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Science under the hood 3: Misattribution, Nonconscious goal pursuit

December 6, 2015 0 Comments

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


misattribution2One of the things scientists have learned from studying System 1 and System 2 processes separately is that System 1 is sloppy. It makes connections and guides behavior based on simple associations, not logic. When System 1 makes a connection, it assumes that connection to be true and real, and it starts triggering a cascade of additional connections that follow from it. Unless System 2 steps in to override this process with conscious deliberation, we’re likely to respond and act as if all these associations were true and real.

But as we’ve seen in the example of processing fluency, as well as many other examples presented throughout this book, many of the shortcuts our System 1 judgment and decision-making processes use are based on misattribution. When you mistake processing fluency for truth, beauty, trustworthiness, or familiarity, you’re making a misattribution. When you fail to see that adding a more expensive decoy product to a store display has influenced your buying decision, and instead attribute your choice to a longstanding preference, you’re making a misattribution.

Misattribution usually isn’t a big problem. Often it gets us to the right out- come, even if it gets us there by the wrong route. A product that presents itself fluently, clearly, and simply is likely to be a good product that delivers on its promise. And if it isn’t, a negative usage experience will quickly adjust our expectations so that we’re no longer fooled by its lure of processing fluency. Misattribution can be a bigger problem for large, infrequent purchases, but in those cases we’re much less likely to bypass System 2 as part of our decision process, so System 1 misattribution is actually less likely to be decisive in such situations.

For marketers and market researchers, misattribution can be a significant danger when conclusions are derived from asking consumers questions and believing their answers. Even when people are completely honest and sincere, if they’re misattributing the sources of their judgments and decisions, their self-reports will lead researchers astray. As discussed in Chapter 2, this is one of the major justifications for the growing popularity of neuromarketing measurement techniques that do not rely on self-reporting.

Nonconscious goal pursuit

goal-pursuitOne of the most remarkable and counterintuitive findings of social psychology is the discovery of nonconscious goal pursuit in human (and consumer) choice and behavior. Nonconscious goals are covered in detail in Chapter 7 (“New Understandings of Consumer Goals and Motivation”) because they provide an important mechanism that connects priming to consumer actions. Nonconscious goals can be activated by a wide variety of motivational primes, including social situations, people, brands, ads, and social norms.

Once activated, nonconscious goals are pursued exactly like conscious goals, but without conscious awareness:

  • They’re pursued over extended periods of time.
  • They persist in the face of obstacles.
  • If interrupted, we resume pursuing a goal at the first opportunity, even if intrinsically more attractive activities are available to us.
  • The strength of goal motivation increases over time until fulfilled.
  • When the goal motivation is fulfilled, it disappears rapidly.
  • The outcome of goal pursuit — whether success or failure in reaching the goal — can change a person’s mood and behavior after the fact.

Nonconscious goals are important to marketing because they can influence product preferences, choices, and shopping behavior. An important lesson for marketers is that the relationship between primes and goals has to be tested — it can’t be assumed. Primes may not trigger the goals you expect. For example, we document in Chapter 7 the existence of persuasion correction goals, which can be triggered when consumers feel they’re being subjected
to persuasion pressure. Priming that appears to be benign and positive to a marketing professional may, in fact, be generating nonconscious resistance, rather than acceptance, of a marketing message. The complexity and subtlety of nonconscious goal pursuit don’t make the marketer’s job any easier.

Because consumers don’t have access to their nonconscious goals, nonconscious goal pursuit has to be studied indirectly, inferring goal activation and pursuit from consumer choices and behaviors in field and controlled experimental contexts. Neuromarketing methods are required to observe and mea- sure the strength of nonconscious goals in action.

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 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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