How to get people to recycle more


Why is there so much apathy towards recycling in the workplace and how can we drive behaviour change towards recycling?

To answer these questions we teamed up with Ceris Burns International who are specialists in Environmental PR.

The British recycle 43% of their household waste, a massive improvement on the average of 11% 14 years ago. This is still below the 50% EU target for 2020 and this rise in recycling has been slowing down in the past few years. Workplace recycling is even lower. We found that 22% of workplaces are not even providing recycling facilities. A whopping 52% are confused about what the can and can’t recycle.

Communications have a greater impact if they are emotive since emotions power decision making, but how exactly should these messages be presented in order to effectively change attitudes and behaviour?

We decided to find out whether threatening, negative messages or positive, hopeful messages about recycling had a greater impact on changing peoples’ attitudes about how important recycling is.

There is some reason to predict that negatively framed messages may have more of an impact on peoples’ attitudes. We automatically attend to threats in our environment as a survival mechanism, and we tend to give more weight to potential losses than potential gains. The impact of framing also depends on the situation and target audience. Negative messaging tends to be more effective when the outcome is risky or uncertain, and when the audience feels strongly involved in the issue. Under certain circumstances, positive messages can influence people more strongly than negative messages by reinforcing positive associations with the attitudes and behaviour. We have found this to be the case in previous research we have conducted.

We used an implicit association test (IAT) to measure implicit, subconscious attitudes towards the importance of recycling. Because recycling is a socially desirable behaviour, simply asking people about their intentions to recycle may not be an accurate prediction of future behaviour. Measuring subconscious associations bypasses people’s tendency to answer with what they think they are expected to say, allowing us to more accurately measure whether the communications have had an impact on attitudes towards recycling.

We questioned 200 UK adults about their current recycling behaviour and attitudes towards recycling; then viewed either positive or negative messages about recycling; followed by an implicit (IAT) test measuring how strongly they associate recycling with importance; and finally they answered questions regarding their intentions to recycle in the future.

We found that:

After seeing positive messages people subconsciously felt that recycling was more important, suggesting positive messages are more influential in this context than negative messages.

Importantly, this effect was significantly enhanced for people who thought recycling was less important, less effective and who reported less frequent recycling behaviour, suggesting that positive messaging should specifically target this group in order to change their attitudes and hopefully their future recycling behaviour.

In contrast to the implicit findings, the positive and negative messages did not lead to differences in self-reported intentions to recycle in the future, demonstrating the importance of the implicit measure in this study.

In summary, if you want your employees or colleagues to recycle more, highlight the benefits of recycling rather than trying to make them feel bad about not recycling. To avoid confusion over what can and can’t be recycled, ensure clearly labelled facilities are present where people generate waste. Make sustainability part of the company ethos and lead by example.

A copy of the best practice guide to recycling can be downloaded from the Ceris Burns PR website HERE.

An interview with Duncan Smith from Mindlab and Ceris Burns from Ceris Burns PR on this research can be seen on the Institute of Directors website HERE


Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



Why the subconscious matters


If you want to truly understand consumer behaviour, you need to not only look at people’s explicit responses (what they say they like), but to also take subconscious emotions and judgements into account. But why is it the case that subconscious processes influence our decisions? Surely we should make better judgements if we consciously thought about our decisions more and not let our gut feelings take over. In this blog post, I will look into how we use subconscious ‘thinking’ to make decisions and why this is actually a good strategy.

Coke cans and cars

It is often thought that we base our decisions primarily on conscious thinking when there is a lot at stake, for example when we buy expensive goods, choose a place to live or buy a car. In contrast, when shopping for cheaper or less important products, subconscious thought is often the main driver of our decisions (we will usually pick an item within seconds out of a range of competitors, without consciously weighing up all of their pros and cons, but rather trusting our intuition). This theory certainly makes sense when you think about subconscious thinking as fast and relatively easy, and conscious thought as a slow, more effortful process that can be used to override the subconscious and evaluate different aspects more carefully. But is there more to subconscious decision-making than is immediately obvious? If you are making an important decision (e.g. buying a house), your friends and family will encourage you to spend a good amount of time considering different options, sleep on the decision, write down advantages and disadvantages and discuss them with others. But research has shown that only trusting your conscious thoughts might not always be the best approach.

Spontaneity and happiness

We think that thinking hard and justifying decisions will lead to better outcomes, but this is not always the case. An experiment was conducted to test whether people would be happier with spontaneous decisions or ones they justified (Wilson et al., 1990). For this, participants were given the choice between several posters which they were allowed to keep after the experiment. Half of the participants had to just pick a poster and take it home, while the other half were asked to write down reasons for why they picked the poster. Both were told that the experimenter would not know which poster they picked, so that they would not feel judged for their decisions. Not only did the spontaneous group pick different posters than the deliberation group (posters that were ‘just pretty’ instead of ones with motivating slogans, etc.), when asked a few months later about their decisions, they were also much happier with the choice they made. But one might argue that picking a poster is not a particularly important decision, and that of course we can trust our subconscious to make this choice. However, the following example will show that we should use our gut feelings when making more important decisions as well.

