What Marketers Should Know About the Nonconscious--Webinar Transcript

Psychological traits are up to 10x more predictive of buying behavior than interests or demographics. Our team of social, cognitive and evolutionary psychologists presented this recent breakthrough in personality psychology. Kyle Thomas and Geoffrey Miller provided an understanding of how to get around the nonconscious barriers that typically keep brands unaware of the true motivations behind why people buy. Dan Cudgma explained how this can be done in significantly less time and at a fraction of the cost associated with traditional research methods.

Hello everyone.  We will be getting started in a few minutes.  If for some reason you can not hear me clearly or there is a problem viewing the slides please chat us and we will work with you to resolve the issue.  Again, we will be getting started promptly in three minutes.Good morning everyone, and thank you for joining us this morning to discuss what every marketer should know about nonconscious processes that drive consumer decisions

My name is Dan Cudgma and I am the President of TipTap Lab, who will be hosting today's webinar. And Thank you again for joining.  Our speakers this morning are Kyle Thomas, Vice President of Research at TipTap Lab and acclaimed author of "Spent" and the "mating minds" as well as professor of psychology at NYU’s Stern school of business Geoffrey Miller

Additionally, Angela Bray our social media manager at tiptap lab is with us and she will be tweeting the webinar, and moderating the questions that come in. If for some reason we can't get to all of them live, we'll post the answers to our blog by the end of the day.  You can join the conversation at #psych4marketers and tweet @tiptap

What we will cover today at its most basic level is that we know motivations and goal pursuit drive consumer decision-making.These things happen outside of our awareness by non-conscious processes.

Our brain is designed to intentionally keep this information from us providing instead the ability to report reasonable and socially acceptable responses when prompted-we refer to this function as the confabulator and its not to be trusted and its very hard to measure.

However, we have found a way that can be trusted and is easier to measure leveraging psychological traits in a new way to provide a window into our non-conscious processes and understand consumer motivations.

You may have seen or heard this quote before that buyers are liars. It refers to sales situation where people who are buying something tend to mislead those who are trying to sell them something. But, if you understood how consumers make decisions, you would know this couldn’t be true.

And the reason why is because most consumer decisions are mostly made outside of our awareness by nonconscious processes.  As a result, the brain has a mechanism whereby even though we may not be aware of why we are actually making one consumer decision versus another, a plausible and socially responsible answer is provided when prompted.  We refer to this system as the confabulator

Most of the work that we see marketers, agencies and even researchers engaging in to understand consumer behavior places too much emphasis on the conscious part of the brain in searching for answers on why we do what we do.  A couple that come to mind are customer surveys and focus groups whereby professionals try to find the answers to questions by explicitly asking people even though we know the answers may not be accurate.

Well, we think there is a better way!  A way in which we can tap into the consumers nonconscious, where many of the answers that we are looking for lie.  A better way to allow us…to build more desirable and appealing products A better way to create marketing that people love and a better way to sell more stuff!

To talk more about non conscious processing and unconscious decision making is Kyle Thomas.  Before I turn the mic over to him, I just want to remind everybody that as they have questions please chat us to let us know or join the conversation on twitter at #psych4marketers and tweet @tiptap

Thanks Dan, and thanks to all of you for joining us. I’m Kyle Thomas, the Vice President of research at TipTap Lab, and I’m going to kick things off by talking about what psychologists have learned about the non-conscious and decision-making, and how this is relevant for understanding consumer behavior.

It seems to us that we are consciously aware of what's going on inside our head, but decades of psychological research indicates that this is not the case. Like most of our psychological processes, our decision-making processes are largely non-conscious, meaning we simply cannot be consciously aware of why we make many of the decisions that we do. Just as you are not aware of how your brain processes images so you can see, or sentences so you can speak grammatically, you are often only aware of the outcomes of your decision-making processes.

Consumer decisions, like all decisions, are driven by motivations and goals, which are often unconscious. This suggests that if you can understand someone’s motivations and/or goals, you can get a good sense of what is driving their decisions.

For example, research has demonstrated that people are more likely to buy a drink that is offered to them by someone that mimics them. It is believed that this occurs because mimicry activates a non-conscious motivation for social affiliation, with the goal of creating or strengthening a relationship, and the decision to buy the drink is driven by this motivation, and is made to help fulfill this goal. The psychology literature is full of these examples, where some goal or motivation is activated non-consciously, and people make decisions for reasons they are completely unaware of.

