Quick decisions: Capturing System 1 impressions with Rapid Association

You’ve probably seen the claims: “95% of thinking is System 1,” and  “95% of mental activity is unconscious.” Although the former may be an oversimplification of the latter, the fact remains that much of our day-to-day decision making occurs under the radar. This truth extends throughout the purchasing process—impacting everything from an impulse buy to routine shopping for your standard brands. But how can we test decisions made with limited thinking and occur almost automatically?

On thinking and deciding

System 1 and System 2 are terms coined by psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West and adopted by Daniel Kahneman for his psychology of judgment and decision-making. The first describes thinking that’s fast, automatic, and uses very few mental resources, while the second describes thinking that requires more effort and concentration. Behaviors executed under System 1 thinking  (like riding a bicycle) are often considered involuntary. But decisions made with System 1 thinking (like selecting which bicycle to purchase) can heavily influence our voluntary behaviors—they can even render System 2 thinking to be unnecessary.

Making an impression with System 1

Impression making is a very important System 1 process. It turns out we humans are more innately judgemental than we thought. In fact, when we first meet a person—in as few as 33 milliseconds, and without them speaking a word—we’ve already formed our impression of things like trustworthiness, status, and attractiveness2. These initial impressions shape our interactions with each other—that is, until we engage our System 2 thinking and actually give someone a chance. 

Brands and marketers are highly attuned to the importance of impression making. A negative first impression—even a neutral one—could deter someone from selecting your product over a competitor’s. Market research surveys are often filled with questions designed to uncover these impressions through both qualitative and quantitative means.

Putting in the effort with System 2

But sometimes things are more complicated. According to Richard Petty and John Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM)3, there are two necessary factors involved in the controlled and effortful System 2 thinking: motivation and ability. In order to give thoughtful consideration, you need to first want to put forth the effort, and then have the time and mental resources available to put forth the effort. 

We make highly motivated decisions to inform purchases all the time. When we are buying something important—like a new phone, or a new car, we want to be sure we’re making the right decision. We don’t want to spend all that money to be stuck with regret. And have you ever been told to “sleep on it” before making a purchase? That’s someone emphasizing the ability component of ELM—urging you to utilize the time and energy required for the recommended System 2 thinking.  

Taking the ELM on a trip to the store

In contrast to big purchases, a weekly grocery store trip doesn’t offer the same motivation to make the right decision—and sometimes our abilities to do so are quite limited. Let’s take a trip to the grocery store.

First, our motivation to make concentrated decisions may not be very high here. If we pick the wrong item, it’s not a big deal, we’ll just pick the right one next time. In fact, with a lot of purchases there might not be a wrong item. Instead, we may rely on a single factor to make a quick and easy decision: Which is the cheapest? Which is our go-to brand?

Additionally, our ability may not be there. We might be rushed and the store might be crowded and noisy. Or, our kids are with us and our phone won’t stop ringing. It’s very possible we don’t have the mental resources or the time to make concerted, effortful considerations for our purchases.

What type of thinking are survey respondents engaging in?

Now let’s think of this in terms of market research. We know the experience of taking a market research survey doesn’t immediately evoke the same thinking as interacting with a brand for the first time in-store. How can we be sure we’re testing System 1 or System 2? 

Our respondents may be highly motivated to help researchers. They take the time and energy to give well thought out and reasoned survey responses. Alternatively, they may be less motivated—especially if the incentive is the same for a quick, gut reaction as it is for a thoughtful response. They could also be motivated by something entirely different—taking surveys faster to rack up incentives and save time.

How can we inspire System 1 thinking?

We know there are techniques that can be employed to ensure respondents are using System 2 thinking: More in-depth interviews require more concentration, and data cleaning methods can weed out those who speed through questions. But how can we turn System 2 thinking into System 1 thinking?

At aytm, we’ve been working on a new question type to do just that. Rapid Association captures intuitive impressions by forcing respondents to quickly indicate words that fit with the image they just viewed. This approach realizes Petty and Cacioppo’s ELM, shortening the time available to make a considered, System 2 decision. 

Leveraging the new Rapid Association tool

Rapid Association works by first loading up an image of your product, advertisement, or brand logo and setting a timer. Next, you’ll provide a list of words that correspond with impressions you want to check, and a timer for their response. It’s quite simple to set up, actually. 

Each one of your respondents will see the same image for the same amount of time, from 2–45 seconds. Then they’ll go through the list of words you provided one at a time, responding whether the word fits with the image or not. They’ll have from 1–5 seconds.  Just like in a standard survey, you’ll see responses indicating whether or not each word matches your concept—but now you can be confident you’re capturing true System 1 impressions.

Interested in testing the System 1 responses for your audience? Just drag and drop the question type into your next survey. And as always, be on the lookout for the more helpful features from the experts at aytm. Stay curious!


1 Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

2 South Palomares, J. K., & Young, A. W. (2018). Facial first impressions of partner preference traits: Trustworthiness, status, and attractiveness. Social Psychological and Personality Science9(8), 990–1000.3 Petty, R.E., & Cacioppo, J.T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. London: Elsevier.

Thank you to Janel Hagaman and Stephanie Vance for their input.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Maier, Ph.D., Xpert Solution Product Manager

Julia Maier, Ph.D. received her doctorate in social psychology from Iowa State University, and applies her understanding of the attitude-behavior link and principles of psychometrics to market research.  She has published in Quirk’sInsights AssociationGreenbook.orgPsychology of Popular Media Culture, and Pediatrics.  At aytm, Dr. Maier consults on behavioral science best practices as a member of the Product Strategy team and develops automated solutions to help streamline research for clients as the Xpert Solution Product Manager.