Contact BSI
Derrick Daye
888.706.5489 Email us
Brand Research

Brand Insights From The Deepest Level Of The Mind


Brand Insights From The Deepest Level Of The Mind

In 2005 Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “blink” brought into focus the idea that the nonconscious level of the mind is tremendously important in determining how people think, feel and behave. The reason this is so important for marketers and market researchers is that most marketing research and marketing are only involved in gathering information from and then trying to influence consumers’ conscious minds. If Gladwell is right, then much of current market research and marketing is misdirected and counterproductive. Let’s examine the basis and validity for Gladwell’s claims, and then show how paying attention to the nonconscious level can form the basis for a new paradigm for marketing and marketing research.

What Is The “Nonconscious” Level Of The Mind?

Gladwell calls this part of the mind the “adaptive unconscious.” He points out that the brain uses two methods for decisions: the conscious level where we think about what we have learned; it is logical and definitive. But it is slow and needs lots of information. The second method, the “adaptive unconscious” operates “ …entirely below the surface level of consciousness.” This is the part of the brain that jumps to conclusions instantly. Gladwell likens it to “ . . . a giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.”

Most of Gladwell’s ideas came from Timothy Wilson, a professor at the University of Virginia. Wilson is the author of “Strangers to Ourselves – Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious“. First, let’s look at Wilson’s definition of “the unconscious:” it is “ . . . anything that is in your mind that you are not consciously aware of at a particular point in time . . .mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior.” Wilson’s definition of the “unconscious” is pretty close to the standard ones from various dictionaries and is virtually the same as the definitions for “the subconscious”: From the Oxford Dictionary: “The Unconscious: the part of the mind which is inaccessible to the conscious mind but which affects behavior and emotions. The Subconscious: the part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings.”

The foundation of Wilson’s book, and the subsequent best-seller “Blink,” is Wilson’s theory that the unconscious mind developed in man through traditional Darwinian evolutionary principles – i.e., as a survival mechanism. Wilson invented the term “adaptive unconscious” to ” . . . convey that nonconscious thinking is an evolutionary adaptation. The ability to size up our environments, disambiguate them, interpret them and initiate behavior quickly and nonconsciously confers a survival advantage and thus was selected for [in a Darwinian sense].”

How Does The “Adaptive Unconscious” Control Conscious Thinking, Feeling And Behavior?

In order for Wilson’s “adaptive unconscious” to influence or control judgments, feelings, or behavior there needs to be a biological mechanism for the “adaptive unconscious” to first acquire the information needed to do the influencing. Wilson references Professor Joseph LeDoux’s work at New York University in this regard. LeDoux has shown that information from the environment is taken in by our senses (eyesight, for example) and is sent first to the thalamus gland and then to the amygdala and hippocampus glands (all found in the brain) where it is stored as a “memory.”

A recent article by Dr. R. Douglas Fields, a senior researcher at the U.S. Government’s National Institutes of Health, has further shown the electro-chemical mechanics of how memories are stored in our brains: ” Both long- and short-term memories arise from the connections between neurons, at points of contact called synapses, where one neuron’s signal-emitting extension, called an axon, meets any of an adjacent neuron’s dozens of signal-receiving fingers, called dendrites. When a short-term memory is created, stimulation of the synapse is enough to temporarily “strengthen,” or sensitize, it to subsequent signals. For a long-term memory, the synapse strengthening becomes permanent. Scientists have been aware since the 1960s, however, that this requires genes in the neuron’s nucleus to activate, initiating the production of proteins. One does not always know beforehand what events should be committed permanently to memory. The moment-to-moment memories necessary for operating in the present are handled well by transient adjustments in the strength of individual synapses. But when an event is important enough or is repeated enough, synapses fire to make the neuron in turn fire neural impulses repeatedly and strongly, declaring “this is an event that should be recorded.” The relevant genes turn on, and the synapses that are holding the short-term memory when the synapse-strengthening proteins find them, become, in effect, tattooed.” (R. Douglas Fields, “Making Memories Stick,” Scientific American, January 24, 2005).

