Implicit Association: Psychology and consumer insights

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Posted Dec 08, 2022
Julia Maier

From the adoption of hypothesis testing to the inclusion of predictive analytics, the market research world continues to grow and develop as it takes on principles found in science. One of the more recent advances is more direct integration of psychological principles into understanding not only consumers behaviors but also their minds.

Considering implicit bias

Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) has caught the attention of many market researchers and the notion that consumer behavior may not only be influenced by elements the person is unaware of, but that the self-reporting of their thoughts may not perfectly match with their actual unconscious thoughts. The IAT has drawn a lot of awareness both within and outside of psychology to the fact that people may explicitly state they hold one belief when they unconsciously may feel the opposite. The strongest example of this from IAT research is that participants may explicitly state they are not racist but the results of the test reveal a bias that suggests otherwise.

This, of course, is not to say that explicitly stated beliefs and attitudes cannot be trusted. Many people are congruent in their explicit and implicit beliefs, and those who are incongruent may behave in alignment with their explicit beliefs most of the time. The implicit bias generally only emerges when engaging in subtle behaviors, particularly ones you are not aware you are doing, or when your mental focus is compromised and your automatic thinking has to take over (i.e. system 1 driven behavior).

Contextualizing for market research

It is this system 1 driven behavior scenario that becomes relevant to market research, knowing that many purchases may be made impulsively or automatically. As such, when standard survey research relies almost exclusively on capturing explicit beliefs, there arises concerns that the attitudes that actually drive behavior may be overlooked. As a result, market researchers are looking for and firms are offering methods to capture these implicit biases and unconscious attitudes.

It is important, though, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is unfair to respondents to assume their explicit responses on surveys are untrustworthy, either because they are intentionally deceiving the researchers or because they are not capable of truly knowing their own minds. The subject matter that the IAT and other types of research focus on are hot topics, like racism, ageism, sexism. These are topics where incongruence can happen, because admitting or becoming aware that one holds an undesirable belief can come with strong feelings of shame and anxiety—feelings we are highly motivated to avoid. In contrast, admitting or being aware that you prefer Febreze to Glade is not likely to create the same level of dissonant feelings. 

Furrhermore, because there may not likely be emotional consequences for preferring one brand over another in many cases, in most situations implicit and explicit attitudes are likely to match. Thus, it is prudent to assess whether or not this discrepancy exists and, if so, which attitude—explicit or implicit—is most directly driving the desired behavior. At the end of the day, market research is applied research. Business decisions need to be made to increase sales, revenue, customers, etc. Exploring a basic research question like: What do people unconsciously believe about my product? may be interesting, but without a direct application to the business, what can it really offer?

Xpert Implicit: Purchase Appeal

aytm’s new Xpert Implicit: Purchase Appeal solution offers an automated and self-contained research project that can answer the question: When it comes to your product, should your research be focused on capturing unconscious attitudes (i.e., general positivity or negativity) in order to try to increase purchase intent?

Using an experimental design, the solution first determines if the creative material representing your product (e.g., an image or video) primes, or unconsciously activates, approach motivation. It does this by using a common psychological implicit measure of priming—a word fragment completion task. Approach motivation is one of the two fundamental motivations: we either approach things we find potentially rewarding or avoid things we find potentially punishing. Desire to purchase an item inherently involves approach motivation. Following this, respondents in the experimental group (i.e., those who see your product) answer two simple questions: how appealing is this? and how likely are you to purchase this?

The automated analysis determines whether respondents were primed for approach or not, as well as whether they find the product appealing or not. From this we can explore:

  1. Which influences purchase intent more—being primed for approach or finding the product appealing?
  2. Does being primed for approach lead people to find the product appealing?

Based on the results, the Xpert solution will recommend further research and go-to-market strategies. It can tell us if this particular product can benefit from the newer research innovations focused on implicit measures, or if standard research and marketing efforts, which focus on explicit self-reporting of product appeal, are sufficient for trying to move the needle on purchase intent.

Try Xpert Implicit on your next project

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