Neuromarketing Insights: Myth or Legitimate Science (Part 1)

Neuromarketers and implicit consumer insights-vendors claim to measure consumer’s unconscious (or implicit) thought processes. Such an approach to consumer insights claims to overcome perceived limitations of survey and focus-group research. Furthermore, neurobusiness evangelists make a number of claims regarding human thought-processes in relation to consumer decision-making. In this two part series, we assess the basis of some of these claims by reviewing studies that tend to be cited as supporting the foundations of neuromarketing as a scientifically-grounded approach to consumer insights management. We delve into the literature from a cognitive-neuroscientific perspective to see if there are truly scientific foundations to this niche trend in the consumer insights space.

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Neurobusiness evangelists are becoming more common, but is there a solid scientific foundation to what they offer. Image from the feature film Neil Stryker and the Tyrant of Time courtesy of Lombo Bardi Productions.

Neuromarketing Insights: Myth, Mayhem, Madness or Legitimate Science

Decision-making is an essential aspect of everyday life. Understanding how people make decisions and what influences their decision-making process and subsequent behaviour is of great interest to scientists and clinicians, as well as to businesses looking to build their brands and compete effectively. No doubt, this topic draws interest and stimulates debate, however, much of the pure decision-making science becomes watered-down as it reaches popular culture and business practice, and this watery gruel becomes the nourishment of many modern folk-lore superstitions about how humans think and behave.

In the business world, there are many presentations that have occurred in the past (and that will regrettably occur in the future) that claim 90%-95% of consumer decision-making occurs outside of conscious awareness. Characteristically, in the most cliched manner, these statements are often made against a backdrop of a cross-section of an ice-berg floating in the ocean, accompanied by a sales pitch on how an insights consultancy is actually going to “measure” the 90-95% in a “scientifically valid” manner.  However, no high-impact scientific paper exists that reports the golden “90-something % statistic” in the consumer space!

As it stands, there is no scientific data to back this statistical claim, rather; it’s a belief, a heuristic, definitely not a scientific fact—although neurobusiness evangelists will have you believe otherwise. This is very much a belief that comes in the wake of authors like Malcolm Gladwell and psychologists like John Bargh and Daniel Kahneman (Bargh, 2017; Gladwell, 2005; Kahneman, 2011a). The specific view championed by these thought-leaders has been criticised for focusing too heavily on biases in decision-making and/or parlour-trick behavioural priming-techniques, that create a false perception that the human mind is far more fickle and malleable than it really is (Kahneman, 2011b; Kahneman and Klein, 2007; Schimmack, Heene and Kesevan, 2017, also see Yong, 2013)—accordingly, the conscious mind is seen as a kite dancing in the storm of the unconscious.

Perceptual Cycle
Thought-leaders in the field of unconscious mental processes (left to right): author Malcolm Gladwell, psychologist Professor John Bargh and Nobel Laureate in economics Professor Emeritus Daniel Kahneman.

Certainly, there are a number of credible scientific studies, both behavioural and neurophysiological, that have investigated the role of preconscious/unconscious processing on human thought, behaviour and economic decision-making, and have investigated brain processes related to economic decision-making in a consumer space, but the translation presented by the business community is definitely not true to the original text and has a distinctly commercial flavour to it—aimed at procuring client contracts, rather than pure application of the scientific method to marketing management practices.

To dispel myth and establish some form of credible basis for what I refer to as translational consumer neuroscience, we look at a pivotal study and ask the question: does this instance of foundational science actually support the statistical claims and views within the neurobusiness community? We focus specifically on behavioural priming—an automatic elicitation of observable behaviour or sequence of behaviours—as opposed to perceptual or attitudinal priming; all of which are automatic, immediate responses that emerge without conscious intention or deliberation (see Fazio, Powell, and Her (1983) and Greenwald, McGhee and Schwartz (1998) as foundational works for attitudinal priming).


