The power of implicit association in online conversion

Guest Blog: Dr David Lewis, best-selling author, award-winning broadcaster and Chairman of Mindlab International speaks about the neuroscientific technique of ‘Implicit Association’ and its use in web optimisation.

For more than thirty years psychologist and neuroscientist Dr David Lewis has been studying the unconscious mental processes that underpin every aspect of our lives, from the political opinions we hold and the brands we buy to the friends we make and the emotions that drive us.

Known as the father of the billion dollar Neuromarketing industry, he was the first person in the world to use EEG or electroencephalography to read the electrical patterns in the brains of people watching TV commercials. This built on work by Krugman in the US who conducted the first experiment using electrodes to decipher the subconscious thoughts and feelings that occur below conscious awareness. He monitored his secretary as she watched part of a TV show and read a magazine.

During those early studies Dr Lewis monitored more than 30 commercials and used around 300 subjects over a six month period which included a two month follow up to test recall for the commercials they had seen. He has since gone on to pioneer commercial uses of the EEG techniques to get a better insight into exactly what drives consumers when they’re buying in store and Online. His company, Mindlab International, specialises in using brain imaging and eye tracking, together with other technologies, to get inside the heads of consumers.

This eventually led to ground breaking research, in which participants, wired up to electrodes, would walk around a simulated store, giving marketers unprecedented insights into consumer behaviour and motivations. He has also pioneered other research methods designed to give an insight into how people really think, feel and behave, particularly when they’re on line.

AWA optimisers got the chance to quiz Dr Lewis on his research at one of our regular quarterly meetings.

Q. Could you explain how participants you recruit over the internet have contributed to your research?

When we work with EEG, you have to actually put sensors (electrodes) on the participant’s head. If you’re taking ambulatory readings, for example when the study is taking place in a supermarket or shopping mall, participants feel, at least initially, quite self-conscious about wandering around with electrode caps on their heads and wires trailing to a box in a bag on their shoulders. Working online you don’t, of course, have that problem.

We can also do a form of eye tracking, again, over the internet. We can combine eye tracking with other measures, which seems to be working pretty well. We’re doing quite a lot of work in this area in the political arena in certain countries, as well, where we’re actually analyzing campaign messages, campaign commercials, this kind of thing, to see which message works, resonates, again, on an unconscious level using implicit association.

Q. Could you give a real-world example of implicit association?

Implicit-association tests are generally sorting tasks. You are told how to respond to different images, and how fast and accurate you are sorting them together shows how strongly they are subconsciously connected in your mind. There’s an easy way to try the principle out at home: take a deck of cards and a stopwatch. Now, sort the cards into two piles, hearts and diamonds to the left, and spades and clubs to the right. That was easy, wasn’t it?

Now try the same thing again, but this time sorting spades and diamonds to the left, and hearts and clubs to the right. This task should take you significantly longer to do and you’ll probably find you make more mistakes as well. This is because hearts and diamonds are closely linked in your brain (because they’re both red), while the link between spades and diamonds is much less direct.

In our online implicit-association tests, the same principle is used, but instead of card suits, we may ask people to sort brands with desirable and non-desirable words to see how strongly people subconsciously associate them with concepts such as ‘trustworthy’ or ‘affordable’. What’s particularly interesting is how these gut feelings can be changed, how they are influenced by looking at adverts, websites and other brand communications.

In my recent book  Impulse: Why We Do What We Do Without Knowing Why We Do It I discuss the differences between what has been called fast and slow thinking. Essentially, we’re plugging into this fast thinking network, which is all subconscious. When you’re playing tennis, you don’t think about how to hit the ball to return the serve. You do that automatically. People have to respond very fast on a yes or no basis, and that enables us to build up what is associating one thing with the other.

You come across some quite curious things. One study, not done by us, found that if you show people pictures of dogs, they actually identify PUMA trainers more rapidly and prefer them to other brands, which sounds bizarre. The more dogs you show them, the more quickly they respond to PUMA trainers, because pumas=animals, animals=dogs. Clearly some kind of semantic link is being made.

Q. How has psychology come to play such a large part in helping us to persuade and influence people?

The role of psychology in the advertising industry is fascinating and started around 1912. In that year, a psychologist called Professor Dill gave a talk to a group of leading businessmen in Chicago and discussed the role psychology could play in advertising. He later wrote a bestselling book advocating a closer link between psychologists and advertisers.

The first psychologists to come on the scene were Freudians. They looked below the surface of the conscious mind from an analytical perspective. For example, one businessman came and said, “Look, I sell cigars. I’ve spent a lot of money on this artwork. I’ve got an attractive woman handing out cigars to her husband and her friends. My cigars are bombing. They’re not moving off the shelves. What am I doing wrong?”

The explanation given was that since cigars are phallic symbols, having a woman hand them out implies she is taking control of what was then regarded as a strictly male pleasure, one not necessarily approved of by the spouse. This, the manufacturer was warned, turned male customers off smoking his cigars. That was the kind of advice they were given, and it may well have been right. I believe after he changed the advertisement his sales picked up, so presumably it wasn’t bad advice.

Then from about the ‘50s onward, the Behaviourists entered the picture. The leading advocate of a behavioural approach was John Watson. He was a well-known academic psychologist who had been dismissed from his university after having an affair with a female research assistant. Obliged to leave the academic world Watson went to Madison Avenue where, among other contributions, he invented the coffee break for Maxwell House. Currently neuromarketers are flavour of the month.


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Posted in: Conversion Rate Optimisation

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