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An Interview With Dr. Aaron Reid: Implicit Research, Emotion & More

Wed, Feb 14, 2018

On February 14th love is on everyone's minds. How can emotion influence a consumer's buying decision?  A shocking 95 percent of our purchase decision-making occurs within the subconscious, so what if marketers could measure these underlying thoughts and emotions to gain a deeper understanding of what drives consumer behavior?

Sentient Decision Science is a globally recognized pioneer in transforming this “what if” into a reality, developing advanced implicit research technology that taps into the consumer subconscious and quantifies the impact of emotion on choice.

We recently spoke to Sentient’s Chief Behavioral Scientist Dr. Aaron Reid about the company’s technology, the future of neuromarketing, and a common misconception marketers have about emotion.

Could you tell us, in your own words, what implicit research is? 

Implicit association research was born out of social psychology literature, then developed by social psychologists who were studying stereotypes and biases. These researchers needed techniques that allowed them to assess whether someone had a bias or stereotype towards another group of people, without relying on what they were willing and able to tell them explicitly.

You can imagine that people often don’t want to admit they have a bias toward another group of people, or they are not aware of the implicit biases that are influencing their behavior towards other groups of people. If they are not aware of it consciously, then they actually can’t tell you. That issue is what we call the ‘Can’t Say or Won’t Say’ issue.


How can marketers benefit from implicit research, relative to other types of methods?

We found this method that allows us to measure how people felt emotionally without asking any explicit questions. Sentient and other companies who saw that technique looked at it and recognized this can be applied to any ‘Can’t Say Won’t Say’ problem in marketing research.

Often, we are in a situation where people either can’t or won’t tell you the true drive of their behavior. They are either afraid of embarrassing themselves, or they do not want to admit that they really do something. More often than not, consumers do not have conscious access to this information, so they cannot tell you.

The problem gets even worse if you consider consumer motivations in surveys. If they do not have conscious access to the information that is required to give you an accurate answer, they are still going to give you that answer. It is just not going to be reflective of the true drivers of their behavior.

Implicit association allows us to measure how they feel about brands in reaction to advertisements, packaging, and persuasive communications without having to rely on what people are willing and able to admit.

Could you tell us about the technology you use to arrive at those measurements?

There are many ways in which you can measure emotion. You can measure emotion using physiological measures, such as heart rate or skin conductive response like the sweating in your palm.

You can also measure emotion using neuro measures like EEG. You can look at frontal asymmetries, which tell you approach and avoidance emotion. You can look at activation in the immediate prefrontal cortex, which is the center of the brain responsible for emotional processing.

But those techniques require you to be in a lab, and they are largely more difficult to scale. Implicit association technology like Sentient Prime allows you to measure the emotional associations that consumers have with your brand, product, packaging, or advertising.

From a research or insight perspective, it is far and away the most practical, accessible method available to us in the marketplace. It is globally scaled and allows you to tap into what’s happening in consumers’ emotions and unconscious minds without requiring people to be in a laboratory environment. You can do this anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection.


And how, exactly, is the technology globally accessible?

You can use Sentient Prime on your smart phone, your tablet, or your laptop.

It is essentially a priming and response time technology. If we show you a picture very briefly for just half a second and that picture has some kind of emotional meaning to you, what happens in your mind is that those emotional associations become more cognitively accessible.

(There are wonderful demos online you can take that illustrate this.)

Your neural networks are activated around that concept. Those associations influence your ability to make judgment, so they influence the speed at which you can make judgments on emotional words or emotional imagery.

By using that technique to prime you with a brand – for example, a logo, package or political candidate – we are able to activate those associations in your mind. By measuring your response time, we are able to quantify the degree of the emotion that you feel towards that prime.

What’s one common misconception that marketers tend to have about emotion?

When you ask people what emotions are and to name emotions, we all can come up with hundreds of emotional words, but not all of those words are universal human emotions.

“Nostalgia”, for example, is an emotional word. When you think of nostalgia, you feel something, but nostalgia itself is not the human emotion. The emotions that are relevant to nostalgia are feelings of contentment or the emotion of gratitude.

What’s really important in the study of human emotion is to be able to identify those emotions that are universal and those emotions that have specific behavioral tendencies that are associated with them.

