "not hawk" then the brain's decision is not to react in fear. If, however, most of the impulses are from cells that identify the shadow as "hawk," the cells "vote" for reaction and send impulses to the cells that control the muscles, glands and organs of the body. Adrenalin surges, the muscles contract, breathing quickens and the goose runs in panic from the perceived threat.

Instinct causes a physical reaction to various stimuli. A stimulus can be any one of several things. For example, a member of the opposite sex may cause the body to react physically: an increase in blood flow, dilation of the pupils, sexual arousal. The sudden appearance of a vicious dog causes an increase in breathing, adrenalin surges, muscle contractions. An enemy, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one can all cause physical reactions.

Such reactions are unavoidable, just as flipping a switch will turn on a light. Instincts are followed because they are not susceptible to intellectual control. The above description of a goose's reaction to a shadow is not a decision the goose makes. It is an automatic reaction carried out by the bird's brain. An animal doesn't even know there is another way to react, and thus doesn't try to alter its reaction. It is much like a human who is suddenly startled: he or she jumps or runs, perhaps cries out, feels the heart thumping, the lungs laboring for breath, a queasiness in the stomach. None of those reactions are voluntary or a conscious decision based on the stimulus of someone shouting "Boo!" They are an instinctive reaction carried out by the brain in response to the stimulus.

Occasionally instinctive reactions do not occur. These occasions are aberrations. Such aberrations can be self-correcting: the example of the goose above is such a case. A goose that doesn't run from a threatening shadow may fall prey to a real hawk. It thus is unlikely to reproduce and the aberrant genes that didn't install the instinct die out.

There can, of course, be evolution in instinct. On occasion an aberrant instinct can be more efficient as a survival or reproductive mechanism than the original instinct. Thus, the aberration has a better chance of survival, of reproducing, and passing on to future generations, the original instinct dying out.


The second element of the subconscious mind is learned response. A learned response is one that mitigates or modifies an instinctive reaction. It is instilled in a person through a series of steps: emotions, belief, attitude, feelings, and behavior.


Emotions, loosely defined as feelings, are the result of two things: the above discussed instincts, and people's a priori assumptions.

Instincts provide the physical reactions the body has to various stimuli coming in through the senses. In the examples above of a member of the opposite sex, a vicious dog, an enemy, a birth, a death, the reactions carry emotional labels. In these cases the labels are lust, hate, anger, joy and sorrow.

However, an instinctive reaction to stimuli is only a starting point for emotion in learned responses. There is also the element of how a person deals with the reactions. How rhe does begins with rher a priori assumptions.

A priori assumptions are those conclusions based on theory rather than experience or observation, premises arrived at without examination of evidence. In other words, the conviction that something is simply because it is.

The basis for a priori assumptions is culture and upbringing. Sociologists call it socialization; I call it programming, a more apt term in today's computer age. Programming is the instructions on what to do with information that is input and how the results should be output. In human terms, programming tells you how to regard what comes in through the senses.

Your basic instructions on how to regard the world first come from your family. From birth your mother, father, and siblings consciously or unconsciously tell you what everything around you means in their terms. If they are deeply religious, they tell you that being deeply religious is the way to be. If they are bigots, they will tell you that their prejudices are the correct way to regard other people. They often do not tell you this in words. Instead, it's their behavior and attitudes which you pick up and, since they are your model, imitate.

Most people accept such programming unquestioningly since Mother and Father say "that's it." What you receive are your family's a priori assumptions, which they received from their families, etc., until they arrive at you.

Naturally, alterations appear in the programming. If they didn't, humans would still be in caves, eating what doesn't try or at least doesn't succeed in eating them first. People can alter their own programming, although the "if it was good enough for grandpa, it's good enough for me" attitude still exists in many.

Nonetheless, the basic programming from birth will often be the one that people accept in most situations. Thus, even the most determined advocate of women's liberation may think a disparaging "women drivers" when he or she gets cut off on the road. The most enlightened non-racist, because a member of the Ku Klux Klan raised rher, may react negatively to the approach of a strange black man simply because he is black. When such a person, who has consciously altered rher programming, reacts as described above, rhe may feel ashamed. That, however, doesn't negate that the reaction did indeed take place.

The family is not the only source of programming, of course. As a person gets older, other influences come into play: school, church, peers, teachers, den mothers, television, books, anyone and anything that provides ways of regarding the world and the people in it. Such secondary programming can have less weight than the primary, familial programming. It is not only occasionally contradictory to what the family says, but is also presented intellectually rather than emotionally, with explanations and rationales rather than "because I say so." Nevertheless, secondary programming, given with enough power or repetition and/or by a person with parental authority will remain with a child for life.

