How conscious are you of your unconscious?

Authors: Martijn Huisman, Renee van Dalen, Karen Hoogendam and Thom Rommens.
Did you know that most of our daily life and decision making is based upon unconscious processes rather than logic, rational decision making? This, and much more, was discussed at the SM@RT (Starting Marketeer and Research Talents) congress, held on April 19 in Amsterdam. Young market researchers from all over The Netherlands, including five ‘of our own’ from InSites Consulting (the authors of this blogpost + Anouk Willems), gathered in a very crowded Lloyd Hotel to hear about some of the newest and hottest methods, studies, and insights in market research.|
This year the conference revolved around the theme ‘behind the scenes’: the unconscious. As all seven speakers convincingly showed in different ways and with very different cases and research techniques, much of our decision making and (consumer) behavior is driven by unconscious processes rather than our own conscious decisions. The message of the speakers: involve emotions and the unconscious in market research.
The unconscious in our daily life and in market research
The meeting was hosted by Kees van Duijn, managing director of the qualitative research company Firefish Nederland. With a small introductory quiz on rational versus emotional thinking, he argued that in the decision making process, emotions and the unconscious are more important than rational thinking. But what is the unconscious, and what does it mean that about 95% of our behavior stems from unconscious processes?
The first speaker of the day, Jorn Horstman, behavioral scientist at Dijksterhuis & Van Baaren (D&B), tried to give some answers to this question. Using the analogy of the iceberg, which is only ten percent above water and ninety percent under water, our behavior and decisions are based for about 95% on unconscious processes. His conclusion, contested by some of the audience: it seems that the days of only relying on logic and solid, rational reasoning are over. Instead, involve the unconscious in research.
An interesting example was the study Horstman did for NS (Dutch Railways) about how to make the so-called silent coaches really silent, as travelers in the Netherlands tend to talk loudly and make a lot of noise even in these special compartments. The team at D&B found the answer in the library. Through our so-called ‘associative networks’ (how we automatically relate things to each other like, for example, summer and sun, spring and flowers) we automatically connect libraries to being silent, without consciously realizing it. By putting large stickers with images of libraries and books in the silent coaches of a train, travelers taking the train immediately became much more quiet, which goes to show that our behavior is indeed to a large extent based upon unconscious processes.
Combining research forces and techniques for new and better results
The next speakers, Martijn de Groote (TNS NIPO) and Walter Limpens (Neurensics) jointly presented their recent study for PostNL, elaborating on how combining research forces and techniques lead to new insights and results. They analyzed the impact of a recent PostNL television commercial aimed at recruiting new personnel by combining interviews (TNS NIPO) with so-called 3D Mind Mapping (Neurensics). The latter, which involves monitoring brain activity by MRI scanning, was especially interesting as, in the words of Limpens, “consumers do what they feel, but say what they think”. In other words, what consumers report to us researchers might not always accurately describe reality. Mind mapping, however, looks at brain activity (more specific, the zones for activation and reward) to accurately measure how consumers react to stimuli such as products or television commercials. Together with the interviews by TNS NIPO, the study was concluded successfully with meaningful results and insights for the client. The clear message: work together and combine forces to achieve more and better results.
After a short break, Maurits Moti of MetrixLab took the stage to give a short presentation on product packages. Particularly, how matching a package presentation with our unconscious ‘associative network’ strongly influences product perceptions and preferences. According to Moti, executing an IAT (Implicit Association Test), together with product recognition, gives a more realistic and accurate prediction of buying behavior than a single focused product test. Moreover, it provides better insights into how a new packaging of a product should look like. Moti also showed how MetrixLab combines several types of tracking, including eye tracking, to learn more about the way customers look at products, labels and other visual materials. A campaign for a Chinese hairdryer was, for example, adjusted to make the flow of these three elements better go towards the message the company wanted to tell to consumers.
Ine Armour-Brown, qualitative researcher at Blauw Research, continued with a presentation on emotions in market research. From the assumption that consumers buy products based upon emotions rather than the price, Blauw has started using computer vision technology to directly measure consumers’ facial expressions (emotions) to stimuli such as television commercials. Their software basically measures the six basic facial expressions, such as anger, happiness, disgust, et cetera. Similar to Neurensics, this research technique bypasses (self) reporting but rather looks at emotions that are hard to hide or change, in this case facial expressions.
Body language and the unconscious
After another break, in which there was plenty of opportunity to meet fellow young market researchers from all the major research companies in the Netherlands, Fred van Raaij from Tilburg University kicked off a presentation heavily loaded with theory and methods. Exposure effects, emotional versus cognitive processes, the model of Kahneman, perceptual fluency, conceptual fluency, nudging, framing and the problems of relying on (consumer) introspection; all were discussed in merely half an hour.

The model of Kahneman

Interestingly, many of these elements come together in Van Raaij’s own model which states that there are internal cues (like hunger and thirst) and external cues (where priming and exposure play a role) to motivate people, in addition to a ‘feedback track’ which comes from the surroundings of a person. These three elements are ‘fed’ by the unconscious and strongly influence our decision making. This is the very reason, according to Van Raaij, that we have to be critical about our so called conscious processes. Introspective thoughts about decision processes should be looked at with suspicion, because they have a natural bias towards our own thinking process. Moreover, we as human beings are (largely) unable to remember which factors are actually decisive when buying a product.
The last speaker of the day, Gerard Stokking, introduced us into the fascinating world of Synergology, the reading and interpreting of body language. Stokkink showed with convincing examples that we humans can hardly and/or convincingly control our body language. As such, it would seem that body language is the language of our unconscious. Synergology allows us to decode body language, understand which emotions are related to what movements, how to detect lies and how to reveal what remains unspoken. As we humans express our feelings to a large extent through body language, it is important to observe someone while you are talking to him or her. Conversely, observing body language provides us researchers with another way of carrying out (market) research, similar to analyzing facial expressions or mind mapping.

All in all, the conference gave us researchers many new ideas and to think about. Ironically, it also made us very conscious of how the unconscious plays a large and important role in our daily lives, decision making and consumer behavior. Last but certainly not least, combining forces and research techniques can truly lead to new, surprising insights.

In between the presentations there was plenty of opportunity to immediately apply the theory about unconscious behavior, facial expressions and body language during networking efforts with fellow market researchers.

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