One of the most powerful insights from cognitive science is the System 1/System 2 dichotomy, coined by Stanovich and West as shorthand for two types of thinking - one fast, resource-efficient and automatic (System 1); the other slow, deliberative and effortful (System 2) . Many in marketing and MR now accept that, because consumer decision making is dominated by System 1, many of our buying decisions are fast, flawed and emotional, rather than slow, logical and consistent. So far so good, but I’m worried that a sheep-like acceptance that System 1 is somehow  ‘good’ for marketing, whereas System 2 is  ‘bad’ might lead us  into some ‘woolly’ thinking about how to measure consumer response.  

There’s a couple of views (I’ve recently heard expressed at conferences) that I’d like to challenge:

1. System 1 is about the unconscious and therefore only unconscious measures are valid

System 1 is actually about automaticity: the stuff we process without thinking. System1 is below awareness, but not below consciousness, which means we don’t actually need to bypass the conscious mind to reach it; all we need to do is to stop people thinking. Even if someone walks around the supermarket on so-called ‘auto-pilot’, they’re still conscious, although they may not be aware (or even able to recall) a lot of the decisions they’ve made. So to reach System 1 we need methods that are indirect – that tap into unintentional and uncontrolled responses, not thought-through ones. The great advantage of indirect measures (such as implicit priming techniques) is that they provide unique insight into System 1 while remaining scaleable, and are easily combined with existing research approaches. 

2. System 2 methods are a waste of time, because they just encourage rationalisation

It’s often claimed that 95% of our thinking takes place unconsciously/implicitly. In fact, no one knows the exact figure and even if it is 95%, that’s not an argument for junking System 2 methods (aka Q&A) altogether. What is certainly true is that approaches that encourage introspective rationalisation of brand choice should be avoided because they are unlikely to reflect the way in which the decision was reached. ‘Why did you buy X?’ is thus a dangerous question because, most of the time, customers simply don’t know the answer. Similarly, asking a direct question along the lines of  ‘Does this advertising make you more likely to buy the product?’ is unlikely to get us very far, yet a comparison of brand ratings between an exposed and an unexposed (control) sample does allow us to infer (indirectly) the impact  of advertising on a brand.

It’s true that without System 1 insights, it’s hard to understand many behaviours, yet even the most zealous proponents of ‘unconscious’ measurement methods (such as fMRI, EEG and bio-metrics) admit it’s extremely difficult to interpret the output without asking System 2 type questions in parallel. Fact is, the two systems live in the same brain, which is why it’s very hard to make sense of System 1 without System 2, and it’s often the contrast and comparison between System 1 and System 2 outputs that provides the richest insight.