A Point of Departure

A highly cited behavioural priming study conducted by Prof John Bargh in the late 1990’s, comprising of three experiments, demonstrated unconscious behavioural priming. Bargh et al. (1996) demonstrated that priming objects/cues can set in motion tendencies towards certain behaviours and that these priming cues exert their effects outside of conscious awareness. The study showed that rude, polite, and aggressive behaviours could be primed. Participants who were unconsciously primed with cues related to elderly people walked slower than other non-primed participants in the study, mimicking the slowing of movement with age. Images of African Americans unconsciously primed aggressive, hostile behaviours—obviously not all African Americans are hostile; however, there is such a stereotype that exists in contemporary US culture. The experiments provide evidence that nonconscious priming influences our behaviour, and that such behaviours can be automatically triggered outside the realm of conscious control. However, our concern is not with a critique of social psychology, but with questions that are translational in nature: how do these findings translate into the consumer insights space?


Priming cues versus marketing materials

The priming cues took the form of tasks that required participants to assemble 4-5 word sentences using words selected to prime specific behaviours, i.e. words related to the elderly as well as polite words. Very few of the participants picked-up on what the words represented, they were under the impression that they were performing a linguistic task as part of a psychological experiment. Other cues were images portraying social groups in the United States, these were presented via a computer monitor while participants performed an unrelated computer-based task. Clearly, such cues are nothing like the advertising and marketing materials that are embedded in the competitive markets of the modern day­.


Markets create contextual dilution

The richness of the modern world will confront a consumer with a collection of different cues (sometimes text, sometimes images, different sounds, facial expressions…) and often multiple information streams will be present at any given point in time. For example, in the context of the internet ads are embedded amidst other semantically related—and unrelated—content. In the world of digital advertising, multiple primes may be situated in the consumers visual field, creating a mixture of competing behavioural cues. So priming contexts will not be as clean, uncomplicated, and hygienic in the world of a consumer as they are in a social science study: a dilution occurs. This is not taken into account when neuromarketers and consumer insights managers justify commercial activities on the basis of studies like Prof Bargh et al’s. Nobel Laurate Prof Daniel Kahneman himself refers to Bargh’s study as (and the entire field of behavioural priming) as questionable (see Yong, 2013); although Kahnenman used these findings to demonstrate the functions of associative memory in Chapter 4 of his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman, 2011a).


Context shapes behaviour, not exclusively the prime

The contexts wherein the primed behaviours were elicited by Bargh et al were structured to constrain the expression of behaviours to a limited set of potential behavioural responses, specifically related to that of the intentionally primed behaviours. For aggression to manifest, there had to be a context that was deserving of aggression, or a behavioural bottleneck to force an aggressive response. So automatic priming of behaviour was observed; however, the experimental context did shape the emergence of the behaviours—manipulating the situation to drive a response, rather than purely automatic elicitation via a prime. In business activities, marketing managers would have to consider how pre-existing environments following generic design (both digital and in-store) reasonably constrain consumer behaviour in relation to a diluted behavioural cue?—it’s a tough ask! On-line contexts are highly competitive for human attention, where brands bid for a share of voice. None of these details are considered in translational arguments and are not addressed in this instance of foundational science.


Constraints on the types of behaviours primed

What we can be sure of is that unconscious activation of behaviours can occur, but under very specific, constrained circumstances. Even within the social science literature, replication has proven problematic (Schimmack, Heene and Kesevan, 2017), what to speak of robust extensions into consumer contexts. Essentially, basic requirements for behavioural priming dictate that the environment occupied by the consumer must constrain the scope of behavioural expressions to allow for the emergence of a limited set of possible behavioural responses, specifically related to the primed action. Furthermore, the behaviour will only emerge if the prime was successful in activating a memory representation related to actual behaviour—this is a process Prof Kahneman refers to as associative activation, a basic function of the preconscious mind’s associative machinery (Kahneman, 2011a, p. 51). Most importantly, unconsciously primed behaviours were generally simple trait behaviours and not complex cognitive-behavioural sequences involving micro-economic constructs, such as those involved in product-consumer interactions (Knutson and Bossearts, 2007;  Knutson, Rick, Wimmer et al., 2007). Such complex cognitive-behavioural sequences involve a series of pivotal trade-offs that require conscious considerations and are unique to the consumer space (Knutson, 2017).


