Conscious and Non-Conscious Processing
No decision can be made without input from past experiences, past learning, past memories and, hence, emotions. This may explain why behavior can be different while brand attributes are similar, writes ANNE THISTLETON.
We often believe that we make rational decisions; those that we believe to be objective and not influenced by our emotions. We see ourselves consciously deliberating on these decisions, so we often deem them as rational. However, physiologically, there is no such thing as purely objective/rational judgment as there is no place in our mental processing system that is devoid of prior experiences.
No decision can be made without input from past experiences, past learning, past memories and, hence, emotions as they are the signalling system of those memories.
An example that is often used to describe our rational decision-making process is how we choose not to “succumb” to the temptations of something that we understand is not good for our physical bodies, such as chocolate.
However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotional influences. Instead, we are receiving different emotional tugs in our decision-making process than those who are choosing the delicious, sumptuous, yet high calorie chocolate.
One’s conscious and non-conscious processors (system 2 and system 1) are working back and forth at an immense speed to decline the offer. Your emotional signalling system is interacting with your conscious mental processing and causing you to move away from the chocolate because there are other influences that are more valuable to you than the calories in the chocolate.
Influences wrapped up in memories
Many of those influences are wrapped up in the memories that are being accessed by one’s non-conscious processor. Maybe one’s emotional system has put a very high value on staying fit which then has great influence on decisions made on a daily basis – whereas, for others the love of chocolate might overwhelm the negative aspects of eating it. Decision-making is always a neural tug-of-war and the strength on either side may be evenly matched or highly disproportionate.
I think where one gets confused is when we fall back to old marketing terminology. We were all raised to understand that brands had functional attributes and emotional attributes – and we put things like feeling good into emotion and price and calories into functional. And we talk of processing the functional benefits rationally and processing the emotional ones emotionally.
However, those categories don’t mirror how the mind processes the incoming data. Emotions are a signalling system of value – of importance. So those aspects of an expected product experience that are important to us generate an emotional response, which then creates a feeling of desire or not.
For someone with R15 in his pocket, the price for McDonald’s French fries has high emotional value – he can truly feel the pain of paying R15.50 for a medium packet of French fries and his inability to afford it.
The fat content or calories are meaningless to him so that doesn’t even enter his consideration set – it doesn’t make him feel anything.
But for many others, the price is irrelevant in their decision – it doesn’t make them feel one thing or another, but instead the fat or calories do. And their emotional signalling system is causing them to move away or reject the French fries.
Complicated and complex
The feelings we are getting from our emotions are a compendium of lifelong and frequent changes to our memory networks as they are activated when we are making a decision. Some mental activation will come from the fabulous smells, some from the expectations of a great taste; and some from the intense desire to be fit. Those activations, both conscious and non- conscious, will then inform the decision.
The other important aspect to know is that our conscious and non-conscious processors are interrelated and cannot be separated. It reminds me of an example that a former colleague gave me while explaining the difference between complicated and complex. A Boeing 747 is complicated, as each part is discrete and can be built and taken apart repeatedly without changing the pieces. So, each piece can be studied individually and through intricate drawings can be outlined in terms of how they fit together and why they work as they do – as there is no interaction between the two that fundamentally changes the parts.
Mayonnaise, however, is complex. When the ingredients are added together chemical reactions occur and the mix changes. Oil and eggs and vinegar once added together cannot be separated and returned to their former state. Therefore, you cannot understand mayonnaise by simply studying its individual ingredients because a key piece of the value is in the interactions.
It is the same with our mental operating system – you cannot look solely at the non-conscious system or solely at the conscious system and then add the two pieces together and reach conclusions about what drives the mental operating system.
You need to do it by looking at both at the same time – with the goal of understanding the interactions and their outcomes – as they both drive behaviour.
Historically, we have been focused on conscious processing; however, we now know that, in concert with the conscious processing, the non-conscious processor is a major driver in decision-making. And that really is the missing piece as the non-conscious processing provides the insight into why behaviour can be different when brand attributes are apparently so similar.
Three facts concerning the human mind all marketers need to understand:
- The mind is an associative processor
With the ability to process 11 million bits of data per second, our neural operating system is the most advanced pattern recognition technology on the planet. While the conscious mind is laboriously processing just 40 of those bits of information, our non-conscious mind is constantly searching for matches between incoming data and existing non-conscious memories. These associations are what enable us to make sense of the world and create expectations of what is to follow based on the relevant memories that have been ‘activated’ in the mind. This is why ‘cold’ in the context of coffee has a completely different meaning than in the context of beer.
- Thought is beneath our level of awareness
While some learning or thought is processed consciously – such as learning a new language – the vast majority of the brain’s resources are used to process data almost instantly and unconsciously. Conscious thought is only the tip of the mind’s iceberg. Meanwhile, the non-conscious mind shapes and structures all conscious thought and action. If it were not doing this ‘guiding’, there could be no conscious thought. We are not even aware that the incoming data is impacting our experience and affecting our judgement and actions.
- Decisions are primarily a function of feeling, not thinking
We have been raised to believe that our decisions are the output of conscious deliberation. Because we are capable of introspection – looking inward into our conscious mind – we can see how we are making decisions, so it all makes sense. However, what we cannot see is the massive, non-conscious operating system that is firing beneath the surface, generating feelings of like and dislike, as well as those prompting an approach or withdrawal.
These feelings are guided by the context and fuelled by non-conscious memories and evolved biases and shortcuts. Making decisions where there are many complicating factors, or the stakes are high is hard work for our brains – it takes much processing and energy to work out the best choice logically. So we don’t. Instead, our brains have developed a wide array of rules of thumb – evolved cognitive biases and personal mental shortcuts – that enable us to make a decent decision without spending too much time and energy.