To cite a couple more classic examples, when a poster with images of eyes is put next to a tip jar, tips increase substantially, because psychological mechanisms for reputation management are activated non-consciously, driving people to tip more.

When images of attractive women are visible, men will spend more and take greater risks, as non-conscious mating motivations are activated.

People all carry around latent motivations and goals, and these motivations and goals can be triggered by cues from the environment. Often, if a cue connects with a goal or motivation in the right context, say the right kind of packaging on a product in the store, a specific goal or motivation is turned on, leading to behaviors that accomplish that goal. This suggests that understanding these cues and how they connect to different motivations can provide a window into understanding consumer decision-making and behavior. The problem is, these things can be very hard to measure and assess.

All of this has been known by psychologists for decades: People often don’t know why they do what they do, but when asked, they will confidently report some plausible reason as though they are certain this is why they did what they did. This is simply how our human brains are designed, and can result even when someone is trying to be as honest as possible.

So, here’s the picture we’re left with. People have unconscious motivations and goals that drive unconscious decision making.

These motivations are carried around and switched on in different ways and combinations in different contexts, in which they guide things like consumer decisions and behavior.

People have no conscious access to most of this, but they have a weird psychological system that will confidently report stories as though they knew exactly why they did what they did. Thus, explicit reports of consumer behaviors are unreliable and cannot be trusted, and the only way to get reliable information about consumer behavior is to figure out how to tap into the decision-making processes or the motivations directly. The rest of this webinar will be about a novel approach for doing just that.

Thank you Kyle for revealing why we don’t have conscious access to our decisions and why self reports cant be trusted.  Next up, is Geoffrey Miller who is going to discuss how psychological traits are signaled through consumer behavior.  Reminder – Join the conversation on twitter and chat us any questions you have.

Geoffrey Miller:
Thanks Dan, thanks everybody. I do evolutionary psychology; I’m a professor at NYU Stern Business School. I’m going to talk about trait signaling, which is the unconscious motivations people have to display their traits - like their intelligence, their personality traits and moral virtues - through the goods and services they buy. The background logic of this is we all have various personality traits - things like how extraverted versus introverted we are, how neurotic and anxious versus how emotionally stable we are. These traits are clusters of motivations, goals, values, and preferences that do drive quite a bit of consumer behavior. But the underlying motivations, as Kyle talked about, are often hidden. They’re hidden not just arbitrarily but for good social reasons so we have a plausible deniability so people don’t call us out on motivations that might be socially embarrassing or awkward or that might promote jealousy. Yet, we are unconsciously driven to display our personality traits like our extroversion or emotional stability or intelligence to others through our consumer choices so we can perhaps attract them as friends or mates, or impress them as neighbors or co-workers.

There is a deep evolutionary history to this. For at least 500 million years, all sorts of animal species have been under selection shaped by environments by each other not just to survive efficiently in the environments they confront, not just to find food and avoid predators, but also to attract mates and friends. So we’ve had not just natural selection for efficient survival, but sexual selection and social selection for conspicuous signals. How good are your genes, how healthy are you, how fit are you? This ranges from the big bright tail of the guppy, to the calls of the Tungara frog, to a peacock’s tail. Or, the big upper body muscles of male humans; they aren’t strictly needed for hunting, but are attractive to females. Then we have more modern ornamentation like bronze jewelry for social status or to attract mates. We have these deep instincts for showing off or impressing others, and that leads us to ask, “what are the mental traits of the psychological aspects of ourselves that are worth signaling, that are worth showing off to each other?”

