We all know that for certain behaviours, our brain more or less switches to ‘autopilot’. When walking from A to B, you don’t constantly think about every single step that you take, or about how you have to hold up your head, breathe, and balance your body. Similarly, you might remember that the first few times you drove a car, you had to pay close attention to every single action involved in it, while you probably barely remember your last trip home from work.
These behaviours are often explained by saying that ‘your body remembers how to do these things’, or using words such as ‘muscle memory’. So while we understand these shortcuts with physical examples, we often forget that our mind functions in a similar way.
Our mental shortcuts influence how we see and perceive the world, how we think and reason, and how we make decisions.
Our behaviours, as well as concepts that have an impact on us, are represented by neural activity in our brains. Every time two behaviours occur at the same time, or two concepts are encountered together, our neural connection between them becomes stronger. This is often described with the sentence ‘cells that fire together, wire together’. In reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it is true that the connections we make between behaviours and/or concepts are reflected in neural networks, and grow stronger the more we encounter these links. This is why you press the clutch pedal and change gears without having to think about linking these behaviours, but also why you associate the taste of an orange with the colour orange.
Associations like these get built and used constantly, without us necessarily being aware of them. Dan Ariely believes we are the sum of our early decisions – the product of what he calls an arbitrary coherence of choices that we made long ago (or were made for us). As a result, in many cases, we make decisions that are simply the reflection of our initial choices.
These initial decisions become anchors that take root and resonate throughout our later lives much more than we would like to acknowledge. Our associations help us learn new concepts and avoid dangerous situations (e.g. walking through a dark alleyway or touching a hob), but are also what makes us prejudiced and jump to conclusions. They do however also help us make choices, and that’s where it gets interesting for market research. The vast amount of visual as well as factual information available to us when making pretty much any purchase decision is overwhelming, and we use the connections we have already established to help us make our choice. This can be reflected in the use of heuristics and biases, but even if the decision seems pretty rational to us (and we might be able to come up with an explanation for our choice afterwards), our behaviour is strongly influenced by these links and associations. It might be something as simple as picking one bottle over another because the label colour reminds us of our childhood home.
What does this mean for market research?
Traditional ‘asking methods’ such as surveys and focus groups require people to reflect on their behaviour, opinions and decisions as well as predict how they would act in the future. However, most of the time we don’t understand the associations and connections that underlie the decision-making processes. We still try to come up with explanations for our behaviour when asked to reflect on it, but the reasons we give often have little to do with what really drove our decision. In order to understand what drives behaviour, we need to understand what connections between concepts and associations are common. This means exploring and quantifying what concepts are connected with a brand or an advert, and how communications can be used to strengthen positive associations as well as weaken undesirable ones. Because these (often emotional) connections are what can make or break a purchase decision, it is important to explore them, rather than relying solely on the post-rationalisations people come up with when asked about their decision.