Is our subconscious better at making important decisions?

In order to test whether we make better judgements using conscious or sub-conscious decision-making processes, a series of studies was carried out at the University of Amsterdam, looking at choosing apartments or potential roommates (Dijksterhuis, 2004). For this, participants were shown 12 pieces of information about each possible apartment (e.g. size, location) or roommate (e.g. tidy, fun). The way the information was presented ensured that there was always a hypothetical ‘best choice’ (one apartment was better than the others). After showing participants the information, they were either asked to pick their favourite straight away (control condition), were given 3 minutes to think about their decision and then choose (conscious thought) or were distracted with a difficult task for 3 minutes and then asked to decide (this discouraged conscious thought and was therefore seen as the subconscious decision). When looking at the choices they made, it turned out that the subconscious group made the best decisions (subjectively, as well as when individual importance of factors was taken into account – e.g. when someone said that location was more important than size, etc.).

How is this possible?

When thinking of conscious and subconscious thought as simply slow vs. fast or effortful vs. effortless, we miss one important aspect of these different ways of ‘thinking’: The amount of information that can be processed. Consciousness can only process a relatively small amount of information at once, while the processing capacity of the subconscious is much larger. Therefore, when we have to make a judgement and only take a few facts into account, conscious thought may lead to better results than the subconscious, while the subconscious appears to be better at forming overall impressions. When there are lots of factors to consider, conscious deliberation runs the risk of taking not all of the information into account, but basing the decision on just a few of the facts. Therefore, even when making complex, important decisions, it can often be better to listen to your gut feelings. And one of the pieces of advice your friends and family gave you earlier is actually based on this idea: Sleep on your decision. Often, being distracted for a while can help coming to a conclusion, and artists, authors and anyone else having to use their creativity will know that incubation (stepping away from a problem) can help tremendously in coming up with good solutions.

Overall, it can be said that not only simple, unimportant decisions are best made using the subconscious, but that even difficult and important decisions such as choosing a house are influenced greatly by our subconscious, because it provides a more global impression. This is why testing subconscious, implicit and automatic impressions is not only important when trying to predict the success of inexpensive items such as fast-moving consumer goods, but will also give a great deal of insight for more expensive goods (and related brands, advertising strategies and design).

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



8 tips to make the most of your market research budget


Companies are often afraid of spending too much effort and money on market research, and that it might not provide enough value for how much they put into it. However, results from market research (if done right) are a powerful tool to improve packaging, products, brands and even the company as a whole. In this post, I want to show, from a psychologist’s perspective, a few easy ways to make the most of your market research budget and get the best value for money, whether you are able and willing to spend a lot or just a little on it.

1. Know exactly which questions you need answered

When spending money on market research, it can be tempting to try and find out as much as possible. However, this ‘fishing expedition’ approach may result in you spending more money than you should, and leave you with a large amount of results that aren’t particularly useful at this stage. Instead, take the time to separate out your questions into ones that would just be ‘nice to know’, and ones that are crucial to your company’s success. Then put your main efforts into finding the answers to your essential questions. Don’t try to fit too much into a single study.

2. Base your sample size on what you need to find out

Sample sizes and the statistical power associated with them depend largely on how many groups you want to compare. If you are just interested in responses from the market overall, you will need fewer participants than when you want to compare men and women. Regional comparisons will significantly increase the number of people that need to take part in your study in order to get meaningful results, and increase the cost of your research. Identify whether these comparisons matter to your research questions. There are plenty of cases where regional comparisons are important, for example when you want to find out why a product is performing well in one region but worse in another. There might however be other, more general questions that can be answered without having to use regional splits.

3. Know your target market and tailor your research to it

In order to get results that really matter to your company, it is helpful to use participants who are part of your target market. A lot of the time research is carried out with a wide range of participants, all age groups, both genders, income ranges etc., which can be the right approach. More often than not you will however benefit from using more specific samples. Separating people into groups such as age or location can often be a waste of time. A more pragmatic approach may be to separate according to lifestyle or personal tastes. If you know that your target market are people over 35 who do most of the shopping in their households, use this as a selection criterion. Narrowing down your participant groups can also help reduce costs – sometimes slightly smaller sample sizes can be used because there is less variation in the data, and fewer groups to compare.

4. Pick the right time to carry out your research

Often market research is carried out too late and seen as a confirmation of decisions rather than a tool that can help you make decisions. If you want to design new packaging, for example, market research can not only be used to compare several finalised designs but can already help you in the pre-design stage by letting you know which ideas are likely to work and which ones won’t. Neuromarketing is ideal for this sort of testing because it can be used to look into how people subconsciously feel towards concepts, colour schemes, words and just ideas in general, instead of presenting people with a final design and asking what they think about it. Similarly, when you notice problems such as decreasing sales don’t wait until these are more established, but use market research to counteract these quickly and effectively.

