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Quick – tell me why you bought that unfamiliar German wine!

Chances are, you many not even be aware of what went into your decision. But hold on, you say! You're a very rational shopper, and you're certain you can explain EXACTLY why you made each purchase decision.

Timothy Wilson, in his book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, asserts that it's the unaware part of our mind that assembles, interprets, and assesses information and our emotions. We are unable to accurately express why we do something or even how we felt about it. In fact, if asked, we are liable to "concoct" explanations we think will seem to be – even to ourselves – the most logical, plausible and reasonable. We start "sense-making." In other words, we think up a coherent story in hindsight that turns out to be more of an extrapolated rationalization than a revelation of our true unconscious reasoning. By definition, we don't have access to the "unconscious" part of our consciousness. However, it CAN be observed and measured. How? By looking at our behaviors, rather than asking us about our thoughts and opinions.

Actions speak louder than words

How does this work for consumers and shopping? We can learn more about what influences consumers' purchasing decisions by looking at their actions – instead of trying to get them to tell us what they were thinking about.

Dijksterhuis, Smith, van Baaren and Wigboldus (2005) assert that you can't describe your thinking process if you haven't engaged in one in the first place.

So, just how do we go about measuring something that, by its very nature, is not at the level of consciousness? Fortunately, a variety of interesting and novel experiments have been conducted on this very topic. And the results are compelling.

The link between perception and behavior

It is well known that activating particular stereotypes or traits can trigger related observable behaviors: people can be led to be more intelligent or unintelligent, aggressive or helpful, cooperative or competitive, friendly or unfriendly, etc. This indicates that people adjust their behaviors to match that of their immediate social environment – and they're not even conscious of it.

Words: (The pen is mightier than we knew.) During a scrambled sentence task, Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) primed some participants by exposing them to words related to a stereotype of older people, e.g., gray, bingo, Florida. After the session, those participants primed with the concept of older people walked significantly slower to the elevator than those in the control group.

Actions: (Do as I do and I'll like you more.) Participants who weren't aware they were being imitated by confederates of the researchers ended up liking the confederates more than those participants who were not imitated during the experiment, conducted by Chartrand and Bargh (1999). Therefore, the imitation led to an increase in liking the interaction partner.

Visuals: (Shhh! It's a library.) After looking at an image of a particular environment, such as a library or an upscale restaurant, participants spontaneously started to whisper at the conclusion of the experiment since they were under the impression that they were actually going to go to a library. So the behavior goals became activated automatically. (Aarts and Dijksterhuis, 2003)

Thoughts: (Mom and Dad always said to try your best.) Primed with thoughts of their mothers (Fitszsimons and Bargh, 2003), or fathers (Shah, 2003), participants tried harder to succeed on a task relative to the other participants in an experiment.

Sounds: (What kind of music is that to my ears?) North, Shilcock, and Hargreaves (2003) showed that restaurant customers spent more money when classical music was played in the background, but spent significantly less when either pop music or no music was played.

Smells: (I have a strange urge to do housework!) A bucket with warm water and citrus-scented cleanser was hidden by researchers Holland, Hendriks, and Aarts (2005) in their laboratory during some of their experiments. Participants who were unconsciously primed with the cleanser listed more cleaning-related activities for what they wanted to engage in later that day.

The bottom line is that it may take only the mere perception of cues in an environment to affect a person's unconscious behavior.

So who's really in charge here?

We'd like to believe that our conscious mind is always in charge. But perhaps the uncomfortable reality is that our unconscious is responsible for taking the lead more often than we'd care to admit (even if we did know about it, which we don't!).

The good news for organizations is that their challenge of trying to establish trust and credibility with consumers might have gotten just a little bit easier. Look at it this way: if an organization selects specific wording, carefully chooses the images displayed, and effectively manages the screen real estate on their Web site, then they stand a better chance of making an unconscious connection with the consumer.

And the bricks and mortar stores who thoughtfully assemble their product displays, background music, and room scent have put multiple factors in their favor for stimulating shoppers to make a purchase, even if their efforts only offer subtle cues.

This probably isn't new at all to savvy managers. But knowing that there's research to back up this strategy might make it easier for organizations and usability professionals to advocate that text and visuals, as well as the entire environment, receive a good deal of scrutiny to assure that they are communicating the desired message to consumers


Faced with a BIG decision? Let your unconscious be your guide

Deciding which oven mitt to buy? Then go ahead and give it more thought. Parting from your precious dollars to purchase a car? Worse yet, a house??? You'd better sleep on it first!

Bottom Line: Next time you need to make a complicated decision – stop thinking.

Difficult decisions are best left to our unconscious minds. In fact, a new study shows that thinking too hard about a problem could lead to poor choices and expensive errors. The unconscious mind, on the other hand, seems much better-suited to weighing the options and making the optimal decision.

Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren, and van Baaren (2005) investigated people making simple and complex decisions regarding items such as cars, furniture, shampoos, oven mitts and other items. Participants were provided with information and then asked to make a purchase decision.

In one test, half the participants were asked to decide directly after receiving the information; the other half was given a series of puzzles before being asked to decide.

When the choices were simple, such as oven mitts or shampoo, participants made better decisions when they consciously deliberated, i.e., when their conscious thought was uninterrupted.

But for decisions on more complex items, such as a house, users who engaged in too much conscious deliberation made incorrect choices. However, participants whose conscious minds were pre-occupied with the puzzles before deciding made better decisions. Their unconscious was free to consider all the information and make the right choice.

Thank goodness for efficiency!

Given the hectic pace of life, we're actually fortunate that our unconscious minds are so efficient, processing and analyzing an array of things at once for us. Granted, one disadvantage is that not all of our decision-making is under our conscious control. But there's been a trade-off for the sake of efficiency.

This is especially true in the online environment where decisions are made in split seconds. Is the site professional looking? Is it easy to use? Does it seem trustworthy?

So many factors go into our decision-making process when we shop online, yet we're typically unaware of them. When using the Internet, we're often so task-focused that we'd be hard-pressed to describe in any detail what we were thinking about at the time.

Sure, we might have a fleeting awareness of our thoughts about a company's brand (Yeah, they had good products and fast shipping the last time, and Mom loved her gift!). But our unconscious is running full speed in evaluating the layout, the words, their tone, the photos, etc.

Choose to measure unconscious effects

Hmm, so how can we, as members of the usability community, make sense of all this?

  • We should focus even more closely on people's actions for clues to their thought processes, instead of typically trying to get them to tell us what they were thinking about.
  • We should structure our research and recommendations to take into consideration that people make only a limited number of choices consciously. The rest of their choices are because of subtle cues in the environment that they're not even aware of.

Therefore, the next time you're browsing for some wine in your local store and find that you placed an unfamiliar German wine in your cart, try to stop and listen to the background music. Odds are that you were influenced by the German music being played in the store.

A post-purchase interview probably wouldn't yield a lot of insight since you really weren't aware of the background music at the time. But your actions created a clear signal. And this is what CAN be measured!


Aarts, H. and Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: Environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 18-28.

Bargh, J.A., Chen, M., and Burrows, L. (1996). The automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait concept and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Chartrand, T.L. and Bargh, J.A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893-910.

Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M., Nordgren, L., and van Baaren, R.B.(2005) On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science, 311 (5763), 1005-1007.

Dijksterhuis, A., Smith, P.K., van Baaren, R.B., and Wigboldus, D.H.J. (2005). The Unconscious Consumer: Effects of Environment on Consumer Behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15 (3), 193-202.

Holland, R.W., Hendriks, M., and Aarts, H. (2005). Smells like clean spirit: Nonconscious effects of scent on cognition and behavior. Psychological Science, 16 (9), 689-693.

Littler, D. and Melanthiou, D. (2006). Consumer perceptions of risk and uncertainty and the implications for behaviour towards innovative retail services: The case of Internet Banking. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 13(6), 431-443.

North, A., Shilcock, A., and Hargreaves D.J.  (2003)  The Effect of Musical Style on Restaurant Consumers' Spending, Environment & Behavior, 35(5), 712-718

Riegelsberger, J., Sasse, M. A., and McCarthy, J. D. (2005). The mechanics of trust: A framework for research and design. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 62, 381-422.

Shah, J.Y. (2003). Automatic for the people: How representations of significant others implicitly affect goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 661-681.

Wilson, T. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments


While it may be possible that the subconscious mind plays a role, the word "unconscious" by definition means that it is not aware at all and therefore cannot play a role in decisions.

Even to the extent that the subconscious is involved, it does not consist of something separate and mystical apart from the conscious mind. The subconscious consists of conscious decisions that are automated.

In the case of the German wine, if you had had German wine before and despised it, it would be in the realm of your consciousness and no amount of German music would make you consider it.

Martina Lexner

Excellent information !!!!!!!!!!!!!

Paul Hubert Vossen

Closely related (but approaching it from another point of view): the "top ten" book of Barry Schwarz "The Paradox of Choice" – a must-read for those interested in choice and decision.

Matt Floyd

In the section "So who's really in charge here?", I can recall tons of stores that use this method. McDonald's; having the inside unappealing to the customer so they will not stay, making it the "get and go" environment they seek. Americus Diamond; I can't walk in there without feeling the romance due to the music which results in me buying something for my girlfriend :O!

Businesses also tend to use the state-dependent memory method. Businesses will have an advertisement of happiness which tends to bring back memories of times when we were happy. A good example of this might be Kodak. The way they have brought the "Kodak moment" to people. The information you guys provided was very insightful – thanks!

p.s. I can explain EXACTLY why I made each purchase decision... I am a teen, who will eat anything/everything. :)


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