How to trust research Implicitly

When it comes to traditional research, how much of what people tell you can you really trust? Focus groups and questionnaires can offer great insights, but all too often there can be a discrepancy between what consumers tell you and how they actually behave. After all, while we can never truly lift the lid on what people are actually thinking, Implicit Reaction Tests begin to reveal the kind of hidden associations we may be carrying around unaware.

The Test was introduced to the world at a 1998 press conference in Seattle by Co-creators Mahzarin Banaji (now chair at Harvard’s Psychology Department) and Anthony Greenwald. It famously captured the public’s attention by claiming to reveal a remarkable level of racial prejudice (95%) in participants. The Implicit AssociationTest later increased its popular awareness with a chapter devoted to it in Malcolm Gladwell’s best selling Blink! The technique was used to measure the prejudices of the New York Police Department.  Since then, there have been question marks over its validity in actually predicting potential racist behavior as this is difficult to observe and measure , but the test has proved to be incredibly useful for revealing some of our inner associations with brands.

The importance of reaction time and its relation to mental processes was noticed in the 19th century by Dutch psychologist Donders. He applied small electric shocks to the feet of his subjects and asked them to respond with either the left or right hand. He discovered that the differing time of response increased in relation to the mental task they were asked to perform, from simply reacting to the stimuli, differentiating which foot was being shocked and then deciding which hand to respond with.

When cognitive psychology took off in the 1970’s researchers used reaction times to explore more sophisticated models of mental processing. They realized that between ‘automatic’ or unconscious involuntary responses to stimuli (Implicit) and slower conscious reactions (Explicit) was a window in which our unconscious associations could be tested.

Words and images are processed but not consciously assessed. By measuring reaction times in this small ‘mind gap’ we could ascertain the relative strength of various sub-conscious associations. The stronger the association. The faster the reaction time.

Implicit tests can be used for a wide range of marketing applications – from seeing which attributes are more closely associated with a brand, to testing which packaging design best communicates your brand benefits.

There are many other forms of measuring and tapping consumer neurological responses that are emerging with the latest technology.  EEG’s, eye tracking and MRI’s are just some of the ways we are trying to reveal our innermost reactions to stimuli. However IRT’s are proving one of the fastest growing methods and for good reason.  They are simple to distribute and require no equipment to administer. They can be sent online, taken on a mobile and performed anywhere.

Associations with Coffee
Associations with Coffee

At the Big Kerbang we have partnered with Neuromarketing agency Split Second Research to create our own Implicit Reaction Time tool, Mindshot. Through Mind Shot we are running continuous surveys to tap into conscious and subconscious associations about brand categories. As Gladwell observed, what is interesting is that our unconscious attitudes may differ markedly from our stated values.

One phenomenon we have noted is that stated or ‘explicit ‘ opinions and ratings are much less extreme when compared to an Implicit Association Test. In traditional research surveys, people often try to tell you what they think they want you to hear. This could be due to the fact that people are paid for many surveys and feel some kind of complicity with the researchers. With implicit research responses are required too quickly to make evaluative judgements and influence the result.

explicit and implicit ratings of brand logo's
Explicit and implicit ratings of brand logo’s

Figure 1 is taken from a study by Kantar comparing explicit and implicit measures of the same audience to financial logos (the actual logos are not revealed for confidentiality). What it reveals is that stated preferences show much less variation in responses and that implicit measures indicate much more extreme levels of feeling.

Implicit surveys can also reveal surprising insights that challenge our traditional thinking. A recent survey we have been running for coffee made us look at the beverage very differently in marketing terms.

Coffee is a slightly ambiguous beverage when measured against various need states. Coffee meets both a need to relax and a need to energise but it is the latter that most often wins out in terms of the way coffee is sold.  We recently set out to explore this on an implicit level.  Given coffees reputation for waking people in the morning and reviving them through the day the big surprise for us was that the need state most associated with coffee was ‘comforting’. When it came to occasions ‘with friends’ was preferred over a breakfast occasion. It is insights like these that can have tremendous implications for marketing. These simple cost effective tools are fast becoming part of the research repertoire to further highlight variations in traditional responses and are allowing us to explore and appeal to people’s deeper needs and desires.

Sensory,Need and Occasion breakdown

For more information on Implicit tests, contact Greg Watson, Greg@thebigkerbang