Science, Psychology and Consumer Behavior

PTG is excited to share the first in a series of long form blogs written by Pete Foley. In addition to being an all around nice guy, Pete is a highly regarded innovation expert with 25 years of experience as a serial innovator and internal consultant at P&G.

Pete’s expertise includes applying consumer and shopper psychology, behavioral economics, and perceptual science to a wide range of business needs, including product innovation, retail design, and branding strategy. Pete’s rich and extensive background provides him with an unparalleled perspective into the science behind how people think, what grabs their attention, and how they make decisions.

We believe Pete’s thoughts are spot-on when it comes to today’s business needs– and we think you will too.

This is the first in a series of blogs that explore the application of psychology, behavioral and perceptual science to consumer research. This is science that seeks to understand how people think, what grabs their attention, and how they make decisions. As such, it is clearly relevant to advertising, marketing, retail and product design and innovation. It is also a huge and fascinating topic, but I’ll focus on not just the interesting, but on ‘news you can use’: Insights with practical application that help us to understand and predict consumer behavior in real world contexts.

We Don’t Know Our Own Minds Very Well! Of all the insights I’ve encountered in this family of sciences, this is the most useful, and perhaps most counter-intuitive. Much of the work our brain does every day goes on “behind the curtain” at an unconscious level that we are often completely unaware of. To some degree, this is intuitive. We breathe, walk, blink, smile, or jerk away from something that is burning hot without thinking. But the influence of these ‘behind the curtain’ processes goes far beyond these simple actions. What grabs our attention, what we like, don’t like, eat, buy, who we find attractive, and how we interact with our fellow humans are all routinely influenced, and often dominated by our unconscious mind.

Scientists have spent a lot of time exploring this. For example, Professor Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for his insights into how low awareness processes influence our decisions, inventing Behavioral Economics in the process. He classifies the fast, automatic decisions that occur behind the curtain as ‘system 1’ thinking, and our more conscious, deliberative decisions as ‘system 2’, terms you may come across in popular psychology. However, as brilliant as his work is, it is only part of the story. For example, the mechanisms that guide attention, and what we see or hear, are similar. Have you ever wondered why someone mentioning your name at a party catches your ear, even if you weren’t listening to them? Or why something moving at the edge of your peripheral vision catches your eye? Certainly, we can consciously take control of our attention, and look for specific things, but when we are busy or distracted, it is our unconscious that takes the lead in monitoring our surroundings.

Observe, Don’t Ask: Of course, what people notice, and how they make decisions are both pretty important for consumer research. The killer insight is that because these processes have a significant unconscious component, we are surprisingly bad at predicting them. Indeed, Behavioral Economics tells us that we often fail to accurately anticipate the behavior of our future selves, and can be almost as bad at remembering our detailed actions in our past. This creates a challenge for research, because it means we cannot simply ask people what they will do, or even what they did, because they don’t know. Instead we have to observe them.

I’ll talk more about decisions in my next blog, but today I’m going to focus primarily on what this means for vision and attention, and how perceptual science can help us to ensure that people actually notice our innovations and advertising.

Perceptual Science: Observing rather than asking is a step in the right direction, but in itself, even that is not enough. How we observe is also critically important, as the act of test can itself interfere with the results we get.

To understand why, we need to dig a little deeper into how vision works. Our natural intuition is to assume vision is a bit like a video camera. What we see in our mind’s eye is a direct result of what passes through our eyes, and represents what is “out there” in the world. However, human vision is far more sophisticated than any camera, and what we see is both more and less than what a ‘camera-like’ set up would show us.

To get a feel for this, try a simple experiment. Focus your eyes on this blog, and then roll your head around. If you are in a public place, this may look a little odd to those around you, but hopefully you’ll notice that the image in front of you remains pretty stable. If you had done this with a video camera, the playback would be dizzying, as no modern camera can come close to the level of image stabilization that we enjoy as humans.

How Vision Works: This is because a video camera is heavy on information coming through the lens, backed up with a little smart processing. Human vision is the opposite. The bandwidth that can pass through the eye is limited, but how our brains process that information is very sophisticated. Vision is actually a composite built from three streams of information – foveal, peripheral, and memory. Foveal is the ‘high definition’ stream. It is very detailed, but at any one time, it only covers a small area about the size of our thumbnail held at arms length to our body. It partly makes up for this small area by acting a bit like a spotlight. Guided by largely automatic processes, it rapidly jumps, or saccades between important objects in our visual field. This process builds up the framework of the picture we see in our mind’s eye, and in a way that makes sure the majority of data comes from the most important stuff. However, this alone would leave big gaps in what we see. So our brain stitches these high acuity snippets together, filling in gaps using low resolution data from our peripheral vision, and memory. The images that we see in our mind’s eye are therefore created in our brains, and owe a lot to memory and peripheral vision.