LeDoux’s experiments on memory also show that acquired information [the stuff of memory], especially emotion-laden information, can be quite permanent: “It appears to be quite difficult to get rid of emotional memories, and at best we can hope only to keep them under wraps.” (Le Doux, “Emotion, Memory and the Brain,” Scientific American, June, 1994 – updated in 2002). LeDoux further points out that “memory” itself is a process of retrieving earlier conscious experiences, again through the mechanism of the amygdala gland: “Emotional and declarative [facts and events] memories are stored and retrieved in parallel, and their activities are joined seamlessly in our conscious experience. That does not mean that we have direct conscious access to our emotional memory; it means instead that we have access to the consequences – such as the way we behave or the way our bodies feel. . . Emotion is not just unconscious memory: it exerts a powerful influence on declarative memory and other thought processes.” (LeDoux, Scientific American article).

In other words, there is a scientifically proven way for these memories to be acquired and stored in our minds (i.e., in Wilson’s “adaptive unconscious” mind.) And our memories. of past events in our lives can be a significant controlling force on our judgments, feelings, and behavior.

Memory And Imprinting

For marketing and market research the important aspect of the memories stored in our “adaptive unconscious” is that consumers will react to new information and situations based upon what is already inside their “adaptive unconscious” memory banks. Another way to think about these stored memories is to consider them as similar to “imprints.” Konrad Lorenz discovered the process of “imprinting” in the 1930’s and won the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1973. Lorenz found that he had become a substitute “mother” for some orphaned goslings once he began to feed them. He theorized that he had become “imprinted” in their brains as their mother.

“Imprinting” is defined as a kind of learning occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behavior. It typically involves an animal or person learning the characteristics of some stimulus (using any of our senses), which is therefore said to be “imprinted” onto the subject. Thinking about how this relates to marketing, consumers can get “imprinted” with brands and their emotional experiences with them, and usually the strongest imprints are the first ones experienced.

Tim Wilson referenced William Hamilton, an early 20th Century psychologist, on the subject of imprinting: “William Hamilton wrote extensively about the way in which habits acquired early in life become an indispensable part of one’s personality. These mental processes were said to constitute a kind of ‘automatic self” to which people had no conscious access.” This means that we cannot recall our imprints on a conscious level when queried about them; they are below the surface, in the “adaptive unconscious.”

Wilson also sees the importance of what he calls “implicit learning” [i.e., imprinting] by the “adaptive unconscious: He gives as an example the following: “Children do not spend hours studying vocabulary lists and attending classes on grammar and syntax. they would be hard pressed to explain what participles are, despite their ability to use them fluently. Humans learn to speak with no effort or intention: it just happens . . . implicit learning is one of the most important functions of the “adaptive unconscious.”

Dr. Howard Hoffman, a Professor at Bryn Mawr, who is a leader in the field of imprinting research, has said that Lorenz originally thought that imprinting occurred only within a short early development span of time. However he comments that, “Instead the latest findings lead to the unexpected conclusion that imprinting occurs in many species including man and that it entails much more plastic and forgiving mechanisms than were claimed by Lorenz. ” Additional research has indicated that imprints, once lodged in our brains, can be a strong influence on thinking, emotions and behavior. (One of the more important recent studies about imprinting and memory was reported by Professor Gabriel Horn of Cambridge University in the U.K: “Pathways of the Past: The Imprint of Memory” Nature Magazine, February 2004). From a marketing research standpoint, imprints are the “content” of memory and need to be discovered in order to go beyond just conscious sources of information.

Our memory bank, or “adaptive unconscious,” contains the imprints from our past experiences. As Gladwell points out in “Blink.” “We use the adaptive unconscious whenever we meet something new and have to make a decision quickly and under stress.” And, even though many of our imprints have been in our memory bank for a long time, they can still exert tremendous influence on our thinking and behavior. Gladwell (in “blink”) relates the story about how a well-known art expert could make a major error in thinking that a fake bronze statue was authentic; the art expert’s first purchase had been this bronze statue: “When you are a young man, you do fall in love with your first purchase, and perhaps this was his first love. Notwithstanding his unbelievable knowledge, he was obviously unable to question his first assessment [of the fake bronze].”

Wilson also sees the initial imprints as a key factor in affecting our thinking and behavior on the conscious level: “It is well-known that first impressions are powerful, even when they are based on faulty information. The “adaptive unconscious” is thus more than just a gatekeeper, deciding what information to admit to consciousness.. . It is also a spin doctor that interprets information outside of awareness.” For marketing and market research, then, it is crucially important to investigate and discover the subconscious imprints associated with product categories and brands. These are the real factors that drive consumer behavior.

