I remember the day I learned the term psychographics. I was a junior in college and I was sitting in one of the non-air-conditioned lecture halls at Mizzou. Although my memory isn’t good enough to know exactly what I was wearing the fact that it was my junior year means it was likely; baseball cap, t-shirt, wrinkled shorts, flip flops and the combined scent of last night’s alcohol and desperation.
I was busy doodling something really cool in my notebook when my professor introduced me to both the concept of psychographics and manipulating psychographics in the same lecture. And I quote “Ice Cream causes violent behavior.” Wait, is it redundant to say and I quote and then use quote marks? Should I have put the words and I quote in quotation marks? Stupid journalism degree never helps me when I need it most. Anyway, I was intrigued. I wanted to hear where this was going. Mainly because I really liked ice cream and wanted to know if I needed cut back a bit. My professor then launched into an example of how there was a direct correlation between the consumption of ice cream and the rate of violent crime in the United States. He definitely proved that each year those months when ice cream sales were highest were also the months when violent crimes were the highest. I was shocked. I was stunned. I was slightly hungry.
After proving this correlation he then told us about psychographics. How there were common activities, attitudes, interests and opinions that could help us predict behavior. And of much greater importance to advertisers, could help us predict consumer behavior. Needless to say there was a lot of “oohing” and “ahhing” in the audience. He then asked us if liking ice cream was a psychographic indicator for criminal behavior. I was tempted to say no (I’m a contrarian by nature) but 1) talking seemed like a lot of effort and 2) I was really lazy.
After a mere 30 seconds (estimated for purposes of this article) someone gave him just the opening he needed. The really smart guy in the front said that his statistics showed a correlation so there must be a connection. My learned and educated professor then proceeded to verbally eviscerate the really smart guy in front of all of us. He unleashed a series of other stats that left us baffled. Lemonade consumption was higher when crime was higher, people were more likely to swim when the crime rate was higher and stunningly, television consumption was lower when the crime rate was higher.
It was like a double rainbow. None of us knew what to make of it. He then explained how that while the data may suggest a correlation it did not suggest causality. The common element of all these statistics was one simple thing – summer. People are outdoors more during the summer. More ice cream and lemonade are consumed. More people swim. And the presence of all of these people outdoors also means….more crime.
From this I learned a few things. Most importantly, not to speak up during that class. Also, I learned not to immediately trust statistics, but to understand the difference between correlation and causality. For example people with children living at home are less likely to gamble. Does this mean they are fundamentally more conservative? More risk averse? Generally just boring people? Nope. What it means is very simple: People with children at home have less disposable income.
Psychographics can be a very useful tool when develop a profile of your consumers. It’s never a bad thing to have as much information as possible, but it’s important to be able to see past the data. To learn how to identify those connections which are meaningful and to avoid those which are mere coincidence. And if it gets too frustrating trying to find the needle in the psychographic haystack…..just have an ice cream. That makes everything better.