5. Don’t waste money on research that won’t give you the answers you need

This point cannot be repeated enough: Traditional ‘asking methods’ (such as surveys, focus groups and interviews) will give you answers to the questions you ask, but these explicit answers are not always the key to what people really think. A large amount of people’s decision-making processes are subconscious and your respondents will be unable to understand the factors influencing their decisions, let alone tell you about them. It is important to use the most effective research available to you, one that takes all factors influencing behaviour into account and gives you the answers you really need to hear. I’m not saying don’t ask people, don’t just ask people.

6. Make use of on-line tools

I have already pointed out that surveys are usually not the best way to find all the answers to your research questions, but there are plenty of implicit on-line tools that will. Neuromarketing does not necessarily mean that you have to wire people up and test their brain activity and biophysiological responses; rather, there are many tests that look at subconscious associations and reactions on-line. These tests are incredibly cost and time effective: Hundreds and thousands of specifically targeted people can be reached quickly and at a comparatively low cost. It’s important to note that measuring implicit attitudes is not the same as indirect questioning.

7. Make the most of your results by avoiding confirmation bias

It is easy to get results back, look through them and mainly focus on the insights that make the most sense to you, the parts that feel intuitively right and ignore the rest. We are all guilty of forming opinions and then picking out facts that confirm these exact opinions (confirmation bias). However, by using this approach you might miss important details in the results that are essential for you to move forward successfully. There are other ways in which expert opinions can help you make the right decisions based on your research. Often, people confuse correlation (A and B often occur together) with causation (A causes B), which can make them draw the wrong conclusions. Do not be afraid to go back to the people who carried out your research! Good reports already tend to include advice regarding what exactly individual results mean in relation to the company strategy and what good future research steps might be, but your researchers are always happy to clarify any details and point you in the right direction. This will help you use your results in the most effective way.

8. See market research as an investment

As I said in the beginning, many companies are worried that they will not get enough value out of their market research. You might have carried out research in the past and the results did not lead to the improvement you were hoping for, or you might not be sure if your funds should be spent on research or other important areas within your company. But it is important to understand that you can benefit tremendously from better understanding your customers, what they want, how they truly feel about your brands, products and advertising by using the best market research methods available. Understanding what truly drives your customers’ behaviour will help you become a more successful company, which is why you should see market research as an investment.



Focus groups


If you have ever developed a new product, packaging design or advert, you will probably have at least considered using a focus group. And it seems to make sense, seeing that they give potential customers a chance to express their opinions in an open, non-constricted way. Or do they? Focus groups are sometimes criticised because important decisions are based on the voice of just a few, and some critics say they kill innovation. A lot of the time people express wanting for things that already exist, or to quote Henry ford,

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

But looking at it from a psychological perspective, there are other things that should make you reconsider using focus groups – They are likely to give you an answer, but not the one you need to hear! Here is why:

People don’t understand their own motivations

In focus groups, people are asked to engage with a product or an idea, express their opinions and tell you why exactly they feel this way. In real life, people will more often than not pick a product without really thinking too hard about why they are choosing it over the alternatives. If you ask them why they picked it, they will probably be able to come up with some reasons, but these ‘reasons’ are not what made them pick it in the first place. There are hundreds and thousands of factors influencing people’s purchasing decisions that they are not aware of, let alone able to explain to you. Tiny details such as font sizes, colour schemes, what they subconsciously associate with the imagery and even store lighting and music can steer people to be more likely to choose or reject a product. People also tend to be incredibly bad at predicting their future behaviour, which makes the question ‘Would you buy this product?’ borderline irrelevant. In order to find out what really makes a difference to people’s behaviour and what doesn’t, you might want to use other methods than focus groups. You could for example observe actual behaviour and see how small changes affect it. Or you can test what stands out to people and has an impact on their emotions at the point of sale. Both of these approaches will give you more accurate answers than focus groups.

Unnatural interactions

Focus groups interact with products for minutes, discuss them with others and focus on details they would have never noticed in a shop. To understand product selections (which for most things take place in seconds), it is not necessarily productive to force these long interactions, but you should rather focus on the emotional impact of the product. For this, either try to simulate purchase situations as close to real life as possible, or look at the subconscious opinions people form in (milli-) seconds, like they would if they were standing in front of a shelf. The actual environment of focus groups poses another problem: How often do you do your supermarket shopping sitting in a circle with a group of strangers? Speaking of which:

10 people – 1 opinion

Focus groups are based on the assumption that group discussions can provide many different points of view in a productive, straight-forward way. But this assumption completely underestimates the effect that people have on one another. Think about it: Group therapy sessions are built around the idea that interactions with others change you, but focus groups somehow assume that people don’t influence each other’s opinions?

There are plenty of ways people influence one another in focus groups. Social desirability gets individuals to conform to the group consensus, because we have the drive to appear likeable to others. You might not think that others strongly influence your behaviour, but think back to the style of clothing that you used to wear in the past. Would you still feel comfortable wearing the outfits you wore 10 years ago today? Similarly to society as a whole, focus groups can change your view on what is desirable and what isn’t, and our natural strive for harmony and avoidance of conflict lead us to try and come to a consensus decision, being unable to critically evaluate facts and ignoring minority viewpoints. It’s different if you have a really strong opinion on something, but new cereal flavours and slightly different packaging designs are usually not something people feel strongly enough about to be happy to get into an argument over. It’s not always the majority that sets the direction, either: Often, persuasive individuals voicing their opinion enough times can be just as influential as several people singing from the same hymn sheet.

