Snap decisions are the way to go

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Blink. The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It forces readers to rethink the way we in advertising should make decisions and view the veracity of consumer research.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Blink. The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It forces readers to rethink the way we in advertising should make decisions and view the veracity of consumer research.

In his succinct, well-researched way, Gladwell articulates how people process information and make decisions through gut feel or ‘thin slicing.’

Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have been able to show that thought processing has two stages. The unconscious brain (not to be confused with Freud’s subconscious) holds massive amounts of information, data and life experience. It’s kind of like your computer’s hard drive. The gut or instinctive feeling we often get is in fact the conscious brain accessing data stored in the unconscious brain in a nanosecond.

The brain area that helps us make snap decisions is called the adaptive unconscious.

Gladwell goes on to show that, unlike

pure logic problems, problems requiring insight are more reliably solved when people are asked for their spontaneous, ‘gut’ reactions. Once people are asked to assess, analyze or write down why they feel a certain way or why they would take a particular action, their ability to accurately respond is severely undermined.

Blink opens with an example of how experts at the Getty Museum spent tens of thousands of dollars and 14 months scientifically verifying the authenticity of an Egyptian relic before they purchased it for $10 million. Several art historians recognized the statue to be a fake the moment they saw it.

‘As human beings, we are capable of extraordinary leaps of insight and instinct,’ says Gladwell, ‘but these abilities are incredibly fragile. Insight is not a light bulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.’

If Gladwell’s findings are accurate, and there is a truckload of research that shows they are, those of us in marketing and advertising have been going about it all wrong.

Let’s start with consumer research. Everything from focus groups to usage and attitude studies completely overshoot the more accurate ‘thin slicing’ and dive deeply into over-thought, post-rationalized beliefs. The well-thought-out responses consumers provide may sound plausible, but do not accurately reflect how they really think or how they will behave outside the world of research. This is not to say people intentionally lie, but the mere act of having people analyze why they feel a certain way alters their true motivations.

Now this is a frightening thought. Firstly, that we are not as rational as we’d like to believe. Secondly, that the millions of dollars we are pouring into research to make us feel better about our marketing decisions may in fact be

leading us astray.

So what can be done about it?

Put a bullet in the traditional two-hour focus group.

And don’t even get me started on the long phone survey at dinner time.

Most forms of research are based on old notions of how people are wired. Rather than putting our heads in the sand and pretending we don’t have this new knowledge, embrace it. Find ways to get consumers to spontaneously respond. Don’t expect them to ‘go deep’ on their feelings or answer purchase intent questions.

Why don’t we use some of the techniques developed by scientists and social scientists to answer our questions about brands and advertising in rapid, spontaneous ways? The technology to do more truthful research is there. The knowledge of the human mind is there. Why isn’t the industry?

Re-evaluate how we make decisions.

One of my partners, Stephen Jurisic, observed that clients often ended up approving different scripts from the ones that got a great first reaction. Clients (and account guys), ‘upon deeper consideration’ would go with script B or C, not the one they initially thought was so powerful.

He asks them to go back to their first reaction, to allow their conscious mind to access their unconscious mind and more accurately utilize their insight

and experience to make good decisions. Great creative guys have known this all along – charts and

graphs don’t get us to more powerful advertising. Our instincts do.

So next time you’re asked to make a decision about your consumer, your brand, your advertising, listen to the little voice in your head (Seinfeld’s Kramer calls it ‘the little man.’) It’s a judgment call. Use your instinct. You can always use logic later when you’re trying to figure out how to sell the idea to your boss. As Gladwell points out: ‘Just as we can teach ourselves to think logically and deliberately, we can also teach ourselves to make better snap judgments.’

Arthur Fleischmann is president/CEO of agency john st. in Toronto. He can be reached at