Programming continues throughout life, as long as the person is willing to accept new input and try to integrate it with old. There are, naturally enough, those people in every generation who refuse to believe that anyone could have different programming than them. They therefore refuse to accept ideas other than those that relate to their own programming. An example comes from the 1960s, the era of the hippie and the hardhat, the longhair and the redneck. Neither faction was willing to accept the other's ideas, because neither was programmed to accept the same things as axiomatic about lifestyle, music, patriotism, appearance, or many of the other parts of life and living based on upbringing. Many people, of course, could see that what they believed was not necessarily what everyone did or even should believe. They thus mollified if not modified the differences between varying points of view.

What will often happen with programming is that many people regard their programming as the only right and proper thing to do. For example, in this country, people regard cannibalism as evil and disgusting. However, that is simply because American programming is to think that. Other societies and cultures think otherwise.

Whatever the programming says is right is what people believe is right. It is the "belief" from the previous sentence that is the next step in learned response.


Programming leads to belief: what a person is programmed to believe is what that person does believe. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree" was a motto for many of the English public schools. It meant leading the children in the right and proper path. That path included the glory of the British Empire, the necessity to spread the Anglican church, the attitude that Rudyard Kipling called the "White Man's Burden." If these ideas were deeply ingrained, then the child would spread them as a matter of course because the child believed they were the "best of all possible worlds." Those children raised by devout Jews, Catholics, Fundamentalists, Buddhists, Hindu, etc., believe that being Jewish, Catholic, Fundamentalist, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc., is the only way to believe. Anyone who believes otherwise must be an infidel, pagan, or worse, and should be shunned, ignored, proselytized or even killed.

What leads from a person's beliefs is that person's attitude toward the world and the things in it, the next step in learned response.


When you believe something is bad, your attitude toward it is one of distaste. When you believe something is good your attitude is one of approval. If a Ku Klux Klan father programmed a person to believe that blacks are an inferior race, then the attitude of that person toward blacks will be condescending, superior, patronizing. Your attitude leads to the next step -- feelings.


Feelings are the actual human emotions that result from the instinctive and learned response reaction to a stimulus. For example, an animal may feel lust or fear. Humans feel love or hate.

The difference arises from the human ability to think. Most animals live exclusively in the present, responding only to immediate stimuli. They don't worry about the future, nor plan how to respond to things that haven't happened. "Out of sight (or hearing, or touch, etc.), out of mind."

Humans also respond to immediate stimuli. However, they relate the present stimuli to past experience, consciously remembering past reactions and their results. In addition, they project into the future, forecasting possible results of their actions. To do this, they must be able to store in their minds the sensory impressions of stimuli. Those sensory impressions include the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings and smells of the stimulus. In addition, they must be able to recall those impressions. The greatest difference between humans and other animals is the human ability to manipulate those impressions, to consciously or unconsciously recall and connect them together. In this way, a present stimulus is related to the past and projected into the future.

Thus, lust is the instinctive reaction to the possibility of sex. Love includes the instinctive reaction to the possibility of sex, but involves not only procreation but the recall of other social and personal needs, past and future, included in human male and female relationships. Fear is the instinctive reaction to a threat. Hate includes the instinctive reaction to a threat, but relates that threat to the recall of past dangers, and projects it into possible (or only imagined) future dangers.

On the basis of feelings, humans respond. Their initial response is to their instinctive reaction to stimuli. However, this is coupled with their learned response, and becomes their behavior.


Actual behavior is the final level. It is what people do in response to a stimulus, the external manifestation of their attitudes. Following through the steps of emotion, belief, attitude and feelings, people behave. The emotion of love can result in behavior usually seen only in spaniel dogs. Fear can make you run. Hate can make you kill.


The human ability to think, to recall and manipulate past impressions and experiences in response to present stimuli, requires a different way of storing impressions than other animals use. All animals store impressions. However, most animals cannot manipulate those impressions.

To manipulate an impression, the animal must store not only the sensory stimuli to which it reacts. It must also store the impression symbolically. That is, the impression must be labeled in some way. This (as far we know) is the special province of humans -- to put labels on impressions so they can recall and relate them, one to another.

However, the creation of labels, of symbolic storage of impressions, is filtered through a person's learned responses. The programming discussed above provides many of the labels, and new labels are filtered through that programming. This process creates stereotypes.

For a discussion of stereotypes, go to Consumer Psychology Part Two -- Stereotypes

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