How Does The Unconscious Influence Your Customers’ Behavior?

One of the most well-known research examples is the experiment James Vicary conducted in 1957 at a movie theater. During the movie Vicary presented messages so briefly that people were not aware of them, urging viewers to purchase popcorn and Coca-Cola. As a result, he claimed, sales figures of those items increased significantly. Although five years afterwards Vicary admitted the whole study was fictitious, the phenomenon (called subliminal priming) gained a lot of attention and later scientific studies confirmed the phenomenon indeed existed.

Targeting visual information to people’s unconscious minds has been shown to influence people’s behavior in various contexts. For example, people tend to pour more drinks for themselves, and also consume more, if they have first been exposed to suitable stimuli outside of their awareness. Also, presenting a certain brand as a subliminal prime will increase the likelihood that the person will choose the same brand, even in the presence of a familiar and prior used brand. Moreover, if the person is likewise exposed to a smiling face, he or she will remember the textual and videoed news better, rate it more favorably and experience it as more trustworthy, than if the image of the face is unhappy.

In addition to simple behavior, it is possible to influence people’s performance by utilizing the unconscious mind. For example, by presenting people words related to ageing (e.g., bingo, Florida and pension), people will walk away from the study slower compared to a situation where the words are neutral. Likewise, spending time with the elderly makes people perform worse on memory tests. Influencing the unconscious can make people cooperate in a situation favoring selfish behavior. And when covertly presented with words associated with the library people will read a passage more quietly afterwards. If they are associated with stereotypical professors, they will perform better on a general knowledge test. On the other hand, words associated with the stereotype of supermodels will make them perform worse.

People’s unconscious can also be influenced through other senses. If you are asked to hold a warm drink in your hand for a few seconds, you will later evaluate the other person’s personality more positively than if the drink were cold. Sitting in comfortable and soft chairs makes you more likely to agree with your counterpart than in a hard chair. If you are exposed to the smell of detergent, it becomes three times more likely that you will clean the table after you have finished eating. Moreover, if the music played in a wine store is German or French, more German or French wine bottles are sold corresponding to the origin of the music. Music also has an important impact on shopping in a broader sense: matching the store environment with the music type has an evident influence on shopping behavior.

The unconscious mind also has an impact on very important, high-stake decisions traditionally considered “rational”. Research has found that days that had been abnormally sunny in the New York City area gave abnormally high returns in the New York Stock Exchange. Also, candidates who simply look more attractive are more likely to win elections, and attractive individuals would fare better than their less attractive counterparts in terms of a variety of job-related outcomes.

The above evidence is probably enough for understanding the importance of the unconscious mind in human behavior. However, let’s explore some research findings closer to companies’ daily business decisions. First, presenting people images of beautiful individuals (men and women) in which models either look the viewer directly in the eyes or clearly pass him/her, the brain reacts to the images either positively (direct eye contact) or negatively (no eye contact). This is due to social attention and acceptance. The brain unconsciously evaluates the former condition as the attractive model’s attention to you personally, while the latter is a message from the attractive model communicating inadequacy.

The phenomenon of eye contact has been utilized exceptionally well in magazine covers. They are practically always filled with models making direct eye contact with the reader. his eye contact induces a positive feeling which is generalized to the magazine cover as a whole. However, the same phenomenon does not fit well in advertising. While with magazine covers the whole idea is to prime the feeling induced by the model on the cover page, the idea is, or at least should be, different in advertising. In the advertisement the point is to promote the certain product or service, not the advertisement itself (cf. magazine cover page). Study results have shown that the emotional component elicited by the model’s eye contact with the reader will not be associated with the product. But if the model looks directly at the product, not the reader, consumers tend not only to concentrate on the product more, but also on the promoting brand. As it should be.

The second example is quite amazing. Several experiments have confirmed that especially men prefer women with enlarged pupils. This is a totally unconscious preference and people are not able to point it out. However, the unconscious interprets a woman’s dilated eyes as correlating with sexual excitement and readiness, thus leading to an obvious choice. One study wanted to find out if this also applies in marketing. For this purpose a publishing company printed two different cover pages for a book. One had a model with normal pupils, while the other one was otherwise identical, but the model’s pupils were digitally lightly enlarged. Books with both cover pages were sent to book stores. Later sales figures revealed that books with the model with enlarged pupils were sold significantly more, except in online book stores where the books with different cover pages were shipped in random fashion.

After these examples it should be quite clear that the unconscious has enormous influence on your customers’ behavior. This has been known in neuroscience and psychology for decades, but amazingly marketing research has neglected the unconscious mind almost entirely. A review in 2001 found that the consumer research field was virtually silent on the topic. As a result, in 2002 an article in an influential consumer research journal made a passionate plea for concentrating also on unconscious processes. Fortunately, the unconscious is slowly receiving more and more attention in all levels at companies.

Indeed, if 90-99% of your customers’ behavior is unconscious, maybe it would be worth using some time and resources to understand the customers’ unconscious mind too?