Why the subconscious matters
By Duncan Smith
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).