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Science under the hood 1: System 1 and System 2, Priming

November 8, 2015 0 Comments

This post is part of a series covering the 10 most important scientific principles underlying neuromarketing.

System 1 and System 2

Systems-1-and-2Daniel Kahneman didn’t invent the System 1–System 2 model of brain processes, but his work over the last several decades has popularized it as one of the most useful overarching frameworks for understanding how the human brain works and, in particular, how the nonconscious and conscious parts of the mind work together. We discuss the significance of this model in Chapters 2 and 8.

System 1 and System 2 are neutral terms describing two distinct sensory processing and decision-making systems in the brain. System 1 is fast; System 2 is slow. System 1 is automatic and outside our control; System 2 is voluntary and under our control. System 1 makes intuitive judgments based on simple associations and is biased toward action and belief; System 2 is more cautious and makes judgments based on logic and evidence.

The existence of System 1 was hidden until a few decades ago because System 2 is the only system we’re aware of. The two systems work together, not in opposition to each other. System 2 usually operates as a controller of System 1, but it is a lazy controller, so most of our everyday impressions, reactions, and decisions are driven by System 1 processes.

This model is key to understanding why traditional approaches to market research are at risk and why neuromarketing has emerged as an alternative and extension. Market research before the emergence of neuromarketing 
was based on a System 2 view of the brain. All three workhorses of market research discussed in Chapter 15 — interviews, focus groups, and surveys — assume that consumers have access to their own mental states and can accurately describe what they like and why they choose.

But brain science has amassed vast amounts of evidence showing that this assumption is incorrect and that consumers regularly use System 1 processes they’re not aware of. These processes bias consumer behavior in predictable ways that don’t correspond to the expectations of logic. Neuromarketing has emerged because it offers new research methods that can measure these System 1 processes and provide new insights into how and why consumers respond to marketing and act in the marketplace.


Priming is the psychological mechanism by which System 1 influences what we think and do as human beings and, of course, as consumers. Described in detail in Chapter 5 (“The Intuitive Consumer: Nonconscious Processes Underlying Consumer Behavior”), priming can be thought of as the System 1 alternative to persuasive messaging. Persuasion requires that people pay attention to a message, judge it to be correct and reasonable, and remember it. Priming requires none of these things.

priming-examplePriming is based on the mental process of associative activation, the brain’s ability to automatically and rapidly trigger associated ideas and concepts when an idea comes to mind. Bring the idea of “dog” to mind, and your brain immediately activates a massive network of doggy associations. In the example to the right, reading each list primes you differently for filling in the blanks in the last item. The first list primes you for colors, so the word green is most likely to be the first solution you think of. The second list primes you for fruits, so the word grape is most likely to reach conscious awareness first.

Associative activations don’t flood into your conscious mind (that would overwhelm you), but they become more accessible to your conscious mind as you deliberate about the particular  issue you’re considering. Bring the idea of “pancakes” to mind, and a completely different network of associations is activated. This is how our brains anticipate the world around us, and prepare us for action in any circumstance.

Priming is one of the main mechanisms by which marketing operates, and it significantly impacts the decisions we make as consumers. Advertising is a prime. Product placement in movies is a prime. Images and displays in stores are primes. Priming is a nonconscious process, so you can’t learn how it’s operating by just asking people.

A key thing to remember about priming is that it doesn’t follow the rules of logic that govern System 2 processes. Priming simply makes some things more accessible to downstream mental processes than other things. The ideas involved in priming don’t have to be connected in any rational way. For example, as we describe in Chapter 8 (“Why We Buy the Things We Buy”), giving people a pen with green ink primes them to increase their stated preference for green products.

N4D-cover -120pxThis post is excerpted, with minor edits, from Neuromarketing for Dummies, Chapter 24, “Ten Scientific Pillars Underlying Neuromarketing.”

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About the Author:

Steve is a pioneer in the field of neuromarketing. He founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms in 2006 and published the first comprehensive overview of the field, Neuromarketing for Dummies, in 2013. He established Intuitive Consumer Insights in 2012 to help clients, vendors, and industry associations navigate the opportunities and challenges neuromarketing presents to the marketing and market research communities.

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