Understanding Implicit, System 1 and Explicit, System 2

[This is our first in a series of “video blogs”. Its content can be consumed by either viewing the video or by reading the script below. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can measure implicit associations via our IE PRO YOU® platform, go to www.ieproyou.com or BOOK A CONSULTATION with Paul Conner. Enjoy!]

So what are implicit associations and why are they important?

You may or may not have heard of the term “implicit processing,” also referred to these days as System 1. Its counterpart is “explicit processing,” also referred to as System 2. These refer to two different ways our brains process stimuli in the environment … including marketing stimuli like brands, products, services, ads, package designs, and even messages. Let me explain what they are, how they differ, and why they’re important to measure.

Implicit, System 1 processing and explicit, System 2 processing result in implicit and explicit thoughts and feelings we have about the stimuli in our environment. Again, for our purposes, we’re talking about marketing stimuli like brands, products, services, ads, package designs, and even messages.

Now the goals of implicit and explicit processing are the same – to direct our behavior so that we meet our goals and optimize our well-being.

Implicit thoughts and feelings can be thought of as our automatic, first reactions. They’re fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, undeliberated, and sometimes subconscious.  Furthermore … and this is very important … they are “associative” in nature. This means that implicit thoughts and feelings are simply those that are paired with or “associated with” the stimuli we encounter. Our minds don’t logically judge the truth or appropriateness of those associations – they’re just there, always paired together automatically in our minds, and ready to direct our action.

For example, in my life, Snickers has been associated with Halloween, fun, great taste, unhealthy, and fattening, so my implicit thoughts and feelings about Snickers are related to those associations, both positive and negative.

A couple more things are important to keep in mind about implicit processing and implicit thoughts and feelings:

  • First, they’re ALWAYS operating.
  • Second, their strength depends on the frequency with which they’ve occurred together in our lives, as well as the strength of the emotion that has occurred with them.

Because they’re associative in nature, I’m going to call implicit thoughts and feelings, implicit associations.

Explicit thoughts and feelings can be thought of as those that result when we think more about the stimuli we encounter and the implicit associations that emerge from them. They’re slower, controlled, deliberated, and always conscious.  Furthermore … and this is very important … they are “propositional” in nature. This means that they result from us judging whether the implicit thoughts and feelings that come to us automatically are true, relevant, and good for us in the context of our situations and given our current goals.

In the Snickers example, my explicit thoughts and feelings are those that I land on as true, relevant, and good for me when I deliberate on all the implicit associations that come to mind. If staying healthy is important or appropriate for me in the moment, then my explicit thoughts and feelings will lead me to NOT purchase or eat a Snickers bar. If having fun is important or appropriate for me in the moment, then my explicit thoughts and feelings will lead me to purchase or eat a Snickers bar.

A couple more things are important to keep in mind about explicit processing and explicit thoughts and feelings:

  • First, they’re NOT ALWAYS operating.
  • Second, their strength depends on the truth, relevance, or appropriateness of the implicit associations being judged in the context of the situation.

Because they’re propositional in nature, and lead to conclusions about the truest, most relevant, and most appropriate implicit thoughts and feelings, I’m going to call explicit thoughts and feelings, explicit conclusions.

Regarding how each type of thought or feeling impacts behavior, implicit associations rule in situations where explicit deliberation is not occurring. These are situations where I may not have the opportunity or motivation to engage in deliberative, explicit, System 2 thinking – for instance, if I’m in a hurry, if I’m relaxed and don’t want to think, or if my brain is already overloaded with things to think about. However, explicit conclusions rule in situations where I have the motivation and opportunity to deliberate – for instance, if the action I’m considering is terribly important; if I’m not really in a hurry; or if I just want to think before acting.

From all of this, I hope you can see why the implicit associations and explicit conclusions with your marketing stimuli are important to know. They can independently drive behavior. And for that reason, to optimize marketing strategies and executions designed to produce desired consumer behavior, it’s important to measure both implicit associations and explicit conclusions. Otherwise, you run the risk of missing important behavioral influences, thereby potentially leaving sales revenue on the table.

Finally, it’s important to know that traditional surveys DON’T measure implicit associations. Instead, they measure deliberative, explicit, System 2 conclusions. Measuring implicit associations requires specialized surveys. That’s why we conduct specialized implicit measurement studies, including those that are conducted via our IE PRO YOU® platform.

[Again, if you’re interested in learning more about how you can measure implicit associations via our IE PRO YOU® platform, go to www.ieproyou.com or BOOK A CONSULTATION with Paul Conner.]

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