So, at Sentient, we break it down in what’s known as the Sentient 26 Emotional Taxonomy.


Could you give an example of an emotion being used to drive the kind of desired behaviors that clients want?

One example could be anxiety. This is an emotion that is high in arousal – as you get kind of agitated when you feel anxious – and it is negative in valence,

Within the insurance industry, we know that the alleviation of anxiety is a primary motivator of behavior. When you are communicating in that space, it is often very effective to remind consumers of the anxiety they may be feeling and why (or how) your brand, product, or service is the antidote to cure that anxiety.

About a year or so ago, we worked together on research about behavioral economic principles and two generational groups, Millennials and Boomers. Was there anything within those results that you found particularly compelling?

In that study, we saw some areas where the younger and older generations responded similarly in terms of their emotions, but there were distinct emotions that were different in terms of motivation between the older population and the younger group.

We have conducted thousands of studies, but I am still struck by how very small manipulations in marketing copy can have a distinct emotional affect with a single exposure.

If we present essentially the same message – but we change some small things to emphasize aspects of the decisions that tend to be more emotional – we can actually see that emotional response and the change in the behavior.

People do not respond emotionally to things that are not actually important to them. It struck me how these small changes in language can tap into the true motivators of both millennials and boomer, ultimately touching them emotionally in a more effective way.


In a recap of TMRE 2016 on Sentient’s blog, your team notes that storytelling is an essential part of your company’s DNA.

That is one of the key themes we are seeing in marketing and marketing research right now. We are getting overwhelmed with data. There is so much data, and the question is, how do you call the insights from that data? And once you have those insights, how do you communicate them in a way that is compelling and memorable to your audience?

Typically, it comes from good story telling, and the crux of good story telling is something we call conflict. In a good story, we have to introduce the notion of conflict. The way that is done in research is by laying down the foundation of the situation, who are the characters and where are we in this story. Then a moment of conflict has to occur.

Good storytelling in research lays down the foundation, points to the conflict, and then allows your insights to show where the resolution is. That resolution generally comes from understanding the emotions of consumers, because they tell you what people do.

We also noticed that, earlier this year, Sentient was named one of the “Top 50 Most Innovative Suppliers in Market Research” in the 2016 GRIT Report. Congratulations on making your debut on the list!

Thank you. It is a wonderful accolade, and I am very proud of the team here. We have brilliant people, and they work very hard to be recognized for the innovative work that we are doing here.


In thinking about the future, what do you think is in store for neuroscience, behavioral economics, and their relation to marketing?

One of the things that came out in the GRIT Report this year was some encouraging news around the application of neuromarketing techniques. For the first time, we have crossed the chasms, so to speak, into the early adoption phase.

That is, 18% of all companies who participated in that study reported having used neuromarketing techniques. This is the first time we have been above the 16% margin, and that is encouraging if you think about it from your typical consumer product adoption curve.

That says we have gone from the innovation stage, past early adoption, and into the early majority phase. Now, nearly 85% of the market has yet to implement these techniques, so you still are at a competitive advantage if you are using these techniques to improve your marketing communications… But the upside is, neuromarketing is about to take off.

Firms who have been dabbling in behavioral economics are now getting smarter about how to use specific behavioral economic principles. In the early stages, it looked like companies were just experimenting, but now, we have built enough intelligence around these principles that we are more sophisticated in knowing when we should use them and what effect we expect to get.

Sentient-Decision-Science-Logo-300x300.jpgDr. Aaron Reid is Chief Behavioral Scientist and founder of Sentient Decision Science. Previously, he collaborated with Wilde Agency on a behavioral economics study about the insurance purchase decisions of Millennials and Boomers.

Learn more about Sentient’s implicit research technology here, or if you’re in the mood to read more, check out our previous discussions with international bestselling author Dan Roam or behavioral economics expert Namika Sagara.

Universal Wilde is a leading full-service provider of data-driven, technology-enabled marketing communications solutions. Follow us on LinkedIn,Facebook, and Twitter for more news and insights.

Categories: Behavioral Science, aaron reid, behavioral economics, emotion, implicit association, implicit bias, neuromarketing, sentient Decision Science, implicit research






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