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.



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.