Anastasia Lloyd-Wallis & Brian Walker

The single biggest irrationality in business decision-making comes back to the one underlying paradigm that is as common as it is incorrect – that the cognitive mind or the conscious mind determines what consumers do.

“The consciousness of a consumer is like a government spokesperson who has to announce decisions they

  1. did not participate in and
  2. whose true decision-making reasons are not accessible to them.”

This freely-adapted quote from the American neuro-philosopher Daniel C. Dennett tells us, in brief, that it is fairly pointless to ask consumers what they want and why they want it. Furthermore, it is irrational to base strategies on ‘limbic insights’ gained from the conscious mind.

To quantify this statement, up to 95% of human behavior happens subconsciously, so we as humans can’t really explain why we do the things we do, even if we believe so. Brain research calls this the “user illusion.”

Consequently, the key in future will be to start talking to the government directly, not the government spokesperson. So let’s explore this a little further – who is the government?

What is the Limbic System?

The government is not the cognitive mind. The cognitive mind, or neocortex, is the newest part of the human brain and corresponds with analytical thought and language.

But the true government is actually the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is a collective term for brain structures that are involved in processing emotions. It is also responsible for all human behaviour, all decision-making, and has no capacity for language.

On top of that, the limbic system processes information 200 times faster than the cognitive brain!

In other words, when we communicate all the features, facts, and figures of a brand or product, it has no impact on behaviour, because the cognitive system doesn’t control behaviour. It just rationalises the decisions we have taken long before we became aware of them, in hindsight.

What this means in summary is that decisions are taken quickly and subconsciously, and the integration and rise of neuromarketing into common practices is evidence that businesses increasingly adapt a new view to overcome the user illusion.

Overcoming the User Illusion

Research conducted by examining patients with brain injuries revealed that emotions were not disruptions in the decision-making processes. Quite the contrary: Without emotions, decision-making was impaired. Patients whose limbic systems were malfunctioning due to injury consistently took the wrong decisions and lost money in card games.

As the German neuromarketing expert Dr Hans-Georg Haeusel describes in his award-winning book Emotional Boosting: “Today we know that ultimately our entire brain is more or less emotional. The frontal areas of the brain more so, the posterior cerebrum and the cerebellum to a lesser extent”.

So in order to understand and impact on consumer decision-making, retailers need to understand the limbic system of the brain, otherwise the illusion of robust evidence is highly likely to mislead.

Why Understanding the Limbic System is Key to Building High-Performance Retail

The limbic system plays a crucial role in governing human emotions, motivations, and decision-making processes. By understanding how this primitive part of the brain works, retailers can tap into the subconscious drivers that ultimately influence a customer’s purchasing behavior.

Rational factors like product features, pricing, and logical arguments engage the cognitive mind, but it is the limbic system that determines whether a shopper feels compelled to actually make a purchase. Limbic responses are fast, automatic, and driven by instinctive emotions like fear, pleasure, and tribal belonging.

High-performing retailers must go beyond just articulating product benefits and create experiences that positively stimulate the limbic system. This could involve using sensory cues like music, scents, and visuals that evoke feelings of calm, excitement, or nostalgia associated with buying.

Leveraging principles of social proof, scarcity, and building feelings of reciprocity and consistency can all potentially activate limbic responses that nudge customers towards making a purchase. Moreover, the speed at which the limbic system processes inputs means retailers only have a split second of time to grab their customers’ attention and stir emotions before the cognitive mind has a chance to override purchasing decisions with rationality.

By aligning marketing strategies with an in-depth knowledge of limbic system functions, high-performance retailers can bypass the constraints of purely logical persuasion and instead master the emotional art of subconscious influence and customer loyalty.

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Excerpts of this article were originally published in Inside Retail on 14 October 2019.