Instinct and the Unconscious (Consumer Understanding #4)

Mar 13 2011

On autopilot

Imagine a busy housewife, with impatient kids in tow, walking through the supermarket to find fishcakes and chips (or perhaps noodles and vegetables) for the evening meal.  Her mind is focused on the task in hand and finding the right items, along with trying to listen to descriptions of the school day just gone.  All of us do many things (arguably most things) in our day via an internal autopilot. Whether it’s brushing our teeth, driving to work, or buying our evening meal, much of our behaviour is learnt and unconscious.

The film Inception is based around an attempt to access someone’s unconscious mind through their dream space.  Inception is much more difficult than extraction, the main character’s usual job, because of the difficulty of staying unnoticed.  Dom Cobb seems to have four ways to create the inception safely: creating the context of the victim’s thinking (through artificially created worlds), leveraging unconscious emotions, establishing a credible source for the new idea, and finally delivering the idea itself.  You can read more on emotion and the importance of respecting existing memories in previous articles in this series, and context will be covered in a forthcoming piece.

Under the surface

We all want to make better decisions in our lives: quit smoking, lose weight, think more positively or be more relaxed.  The basis of hypnosis is to make your mind more open and suggestible, and to relax your mind’s guard.  Because we are all creatures of habit, even if we consciously want to achieve something it can be remarkably difficult to achieve it, unless we can convince our more conscious brains to let down the guard to our unconscious.

Most estimates place unconscious behaviour as 95% or more of all that we do.

The secret of great football players, musicians and actors is that when they are performing their conscious mind is in the background, letting their unconscious mind take control.  In a tennis game you don’t have time to analyse the trajectory of the ball - you simply react.  If David Beckham started thinking about his next shot, he would probably be too late.  Great performance is something that is learnt so well it becomes habit.  Garry Kasparov, the chess master, was obsessive about analysing games (and especially those he lost), but when it came to the real thing he played “by smell and feel”.

So it seems that Sigmund Freud was right about one thing (despite his other mistakes and over-blown analyses).  A large part of the brain is not subject to conscious control.


So much of what we do, we are unaware of, and therefore unable to properly explain.  In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how tennis players can’t explain how to play tennis - they are experts at playing, but unaware of how they play.  He gives an example of the top spin forehand, which every player describes in a way which firstly is simply wrong, and secondly would result in a wrist injury.  But boy, can they hit a top spin forehand well!

And this is true for much of consumer behaviour.  We all know how to drive to work or brush our teeth, but would struggle to describe how we do it to someone else.  Some people who have damage to their visual cortex, and therefore can’t see, still have the ability to find objects in the environment, even though they are not consciously aware that those objects exist (a condition known as ‘blindsight’). Our unconscious minds exist.  More importantly, our unconscious minds often trigger behaviours long before we become consciously aware of them.  We act (and feel) first, and think later.

Extraction and Inception

The challenge for researchers is to extract the relevant information from the consumer’s mind.  This means a greater use of observational research tools and analysis of behavioural data.

For marketers the challenge is the inception of new ideas.  This means lowering the conscious minds guard, by creating more relevant contexts, providing credible information, and respecting existing connections.

If you would like to learn more about these topics, check out our consumer psychology workshop.


Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud (1915)

Blink! The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (2007)

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