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Why I’m not afraid of priming

April 27, 2014 1 Comment

Recently I read a very thoughtful blog post on neuromarketing ethics by Barry Adams, a web developer and provider of digital marketing services in Ireland and the UK. Barry’s post, entitled “Friday Commentary: A Crossroads for Marketing – The Ethics of Neuromarketing” is worth reading in full. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

… as our familiarity with and skill in neuromarketing grows, we are also beginning to discover certain ethical issues we as an industry will have to come to grips with. Imagine being able to prime consumers wearing Google Glass with specific visual triggers to get them in to the right buying mood for your products, or using precisely the right phrasings in your website’s header image to prime the site’s visitors for what you want them to do next. For some advertisers, this sounds like a commercial utopia. I hope that for others it raises some concerns.

For centuries economists have hidden behind the concept of a ‘rational consumer’, an idealistic view of consumers making rational decisions about their spending patterns. With the rational consumer as the foundation of economic theory, the capitalist free market is undoubtedly the most effective way to organise economies and ensure the best products from the best companies survive and thrive.

However, neuroscience and behavioural economics is proving this idealistic model to be entirely false. We as consumers are not rational, we do not buy the best products from the best companies, and we generally spend our money when we are triggered to do so – nearly always subconsciously – by marketing and advertising messages.

And when you think about that, about how we as marketers are becoming increasingly adept at influencing our customers’ subconscious mind in order to manipulate them in to buying our stuff, it leads us in to genuinely uncomfortable territory. We as marketers have a decision to make about how comfortable we are with influencing our target audience without that audience’s conscious knowledge or awareness.

primingBarry’s concerns about the potential dangers of priming inspired me to summarize my own views on this important topic, which I wrote up as a comment to his post. I found myself focusing on four points that have shaped my views on priming, all of which involve how our conscious and nonconscious minds work together. Here they are:

First, the idea that the nonconscious is “at odds” with the conscious and somehow operates against conscious “better judgment” is not really what the science tells us. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his great book Thinking Fast and Slow (you should add it to your recommended reading list), the conscious mind, what he calls System 2 thinking, primarily acts as a controller of the nonconscious processes we are not aware of. Evolutionarily, nonconscious responses to environmental stimuli developed long before conscious control, which is a uniquely human adaptation that appears to have emerged along with the human prefrontal cortex, which has increased in size sixfold in the last 5M years.

So one of the key purposes of the conscious mind is to override nonconscious impulses. The issue is not that we don’t have the CAPABILITY to do so, it’s that we very often CHOOSE not to make the effort to do so, because our brains are “cognitive misers” (a term long used in cognitive psychology) that prefer avoiding the expense of cognitive effort whenever possible. It’s important to understand that the consious mind can override the nonconscious mind at any time, but the opposite is not true. Our nonconsious minds cannot make us do things our conscious minds do not want to do. This is very important for understanding why marketers using nonconscious priming are not creating “zombie consumers” who cannot resist these subconscious triggers. We are quite capable of resisting them.

Second, the literature on priming is fascinating and complex. It is not a simple thing, especially in an environment in which we are bombarded by thousands of competing primes at any given moment. We have some built-in (yes, nonconscious) defenses against priming that are worth noting: (1) We have to desire the primed state (priming beverage drinking does not work for people who are not thirsty), (2) we have to have established liking for the primed state (if you don’t like coffee, I can’t prime you to drink it), and (3) we have to be unaware of the priming intent (if I know you’re trying to prime me, the priming effect disappears).

Third, research has shown that among our nonconscious processes there are a few automatic processes that provide cognitive DEFENSES against persuasion efforts, causing us to be “reverse primed” when our nonconscious minds perceive that we’re being subjected to persuasive tactics. On this topic I like to recommend this article as an example: Laran, Juliano, Amy N. Dalton, and Eduardo B. Andrade. “The curious case of behavioral backlash: Why brands produce priming effects and slogans produce reverse priming effects.” Journal of Consumer Research 37.6 (2011): 999-1014.

Fourth, the modern way psychologists look at nonconscious processes is not as a competitor to conscious processes, but as a “behavioral guidance system” that offloads many operations from conscious control so we can free our conscious mind to do what it does best, thinking about (and hopefully learning from) the past and planning for the future. Picking up the toothpaste is often a habitual buy, and doesn’t need to invoke deep conscious thinking to accomplish, so often doesn’t. Meanwhile, nonconscious processes are structuring our perceptions, emotions, motivations, and evaluations as we navigate our momemnt-to-moment lives. For the most part, the system works quite well.

I think that both marketers and consumers need to be better educated about how our minds really work so they can make better informed decisions. Humans will always be willing to trade off some amount of effortful thinking to achieve greater simplicity and less uncertainty in decision making. Will marketers try to take advantage of this? Of course they will! They always have. This is what they do. It’s a deal we all made in the market economy — I’ll let you try to influence me, and in response, I’ll get more variety, more choice, competitive pricing, etc.

I don’t think neuromarketing adds anything new to this arrangement. It simply exposes more about the actual mechanisms at play. Neuromarketing doesn’t try to change minds, marketing does that. Neuromarketing is just another set of (relatively new) techniques that let us see more clearly whether and how well marketing is working. My personal belief is that the more we learn about the complexities of the human brain, the HARDER marketing and influence appear to be. Our nonconsious mental processes didn’t evolve to make use easier to fool, they evolved to make us smarter and more efficient. Marketers need to appreciate that brain science is not a silver bullet for them, but rather a warning that much of what they’ve been doing is ineffectual, if not downright counterproductive.

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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