In my book, Spent, I argue there are really six central traits that I call “the central six” that humans are particularly motivated to show off to others; these include general intelligence - good old fashioned IQ - and also the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion. All six of these traits, intelligence plus the Big Five, are important because they’re ancient across species and you can actually measure them not just in humans, but in orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, so they all date back at least five to eight million years. All these traits are influenced not just by the family you grew up in but by genes - they’re all genetically heritable - and we know that by studies of identical twins, fraternal twins, adoption, and DNA studies. They’re all stable across life, so if you’re brighter than average as a kid, you’re brighter than average as an adult; if you’re less than agreeable than average as a kid, you tend to be less agreeable or kind as an adult. You can measure all these across all cultures so they’re relevant for global marketing. They’re all attractive to mates, friends and kin; we unconsciously judge these when we see them in others on a first date or a job interview. We unconsciously assess all of these and we’re pretty good at assessing them. We might not necessarily use the word “conscientious,” but we do say they seem like a hard worker, they’re reliable, they’re dependable, they’re going to show up on time. That’s why these central six traits are really important and why we might be unconsciously motivated to show them all.

So how do we do that through consumer behavior? How do you show off your intelligence through your product choices? We partly do it indirectly because intelligence predicts education and that predicts having a professional job and having money and being able to afford things. Even controlling for education and wealth, you can still show off your intelligence through the particular things you buy. For example, any product labeled “smart” - like Smartfood, Smart Water, smart cars - sort of send an unconscious signal you might be in the upper end of the bell curve rather than the left on the lower end. On the other hand, if you tend to like books like Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs, that signals you’re probably not very bright because homeopathology doesn’t actually work. Most people are sort of embarrassed to have low IQ, so they don’t brag about it. Most of the time, most consumers want to show they’re brighter than average, so they but the Smartfood and do leisure activities like learning Mandarin Chinese with Rosetta Stone to show they have good verbal intelligence. They’ll buy complicated products like smartphones that require some mastery to understand and use well.

Intelligence is not the only thing we demonstrate through consumer goods; we also show off traits like openness. The personality trait of openness is associated with things like high interest in novelty, exploratory tendendencies, and curiosity about other cultures and aesthetics. If you're on the high end, you may attend a contemporary art fair or be attracted to innovative design. If you're on the low end, you may be politically conservative and hang out at gun fairs. Clearly such a trait can be signaled through product purchases, and the highly open also tend to be the innovators and the early adopters. Those on the low end are typically the last to adopt to a new product.

A lot of you in the marketing field are familiar with the diffusion of innovations. There is a sequence to who adopts new products. The upper end is innovators, then early adopters, who will be cutting edge and use relatively new products. The early majority won’t use radically new products. The late majority, like your parents, might be comfortable with the rotary dial app on their smartphone because they’re more familiar with it. The laggards, who are very low on openness, will be the last to adopt to a new product. So it’s not just that we signal these personality traits through consumer choices, but how quickly we adpot to enw products is also predicted by these personality traits.

Another important personality trait we signal is conscientiousness. Do you plan ahead? Are you reliable? Are you ambitious and hard-working? People high on conscientiousness tend to have good credit scores and can afford to get good loans. They save for their pension funds rather than spending all their money; they pay more attention to value than fashion or apparent coolness. People on the low end do more impulse buying and one-click shopping on Amazon. Conscientiousness can be advertised through good value products, high end elegant products (which require solid finances to afford), and high precision products.

Agreeableness is a measure of kindness, empathy, and concern for others. Those high on agreeableness tend to give people gifts reliable for birthdays and holidays, and splurge on hosting social events, grooming pets and buying luxury things for their kids. People low on agreeableness tend to have favorite movies like "American Psycho," listen to death metal, and show off you’re quite selfish and disagreeable.

Another important trait is emotional stability, which is how happy you are versus how depressed and worried you are. Emotional stability is a measure of exactly what it sounds like, how stable one's emotions tend to be. People high on emotional stability tend to be attracted to products like McDonalds' Happy Meals and activities like skydiving, because they tend to be emotionally resilient and can therefore handle stress. People low on emotional stability tend listen to emo music and read self-help books.

Extraversion is how socially outgoing and ambitious you are. Do you draw energy from being in crowds and parties, or do you find them exhausting? Individuals high on extraversion participate in team sports, go to live events, care about Facebook and tweeting, and like to show off their vast social networks. People who are more introverted, tend to be more comfortable socializing through the Internet rather than in person. You’ll think Grumpy Car is a great Internet meme because you’re grumpy and introverted. You’ll celebrate being nerdy rather than being a team sport player.

