mindlab-subconscious-6Testing Implicit Associations is commonly referred to as System 1 testing because it measures non-conscious perceptions and associations people have with brands and products.  

This ‘gut’ measurement differs from explicit (system 2) questioning which forms the basis of most traditional market research.

With implicit testing, participants are asked to pair two concepts together and see how the different pairings either slow down or speed up simple sorting tasks. The basis for this type of research relies upon the fact that ‘feelings’ offer a mental shortcut that draws upon information and emotion that has been ‘absorbed’ into the subconscious. This information does not exist in isolation, but rather pieces of information are connected with other pieces of information in our memory.

People generally take time to process new information and work out how they ‘feel’ about it. Over time these ‘feelings’ become increasingly automatic, allowing the individual to devote less energy into re-evaluating what is already firmly established and connected in their minds. These established connections are what we pick up on in our tests, allowing us to get a better measure of how people truly feel.
There are several variants of implicit testing but all rely in some way on measuring how long it takes for people to sort concepts and ideas. At Mindlab we have an online lab that utilises both:

  • Implicit Association Tests (IATs) 

The implicit association test is based on social psychology principles and is designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic associations between different mental representations of objects or concepts in memory. This test measures how strongly people subconsciously associate two concepts (e.g. red and fire engine). Participants are presented with a clearly defined sorting task. By measuring how quickly and accurately they are able to sort a concept together with positive words compared to negative words we are able to obtain a measure of how positively or negatively they feel about the concept and emotive words.

The reason that this test taps so well into people’s subconscious associations is that they are not asked to make a decision, but told exactly how to respond. What is measured is simply how fast and accurately they are able to complete the task (the quicker and more accurately they manage to sort two concepts together, the stronger these two concepts are linked in their mind).

  • Associative Priming Tests 

Attitudes become activated automatically on the mere presence of an attitude object, without conscious intention or awareness (i.e. pre-consciously). These unconscious feelings and attitudes can then exert their influence on thought and behaviour. Priming is a memory effect whereby exposure to a certain stimulus changes the speed at which a certain memory is recalled or another stimulus is attended to or recognised. Associative priming is when two stimuli are unrelated, but due to their common appearance together, one will prime the other; i.e. a target word has a high probability of appearing together with a prime and is “associated” with it but not necessarily related in semantic features. For example, the word dogs is a prime for the word cats as these two words often appear in phrases together (e.g. “its raining cats and dogs”).  A similar effect is known as context priming. Context priming works by using a context to speed up processing for stimuli that are likely to occur in that context. A useful application of this effect is reading written text. The grammar and vocabulary of the sentence provide contextual clues for words that will occur later in the sentence. These later words are processed more quickly than if they had been read alone, and the effect is greater for more difficult or uncommon words.

In our online tests, we are able to measure implicit associations using an associative priming task. This is done by flashing a word or image representing a given concept for a very short amount of time (200ms) and then measuring how quickly and accurately participants are able to respond to emotive words immediately after; sorting them into either positive or negative categories. This allows us to uncover how positive or negative  people’s subconscious beliefs about various products, brands, people etc are.

  • Semi-implicit Tests 

This is our most commonly used association test. We measure what associations different brands, packaging designs and advertisements communicate this way. Participants are shown something we want to find out more about (such as a bottle pack shot or a brand name) on the screen, with an association word underneath. We measure the proportion of people who say the word describes the ‘thing’ well, as well as the speed of their response (which we generally interpret as ease of decision, or confidence in their decision).


These implicit type tests can be used to measure how negative or positive people subconsciously feel about brands as well as how strongly they associate them with different concepts. For example, is your brand more strongly associated with being friendly, trustworthy or tasty after having been shown an advert?

The monadic (between group) testing of concepts allows us to quantify how new communications affect perceptions of your brand; how positively people feel towards imagery & packaging; how implicit attitudes change as a result of advertising or marketing material; and how people subconsciously feel about your brand compared to competitor’s brands.





Click the image below for a quick guide to using implicit research in market research

The Science of Decisions cover