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Missing the mark on nonconscious processing

January 8, 2014 0 Comments

icebergI recently came across a sponsored article in Marketing Week titled “Ninety-five per cent wrong.” The article was written by Graham Page, Executive Vice President of Consumer Neuroscience Practice at Millward Brown. Graham usually has interesting things to say, so I started reading with anticipation.

However, the more I read the more puzzled I became. I suggest you read the article yourself, and then come back here for my reactions. That’s ok, I’ll wait.

OK, you’re back. My initial reaction to the piece was puzzlement, followed by more than a little exasperation.

The article starts off by announcing and then enthusiastically demolishing a straw man statement that “95 per cent of what the brain does is unconscious.” It calls this statement (without attribution) “the typical story,” an “often-cited fact,” and a “tacit assumption in the industry”. It then goes on to acknowledge that nonconscious processes do indeed drive everyday consumer decision making (which would seem to be the more salient point), noting that consumers “cannot help but be swayed by their automatic reactions” and “where possible we will use our fast processes for decision-making.”

The main argument of the piece employs an odd sleight-of-hand in which the straw man “95% unconscious processing” statement is subtly transformed into, first, an implication that “95 per cent of brand decision-making is unconscious” (an implication that does not in fact follow logically or factually). And second, THAT statement is morphed into yet another claim, this one statistical, that nonconscious processes account for 95% of consumer decisions and behavior.

Having fully stuffed the straw man, the article then goes on to declare that the last statement is disproved by actual MB studies, because nonconscious variables never account for 95% of the variance in predictive equations when those equations also include survey-based (aka conscious) predictors of consumer behavior. Assuming this statement is true, the post is incorrectly titled: the straw man statement is not “95% wrong,” it’s “100% wrong.”

What’s puzzling is why the article takes this long and winding road to make a point that I really don’t think anyone would or could disagree with: that we do need to include both conscious and nonconscious factors to understand and predict consumer decisions and behavior.

Along the way to that sensible conclusion, there are several misunderstandings and misstatements in the post that deserve comment.

“few in the research or marketing industry have ever believed in a dispassionate consumer.”

Here’s another strawman. If the methods used are based on assumptions that consumers have stable preferences, are influenced by logical arguments, and make decisions based on explicit recall, then those methods are utilizing a “hypothetical construct” that is discredited by recent brain research across multiple fields (neuroscience, social psychology, behavioral economics). The issue is not what we in the industry believe, it’s what our methods assume to be true.

“The core of the science on fast and slow thinking is that both contribute to decision-making, with fast processes such as instinctive emotional reactions framing the slower ones.”

Fast processes go far beyond instinctive emotional reactions. They influence perceptions, evaluations, and motivations as well as emotions. Interestingly, later on “fast processes” become “meanings,” which are quite different from “emotions.”

“Where possible we will use our fast processes for decision-making…”

This is true and has big implications for self-reporting methodologies. Because these processes are NOT consciously accessible, any self-reports about them will be no more accurate than random guessing. So for this category of decisions (a pretty large one, dare we say it might include 95% of decisions?), surveys are only measuring rationalizations and guesses, not causes.

“…but our slower processes can and do override them when we are motivated to do so or when our instinctive responses are vague or muted.”

The first part of this is exactly right. The way slow processes interact with fast processes is by overriding them. But the second part is not. As used here, “motivated,” “vague,” and “muted” are conscious evaluations. They do not apply in the preconscious phase that precedes activation of conscious attention. In fact, the main triggers of conscious (System 2) override seem to be novelty detection, expectancy violation, and processing disfluency (for experimental evidence, see Alter, Adam L., et al. “Overcoming intuition: metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 136.4 (2007): 569.)

“The most memorable campaigns tap into both the emotional and thoughtful parts of the mind.”

But the most successful campaigns may not, at least not according to the IPA databank (see here and here). The substitution of “memorable” for “successful” is common in methodologies that rely on explicit recall as their measure of success.

“Most research methods encourage people to reflect on their faint brand associations and to see what they can build from them, there and then.”

This statement erroneously assumes that nonconscious connections are just like conscious connections, but delivered at a lower volume, so to speak. Not true. An association we are faintly aware of is a conscious association, consciously retrieved from long term memory. It is just more effortful to retrieve it. Nonconscious associations are inaccessible consciously and can be completely illogical and even patently false, but we respond to them anyway. When you ask people to articulate their faint brand associations, you are not tapping into their nonconscious processes. This ignores one of the most important insights from Kahneman: if you ask people a hard question, they will replace it with an easy question and answer that.

“It is the gist of a brand that counts for fast decisions.”

This “gist” seems to be a kind of semantic summary of open-ended conscious responses, and it may indeed be a useful indicator of what people believe a brand represents, but it is still consciously derived, and therefore is not a measure of the nonconscious sources of fast decisions. Again, this seems to show a misunderstanding of the difference between conscious and nonconscious processes.

“Integrating reflective thought and measures of instant meaning is key…”

I applaud the spirit of the statement, but wonder why measures of nonconscious processes are now being reduced to “measures of instant meaning.” Nonconscious factors are far more than “instant meanings,” just as they are far more than “instinctual emotional reactions.” To understand how our decisions are influenced by mental processes we are not aware of, it is necessary to look at the operation of numerous well-researched cognitive mechanisms like novelty detection, familiarity, processing fluency, priming, nonconscious goal activation, implicit learning and, probably most important, judgment and decision heuristics.

“… By including both, we can empirically determine the importance of each.”

I wonder whether this is really the goal. It’s like saying, “The goal of building inspections is to determine which is the more important part of a house, the foundation or the roof.” It’s not a competition. Fast decisions are the norm. We now have many tools for diagnosing and understanding them. None of these require surveys. Fast decisions sometimes, under conditions that need to be understood better, get overridden by slow decisions. People can provide a narrative of the slow decision processes they have access to, and that can help explain, at least in part, the conscious components of their decisions (although flaws in our memory processes can scramble even these evaluations pretty significantly).

Ultimately, marketers and market researchers are interested in explaining and predicting what decisions consumers are going to make, and what behaviors they are going to engage in. The goal of combining conscious and nonconscious sources of decisions is not to pick a winner, but to provide a more realistic understanding of (1) how consumers make decisions and (2) what decisions they are likely to make. This article doesn’t take us very far toward that goal, and may even take us a few steps back. Substantial amounts of academic research tell us the opposite: decisions are on average more responsive to nonconscious than conscious sources, and consciously-derived self-reports are more likely to be rationalizations than true causes. It looks like we have some way to go before our industry can start making real progress in integrating new and traditional research methods.

Photo @Flickr by Jeff Mikels / CC by 2.0

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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