Why research should be Implicit and Explicit

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Increasingly, market researchers are talking about System 1 and System 2 thinking, and the differences between standard market research approaches and more ‘advanced’ ap- proaches, from implicit association tests to measuring brain activity. I believe this dichotomy is mistaken, and that we can and should combine implicit with explicit research.

Researchers typically start with the most explicit (System 2) verbal approaches and try to work their way towards more implicit (System 1) knowledge. However, they typically hit a wall when they move into knowledge that cannot be articulated or is outside awareness. Our validation of visual approaches has shown that they give more consistent, accurate, and nuanced answers than verbal approaches. They are also quicker and simpler to administer, provide more intuitive responses, and are more enjoyable for research participants.

We have also learnt that using image associations to understand implicit knowledge helps people to articulate explicit knowledge. Images are chosen because they can be recognised and are therefore in some sense ‘familiar’. This familiarity helps to provide the emotional and contextual cues that aid recall of other relevant information. Remembering is much easier when you know what you want to remember and why it is important to you.

Choices of images are spontaneous and intuitive, bypassing the rational, explicit brain. They often reveal emotions and associations that would not have been expressed verbally. In many Asian cultures it is di cult to express negative feelings, so they are avoided in social settings or expressed in non-verbal and contextual ways.

That’s why researchers should start with System 1 and work up to System 2, rather than the other way around. Our experience is that, once you have accessed people’s intuitive responses through recognition, it’s much easier to get them to articulate and describe their motivations, emotions, and behaviours. If you start with System 2, you will struggle because you are relying on recall rather than recognition.

It is time for market research to recognise that ‘talking’ with the implicit System 1 can help participants talk more e ectively with the explicit System 2. Think about how visual approaches help verbal approaches, use recognition to prompt memory recall, and most of all, use implicit feelings to help explicit thinking.

By Neil Gains, TapestryWorks