For all six of these traits, we have variation in these traits. We have deep, evolved instincts for wanting to signal these traits to others, but we also don’t want to do it too obviously. For example, if signaling these traits - like your intelligence, extroversion or openness - is functioning to attract new mates and you’re married, existing mates will get jealous. If you want to buy the BMW, you want to say you’re getting it because the handling is great and it’s a good value car, not that it’s to impress another mistress. You need plausible deniability because a lot of these social functions like trait signaling are not socially reputable. Also, trait signaling in general seems narcissistic and it has fort of a bad moral reputation for that reason. The solution that human nature has evolved is we do signal anyway, but we deceive ourselves about the social functions of these signals. Your confabulator convinces yourself, “I’m buying the BMW for the great handling, not to impress my mistress,” and that lets you get away with it. The result is that consumers are typically unconscious of how the trait signaling is driving their product choices and that’s why we as marketers need new ways to get at the personality traits and how the trait signaling operates.

I’ll let Kyle take over at this point to talk about how we can apply these insights in marketing and research.


Thanks Geoffrey for that enlightening view of consumer behavior as trait signaling. Now I am going to expand on how traits can be used to understand true consumer motivations.

Hopefully at this point it's clear that decisions are made largely by nonconscious processes, and that people's explicit reports about why they do what they do should not be trusted.

There currently exist many solutions to this problem, from focus groups to neuromarketing approaches. However, all of the present approaches have a few shortcomings...

First off, they tend to be unreliable, producing results that are often not replicable, or verifiable in any way.

Second, these solutions also tend to be very time and effort intensive as well as very costly.

Furthermore, these solutions tend to be fairly limited. Many people have tried to apply various psychological research methods to get around self report measures, but these neuromarketing solutions tend to be gimmicky, and generally stray far from what a given methodology was designed to measure and/or is capable of actually measuring.

We've spent the past three years doing research on a new way to solve this problem, and figuring out how to understand the true motivations behind consumer decisions. In this research, we have been applying psychometric methods from personality and consumer behavior psychology to create tools for measuring psychological traits, and deploying these tools to understand consumer motivations.

Along the way, we realized that we were really conceptualizing traits in a completely novel way--a reconceptualization that led to our breakthrough methodology. Now Geoffrey actually previewed this reconceptualization in how he defined traits, but here I want to delve into this a bit deeper, show how this conceptualization is new, and highlight how it can be used to understand consumer behavior and motivations.

The traditional definition of psychological traits conceptualizes them as patterns of thinking and behaving that are stable across the lifespan and across different situations, and that differ across individuals. Notice that this is a passive descriptive conceptualization of what traits are. They are used as a kind of adjective or noun, simply to describe who people are and what they are like.

The problem with this conceptualization is that it makes predicting anything with traits logically circular. For example, one might say that Bill Clinton is out schmoozing again because he is an extrovert, but he is said to be an extrovert because he’s always out schmoozing. Notice the circularity here: He is characterized as an extrovert because he is often social, and then his social behavior is explained as the result of him being an extrovert.

Along with Geoffrey, we realized in our research that traits can be conceptualized in a more active way that brewaks out of this circle, as something like “chronic motivations” that drive goal-directed behavior. That is, personality traits are like motivations that people carry around with them, and different motivations are turned on in different circumstances to achieve different goals. People that are high on a trait like extraversion are that way because they are frequently motivated to pursue goals that require them to be social. Can you think of why Bill Clinton might be an extrovert, given his typical goals? Clearly his political goals require him to behave as an extrovert, not to mention some of his other potential goals.

Notice that this is an active conceptualization of traits, a view that emphasizes how traits can explain why people do what they do. Indeed it is this active aspect of traits that gives rise to the descriptive aspects captured by the traditional definition.

This conceptual shift is subtle, but extremely powerful. Conceptualizing psychological traits as motivations makes it clear how they can be used to circumvent the confabulator and understand true consumer motivations.

I couldn't believe that this was a completely new insight, so I started doing some research into the primary scientific literature and realized that this seems to be where many personality researchers are headed as well. For example, William Fleeson's Whole Trait Theory explicitly looks at the motivational aspects of traits, Sam Gosling's work on how traits manifest themselves in our environments implicitly deals with them as motivations, and work by evolutionary psychologists treats them as evolved strategies.