This is a very efficient system that serves us well in most situations. However, it creates an illusion of seeing more detail than we really do. In our mind’s eye we see everything in high definition, even the bits where we really have little current data. If we want to make sure people see our innovations, products and advertising, we need to know how to design and test for this.

Artists and illusionists have understood this for some time. Illusionists, for example, are skilled at directing our ‘spotlight’ of attention away from their deft slight of hand. More recently, perceptual scientists have studied a similar effect, and called it inattentional blindness, or selective attention. The most famous example is Simon and Chabris’ Invisible Gorilla video. (Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here, before I ruin the fun by explaining it below).

The Invisible Gorilla: The experiment asks us to watch a group of people playing with a basketball, and carefully count how many catches they make. This is a sufficiently complex and time constrained task to leave little time for thinking about anything else. Try to multitask, and you lose track of the ball. Our foveal attention is locked on the ball, and as a result a majority of people fail to see a woman in a gorilla suit walk across the court, beat her chest, and then saunter off stage left. There is not enough information in our memory or peripheral vision to include her when we fill in the gaps.

For most of us, not seeing the gorilla is surprising. As designers or marketers, it should also be a little disturbing. If we didn’t notice the 150lb gorilla in the room (it’s not a real gorilla, remember!), how many new products or advertisements do we miss? Of course, in real life, we are typically not quite as focused as in this experiment, and so we would probably notice someone walking around a supermarket in a gorilla suit. However, we are typically still time constrained and distracted, and very few adverts or new products are quite as attention grabbing as a gorilla in a basketball game.

Research Implications: Usually we are also more distracted and less focused in real life than we are in research. It’s a lot easier to miss something new when rushing into a crowed supermarket on our way home from work, than when we are being paid to study a beautifully lit shelf in a quiet research lab, and are aware that our every move is being scrutinized. This is one of many reasons why it is important wherever possible to move research out of the lab, and observe people’s actions in real, complicated, time constrained situations. We will see more gorillas in research than in real life.

Diagnostics: What people do is of course important, but a lot of research is not just interested in a final result. To play an iterative role in improving copy, product or package design, we also need diagnostic information on why people notice and choose some options and not others. We therefore need to ‘shine a light’ on the unconscious mechanisms that control attention.

Because they are largely automatic, we cannot ask people about them.
One option is to measure the brain directly, using neurological, or neuromarketing techniques like EEG or fMRI. There are situations where these can be valuable, but it is challenging to reproduce realistic context in a neurological lab, or to give panelists realistic mobility and autonomy. Panelists are also usually acutely aware that they are being tested, and so tend to be far more engaged in the tasks they perform than they would be in the real world.

Moving the lab into the Real World: Instead of trying to create the real world in a lab, an alternative is to use more flexible, less invasive techniques like mobile biometrics and eye tracking. These allow us to bring the lab into the real world. Eye tracking shows us where the foveal ‘spotlight’ is focused, providing a wealth of diagnostic information. For example, what people are attracted or repelled by, in what order, what they spend time on, what they skip over, how they group information, and what gorillas they completely fail to notice. Complimentary biometrics provide a window into the emotions and feelings that are associated with that attention.

Furthermore, in a well designed experiment, people should be unaware of the intentions of the research. Mobility and autonomy also give panelists freedom to follow a path that they would take in the real world. This combination helps us to measure a realistic mix of low and high engagement, and avoids the test itself causing them to ‘overthink’.

Being able to test in as realistic a context as possible also brings other benefits. Context plays a huge, although often hidden role in our decision-making and behavior. Our surroundings, goals, how tired or distracted we are, our emotional state, and the comparisons and information around us all influence our decisions. For example, most of us know to never go shopping if we are hungry, as data shows that we will buy more calories. Other unconscious attentional effects like “Feature Gain” focus the spotlight of attention on things associated with our goals. For example, if we are hungry, we will notice more restaurants along the side of the freeway than if we have just had lunch. And this can work in unexpected ways, a shampoo with a fruit flavor and matching design will probably stand out more if you are shopping before lunch rather than after!


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