Nowadays we are being flooded with information pouring through multiple devices. As we get bombarded by ads with seemingly persuasive messages, tweets, infomercials, product placements, endorsements, etc., I can’t help but wonder: How do we process it all? And more importantly, how if at all do these marketing messages actually impact our decisions?
Multiple principles and models emerged as a result of investigation into the “black box of human thinking.” The model that received a great deal of empirical support in the social psychology research literature is called the heuristic-systematic information processing model (HSM). It is based on the assumption that individuals use either heuristic or systematic (or both) modes of information processing when attempting to evaluate information in order to arrive at a judgment. The systematic approach is employed when we engage in a thorough research, review and comparison of collected information, and it usually requires a lot of time and effort. The heuristic mode of thinking, on the other hand, uses cues and rules of thumb known as “heuristics” that have been formed from prior experience and serve as mental shortcuts that shape opinions or decisions faster. Similarly, neuroscientists and other cognitive scientists talk of a dual process model where human information processing is either automatic, fast and heuristic-based (system 1) or slow and conscious (system 2).
Why should market researchers care about two modes of information processing? Because those modes of thinking impact the way people formulate perceptions and make decisions. Understanding their role in our data collection enables us to reduce spurious findings and helps us arrive at significantly more powerful insights.
Below are a few examples of the heuristic mode of thinking, the impact of which we often underestimate.
- The Self-Confirmation Heuristic
People tend to view information as credible if it confirms their existing beliefs. We don’t find it credible if it counters existing beliefs, regardless of how well-argued, duly researched or appropriately sourced it is.
Implications for market research: When testing messaging or concepts, ensure that you explore respondents’ beliefs and knowledge/familiarity with the topic that could potentially pertain to tested materials before you proceed with the actual message or concept testing. In that way you can determine whether the respondent has a tendency to seek confirmation of pre-existing beliefs, which is likely to result in preference for only those messages/concepts that align with their beliefs. Once suspected, self-confirmation inclination can be challenged by counterarguments that can in turn make interviews more insightful.
- The Keats Heuristic
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Aesthetically “prettier” things are often perceived to be more true/authentic/real. As irrational as it seems, chances are that at some point in your life you bought a “lemon” because its “pretty bow” (e.g., packaging) made you think it was authentic or good quality. Your brain went for a shortcut where
pretty = true/authentic/real
Implications for market research: Keeping in mind how the Keats heuristic can hijack our minds may come in handy when we try to distill what impacts preferences for given products or services. Would the offering still be attractive if the “pretty bow” was not there anymore? Is the “lipstick on the pig” necessary for sustainable sales? And what does it tell us researchers about the offering itself? On the contrary, how can the brand team of a given offering leverage a potential “lipstick” should they need one? All these questions may prove to be useful should the looks of the product be a driving force of its appeal.
- The Exposure Effect
The more we’re exposed to something, the more we tend to like it. No wonder we see TV ads repeated over and over again: Marketers exploit this heuristic.
Implications for market research: The exposure effect can’t be ignored when the research subject is for example a campaign that has been on the market for some time and the goal of the research is to evaluate its effectiveness. The number of times research participants were exposed to said campaign should be measured and taken into consideration given that it is likely to correlate with perceptions of the campaign.
- The Availability Heuristic (aka Recallability Heuristic)
We favor and rely on immediate examples that come to our mind when evaluating a topic, thing or decision. When an infrequent event can be brought easily and vividly to our minds, we tend to overestimate its likelihood. For example, we overestimate the likelihood of dying in a dramatic event such as a plane crash or a terrorist attack because those events are more highly publicized and therefore have seemingly higher availability. The problem with the availability heuristic is that we tend to incorrectly assume that if several examples are readily available in our minds, the event or subject matter is commonplace.
Implications for market research: Knowing how the availability heuristic may distort our understanding of reality can be useful in research. For example, drug sales reps could intentionally or unintentionally leverage this heuristic by exaggerating the incidence or severity of a certain side effect of a competitor’s drug to establish in physicians’ minds that it is commonplace. Doctors exposed to such a tactic may not even realize that their worry about a given side effect is blown out of proportion and thus prevents them from prescribing it to patients who can benefit from it. Research for the vilified brand should focus on ways that misconceptions resulting from the availability heuristic can be tackled – i.e., by presenting relevant facts directly addressing fallacies and observing which piece of information is most powerful at eradicating physicians’ misconstrued perceptions. Such an approach can prevent further “damage” that the availability heuristic could cause and can inform objection-handling trainings/materials for sales reps.
- The Authority Heuristic
This heuristic occurs when someone believes the opinion of a person simply based on the individual’s authority. People frequently apply this heuristic in matters such as science, politics, medicine, technology or education. An authority figure could be a famous guru, a key opinion leader or even a specialist (e.g., an expert in information technology, the automotive industry or air conditioning maintenance) to whom you reach out for advice if you need to buy a new computer, a car or an AC unit. When following an authority, your mind takes a shortcut and replaces time-consuming research dictated by the systemic mode of information processing with an opinion or advice provided by a person who is an authority figure for you.
Implications for market research: The authority heuristic is frequently embedded in brand materials to inspire consumer confidence and pave the way for quick brand selections. Similar to the Keats heuristic, one may want to explore the extent to which authority’s endorsement drives brand loyalty and whether reliance on it is balanced with the use of other promotional channels to maximize its impact on the target audience.
There is no doubt that heuristics influence the way we process information, perceive brands and make purchase decisions. These are just five of the hundreds of heuristics and cognitive biases that have been shown to affect human thinking and decision-making. Knowing when these heuristics are likely to be employed and how they can steer responses can help market researchers to uncover insights which may not otherwise surface. Keeping their role in mind can enlighten our discussion guides and analysis which in turn is likely to result in insights that are richer and more actionable.