Our Stored Emotions

One of the reasons it is so important to discover the imprints in the subconscious (Wilson and Gladwell’s “adaptive unconscious”) is because the most powerful imprints are usually tagged with a high level of emotional content. It is these emotions that can be the drivers of our behavior, even more so than our cold, analytical conscious thinking.

Tim Wilson considers the “adaptive unconscious” to also act as an evaluator of our feelings: “Not only does the adaptive unconscious select and interpret, it feels . . . it is now clear that feelings are functional, not excess baggage that impede decision making . . . [one of the] most important functions of the adaptive unconscious is to generate these feelings.”

For Wilson “feelings” are a key part of humans’ evolutionary progress. Feelings, he indicates, are our “Psychological Immune System.” They protect us from things that might make us feel bad, and promote things that make us feel good. He points out that the “adaptive unconscious” of our mind follows this rule: “ . . . select, interpret, and evaluate information in ways that make me feel good.” Marketing research needs to find out what those “feel good” emotions are for their brand and the search can only take place by researching the “adaptive unconscious.”

The “Adaptive Unconscious” And Personality

Wilson also posits a role for the “adaptive unconscious” in helping to understand the factors influencing people’s personality. For many marketers and researchers, this area is of prime concern: by knowing who their customers are from a personality standpoint, they can better construct and “mirror” the personality of their brand.

What is personality? Wilson uses the late Harvard professor Gordon Allport’s definition of personality: “. The psychological processes that determine a person’s characteristic behavior and thought.” Allport’s goal was to be able to predict what people will do. But Wilson points out that most research has shown that personality traits are not very good predictors of future behavior: ” Research by Walter Mischel [professor at Columbia University] shook up the field because it essentially said that the traits personality psychologists were measuring were just slightly better than astrological signs at predicting behavior.” The reason for this, Wilson points out, is not that personality traits are bad predictors: “A lot of the confusion about personality and its relation to behavior has resulted from a failure to distinguish between the conscious and the nonconscious systems. There is increasing evidence that people’s constructed [conscious] self bears little correspondence to their nonconscious self. One consequence of this fact is that the two personalities predict different kinds of behavior: the adaptive unconscious is more likely to influence people’s uncontrolled implicit responses, whereas the constructed self is more likely to influence people’s deliberative, explicit responses.” What this means for marketers and researchers is that we need to know the subconscious (“adaptive unconscious”) personality traits in order to predict behavior.

Can We Rely On Any Information From The Consumers’ Conscious Mind?

Yes, there is information from consumers’ conscious minds that probably has some validity, especially when it is related to the factual details of past events in the consumers lives. However, once we enter into the realm of imprinting, emotional memories, and personality it is the subconscious (Wilson’s “adaptive unconscious”) that must be explored for answers.

Many marketers and market researchers have long suspected the importance of the subconscious, but have rarely tried to learn from it or to influence its power on consumer behavior. In the area of market research, projective tests such as sentence completion tests and word association tests have been tried in order to tap into the subconscious indirectly. However the projective tests were still conducted and directed toward the conscious mind to retrieve the information. As Gladwell, Wilson and others have proven, this fails, since the conscious mind cannot access the subconscious or “adaptive unconscious” mind.

Wilson also references the psychological research reported by Daniel Wegner of Harvard, “It became clear that people could not verbalize many of the cognitive processes that psychologists assumed were occurring inside their heads . . . a picture has emerged of a set of . . . mental processes that occur largely out of view. Indeed some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the unconscious mind does virtually all the work and the conscious will may be an illusion.” Wilson also cites the work of Joachim Brunstein at the University of Potsdam in Germany which concluded that, “. [There is] little correspondence, on average, between people’s nonconscious and conscious motives.”

In addition to the many examples concerning our lack of conscious knowledge of our own subconscious minds in the field of psychology testing, Wilson reported a number of examples from the market research field. In one example, Wilson did a test with women and pantyhose. He arranged four pairs of pantyhose on a table, from left to right, and asked women to choose which pair they preferred. The test results indicated an order bias with the preferences for the pairs increasing from left to right on the table. However, all four pairs of pantyhose were identical. When asked for their reasons for preferences, respondents in the test could not explain their choices and did not agree even that there was an “order effect” once it was finally pointed out. To them. Wilson concluded that “. People do not [consciously] know [the] reasons for their feelings, judgments and actions.”

