In Part I shared David B. Wolfe’s challenge to conventional marketing research’s dependence on the assumption that people can accurately report their values, needs, and motivations. In his February 1998 article in the now defunct American Demographics magazine entitled “What Your Customers Can’t Say” he questioned the assumption in most customer research that customers are the best sources about their motivations. The article drew the largest response in the magazine’s history. The following is Part II of an annotated summary of David B. Wolfe’s original article.
For years marketers have complained that consumers often indicate one thing in research, yet behave differently in the marketplace. But consumers are not pathological liars. They are split personalities, according to University of Iowa neurologist Antonio Damasio. To be more specific, their decisions are split by the functions of reason and emotion.
Damasio’s research shows that different brain sites and different mental processes are involved with different kinds of decision-making. We use one set of mental tools when we consider hypothetical matters, and another when we make personal decisions.
Emotions are triggered by changes in body states, according to Damasio. For example, when someone makes you angry: your face flushes while your heart pounds and stomach muscles tighten. Bodily functions also change when you see an old friend, enjoy a brilliant sunset, hear moving music, or sit down to an appetizing meal.
According to Damasio, these changes in body states are essential to the production of emotions. And without emotions, we cannot make what Damasio calls “personally advantageous decisions.” Emotions tell us how relevant a matter is to our needs. Reason alone cannot do this, says Damasio.
Also, according to Damasio, reason is qualitatively value free. It does not operate to make decisions, but to analyze choices, assist in perceiving reality, and construct possibilities. However, emotions have a powerful effect on our consumer choices, because they push us toward decisions we think are best for us.
We often bypass reason when making these decisions because experience endows us with what Damasio calls “somatic markers.” Somatic markers are like computer shortcuts that incorporate many keystrokes into one or two. They exist in inherited behavior traits or are formed by experience. They are pre-recorded behavior guides that can be instantly accessed and played back to assist in making new decisions. They often make reason irrelevant to decision-making.
Somatic markers are the most likely biological basis of intuition; they are the equivalent of what marketers call “hot buttons.” They also serve as “safety buttons”. Somatic markers take control when an errant car suddenly appears in your path, requiring quick action to avoid a collision. Only later, when you begin shaking, are you aware of the emotional buildup it took to quickly avert danger.
So, why have too many researchers’ questions failed to deeply stimulate consumers’ somatic markers or “hot buttons.” Because instead, they invite respondents to develop a reason-based explanation that often distorts reality. Instead of the real reason for buying or not buying something, researchers get a rationalization based on the respondent’s idealized self-image.
If they do not account for this bias, researchers are left with a model based on how people think they ought to be motivated, instead of a model based on their actual motivations. Applying these flawed models in the marketplace magnifies their errors. It’s like the errant path of a bullet whose course is only a hair’s width off at the gun’s muzzle, but well wide when it misses its target.
Consumer research relies heavily on mathematical protocols that originated in the hard sciences. Tools that are designed to describe the black-and-white predictability of matter and energy are unsuited to the more uncertain world of human behavior. Until recently, these flawed tools are almost the only ones businesses have had at their disposal.
Brain science has come so far that researchers are now able to routinely eavesdrop on brains while they think. Their work indicates that current market research methods tend to follow a backwards course. Market research is primarily focused on the workings of the conscious mind; it gives scant attention to the unconscious mind, and pays no attention on the brain. The reverse should be the rule.
Most of a marketer’s message is processed outside a consumer’s conscious mind. That is because the conscious mind is not capable of handling all the information the senses pick up. Our conscious mind only knows the things our brain and unconscious mind select for us to think about and take action on. Thus, when consumers talk to researchers about themselves, researchers are getting a much edited picture of the consumers’ motivations and behavior.
Research models should be based more faithfully on how consumers’ decisions are really made. Moreover, understanding how our root motivators are manifested differently in each of our life stages will increase the value of research results to marketing efforts. These models will reflect developmental changes in needs, motivations, and behavior that happen across the lifespan, thus decreasing researchers’ dependence on consumers’ self-reports. Only then will research experience major improvement in uncovering consumers’ root motivations.
Root motivations–the key to knowing how to press consumers’ hot buttons–are innate behavioral dispositions, or personality at its most basic level. They give little direct evidence of their presence, even as they cue our behavior like offstage prompters. It is not the job of the conscious mind to originate motivations.
Its job is more executive in nature. Brain scientists sometimes refer to the conscious mind as an “executive officer” who makes decisions based on information brought to it from the subliminal regions of the mind/brain complex. In this subliminal world are the origins of values, needs, and motivations.
The new insights we are gaining about the human brain and mind are astonishing. They are setting the stage for major changes in the way consumer research is conducted. Now that we are finding out why people cannot tell the whole truth about themselves, we have good reasons to start making these changes.