Built your house upon a foundation of sand?

Professor John Bargh’s study demonstrated a link between a priming cue and subsequent behaviour; in his later explanations, Prof Bargh talks about the role of internal psychological processes and memory representations (Bargh, 2017). Professor Daniel Kahneman goes deeper in terms of offering an explanation of the processes involved in linking the cue to subsequent behaviour in his explanation of rapid, automatic, preconscious processes of the human mind (Kahneman, 2011a). However, neither talk about an actual measurement of the process linking priming cue to subsequent behaviour. Most importantly, one will not find any cited statistic that can support the 90-something % statistical claim, which is put on a pedestal and mindlessly circumambulated by the neuromarketing community; in fact, the effects demonstrated in Bargh et al’s study were just significant and weren’t elicited reliably in all of the participants within the sample.

From a marketing management perspective, the issue of diluted behavioural cues in consumer contexts is not addressed in any form in translational arguments. In Bargh’s study, the context/environment does a lot of the work to elicit the behaviour, apart from the prime—it acts as a behavioural bottleneck. So in a translational context, citing this study doesn’t resolve one important neuromarketing-management dilemma: which aspect of the marketing-mix is more important for influencing consumer decision-making through implicit/unconscious channels: the environment (place) or the marketing materials (promotion). The research has simply not been adequately translated into management practice to even consider the potential for implicit influences in brand planning strategies.

Consumer behaviour and thinking is a complex mix of economic-reasoning and emotion: much of which we know requires conscious thought! Such cognitive-behavioural sequences, as processed by the human brain, are very different from brain processes related to slowing of movement or emotional expressions like aggression. Therefore, I would not consider Bargh et al.’s study as proof of anything in the consumer space.

Focused, specialised work is required to demonstrate robust translation of implicit cognition into the consumer space, and these proofs need to be demonstratable for neuromarketing to be considered as scientific.  The scientific basis of neuromarketing/implicit-marketing is lacking due to unresolved questions regarding translation into business practice. At a glance, neuromarketing insights appear more myth and mayhem than a scientific approach to marketing management. ElectricMind’s translational consumer neuroscience differentiates itself from this, by placing at the centre of its efforts the questions and methods of translation into marketing management practices.


Bargh, J. (2017). Before you know it: the unconscious reasons we do what we do. William Heinemann: London.

Bargh, J., Chen, M. and Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behaviour: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Fazio, R. H., Powell, M. C., & Herr, P. M. (1983). Toward a process model of the attitude–behavior relation: Accessing one’s attitude upon mere observation of the attitude object. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 723-735.

Gladwell M., (2005). Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. Penguin Books: London.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. K. L. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464-1480.

Kahneman, D. (2011a). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin Books: London.

Kahneman, D. (2011b, Nov 11) [Talks at Google]. Daniel Kahneman: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” | Talks at Google [Video File]. Retrieved from

Kahneman, D. and Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree. American Psychologist, 64, 515-526.

Knutson, B. and Bossaerts, P. (2007). Neural antecedents of financial decisions. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27, 8174-8177.

Knutson, B. and Genevsky, A. (2018). Neuroforecasting aggregate choice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1-6.

Knutson, B., Rick, S., Wimmer, G., Prelec, D., and Loewenstein, G. (2007). Neural predictors of purchase. Neuron, 53, 147-156.

Schimmack, U., Heene, M., and Kesevan, K. (2017). Reconstruction of a train wreck: how priming research went off the rails. Retrieved 16102018:

Yong, E. (2012). Nobel laureate challenges psychologists to clean up their act. Retrieved 16102018:

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Published under: Neurobusiness


Dr Matthew Gerhold is a cognitive-neuroscientist with a specialisation in behavioural neurosciences and non-invasive electrophysiological measurements. He has a wealth of experience extending over 14 years in different fields of the neurosciences: behavioural, cognitive, clinical and consumer. Gerhold is a doctoral graduate in the Health Sciences, conducting his research through the Division of Biomedical Engineering, Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town