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The cognitive timeline, part 4a: Speaking (the dangers of self-reporting)

April 10, 2015 0 Comments

survey-interviewTwo kinds of expressions are critical to marketing and market research:

  • Verbal expression: Self-reporting of opinions, attitudes, preferences, and predictions of future behavior
  • Consumer behavior: Shopping, buying, and using products and services

Market researchers used to think that these two kinds of expressions were closely connected. The rational consumer model assumes that all our decisions and actions are based on conscious deliberative reasoning, which naturally leads to the idea that we can accurately access and verbally express our true reasons for acting one way or another. Much of traditional market research is built on this assumption — if you want to know whether people will buy your product, just ask them.


Alas, this is another hopeful belief that modern brain science has demolished. What the most recent research tells us is that “doing” and “thinking about doing” are only weakly connected. Neuroscience today is busy mapping the paths of these processes through the brain, and social psychology and behavioral economics are busy determining the implications of these differences for individual and collective behavior. The results to date paint a very different picture from the one depicted in the rational consumer model.

Self reporting: “Say it ain’t so”

Verbal expressions, scientists have found, are, in fact, very poor reflections of actual internal mental states. This is hard to accept if you embrace the rational consumer model, but it’s completely understandable if you take into account recent discoveries about nonconscious processes.

The mismatch between verbal expressions and actual mental processes has been known among psychologists for some time. It was first documented by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson in 1977. The gist of what Nisbett and Wilson said is that, when asked what we think, we guess in exactly the same way we guess when trying to figure out what other people are thinking.

Perhaps the fact that we don’t have access to our nonconscious brain processes wouldn’t be so bad for market research if people recognized that they didn’t have access to their nonconscious brain processes and showed some humility in talking about those processes to market researchers. But what Nisbett and Wilson documented way back in the era of disco, and what mountains of later research has confirmed, is this: Not only do we make up plausible explanations of our mental states — what we remember, what we like, why we like it, what we’ll do in the future, and so on —but we vastly overestimate the accuracy of our own reports.

So, not only do we make up stories, but we firmly believe the stories we make up. And we tell those stories to market researchers with the utmost sincerity. And those market researchers take us at our word and produce products that we sincerely told them we would buy. Then everybody scratches their heads when those products sit on the shelf because people didn’t really want them after all.

Scientists have come up with a great word for this process of making stuff
up and then believing it’s true. They call it confabulation (the replacement of a gap in our memories with a falsification that we truly believe to be true). Confabulation may be public enemy number one for marketers and market researchers. It costs companies billions of dollars a year. Countering confabulation is probably the most important justification for the development and adoption of neuromarketing research techniques.

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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