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The cognitive timeline, part 3: Deliberating and analyzing

April 1, 2015 0 Comments

rodin-the-thinkerBefore the discovery of the nonconscious, people believed they had full access to their thoughts and feelings, or at least access enough to be able 
to express accurate observations about their internal mental states. In the process of deliberation, people simply query their own minds to determine what they’re thinking or feeling about something. Market researchers used to believe that this process was accurate enough to provide good guidance for predicting future consumer attitudes and actions. And so the multi-billion-dollar survey research industry was born.

Modern brain science has demolished this hopeful assumption. People are able to retrieve some things with good accuracy, such as a relatively recent physical action like “Did I take out the garbage yesterday?” But we’re notoriously bad at identifying the causes of our behavior through deliberation. This isn’t because we’re forgetful, but because those causes are literally outside our conscious awareness. We haven’t forgotten them — we just never knew what they were in the first place.


People still use deliberation pretty much every moment of every day. They engage in a constant internal dialog, activating a spectrum of mental activities like:

  • Retrieving memories: “There’s Marge and her husband. I think his name is Bill.”
  • Interpreting the past: “I wonder what she meant by that.”
  • Anticipating the future: “What should I make for dinner tonight?”
  • Planning: “If I’m going to make spaghetti, I need to pick up some tomato sauce on the way home from work.”
  • Forming intentions: “I’ll pick up some ice cream, too. I usually get vanilla, but today I feel adventurous, so I’ll get chocolate!”
  • Evaluating/judging: “That clerk in the grocery store sure was rude.”
  • Simulating: “Maybe I would’ve reacted the same way if someone spilled orange juice all over me.”
  • Calculating: “Six times $2.49 for each bottle of orange juice is. . . .”
  • Reasoning: “If I complain to the clerk, he’ll call his boss. If he calls his boss, I’ll have to admit I dropped the orange juice bottle. If I admit that, his boss will. . . .”
  • Rationalizing: “I must’ve been in a bad mood at dinner tonight because of that upsetting incident at the grocery store.”

One mistake the rational consumer model makes is assuming that most evaluations and judgments are generated by conscious deliberation, so they can be captured later by replaying those thought processes in a verbal self-report. But lots of research now shows that deliberation is much more likely to be devoted to justifying an evaluation rather than creating it. As with impressions, our evaluations and judgments are largely generated nonconsciously and then rationalized (via deliberation) and explained (via speaking and acting) after the fact.

Sometimes people seem to jump directly from concepts to actions, with very little deliberation in between. There are two main circumstances in which this happens:

  • When our actions are derived from acquired skills: Acquired skills are capabilities we’ve learned through practice that become automatic over time. Examples are skills like riding a bicycle or driving a car. Through repetitive learning, these activities convert from conscious, deliberate actions to automatic actions. Acquired skills don’t play much of a role in consumer behavior.
  • When our actions are derived from habits: Habits, in contrast, play a huge role in consumer behavior. Habits are formed through use and experience. If you’ve been using the same brand of toothpaste for years, and you have no reason to be dissatisfied with it, you’ll probably completely ignore all the other toothpastes on the shelf — despite their bright packaging, promotional displays, and price discounts — and just grab your usual brand.

Habits depend on highly developed conceptual connections that immediately trigger expressions (buying behavior). Because they bypass conscious deliberation, they’re very hard for marketers to overcome. Why? Because deliberation is where counterarguments are formed and where conscious intentions are made. Habits provide huge advantages to established, well-known brands, and they often represent the biggest obstacle to new brands and products trying to lure buyers away from established leaders.

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.”

Filed in: Science • Tags: ,

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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