Demystifying Psychographics


Asking hippies for money and electrocuting dogs — two things that psychologists did in the 1970s, and two things that help to tell the story of modern marketing psychology and why people see it as the monster it is not.

Psychology has a checkered ethical history. When people hear about businesses using psychology, that history, which includes electrocuting dogs, doesn’t help public opinion.

Facebook learned this the hard way in 2014, when it was revealed that they were conducting experiments on users’s feeds, in which words were changed to test how emotions spread across the network. It was perceived as a “creepy emotion-manipulation.”

Marketing psychology is not some all-powerful force. The effect sizes are often relatively small and observed at an aggregate level. The chances are slim that a brand can get you to buy against your will. What it can do is earn returns by having small effects on large populations. If a psychological appeal has just a 1% chance of working, one in a hundred people are still a potential new customer base of 420,000 adults. A survey by market agency Adlucent found that 71% prefer tailored ads over untailored ones.

One principle that brands often rely on to achieve this is personalization. Let’s say it’s the 1970s and someone dressed as a hippie asked you for change for the phone booth. Would you oblige?

If you’re a hippie, you’re more likely to have said, “Yes.”

In a paper published by the Journal of Applied Psychology, 70% of passers-by wearing hippie clothing complied, compared to 55% for those in suits. When the person mooching for change was wearing a suit, the pattern was reversed.

This occurred because we like things that are similar and familiar. Psychological research has shown that “Stan” is more likely to shop at Starbucks and “Denise” is more likely to be a dentist, an effect called implicit egoism, where our decisions on things like job choices can be impacted by their similarity to our own names. 

The principle of personalization can be utilized in the same way. Coca-Cola increased sales by 5% by printing first names on its cans and bottles. The British government’s Behavioural Insights Team found that, for every £1 it spent on personalizing tax reminder letters using white envelopes and handwritten addresses, it had an ROI of £200 in taxes.

Campaigns can be more nuanced in their approach to personalization.

The charity Meningitis Research found that a direct mail appeal tailored with a heart-breaking story increased donations by 25% among those who rely more on emotional processing, while an appeal with concrete statistics and facts increased donations by 15% among those who rely on more rational processing.

Research shows that you can tell a lot about someone from small cues, called “thin slices.” You can make accurate judgments about someone’s character by looking at their office or personal website. We all have latent psychological characteristics that produce consistent patterns in our behavior that others can observe — such as having a messy desk at work.

This essence of personality is a cornerstone of modern psychology. The Big Five personality traits — creativity, organization, extraversion, friendliness, and irritability — are a rare example of consensus in psychology, and have shown time and again to predict important, real-world outcomes.

People shouldn’t be afraid of marketing psychology. It isn’t going to make you do or buy something you don’t want to. It helps present products you would already be interested in, in the manner which you prefer to be communicated.


This article was originally published on February 16, 2018 by Media Post.