In further discussing consumers reporting reasons for their behavior on the conscious level, Wilson commented that, in the case of someone ordering a chicken sandwich at a fast food restaurant or buying an analgesic, that the “adaptive unconscious” may have made [those] decision[s]: “ . . . the causal role of conscious thought has been vastly overrated; instead, it is often a post-hoc explanation of responses that emanated from the adaptive unconscious . . . people cannot discover through simple introspection the extent to which seeing an ad for Tylenol influences their purchases the next time they go to the grocery store . . ”

The evidence from these and other scientific studies points to the need to explore the subconscious to get at valid consumer information about their true thoughts and feelings.

Is There A Way To Access Gladwell And Wilson’s “Adaptive Unconscious?”

Tim Wilson, in “Strangers to Ourselves,” the source book for Gladwell’s “blink” says no: “ . . .there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, and nonconscious processing is part of the architecture of the brain, it may not be possible to gain direct access to nonconscious processes.” [my emphasis]. This may be a matter of semantics in that Wilson does not believe we can access nonconscious processing. However, there are an enormous number of studies showing that the content in our subconscious mind can be accessed. The method for doing this is hypnosis.

Hypnosis is a scientifically verified state of mind that is different from the conscious state of mind. Daniel Wegner, the Harvard Professor, has written that, “Evidence from neuropsychobiological research using various brain scan methods and measures of brain electrical activity indicates that hypnosis prompts unique patterns.” (Professor David Spiegel’s work at Stanford University also has shown this via brain scans using PET technology.) As for the ability of hypnosis to access the subconscious content, Wegner indicated that, “People find that they are able to control the . . . recall of memory . . . in ways that are not readily available to them when they are not hypnotized, ” and that “ . . . the hypnotized person has the unique ability to achieve certain sorts of control over the mind and body that are not within the capability of the waking individual. It is as though in hypnosis a normal layer of conscious controlling apparatus is cleared away to yield a more subtle and effective set of techniques. ” (From “The Illusion of Conscious Will,” MIT Press, 2002).

One of the best academic research studies on hypnosis in consumer research was conducted by Professor William J. McDonald of Hofstra University (“Consumer Decision Making and Altered States of Consciousness: A study of dualities,” Journal of Business Research, 42, 287-294, 1998.) McDonald’s hypotheses were that (a) verbalizations from consumers about their product purchases would differ under hypnosis versus when they are awake, and (b) that the verbalizations would be more emotional under hypnosis. Both hypotheses were proven correct in the study. Additionally, respondents under hypnosis were less inhibited about their feelings. The study reported that hypnotized respondents used significantly more emotional and sensual language to describe their purchasing behavior than non-hypnotized respondents. “The unconscious nature of emotions is important to marketers because consumers evidently have motives for their decision making which are not readily discoverable from traditional research approaches. If marketers are misled by explanations for buyer behavior that emphasize rational theories about what consumers do, they may in turn make choices about advertising and other strategies which are less than optimal or even detrimental to the strength of their brand. ”

Along with the many scholarly studies conducted verifying the ability of hypnosis to uncover the content of the subconscious mind, especially with regard to memory, imprinting and emotions, I have conducted over 1,000 focus groups using hypnosis during the past 30 years. In virtually every focus group we were able to get respondents to recall product category and brand memories, including imprints of first or early experiences and the emotions attached to them, in ways they were not able to recall when in the awake “conscious” mental state. We were also able to use personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, with hypnotized respondents that provided a different perspective on customer profiles and brand personality.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book “blink” has served to popularize the idea that the subconscious can be the driving force behind our thinking, emotions and behavior. However, as I have indicated here on Branding Strategy Insider, there is also a long and deep foundation for “blink” in the research done by Tim Wilson and others in the academic world. With a firm understanding of the consumer subconscious mind, marketers and market researchers can gain the information they need to further enhance the success of their brands. Hypnosis is the only way to get access to this area of the consumer’s mind.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Hal Goldberg

The Blake Project Can Help: Accelerate Brand Growth Through Powerful Emotional Connections

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

Recommend this story

Subscribe, Follow and Stay Connected to BSI


Leave a Reply

Submit your comment