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The cognitive timeline, part 2: Determining meaning and value

March 22, 2015 0 Comments

cubist-meaningWhen we bind impressions with meanings and value, we create concepts or conceptualizations of those impressions. This process of conceptualizing is so fast and automatic that we barely realize it’s happening. But it’s incredibly important to how we interpret and respond to the world.

Early psychologists used to think of conceptualization as just another part of a perception or impression. They assumed that when a person saw a dog, recognizing it as a dog was just a part of seeing it.

What modern brain science tells us is that the process of forming concepts is quite complicated and far from obvious. It involves the rapid and automatic association of a network of category and attribute memories to an impression. The result is that people usually feel that they “know” what they’re looking at instantaneously. Only when our brains encounter impressions at the edge of our implicit categorization models do we become aware of the mental processing involved.


For example, you can usually distinguish a man from a woman without mental effort. But we’ve all been in situations where we’ve seen someone and not been sure if the person was male or female. (Saturday Night Live created a skit about this, with the character Pat.) When you meet a person whose gender isn’t obvious right off the bat, you find yourself searching for attribute cues — body shape, depth of the voice, and so on.

Conceptualization (the process of forming and strengthening concepts) is a learning process. It’s important to marketers because it helps us understand how brands work, which is a key element of marketing and advertising. A brand is essentially a carefully cultivated concept in a mental network of connections including products, companies, attitudes, meanings, aspirations, and other associations. Companies spend billions of dollars every year trying to strengthen positive connections to their brands. But because the process of forming concepts largely occurs outside conscious awareness, consumers can’t easily articulate either the existence of those connections or their relative strength or durability.

Neuromarketing gives us new tools for exploring and mapping the conceptual networks surrounding brands and products in the minds of consumers. Here are two brain processes that help us do this:

  • Associative activation: When we bring an idea to conscious awareness, our brains automatically “activate” concepts that are related to that idea in memory. These related concepts are not brought to conscious awareness directly, but they are, in effect, prepared for conscious activation if needed.
  • Natural assessment: This refers to the brain’s ability to automatically and nonconsciously attach many attributes or characteristics to perceived objects. Some of these are physical properties like size, distance, and loudness, but others are more abstract and can have a big impact on consumer attitudes and behavior, such as similarity, causal tendencies, novelty, emotional assessment (liking and disliking), and mood.

Associative activation produces distinct signals in the brain, and these signals can be used to determine the strength of association between concepts as they’re being activated. This provides the basis for new measures of brand and product associations in the consumer’s brain, and new tools for monitoring the impact of marketing and advertising on brand concepts over time.

Natural assessment of liking and disliking is an especially important process that people perform innumerable times per day to assign value to the things and situations they experience. Experiments have shown that human beings can translate a positive or negative emotional response into an approach or avoidance physical reaction (for example, leaning forward or away) in less than a quarter of a second — all without being consciously aware that they’re doing it.

The formation of meanings and values involves critical brain processes that neuromarketing methods and tools allow us to observe and measure directly for the first time. Peering into these nonconscious processes creates the potential for a much deeper understanding of the conscious processes we discuss in the next two posts: deliberating, analyzing, speaking, and acting.

N4D-cover -120pxThis post is excerpted, with minor edits, from Neuromarketing for Dummies, Chapter 2, “What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then.”

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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