Similarly, people in focus groups may make others aware of minor details that they wouldn’t have noticed themselves, and make them justify decisions and opinions they wouldn’t have chosen on their own. And just as persuasive members of the focus group can steer discussions into one direction, it can also be the discussion leader who influences the group’s responses by asking leading questions, guiding the focus to particular features and focusing on responses that confirm how he or she already feels about the product. This is not done deliberately, but something we are all guilty of (forming an opinion and then seeking evidence that supports it – confirmation bias). Interviewers also put a lot of effort into putting participants into a comfortable, happy frame of mind while discussing the products, which again can be seen as removed from real-life shopping experiences. This can have a strong influence on the responses participants give, as being in a positive mood will make them more likely to voice positive opinions (possibly leaving out criticism they might be expressing otherwise).

Additionally, groups have the natural tendency to overestimate how much the outside world agrees with the group consensus, which can lead to small focus groups voicing their opinions so certainly and convincingly that one might think they really are a good representation of the average buyer. This ‘groupthink’ mentality has in the past led to disastrous political decisions (such as the Pig Bay invasion), and means that groups do not always come to the right conclusion, but feel like they have.

Is it ever worth it using a focus group?

Asking people for their opinion is of course not a bad idea, it is just important to consider that their answers might not paint the whole picture. It Is also possible to reduce some of the focus group risks by using skilled psychologists as moderators and having several people (who have not been involved in the research process up to that point) interpret the group’s opinions and overall group dynamic.

There is no doubt that others influence our behaviour, and that our family and friends can have strong influences on what we like and what we don’t. Therefore, it may be worth looking at group behaviour when testing certain products, but this has to happen in a setting that’s closer to real life than what focus groups are able to provide. It may be beneficial to test real, already existing social groups in naturalistic settings to answer specific questions regarding how groups make purchase decisions. However, this insight might not help much when trying to find out which products individual people will go for when standing in a supermarket aisle.

In summary, focus groups are probably going to give you an answer to your question – but it is most likely not the answer you need to hear in order to make your product successful. To achieve this, start basing your decisions on insight that comes from looking at the actual drivers of consumer behaviour, instead of listening to rationalisations made up by a handful of people.

Juliane Schulz, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



4 Key Principles of Dynamic Advertising


What makes an advert outstanding?

How do you watch TV? Or more specifically, how do you watch TV adverts? Do you look forward to watching adverts, carefully watch them all and pay attention to all the different products and brands that you see? If you’re like most others in this respect, chances are you’re more likely to see adverts as a break from the programmes you actually want to watch. However, every now and again you will see an advert that really stands out from the crowd. An advert that draws you in, gets you to stop doing what you’re doing for a minute and really leaves an impression. But what differentiates this advert from all the other ones you see on a daily basis? There are 4 things that really make all the difference when it comes to dynamic advertising:

Capturing attention and engagement

When you saw the outstanding ad, could you reliable tell me which ad was shown before it? What brand the ad before was for, what the story line was? Would you be able to describe the characters in it? Probably not, seeing how bombarded you are with advertising every day. The outstanding ad, on the other hand, managed to grab your attention in the first few seconds and kept you engaged. Because of this, you could probably tell me about what was happening, importantly, what brand it was for and what the product was all about. What details you manage to recall, however, is not always the best way of testing whether an advert is engaging or not – in these experimental settings, people pay more attention than they normally would and almost expect to be tested, thereby making it look like the adverts were more exciting than they really are. Nevertheless, there are more effective ways of directly testing attention and engagement, especially when the adverts are presented in a more realistic context.

Fluency and ease of processing

There may have been other ads that managed to grab your attention, but you might have quickly completely zoned out again. The outstanding ad, however, kept you engaged, and this is partially because it was fluent and easy to process. Even if you were doing something else (e.g. playing a game), you still took in the plot and key messages because of the ad’s fluency. This ease of processing also makes you like the ad more and makes it feel more familiar to you.

Emotional impact

Do you have any idea what was so special about this advert you saw? Why it felt so different from others, and how it managed to keep you interested? Why you wouldn’t mind watching it again? One of the aspects was that it made you feel something. It conveyed emotions to you in a way that’s different from the boring ads you see all the time. And this emotional impact does not stop at the ad, you actually will now subconsciously associate the brand/product with the advert and feel more positive about it, or link the associations you had with the advert with the brand. In a way that’s how adverts have always worked: Link a product to something wonderful, and people will associate the product with this ‘something wonderful’. Emotional impact is a tricky one to test because people tend to not be aware of it (especially when abstracted out to the brand), and questionnaires/recall interviews might not be the best tools to test it. There are however different ways of measuring subconscious emotional impact that go beyond just asking how people feel.

