Consumer Behaviour: Why there’s more than what meets the eye

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by ConsultaPanel Team, 23 Sep 2014

ConsultaPanel experts share their view

Consumer Behaviour: Why there’s more than what meets the eye

For centuries it has been argued that consumers are rational decision-makers, comparing relative cost to expected benefits in order to make reasoned choices.

In recent years however, concepts such as behavioural economics and neuromarketing has shot holes in these “traditional economic” theories suggesting that we (as human beings) aren’t as rational as we would like to think we are.

According to the triune brain theory, the human brain has 3 evolutionary layers namely the Neocortex, the Limbic System, and the Reptilian Brain.

The Neocortex which is the most outer layer of the brain is where our cognitive processes take place. These processes include our sensory perception, our motor commands, our conscious thought, and language to name but a few.

The Limbic System which is found below the Neocortex, is said to be responsible for our emotional life and plays a pivotal role in forming memories. This is also where we make snap judgements which strongly impact on our behaviour.

Lastly, the Reptilian Brain sits at the centre of the brain and is considered to be the “oldest” or “most primal” part of the brain.  It controls all our vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and balance. 

At this stage you might be asking: “What does this have to do with the decisions I make daily?”

Since most of our daily functions are managed below our level of consciousness, experts suggest that nearly 80% of our brain energy is required to sustain our “rest state” or “default mode”. This means that we only use 20% of our brains consciously. We in fact use even less than 20% since we do not control the majority of our attention. 

This is because humans are largely controlled by the Reptilian Brain which constantly scans the environment for threats. It seeks to avoid pain, makes us to be selfish, and it forces us to take “mental shortcuts” in order to survive life-threating situations. Imagine having to draw a flowchart before reacting to screeching tyres in front of you. The Reptilian Brain can be considered the human “auto-pilot”.

Daniel Kahnemann explains in his book “Thinking, fast and slow” that when it comes to making decisions, we rely on 2 cognitive processes: system 1 thinking and system 2 thinking. 

System 1 draws a quick draft of reality, whereas system 2 analyses the situation to produce explicit beliefs and reasoned choices. Kahnemann goes on to explain that consumers aren’t accustomed to thinking hard and will often be content to base decisions on snap judgements.

View this video which explains this in more detail.

Given these statements, it can be argued that decisions or behaviour is controlled by the emotional brains (i.e. the Reptilian Brain & Limbic System). 

More and more research supports the view that consumers are in reality basing their decisions on emotion rather than reason. Consider Read Montague’s “Pepsi Paradox”, which required subjects to drink either Pepsi or Coca Cola (Coke) while being scanned with an fMRI machine. When subjects did not know the brand of the cola they were drinking, half of the subjects indicated a preference for Pepsi. The brain scan indicated strong activity in a region of the brain which is associated with seeking reward (such as good taste).  When subjects knew the brand of the cola they were drinking, three quarters of respondents indicated that they prefer Coke. Activity was detected in regions of the brain responsible for emotion and affect; cognitive control, and working memory. It is argued that the more exposure to a brand, the greater the memory of the brand, and the more emotional ties with a brand, the greater the brand recognition preference. 

What it comes down to is: often what the brain “feels” about the brand (emotional engagement) is more important than what the brain “knows” about the product (rational preference). 

Donald Calne, a Canadian neurologist, once said: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions”. 

Rory Sutherland (vice chairperson of Ogilvy Group UK) also explained in an interview that “we act first and form our opinions in light of our actions”. The argument is that consumers often make purchases driven by emotion, and rationalise their behaviour afterwards. 

Why do you prefer one car brand over the other? 

This does however not mean that consumers are incapable to make rational decisions, but emphasizes the strong influence of emotions on our decisions. Humans have been dependent on instinctual responses for millions of years. It is also expected that this will be the case for years to come since biological adaption is much too slow for the rapidly changing environments in which humans find themselves.

Simon Sinek explains how companies who focus their marketing communication on the specifications of a product, fail to convince consumers to buy the product. The main reason for this is the fact that the emotional brain cannot process language, yet this is where decisions are made. 

It seems quite obvious that marketers therefore need to make a paradigm shift from talking to the logic brain (the Neocortex) to talking to the emotional brains (the Reptilian Brain & Limbic System). When communicating to consumers, marketers need to ensure that the message is presented in such a way that information processing is optimized. Given that consumers are exposed to approximately 10 000 advertising messages daily, most of this information is irrelevant unless it speaks to the emotional brain.

Here are two examples of how powerful an advert can be when it speaks to the emotional brain:


But how does one achieve this? Trial and error? As a market researcher I would of course emphasise the importance of proper research in the process, but it can turn out to be very costly. Given the fact that decisions are made by the emotional brain which cannot process / produce language, consumers are often unable to verbally explain the true drivers of their behaviour.  Current research methods therefore rely heavily on non-verbal, involuntary responses such as brain activity, micro-expressions, and physiological arousal as opposed to traditional research methods that require cognitive processing.  

So why not make use of these methods? Setting aside the cost of the equipment needed to collect the data, very few people are willing to be hooked-up to high-tech equipment, and allow marketers to peek inside the “black box” which is the consumer’s mind. Researchers are therefore faced with a challenge to develop methods which will enable them to reliably measure consumers’ emotional response to marketing communications in a non-intrusive manner.

For more information please feel free to contact Consulta Client Director and author of this article, Stephanie Meyer at

Like the ConsultaPanel Experts? Read "Small business and their economic situation" by Consulta Client Director, Jannie Els to learn more from our experts!


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