Edition 55, Marketing

New Realities for Consumer Awareness, Challenges and Possibilities

Nuevas realidadesBy: Fernando Álvarez y Luis Gabriel Méndez

Factors such as facial symmetry increase the attractiveness of a person when compared with faces that are less symmetrical. But when we explain the reasons why we are attracted to a person, an element of this type will hardly come to mind.

Look at the photograph. Do you like it? Why?

Nuevas realidades

Most likely there will be agreement among the majority of responses – the model’s beauty, her personality, style or talent, etc. All of the answers will be as real as they are valid. If we persist in asking the question, surely we will compile more attributes.

However, no matter how much we keep at it, there are reasons why we are attracted to Scarlett Johansson and it will be hard to enumerate them if we are asked. It is not because we deliberately refuse to share the information, but because we are unaware that these reasons exist and that they influence our perception.

Continuing with this example, factors such as facial symmetry increase the attractiveness of a person when compared with faces that are less symmetrical. But when we explain the reasons why we are attracted to a person, an element of this type will hardly come to mind.

Of course, at any time we can all learn that the effect of facial symmetry has an impact on the attractiveness of a person and it is even possible to incorporate it from then on in our repertoire of responses – and it will surely be right. But it would also be a response based on something learned from an external source, not on something that is perceived from our experience of observing someone and assessing what impression that person causes in us. In fact, as we know the effect of facial symmetry, we also know that it is a widespread pattern and that we are unaware of the impact it has on us. Therefore, its inclusion in the answers becomes superfluous and useless (unless you actually want to measure to what extent this knowledge is assimilated by our target audience).

A phenomenon, such as the impact of facial symmetry on our preferences, helps us to demonstrate the blind spots of our conscious thought: those factors that we do not detect or recognize directly but that play a role in our thinking, attitudes and behavior.

Have these blind spots been assimilated and understood by market research? Has there been an attempt to incorporate them into the methods developed decades ago? We will try to answer these questions in the following paragraphs.

If throughout the greater part of history knowledge was accumulated gradually, our period of time stands out, among other things, by the exponential rate at which learning occurs. With the surge of new information, key themes may be found that change the rules of the game in different fields. There are also fields whose repercussions impact many others. One example is the research on the human brain which, being an important topic, has implications for virtually any area of human activity. Indeed, by learning more about the operation of the brain, the applications extend to disciplines as diverse as pedagogy, job performance, psychology, and even consumer behavior.

Michael Gazzaniga conducted an experiment that forced the paradigms of market research to be redefined. In the study, the left hemisphere of the participants, which specializes in interpreting the environment and giving it meaning, among other things, received no information. This was achieved through two mechanisms: The participants’ right eye, which transmits information to the left hemisphere, was covered, and the functioning of the corpus callosum, a tissue that connects the two hemispheres and serves as a transfer channel, was inhibited.

The regions of the brain – where thinking about why things happen – were isolated from all other areas, which were exposed to different stimuli.

Some of the stimuli were verbs that called for action. The participant (or more precisely, the right hemisphere of the participant’s brain) saw a sign with the word “walk” and immediately stood up to walk. When the researchers asked him why he suddenly rose from his seat, he replied that he was thirsty and needed a drink or gave another equivalent explanation. He never referred to the instruction to walk. Although the word stimulated a behavior, at no time was he aware of its influence on it.

The distinct stimuli were of a different nature and some required a verbal response, more than an action. In all, the constant was the same: People responded in a way that had nothing to do with the explanation of their actions or verbalizations. Furthermore, at no time did they say they did not know the reasons for their actions. The conclusion is fascinating: Even when we do not have the slightest idea why we do what we do, we say what we say or choose what we choose, this poses no impediment for us to go ahead and explain our behavior, although in reality we are dealing with rationalizations developed a posteriori and not an observation of what moves us.

Of course, the consumer is not confronted with the conditions of the experiment in real life. Generally, we see reality with both eyes and the corpus callosum that connects our hemispheres is active. That is, we have more tools to understand the world and ourselves as agents. But even so, our behavior shows grey or black areas that we do not see, and therefore the key word is access.

We have access to certain levels of our psyche, but not to all of them. To return to the example at the beginning, we have no problem understanding the features of Scarlett Johansson that we like. We have access to this and other elements that help to explain the attraction that she exerts over us. It is worth asking about these factors because they are real, we are aware of them, and they fulfill a function. But we are not aware what effects such as facial symmetry influence us. We cannot measure these factors from questions, but they are also real and play a role. We have access to the result of the internal processes that we experience, but not necessarily to the processes themselves, and it is easy to make erroneous attributions between one and the other.

In ideal circumstances, the recognition of these situations should be followed by solutions to resolve and minimize or eliminate the degree of uncertainty that derives from that we cannot understand by asking. The practice is uneven, probably as a result of finding ourselves in a moment of transition, in which market research is beginning to recognize and understand these new angles, unpublished until recently.

The implementation of solutions is uneven. We find a wide range of positions in the market – from ignoring new learning and continuing as in the past decades, to the position of discarding the former to replace it with practices based only on the latest findings, passing over more balanced attitudes that seek to complement the two extremes.

In any case, at this point market research is full of possibilities and risks, being a practice modeled according to recent assumptions, but distant because of its difference in the knowledge these assumptions shed about consumers and their level of access to information about their own actions and attitudes.

We could say that at its worse, market research has a school of thought taken from the 1990s, applies solutions and processes from the early 21st century and is faced with challenges of the mid 2010s. To remain a useful tool, it is essential to reconcile these aspects.


Gazzaniga, Michael (2012), Who’s in charge, free will and the science of the brain, Ecco

Etcoff, Nancy (2000), Survival of the prettiest: the science of beauty, Anchor

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