Written by Roger Jackson,
November 21st, 2017 | Views

“System 1 and 2” in shopper research. Let’s not get carried away!

There is a hunger in our frenetic business world for simplicity. But any researcher knows that the human mind is incredible and impossibly complex. Any understanding of decisions and attempted prediction of behaviour requires skill, experience, several different research techniques, and a lot of judgement. There are no simple answers.

It’s tempting for any of us to seize on neat new concepts to help our cause. But the past is littered with simplistic ideas that came, and then went, as knowledge advanced. I remember with fondness our ready acceptance of the idea of the “left” versus “right” creative brain. Turns out biologically it was a load of old nonsense, but it suited our purposes and we didn’t question it.

Right now, world-leading Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book on “Fast and Slow Thinking” is in the limelight. I wish I had a fiver for every time “System 1” was mentioned at research events this year. Often, it has to be said, by someone with an agenda to suit. My humble (layman’s) question in this blog is whether there is a risk of us extrapolating too far on this seemingly attractive idea without due insight on the limitations of the underlying science. And I note this topic is only a small part of a very dense book that ranges over a wide variety of complex material.

The author himself says that his proposition of “System 1 and System 2” is an “expository fiction”. In other words, a creative device in a book targeting the layman, chosen to make his concepts more accessible. He isn’t saying there are in reality (just) two systems. Kahneman’s chapter 1 key point (my layman’s understanding) is that we make some or part of decisions (often poorly it seems) subconsciously, very rapidly, using “patterns” or assumptions we already have ‘stored’. Indeed some of this may be ‘baked in’ by evolution.  I also note that Kahneman has very little to say on “shopping” as such.

Biologically there could be many systems intertwined, or it could be one system with differing speeds depending on the circumstances. We don’t actually know. And we don’t really know what process informs/builds any such “system”. Science has little idea how much “programming” we are born with, how much we build over time and how these two link together.

For years, I hope we all have worked on the basis that there are many influences on decisions. And that lots of shopper decisions are quick, whether made intuitively or more likely based on stored experiences and knowledge. Some influences are top of mind, others are subconscious. None of that is new, is it?  For example, we always knew that “top of mind awareness” was a key brand metric because we knew that simple familiarity played a big role in the sale.  Also, years ago I was writing brand “onions” that devoted a lot of space to “emotion”, or in other words, ‘subconscious differentiators’. But here’s the key point:  for sure, rationality and other conscious drivers are also informing decisions. Each of us in our category knows what these are. One very simple example: I might choose non-bio detergent because my child has eczema. It’s not a slow decision. It’s a fast one.  But only because I already thought about it. Many times. So, I don’t need to re-think it each time I shop. Frankly, it’s a bit extreme to imply that most shopping decisions are down to this new and it seems somewhat retarded, fictionally characterised “System 1”. That would be getting carried away with a trendy new idea. It’s a simplification…..of a simplification ….of a theory. Evolution surely did not equip me with an automatic “fast” choice in laundry detergent.

The human brain is unbelievably complex, science is nowhere near figuring out how it works; it’s an organic system that is built/grown synapse by synapse as we go about our lives (adults each have about 150,000 bn of them; whereas a baby starts with about 50bn). So, as we go about shopping, we surely experience a blend of thoughts, some more conscious, many less so, each of us different, influenced by our life experience. Yes, we take mental shortcuts to get the job done but I don’t think its helpful (or right) for anyone in research to portray the shopper as a  kind of mindless automaton largely controlled by something called “System 1” that they neither recognize or can influence, let alone one dating back through evolution. And I don’t think the scientists are actually saying anything as simplistic as this.  Reviewing the “two system” theory leading British psychologist Emeritus Professor Jonathan Evans finishes with this paragraph (below) which I hope backs the thoughts above. So, in shopper research, I’d ask that we don’t get carried away……

“The most perplexing issue in all this is how generally well controlled, predictable and effective most of our behaviour actually is. Sane people, by and large, execute successfully many parallel life plans of differing durations. Most people manage to get up in the morning, go to work, manage their domestic affairs, maintain relationships and utilize their leisure time broadly in accordance with their goals. …. we generally breeze through life with little awareness of the cognitive turmoil that is apparently afflicting our minds. If the conscious, analytic system is at best only partially in control and in competition with not one but several implicit systems, how come everything works so well?”