Recognition and familiarity

Next time you see the product that was being advertised in the outstanding ad, you will experience a certain feeling of familiarity, whether you are actively remembering the advert or not. And this is one of the key ways in which the advert will make you buy this product over one of the competitors. Familiarity increase linking which in turn increases trust. A lot of the time, this kind of recognition will be subconscious, which is why simply asking you what aspects of the ad you remember will not paint the full picture. Rather, it can be beneficial to test if you subconsciously remember it, as this kind of memory will most likely influence your decision at the point of sale. When faced with confusing options we tend to make a default choice which is invariably the familiar brand.

The outstanding ad achieved quite a lot then, didn’t it? It stood out to you, was easy to process, had an emotional impact on you and made you remember the brand at the point of sale. Not a lot of adverts manage to achieve all this effectively, but luckily every single important aspect listed here can be tested in advance by using the most effective, scientifically validated market research available to look at emotional and automatic drivers of consumer behaviour.

Juliane Schulz, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.



Three key principles of effective packaging design

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How often do you go shopping with the intention to buy something, but walk home with something completely different? We impulse-buy all the time. Sometimes we grab things we don’t actually need and feel a bit guilty about them afterwards, but sometimes it’s just that the brand we usually buy was sold out, another product caught our attention, or we just felt like trying something new. In all of these situations, there is no doubt that packaging has a strong influence on our purchases. But what makes for good packaging design? Which aspects of packaging are worth testing to get a better idea of if they’ll be able to boost sales, or make a new product successful?

To think about what’s important, it can help to think back to the last time you spontaneously bought a product. Imagine this situation: You’re in town and are starting to feel a bit thirsty, but you forgot to bring a drink with you. You’re not 100% sure what you’re after, but feel like some sort of juice would be nice. You walk into a shop, go to the drinks aisle and find the juice section. One of the brands stands out to you, you scan which different flavours are on offer and end up feeling drawn towards the apple juice. One more quick look at the label, and you’re ready to go to the tills.

Do you know how exactly you picked which drink you wanted? You might be able to come up with some reasons now, but really, it was a spontaneous decision that you probably did not put too much effort into. While you might not be able to point out exactly which aspects are important to you, the apple juice you picked had some sort of impact on you, both at a distance and up closer. It might seem difficult to pinpoint exactly what made you buy this product, but there are three key principles that certainly played a role in it: You saw the product (packaging), you understood the information on it, and it had some form of emotional impact on you.

Capturing visual attention

When you picked your apple juice, did you walk up to the aisle and look at every single juice-related product, examining them all closely and making a mental list of all the pros and cons of buying one over the other? Unless you tend to have way too much time on your hands, I think it’s safe to say that you didn’t put quite this much effort into the decision. And this is exactly why it is important for a product to catch our gaze and stand out from the clutter of competitors. In a way, capturing attention is the most important feature of packaging: Had you not seen the apple juice, you wouldn’t have bought it.

When the product overall has managed to grab your attention, it is also important that its key elements and messages stand out. Would you have bought the juice if it had taken a few seconds of searching the packaging to find out what flavour it is? I know I wouldn’t have. But how is it possible to test which product stand out from the competition, and which ones fade into the background? Asking people to interact with the product and point out key elements is often done, and can certainly give some insight. However, seeing that we often make purchasing decisions much faster than surveys and focus groups would allow, it has proven much better to either simulate naturalistic purchase environments and look at people’s behaviour, or show people products for very short durations, surrounded by other brands, and see what they automatically pay attention to.

Emotional impact

This is a tricky one to investigate, because we’re not usually aware of the emotional impact packaging and products have on us. But remember when I said that you ‘felt drawn towards the apple juice’? This is what I’m talking about. You don’t know exactly what it was, but something made you feel good about that bottle. Maybe the colours? Maybe a sense of familiarity? Did it maybe remind you of something else?

If you were asked what emotional impact that apple juice had on you, you probably wouldn’t be able to give a correct answer (or might just think ‘What the hell is she talking about?’). It’s because this impact happens automatically and you are not consciously aware of it. In this case, asking will not provide a lot of insight, but it is possible to test the emotional impact of the packaging as a whole, individual elements and key messages and what you associate with your apple juice bottle by using tests that measure your gut feelings and subconscious emotions. In fact, it should definitely be done, because this emotional impact is one of the key factors that made you buy the juice in the first place.

Fluency and easy understanding

Even if the juice bottle had grabbed your attention and made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside (you wouldn’t admit it, but we know it did) – had it looked like a carton of milk, you wouldn’t have bought it. Similarly, you would have probably not picked the apple juice if the labelling was ambiguous, it wouldn’t have been clear how to open it or the design made the overall message confusing. You probably picked your apple juice because it was easy to understand what it is, clear and got its message across to you successfully. Again, the fluency and ease of understanding are best tested by only briefly showing people the product and then testing their understanding, instead of letting them interact with it for a long time ruminating in an artificial setting such as a focus group.

These three principles significantly increased your decision to buy your apple juice, even though you might not have consciously thought about them.

