Seeking Truth at Faster Than the Speed of Thought

Consumers’ judgements and decision-making consist of two mental processes – and market researchers typically spend most of their time measuring the less-used one!

The two processes will be familiar to you:

  • Conscious: Deliberate, effortful, slow – the so-called “rational” mind.
  • Non-conscious: A complex melding of impulses, reflexes, habits, associations, emotions and intuition – it occurs quickly and automatically, with little awareness of it happening.

This article provides a brief overview of different approaches in measuring non-conscious processing. It highlights the limitations of these approaches and provokes you to think of creative, simpler solutions.

Why measure non-conscious processes: Published literature estimates the non-conscious to be involved in at least 85 percent of our decisions, whereas conscious processes account for only 15 percent. Yet, traditional market research budgets are heavily skewed to measuring conscious decision-making. Even qualitative techniques like focus groups do not work for understanding decision-making, as consumers are not able to access their own non-conscious drivers to truly provide deep insight. Instead they give a rational alibi for what they THINK they think, feel, believe and do/will do.

We are not undervaluing this “conscious” response but the value of traditional conscious measures lies in how we interpret the response. Hopefully you have access to seasoned researchers who, from experience, will know how to integrate findings across responses, interpret in context and provide sound actionable advice.

How to measure non-conscious response: New techniques for assessing the non-conscious are advancing and improving in accuracy. A summary of some of the techniques is provided below:





EEG (Electroencephalography)

Measures electric fields from the surface of the brain

Eye Tracking

Corneal reflectivity

Facial Coding

Facial muscle activity

FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

Blood oxygenation levels

Heart Rate

Electrical Pulse transduction

Implicit Association Test

Behavioral response (response time)

Respiratory Rate

Changes in breathing patterns

Voice Pitch Analysis

Vocal cord vibration


Even before you think of the reliability and validity of some of these measures, it’s obvious that large scale (i.e. large sample, multiple locations) implementation of these methods is impractical and cost prohibitive. This alone likely explains the slow and very limited adoption of these techniques. That being said, we consider Implicit Association Tests which measure response time to be more scalable. By developing technology that calibrates individual response times under “normal” conditions in online surveys, we believe it is possible to accurately capture response times to specific questions online. Since online research is definitely scalable, such technology could be deployed to efficiently measure non-conscious response.

There are simpler solutions available, although less reliable and with limited application. We describe one to trigger your imagination to add a “non-conscious” dimensionality to your questioning. Consider a typical preference elicitation – in addition to asking which of several choices consumers prefer, we suggest following up by asking them how fast they think they made their choice. The scale could be verbalized as: “Instantaneously”, “Quickly”, “With some thought”, “With a lot of thought”. Such a follow up question is a classic surrogate for a subtle measure of preference strength but being anchored in behaviour it overcomes socio-cultural biases. More importantly, by focusing on speed of response you are capturing some nuance of non-conscious decision making.

While technological advances will continue to spark the imagination, we believe that it is ultimately a passionate, creative and curious researcher who can convert this to actionable insights.

Have you found yours?