Consumers are cognitive misers – meaning they generally have relatively little conscious capacity.

Recognising that (at the best estimate) only 0.0004% of sensory processing is conscious raises an interesting question… Just how much influence does the conscious brain have over choices?

The obvious conclusion is: not very much.

An interesting point, however, is that the conscious brain ‘thinks’ it has more influence than it actually does. This is summarised fantastically in a paper by behavioural economist Colin Camerer:

The human brain is like a monkey brain with a cortical ‘press secretary’ who is glib at concocting explanations for behaviour, and who prefers deliberative explanations over cruder ones.

In other words, the conscious mind post-rationalises (or predicts) behaviour or choice, and this is mistaken for intention.

Benjamin Libet conducted some fascinating experiments around free will in the 1980s. In one experiment, participants were asked to two do things: press a button at their leisure, and indicate when they had decided they would press it. Participants wore EEG helmets to measure their brain activity. Libet was able to measure the lag between people deciding to press the button, and the brain activity associated with the action required to press the button.

This lag was found, on average, to be -300ms.

In other words, people had already started to press the button before they ‘decided’ to press it!

While Libet’s experiment had a number of methodological concerns, its conclusions have been supported by years of research indicating that people post-rationalise their behaviour, and these naïve theories are often inaccurate.

For example, in one experiment, participants were shown two photographs of people, and asked to pick the one they preferred. They were then given that one and asked to explain why they chose it, which all of the participants did in detail. However, unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers used sleight of hand to give them the other photo (the unselected one) – and participants gave several reasons why they liked it!

Let’s take a consumer example. In one experiment, subjects browsed an e-commerce site selling tents, where they were free to inspect one tent at a time. Subjects chose their favourite tent, and then were asked why they chose it; explanations included liking the colour, choosing the best value price, and so on.

Nobody, however, said that presentation order had an effect – but a tent was twice as likely to be chosen if it was shown first.

The upshot is that consumers have little awareness of the non-conscious factors which have a big effect on their behaviour. This is why research suggest the correlation between attitudes and behaviours is very low.

Therefore simply explicitly asking consumers is wholly unsufficient to understand or predict their purchasing behaviour. In other words, surveys, interviews and focus groups are grossly flawed.

So what to do?

There are, instead, a number of indirect methodologies which, rather than outright asking consumers, use cutting-edge psychological principles to measure behavioural drivers.

An example is implicit testing, which uses reaction times to assess non-conscious memory networks. For instance, it can be used to see how closely a brand is associate with the concept ‘stylish’, or it can be used to measure how front-of-mind a brand’s logo is compared to competitors.

Click here to try an implicit test for yourself.

In the consumer sphere, research has shown that implicit testing can predict consumer behaviour much better than explicit testing – although the best route is to combine both. For example, one study found that implicit testing could predict the subsequent voting behaviour of people who even said they were ‘undecided’.

Besides implicit testing, there are several other psychometric, behavioural, biometric and neurometric methodologies brainchimp can use to help brands better understand why their consumers buy.


Libet’s free will experiment

Photo-switching experiment
Implicit Testing