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Is “System 1” & “System 2” Still Relevant for Consumer Insights?

Cognitive neuroscience is fundamentally changing what we know about the brain and behavior, enhancing our understanding of how the brain functions while opening up new tools to understand, predict and change consumer decision-making.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Jason Martuscello will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 11-13 in Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more.

Has Dual Systems Thinking Run its Course?

“System 1” and “System 2” has been the dominant paradigm embraced by market researchers to interpret decision-making. Breaking down the brain into two distinct ‘systems’ has been extremely helpful for simplifying the complexities of cognition by dividing the brain (e.g., unconscious/conscious, fast/slow, automatic/effortful, intuitive/deliberate) but it has some limitations…

  • Does not account for context (e.g., decisions change relative to a context)
  • Does not account for time (e.g., decisions are anchored in time and space)
  • Not mutually exclusive (e.g., habits are automatic, yet can be conscious)
  • Does not fully account for social influences or emotions

But don’t take it from me. In a recently published series of articles in the premier Journal of Consumer Research, the most respected cognitive, social psychologists, and consumer neuroscientists (many of which were once proponents of systems thinking) concluded…

“Dual-process conceptualizations (“system 1/system 2”) may be inherently misleading, arguing that it is better to view behavior as the result of deep interactions among conscious and unconscious processing. There seems to be consensus for the view that dual-process accounts of behavior, although popular and generative, may be approaching the end of their lifecycle.” (Poehlman & Williams, 2017)

Cognitive Neuroscience is Changing What We Know About the Brain

Breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience are transforming much of what we know about how the brain functions which has tremendous implications for marketing and consumer insights. The conventional model of cognition had positioned the brain as a “passive receiver” of information with a linear path of information flow – we perceive, we process, we act. However, neuroscience has repeatedly demonstrated our brain does not passively wait for information, but rather is “always active”, automatically and continuously, predicting the incoming streams of input before they arrive to prepare us for action (Clark, 2013).

Since our brains always active, we are endless learning machines, continuously collecting experiences and sensory inputs, which form the foundations for our predictions (anticipations, expectations).  In other words, our predictions are a result of internalizing repetitive, routine, and statistical regularities in the environment to make fast and effective decisions.

“We are not cognitive couch potatoes idly awaiting the next ‘input’, so much as proactive predictavores nature’s own guessing machines forever trying to stay one step ahead by surfing the incoming waves of sensory stimulation.”  – Andy Clark, Professor, University of Edinburgh

With our endlessly active brains, continuously making predictions, it helps optimize precious cognitive resources by attending to what is important in our immediate environment. A good way to think of brain functioning is like “Google search” constantly anticipating our searches as opposed to a slow, hard drive loading our stored memories. In short, our brain is always active, constantly making predictions on multiple spatial and temporal scales to help navigate an uncertain future.

  • Watch top neuroscientist discuss this new science in her New 2018 TED Talk or recently published book How Emotions are Made.
  • For a scientific treatment on this topic (Friston-free energy principle, Bar-visual cognition, Buckner-default mode network, Barsalou-grounded cognition; Barrett-constructed emotion).

Where Behavioral Science is Heading

Is System 1/System 2 still relevant? Yes. However, neuroscience is advancing the dual systems paradigm.  Behavioral science is moving beyond a consciousness-centric perspective (deep), and focusing on a broader range of causal drivers that are highly relevant for marketers and insights to understand, predict and change behavior. This major shift is making behavioral science more applied by providing a broader, holistic picture of customer behavior that is grounded in context and time, two underappreciated drivers of decision-making. Other important developments include:

  • How situations/context change decision-making (grounded cognition, exteroceptive feedback).
  • How social influences and network effects guide decisions.
  • How perception of time change behavior (psychological distance, temporal discounting).
  • How spatial altitudes/different heights impact decisions (spatial distances).
  • How energy/fatigue influence decision-making (ego depletion, willpower, interoceptive feedback).
  • How thinking about the future impacts present behavior (simulations, anticipations).
  • How uncertainty moderates emotions and choice.

  1. Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
  2. Williams, L. E., & Poehlman, T. A. (2016). Conceptualizing consciousness in consumer research. Journal of Consumer Research.
  3. Poehlman & Williams, (2017). The Case for Considering Consciousness Second: Response to Baumeister et al.; Plassmann & Mormann; Sweldens et al. Journal of Consumer Research.
  4. Vatansever, D., Menon, D. K., & Stamatakis, E. A. (2017). Default mode contributions to automated information processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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