This post is part of a series covering the 10 most important scientific principles underlying neuromarketing.
As we establish in Chapter 1 (“What Neuromarketing Is and Isn’t”) and elaborate on throughout this book, human brains are cognitive misers — thinking is hard and we try to avoid it if we can. A particularly difficult task is making decisions. So, it should come as no surprise that we’ve adopted emotional cues and triggers as decision-making aids to give our cognitive-miser brains easy shortcuts to make decisions quickly and without a lot of cognitive exertion.
Implicit decisions occur when we bypass conscious deliberation and make the mental leap from nonconscious impressions and reactions to choice behavior. As we saw in Chapter 8 (“Why We Buy the Things We Buy”), implicit decisions are driven by automatic, effortless, System 1 processes that often don’t feel like decisions at all. Because they bypass conscious deliberation, they’re experienced without any internal questioning or weighing of arguments, so they’re immune to classic persuasive messaging. This, of course, creates some problems for advertisers who believe they need to rely on persuasive messaging to influence behavior.
The reality of implicit decisions creates an even more fundamental risk for traditional research techniques. When people make implicit decisions, they don’t have access to the sources of their decisions. This in itself is a big challenge — one that neuromarketing addresses with alternative techniques. But the bigger problem is that people don’t know that they don’t know why they make implicit decisions, so they query their memories and come up with plausible explanations, which they report to researchers and sincerely believe to be true. Unfortunately, these stories tend to be rationalizations, not explanations, and they often produce poor predictions of future behavior as a result.
Our final top-ten scientific foundation for neuromarketing is the logic of reverse inference, which we introduce in Chapter 19 (“Five Things You Need to Know about Neuromarketing Studies and Measures”). Reverse inference may seem like a simple logical puzzle, but it’s fundamental to the core logic of neuromarketing. It provides the bridge between academic research in the brain sciences and the practical application of that research in neuromarketing.
Reverse inference tells us how much confidence we should have in a neuromarketing finding expressed in the form: “This brain or body response has occurred; therefore, this mental state has taken place.” For example, if we observe with facial expression analysis software that a person has smiled while watching an ad (a body response), what is the likelihood that the ad made that person happy (a mental state)?
The logic of reverse inference says that this likelihood can never be 100 percent. Suppose a statement has been validated by evidence from 1,000 studies:
All people who feel happy while watching an ad display a smile.
Even all this evidence does not logically justify the reverse inference:
This person smiled while watching an ad; therefore, the ad made them happy.
Reverse inference tells us that any neuromarketing finding is probabilistic (based in part on chance), never certain. The degree to which you should believe a neuromarketing finding depends on the weight of the existing evidence supporting the inference, combined with your confidence that the experiment was properly designed and conducted so that alternative causes of the observed results were controlled for.
If you’re satisfied that the experiment was sound, you should have increased confidence that the reverse inference is true, but you can never be 100 percent certain that it’s true — you can only be more certain than you were before the experiment was performed.