The Unconscious Shopper

As human beings we are constantly aware of our surrounding environment. We meet thousands of decisions a day by evaluating different options in the blink of an eye. We are in constant control of our actions. We decide on what product to buy based on a conscious evaluation of different product attributes that matter to us.

But is this really true? Are we in control of our decisions and the underlying process which takes place in our brain? Scientists actually argue for the contrary.

Recent scientific studies confirmed that we can consciously perceive not more than 2.8 stimuli at a time¹. Moreover, most routine and low-involvement purchase decisions are made within a few seconds only. Experts nowadays agree, the vast majority of information processing takes place in our unconscious mind.

But where is our unconscious mind located and how does it work?


The unconscious mind

The unconscious mind is located in the two brain regions which developed first. First was the reptilian brain which “controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum“². Next was the limbic system which emerged in first mammals. In this region emotions are created and value judgments are developed hence, exercising a strong influence on our human behavior. “The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus“².

The last region to develop was the neocortex, the two cerebral hemispheres which are responsable for language, abstract thought, and imagination. Our conscious mind is located in this region.

As basic functions are regulated by the reptilian brain and the limbic system, the unconscious mind retained a great deal of control. It drives a “bottom-up decision-making process, in which (… it…) first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all“³. Nevertheless, studies have shown that there is no difference in a human’s determination whether a goal is unconscious or conscious. Moreover, “nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones (…) because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active”³. However, the unconscious mind uses the very same neural circuits as the conscious one does.

So what does this imply for Shopper Marketing?


Interviewing shoppers

In our previous post “How To Generate Shopper Insights?” we mentioned the problem of asking shoppers for their judgement. Tools, such as questionnaires, directly ask shoppers why they behaved in a certain way or why they prefered brand A over brand B.  Nevertheless, this behavior might have been highly influenced by unconscious processes we try to rationalize afterwards.

Dr. Dennis Schaffer from Ohio State University explored this post-rationalization of unconscious processes via a simple experiment. He told students to catch a tiny helicopter following a random path. Participants were then asked for their strategy. Although almost all students claimed to have applied a different strategy ranging from staying below the helicopter to calculating its trajectory, they actually all applied the very same strategy: Participants moved in such a way as to keep the helicopter on an imaginary straight line relative to the background¹.

Hence, when interviewing shoppers a cautious approach is recommended as they might post-rationalize a decision taken by the unconscious mind. In consequence, researchers and marketers should apply, if possible, methods and technologies which allow to uncover these unconscious processes for a more accurate picture.


Uncovering the unconscious mind

Recognizing that many purchase decisions might be driven by processes which shoppers do not actually perceive or influence, it becomes important to understand how to uncover these processes. Several tools are already available to uncover processes in the unconscious mind. They can range from sophisticated and expensive lab instruments, such as brain scanners, to very simple study designs requiring only little investment.

Some technologies which are already used by marketers are:

  • Brain scanners
  • RFID
  • Eye-tracking devices
  • Motion-tracking devices

Nevertheless, marketers can also use data from loyalty cards and websites to analyze shoppers’ unconscious processes.

For more information on technologies that help to uncover shoppers’ unconscious mental processes, please consult our post “Reading Your Shoppers’ Minds (Literally)”.


Making use of the unconscious mind

Influencing shoppers’ unconscious mind is not a new concept. Most of us probably heard of the story of James Vicary, an ad man, who claimed to have increased Coca-Cola sales at cinemas in 1957 by flashing in subliminal messages to spectators. Yet, he had to admit only a few years later that he had made up the story to make his agency more popular.

Nevertheless, as shown above, most scientists today agree that our unconscious mind largely decides which stimuli goes unnoticed and which one will get the attention of the conscious mind. Moreover, decision criteria our unconscious mind applies might be very different from what we actually think we use to evaluate among options.

Hence, shopper marketers have to uncover neural markers, stimuli that trigger the unconscious mind to alarm our conscious one, to improve product design and POS communication. Alternatively, they can make use of sensory marketing to positively influence our subconscious mind leveraging mental clues shoppers do not actual perceive.

For some successful examples we recommend our previous post “See, Smell, Hear, Taste, Touch – Shop Using All Your Senses!”.


So, did you decide to read this post or was it actually your unconsciousness?

Please share your opinion by commenting on this post below.



¹ BBC Horizon documentary “Out of control?



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One Response to The Unconscious Shopper

  1. Pingback: Dads are Having More Influence on Grocery Shopping | FRiCH: Everything Shopper Marketing from a SA Perspective

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