Ignore these principles at your peril. Our decisions are heavily influenced by things that we are not always consciously aware of. Implicit packaging research, or in other words measuring these implicit emotion reactions which power decision making will give you a better understanding of how people are likely to behave.


Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.




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We all occasionally say things better left unsaid. Blurt out an indiscretion, let slip some embarrassing home truth or unwittingly cause offence by a thoughtless remark.

American author Edgar Allan Poe blamed such carless utterances on “the imp of the perverse” (1) while Sigmund ascribed them to the “counter will.” (2) The French call such gaffes a ‘faux pas’ – literally a ‘false step’. This expression dates from the days of Louis XIV, a period when etiquette demanded everyone must dance perfectly. Making a ‘false step’ during one of the Royal balls was to risk expulsion from court.

To understand why faux pas occur, try this challenge.  For as long as you can try not to think about a pink elephant.

While this may sound easy it is, as you will soon discover, very hard to do.

I’ll explain in a moment what it reveals about why we sometimes open our mouth only to put our foot in it.

But I’ll start by telling you the rather sad story of one of my students. For several months this young man, I’ll call him Martin, had been going out with a girl from a very wealthy upper class family. One winter’s day, her parents invited him to tea in their country mansion. It was a cold afternoon and a fire blazed in the grate. His girlfriend’s mother and father sipped their tea and eyed an increasingly embarrassed Martin with icy disapproval. From the moment he had met them, both had made it clear he was not the kind of young man their daughter should be dating.

As tea was coming to its tense conclusion the family’s Golden Retriever, who had been sleeping before the fire, woke up and, as dogs will, started to lick his nether regions.  Suddenly Martin heard himself saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do that?”

There was a stunned silence. Then the mother remarked, in a tone so glacial it could have frozen oceans.

“Give him a lump of sugar and perhaps he’ll let you.”

Martin was never invited back and, shortly after, the girl under pressure from her parents dumped him.

“I still have no idea what made me say it”, Martin said sadly as he recounted his story. “But I was dreadfully anxious and the words just came out”.

Which brings us back to the challenge of not thinking about a pink elephant or, indeed, anything else you’d sooner block from your mind. However determined you are not to think of something you are likely to find that notion popping into your thoughts frequently and perhaps over a period of several days.

Ironic Process Theory

It’s a paradox. You struggle to delete from your thoughts something you are thinking about now while, at the same time and at some level, remembering not to think about it later!

Ironic process theory suggests that we achieve this trick by means of two processes.

First we seek to banish the thought from our consciousness through distraction. By focusing our attention on other matters.
Second we subconsciously monitor our thoughts to alert us should the one we want to suppress arise.

Which is what makes the process ironic. We are actively engaged in watching out for the very thought we want to forget.

Because suppressing unwanted thoughts consumes energy and since there is only a finite amount available, we are especially at risk of allowing the suppressed thought to break through when stressed, anxious or engaged in an intellectually demanding task.  In Martin’s case the anxiety of struggling to make a good impression on his girlfriend’s frosty parents led to him blurting out the previously suppressed thought.

In one study, participants were instructed not to think about a particular word and then to respond rapidly during a word association task. Under these circumstances they were more likely to blurt out the prohibited word than if they had been specifically told to attend on it. (3)

People told to stop thinking about sex exhibit higher levels of arousal then those asked to stop thinking about a more neutral subject. Indeed, arousal increases during the suppression of sexual thoughts to the same degree as when subjects are instructed to focus exclusively on erotic thoughts. (4)

In a study I conducted, a dozen heterosexual males were invited to watch a video of a stripper. They were wired to monitor stress levels and instructed to keep their eyes firmly on the lady’s face. Using eye tracking we were able record where they were looking. All but one was failed to keep his eyes averted do so for more than around 15 seconds. The struggle to suppress a desire to glance down at her naked body resulted in high levels of stress.

But the stress level of the sole male whose gaze never descended below the lady’s chin was off the scale.
So the next time you commit a faux pas don’t feel too embarrassed by your impulsive gaffe. Given the difficulty of keeping unwanted thoughts to ourselves, it’s a wonder we don’t commit many more faux pas than we do.

David Lewis, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


(1) Poe, E.A. (1845) ‘The Imp of the perverse’ Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine (July), vol. 28, 1–3.
(2) Freud, S. (1950) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological   Works of Sigmund Freud, (J. Strachey, Ed) Vol. 1, 115–128. Hogarth: London.
(3) Wegner, D.M. & Erber, R. (1992) The Hyperaccessibility of Suppressed Thoughts Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 63 (6) 903 – 912.
(4) Wegner, D.M. , Shortt, J.W., Blake, A.W. & Page, M.S. (1990) The Suppression of Exciting Thoughts, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 58 (3) 409-418



Splurchase! The how and why of the impulse buy

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We like to think of ourselves as sensible shoppers. As rational consumers who compare prices, evaluate quality, calculate costs and reach for cash or credit card only after careful reflection. The truth is, however, that many of our purchases – even big-ticket items – are all too often spur of the moment decisions we may later struggle to justify even to ourselves.

