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February 11, 2014
Why Marketers Can’t Just Ask
People believe that they know what moves them to act; marketers seem to agree. The long-held belief has been that to learn what people think and feel about a product or a message, we just need to ask them. So marketing research relies on questionnaires, surveys, and focus groups.

But this approach only probes a part of customers’ minds. The proof is that no matter how well this research is done, too often it does not predict consumer behavior. What this approach misses is that a great deal of our mental functioning is unconscious. So we cannot simply ask. 

Marketers need to understand how unconscious processes work and need new research methods to assess them. Cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychological science have all demonstrated that unconsciously we organize our mental world in terms of how the stuff in our heads is connected associatively. Marketing creatives know this intuitively. We also know that we are emotional beings at our core. Emotion precedes and trumps rationality. Advertising creatives know this too.

We researchers know a bit about how to measure unconscious associations and emotional reactions. One way to measure the strengths of mental associations is through reaction time — measuring how quickly or slowly people respond to associations presented to them. We employ a measure — the Implicit Networks Test — that can measure emotions by rating stimuli presented slowly enough to be processed emotionally, but too quickly to be consciously recognized. The measure we use is called the Implicit Emotions Test. 

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Joel is a founding partner of Implicit Strategies, a Professor at the Derner Institute for Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University in New York, and a practicing psychologist. As a founding partner of Implicit Strategies, Joel helps political campaigns, non-profits, and commercial companies discover what consumers really think and feel about their candidate, product, or brand.
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