In a recent Psychological Science article Fleeson and his co-author Kira McCabe found that goal-pursuit explains a whopping 74% of the variance in extraversion scores. This is an astronomical number for psychological research, and provides a very strong proof of concept that psychological traits are like chronic motivations that act to achieve specific goals.

Now, the reason this insight is so important is because it is very hard to measure decisions or motivations directly. Doing so is generally very painstaking and time and resource intensive, and it's generally only possible to focus on one small aspect at a time. Understanding that traits can be viewed as motivations gives us a great tool for measuring motivations and therefore understanding consumer decision-making, because it is well understood how to measure traits in a valid and reliable way. In other words, this reconceptualization shows how one can connect traits--which can be easily measured--with motivations and decision-making--the real topic of interest, but things which are typically extremely difficult to measure.

The history of hybrid cars provides a great example of how this approach can inform product design and messaging. When hybrid cars first came to market everyone knew that eco-consciousness was a key motivation for purchase. However, no one seemed to understand this motivation well enough, as they might have if they had taken the approach we are advocating here. The first hybrid cars were released as options for existing models of cars, such as Toyota Camrys, that also could be purchased as a standard option. These cars did not sell well.

Then came the Toyota Prius, which took off. What was the secret to its success? The Prius had a very distinct design, and it was only available as a hybrid. This means anyone in a Prius knew that everyone around them knew that they were driving a hybrid car.

It turned out that the motivation for hybrid cars was not simply eco-consciousness, but rather a motivation to display one's eco-conscious credentials to others, in line with the kind of trait signaling that Geoffrey discussed. This could have easily been understood if producers had assessed traits beforehand, because they would have seen traits associated both with eco-consciousness and with signaling--measures such as public consciousness and prestige sensitivity--and realized that simply making the car eco-friendly was insufficient. We have found similarly illuminating clusters of traits in much of our own research, and these clusters allow us to hone in on the specific motivations driving consumer behaviors.

Because many traits can be reliably assessed in a short amount of time, our method can rigorously test a very wide array of motivations quickly and efficiently, meaning we don’t need to know the answers going in, and neither do the people who are involved in our research.

If this approach were taken in trying to understand why people buy hybrid cars, such exploratory research would have immediately made it apparent that the motivation for hybrid cars was one for signaling eco-consciousness, even though neither the manufacturers nor the potential consumers at the time may have had any awareness of this.

Furthermore, our research has shown that when trying to predict consumer behavior, traits are complementary and additive to traditional demographic metrics. This means that they can be used together, and motivational information can be layered on top of existing market research methods, rather than just replacing these methods. Adding trait information to focus groups, surveys, and behavioral techniques like tracking purchases can increase the predictive power of these traditional techniques by providing a new and powerful kind of data.

Assessing traits to understand motivations involves measuring consumers at an optimal psychological level. Understanding consumer behavior at this optimal level provides a number of additional benefits. First, understanding motivations through traits offers clear, concrete insights into messaging. If you know why people are interested in a brand or product, this insight can help inform how best to communicate to existing customers, and reach out to new ones. In our own research, we have found that people's trait profiles are powerful predictors of what kinds of marketing messages they will find appealing.

Understanding consumers' true motivations can also help inform decisions about brand image, packaging design, product features, and distribution channels. This approach can help insure that packaging elements and product features tap into the right motivations, and that the distribution channels get the product in front of the right kinds of people. Imagine doing an A/B test and not just knowing what people tend to gravitate towards, but also who each version appeals to and why!

Finally, trait information can be used for a novel kind of market segmentation. This type of segmentation is very flexible, targeting very specific motivations, and allowing for evolving segments as people and product offerings change.

No one buys something because they are female, urban, educated, and upper-middle class; people buy things to fulfill certain goals based on specific motivations. Demographics can at best serve as weak proxies for what leads people to buy, namely motivations and goals. We've done some work on creating motivational segments and our research shows that motivational segmentation is more powerful than demographic segmentation, and can be complementary. For example, in research we did on predicting what TV shows people watch, we found that traits were up to 10X more predictive than traditional demographics. Furthermore, the predictive nature of demographics and traits was almost completely additive, meaning they are complementary predictors, and that combining the two offers more predictive power than using either alone.


Psychology and Consumer Research Webinar

personality psychology Traits and Scales Psychology and Marketing

Posted by Angela Bray on Apr 23, 2013

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