Surveys have shown that nine out of ten consumers impulse buy at least one item per shopping trip, with more than half admitting to as many as six. Over a lifetime this has been estimated to amount to an individual spend of around $80,000.

So what sort of things do people buy on a whim?

When I interviewed London shoppers, their answers ranged from clothing to smart phones, cars, and a $2,000 mountain bike to a brand new home. You can see some of these interviews on

In the USA and UK alone, shoppers currently spend an estimated $38 billion a year on impulse buys, or ‘splurchases’ as some retailers call them. Approximately 62 per cent of US supermarket and 80 per cent of luxury good sales comprise impulse purchases. In Britain these account for between 45 and 100 per cent of turnover.

The reasons why consumers part so impulsively with their cash have been the subject of extensive studies.

One of the earliest to investigate the topic was William Applebaum of Stop & Shop Inc. (1) in 1951. He pointed the finger of blame at advertising and marketing. A charge which, with good reason, is still made today.

In 1962 Hawkins Stern, an Industrial Economist at the Stanford Research Institute in Southern California identified four main types of impulse buy.
(1) Pure impulse buying: is a novelty or escape purchase, which breaks a normal buying pattern.
(2) Reminder impulse buying: occurs when a shopper sees an item or recalls an advertisement or other information and remembers that the stock at home is low or exhausted.
(3) Suggestion impulse buying: is triggered when a shopper sees a product for the first time and visualises a need for it.
(4) Planned impulse buying: takes place when the shopper makes specific purchase decisions on the basis of price specials, coupon offers and so forth. (2)

Retailers devote much time and money to identifying the most effective ways of pressing each of these four ‘buy buttons’ in the customers’ brains. Some of the techniques used for this purpose will be described in future blogs.

During the 1980’s, Dennis Rook, a Research Associate with DDB Needham Worldwide, suggested that impulse buying – which he described as “pervasive…extraordinary and exciting” – occurs: “When a consumer experiences a sudden, often persistent urge to buy something immediately. The impulse to buy is… prone to occur with diminished regard for its consequences” (3)

In the past, perhaps due to the lack of perceived control with which it is associated, many psychologists shared the same negative view of impulse buying. More recent research suggests, however, that shoppers do not, for the most part, consider it a mistake to make spur of the moment purchasing decisions. (4) Only around one in five express any regret for their impulse buys with four out of ten claiming to feel good about them. (5)

While shoppers often blame their lack of willpower, the truth is that their impulse buys owe as much to the sophistication of modern marketing, advertising and retailing strategies as to human weakness.
“Marketing and advertising prey on mindless processing by both encouraging it and exploiting it”, comments Erika Rosenberg of the University of California at San Francisco. She points out that their commercial success depends on “people not thinking very much about whether they really need something before they buy it.”

My own studies into the neuroscience of impulse buying, research which involves measuring the implicit and physiological responses of consumers support the notion that impulse-driven shopping is controlled by desires, emotions and sometimes anxiety, operating below the level of conscious awareness. Motives, why the impulse purchase has been made, are only then consciously rationalised and explained. This is why the most effective market research doesn’t just ask people why they behave the way that they do.

So how might you save some money by shopping more mindfully and less impulsively? Here are six suggestions.
1] Make a list and stick to it. A list provides a focus and keeps you alert.
2] Avoid shopping for food when hungry. In one study I conducted, hungry shoppers not only bought significantly more food but more high fat and high sugar foodstuffs.
3] Use clicks and bricks. Compare prices and offers on-line first. Do the initial window shopping in the calm and familiar surroundings of home before checking out the stores.
4] Before closing a deal on a high-ticket item, walk away and consider it again in a new and different location. The words every sales person dreads are ‘I’ll think about it’. They know that when customers do think about a deal they often walk away from it.
5] Retailers have a variety of proven techniques for creating an emotional desire to buy. I will be describing some of these in a future blog. For the moment just bear in mind that a modern shopping mall or supermarket is actually a giant machine design to sell things.
6] Good sales people will be friendly and helpful. Just keep in mind when interacting with them that being friendly is not the same as being your friend and that they only person they have any reason to help is the one who pays their wages. And that is, only indirectly, you!

David Lewis, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


(1) Applebaum, W. (1951) Studying Customer Behaviour in Retail Stores, Journal of Marketing. Page 172 – 178.
(2) Stern, H. (1962) The Significance of Impulse Buying Today, Journal of Marketing. (April): 59 – 60.
(3) Rook, D. W. (1987) The Buying Impulse, Journal of Consumer Research.14, September: Pages 189–199. Quoted from page 191.
(4) Hausman, A. (2000) A multi-method investigation of consumer motivations in impulse buying behavior. Journal of Consumer Marketing. 17 (5): 403-417.
(5) Rook, D.W. (1987) op. cit.



Why Brits are Seeing Red over Russia


Britain’s dislike and distrust of Russia goes deeper than publically expressed opinions suggest.

Using a cutting-edge test of implicit, subconscious attitudes which probes the individual’s innermost psyche, researchers at Mindlab investigated the nation’s opinions about Russia immediately before and just after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, then following the referendum in Crimea.

