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Exploring System 1 A Little More Deeply

Going a little deeper than what is normally discussed about System 1, here are four areas in which System 1 operates and manifests itself. These four areas combine to reveal "hidden forces" that influence behavior.



By Paul Conner

It’s no secret that System 1 – popularized by Daniel Kahneman, that part of our mental activity that is automatic, intuitive, and often unconscious as opposed to deliberative, reasoning, and conscious – is inundating the marketing world with a wealth of opportunities for influencing consumer and shopper decisions and behavior. Meteoric rise of interest in neuromarketing and behavioral economics has come from recognizing the power of System 1.

Much information exists about what System 1 is, particularly at the relatively superficial conceptual and executional level. Deeper understanding can be found in various academic journals and books (e.g., The Journal of Neuroscience, Cognition and Emotion, The Journal of Consumer Psychology, and the Journal of Consumer Research to name a few).

Going a little deeper than what is normally discussed about System 1, I’d like to emphasize four areas in which System 1 operates and manifests itself. These four areas combine to reveal “hidden forces” that influence behavior; for the purposes of this article, consumer and shopper behavior. These are called hidden forces because they produce buying behavior that is not readily obvious or would not be predicted without a deeper understanding of System 1.

  1. Subconscious (or Unconscious) Operation. In large part System 1 operates to influence decisions and behavior below one’s level of awareness. For example, in a classic series of studies, Berridge and Winkielman[1] found that people could be influenced to value and consume more of a beverage after they had subconsciously been primed with pictures of happy versus angry faces. They weren’t aware of the primes, and neither group consciously felt any differently than the other, but they valued and consumed the beverage differently based on the subconscious (System 1) influence. Research takeaway: Use implicit techniques, either quantitative and/or qualitative.
  2. Emotional Influence. System 1 is highly, if not exclusively, emotional. This means that it doesn’t deliberate strongly (if at all) to direct us to the rationally reasoned “utility-maximized” solution. Its reactions are based predominantly on our emotional systems that serve to help us adapt toward optimum well-being. An example comes from Mogilner et al.[2] who demonstrated that a product called Happiness Water showed different behavioral preferences when it was marketed to deliver excitement happiness vs. calm happiness. Research takeaway: Make sure you include implicit emotional assessments.
  3. Incidental Cues. Even before System 2 (conscious, deliberative thinking about what to do) kicks in, System 1 evaluates our environment for cues that may affect our decisions and behavior. Quite often these cues, which may be rationally irrelevant to a decision, direct our behavior. For example, Coulter and Norberg[3] found that physically spacing regular and discount prices farther apart in print ads (an incidental cue that rationally should make no difference) produced significantly higher evaluations of the sale-priced product’s value. Research takeaway: Test under different contextual environments, situations, or mindsets.
  4. Non-Rational Decisions. As one can see from the examples above, many decisions driven by System 1 lead to non-rational outcomes; technically, those that do not lead to the highest expected utility. These non-rational outcomes are what behavioral economics effects are all about. A particularly glaring example, which combines subconscious and emotional influences, is a case of “hedonic bundling.” Khan and Dhar[4] found that purchases of cross-category bundles were more likely to be made when discounts were placed on the more hedonic item in the bundle than when they were placed on the bundle in general. Rationally, it should make no difference. A $2 discount (for example) on the same two items should be the same whether it is for the items purchased together or for the more hedonic item in the bundle. But non-rationally, guilt is likely mitigated when the discount is received on the hedonic item. Research takeaway: Hypothesize and test for behavioral economics effects at play.

Knowing more deeply about how System 1 operates can lead to marketing executions that leverage the specific subconscious, emotional, incidental, and non-rational “hidden forces” at play. However, some caution is in order. Finding and leveraging these hidden forces is quite complex and requires carefully planned, scientific efforts. But exerting the effort can be well worth it.

(To learn more about these “hidden forces,” explore The 2013 Consumer and Shopper Insights Applied Educational Alliance Assembly entitled “Exposing and Leveraging Hidden Forces Along the Path to Purchase: Applying State-of-the-Art Learning and Direction from the Behavioral Sciences” at If you register for the Assembly and put ‘Greenbook’ at the end of your name, title, or company, you’ll receive the early registration discount no matter when you register.)

[1] Berridge, K.C. and Winkielman, P. (2003). What is an unconscious emotion? (The case for unconscious “liking”). Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 181-211.

[2] Mogilner, C., Aaker, J., and Kamvar, S.D. (2012). How Happiness Affects Choice. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 39, No. 2, 429-443.

[3] Coulter, K.S. and Norberg, P.A. (2009). The effects of physical distance between regular and sale prices on numerical difference perceptions. The Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19, 144–157.

[4] Khan, U. and Dhar, R. (2010). Price-Framing Effects on the Purchase of Hedonic and Utilitarian Bundles. Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. XLVII, 1090 –1099.

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