As Figure 1 below shows, openly expressed views on Russia (explicit responses) were consistently, if only mildly negative on all three occasions, reaching their most negative point after the take-over in Crimea. In contrast, our subconscious (implicit) dislike of Russia is far more intense than these publically voiced criticisms would suggest.   As Figure 2 shows, the Olympics had a positive impact on people’s subconscious attitudes towards Russia, but this effect was undone by the controversy in Crimea.


Publically expressed attitudes towards Russia were negative at all three time points. It is only when looking at implicit attitudes that we see the positive effect of the Games and the negative effect of the controversy in Crimea on people’s feelings towards Russia. These subconscious feelings drive our actions to a far greater extent than our consciously held views, and this finding illustrates just how deep antagonism towards Putin’s Russia is in the UK.

This study shows how sensitive implicit testing is to these changes in attitudes. Simply asking how people feel about Russia would have missed these more subtle, subconscious changes that occurred in response to these events. This type of testing can be used to track how people really feel towards brands, politicians, products or people. Self-reported responses often miss the subtletes of opinion shift.

“Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.”
Duncan Smith, Mindlab

Notes to reader:

A total of 621 UK adults were questioned and tested for their implicit (subconscious) attitudes using a modified form of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) on: 28th/29th January 2014; 24th/25th February 2014 and 17th/18th March 2014.

For a full report or further details on the research



Subliminal Selling by Dr David Lewis


Over a six-week period, in the summer of 1957, fifty thousand Americans became the unwitting Guinea pigs in a mind control experiment intended to change advertising for ever.

James McDonald Vicary, a 42-year-old market researcher, claimed to have installed a subliminal projector of his own design in a New Jersey movie house. During the run of Picnic, a popular romance film his machine flashed two advertising messages onto the screen. One read: ‘Thirsty? Drink coca-cola’ the other ‘Hungry? Eat popcorn.’

Because each was displayed for just 3 thousandths of a second, audiences remained unaware of them at a conscious level. Yet, according to Vicary, by influencing their subconscious, he increased Coke sales by 18% and of popcorn by 58%.  “This innocent little technique,” he boasted, “is going to sell a hell of a lot of goods.”  Far from applauding his ingenuity, however, press and public were outraged. Journalists accused him of ‘brainwashing’ the American people while Newsday described his device as ‘the most alarming invention since the atomic bomb.”

Five years later Vicary admitted it had all been a hoax. A publicity stunt designed to generate business for his struggling firm.
Largely as a result of his deception and the furore it generated  ‘subliminal advertising’ virtually vanished from mainstream research for nearly half a century.  Subliminal advertising not only works, it is probably at work in a supermarket or shopping mall near you.
In one study, Johan Karremans and his colleagues at the Department of Social Psychology at Radboud University, Nijmegen, displayed the name of a popular brand of iced-tea, for 23 milliseconds, as their subjects worked on a computer based task. Later, when offered a choice between iced-tea and mineral water a majority chose the tea. (1)

Equally effective is supraliminal priming. Here, although in plain sight, the priming is seldom noticed due to what is termed Inattentional Blindness. We don’t perceive what we don’t attend to.
Take in-store music.

Charles Gulas at Wright State University and Charles Schewe at the University of Michigan found baby boomers were more likely to buy things against a background of classic rock. Yet two-thirds were unable to say what music was playing as they shopped. (2) In another study, wine buyers exposed to classical music did not buy more wine but they bought more expensive wine. (3)

Aromas too play a far more influential role as supraliminal primers than generally realised.  During a ten-day study, Lieve Doucé and her colleagues at Belgium’s Hasselt University, infused a bookshop with the scent of chocolate for half its opening hours. Despite being too subtle to be easily detected, the aroma increased the time customers spent browsing, the number of titles they reviewed and the number of books bought. The greatest effect was on books about food or drink together with romantic novels sales of which increased by an impressive 40 percent when chocolate aroma was present. (4)

So the next time you shop, ask yourself.  “Do I really want to purchase this item – or is my subconscious being manipulated to make me think I do?

Dr David Lewis-Hodgson



(1) Karremans. J. C., Stroebe, W. & Claus, J. (2006) Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: The impact of subliminal priming and brand choice, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42, 792–798.
(2) Gulas, C. S. & Schewe, C.D. (1994). Atmospheric segmentation: Managing Store Image With Background Music, Enhancing Knowledge Development in Marketing, Ravi Achrol & Andrew Mitchell (Eds.), Chicago IL: American Marketing Association, 325-330.
(3) Milliman, R. E. (1982). Using background music to affect the behaviour of supermarket shoppers. Journal of Marketing,  46 (3), 86-91.
 (4) Doucé, L., Poels, K., Jansssens, W. & De Backer, C. (2013) Smelling the books: The effect of chocolate scent on purchase-related behavior in a bookstore marketing: The role of fragrance and its interaction with other atmospheric and non-atmospheric cues in a shopping experience, Journal of Environmental Psychology (July)